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More than a century after her death George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans) vies with Charles Dickens as the most widely read of Victorian novelists. But lurking in the shadows of her reputation is a man, George Henry Lewes, with whom she lived (but never marries) for more than twenty-five years. Now in this first biography of Lewes for more than half a century David Willams suggests that without him George Eliot might never have started writing fiction. It is to George Henry Lewes, therefore that we owe Middlemarch, Silas Marner, The Mill On The Floss, Adam Bede and others.
Who was this literary Svengali? A remarkable man certainly. His biography of Goethe remains the best in English of the great German literary all rounder. He was the first editor of the Fortnightly Review, He was, says Williams, the founding father of all newspaper columnists. He wrote dramatic criticism of such quality that Bernard Shaw remarked that he was the only man worth bothering with between him and Hazlitt. He wrote plays. He wrote novels He wrote lucidly and fluently on philosophy and science. His Biographical History of Philosophy was still being used by students fifty years after his death.
But, for all his worth as a critic and writer, G H Lewes will for ever be linked in people’s minds for his twenty five year relationship with Mary Ann Evans. When they chose to live together she was thirty five, a clever journalist in her own right, unmarried and plain. He was two years older, small and ugly and married with four children, but being cuckholded by an unfaithful wife. He was amusing, he could sparkle. He never lacked self confidence. Although there was a strong physical attraction between the two, the closeness of their relationship, their tender understanding of each other indicates a cerebral attachment that was to last.
To a certain extent their decision to live together openly brought private and later public disapproval. But they survived the rebukes , because George Eliot, the novelist, grew in critical esteem and public success that transcended the gossip. David Williams, however, offers copious evidence of how necessary an encourager, a prop, a reviser, an editor and an inspiration Lewes was to her. He was ((he concludes) a generous man, with wide ranging talents of his own. He was very much an actor too, a stage Fairy Prince, if you like, with a Cinderella he could work wonders with. It’s hard to think of anyone else in English literary history who can lay claim to his special sort of mixed and strange achievement.
David Williams reviews widely in the national press and has contributed much to BBC programmes. Among his earlier book are a biography/literary study of Clough whom he puts among the greatest and most neglected of Victorian poets; a biography of George Meredith who after the death of George Eliot succeeded to the tite of England’s greatest living novelist; a study called Genesis and Exodus of the talented but tragic Benson family though two generations spanning a century between 1840 and 1940; and a study of the eccentric vagabond genius George Borrow in a book published under the title A World of his Own.
(This text is from the dust jacket – I’m not so sure that we owe Middlemarch etc to George Eliot’s husband)