An appealing fictionalized biography of the revered British novelist George Eliot imagines the inner impulses and passions hidden under a cloak of 19th-century propriety.
Voted the greatest British novel of all time in a poll of international book critics in 2015, Middlemarch was the crowning achievement of the Victorian writer whose real name was Marian Evans but who took the pen name of George Eliot to dodge gender assumptions. A sensitive child with a loving father, a faded mother, and several siblings, Evans grew up lonely, blessed with a notable intelligence but few physical charms. Her intellect drew her to the world of writers and freethinkers, and she found work editing a literary review but yearned constantly for companionship, “someone of her own.” Her lovers, though, were married men, including the love of her life, George Lewes, with whom she spent more than two happy decades, evolving from a figure of scandal to an international literary success. Smith (The Illusionists, 1997, etc.) narrates Evans’ life story in long flashbacks from the “present,” in which Eliot/Evans is 60 and on a honeymoon in Venice after Lewes’ death. This first actual marriage is to family friend Johnnie Cross, “a pure clean youth, a work of art” more than 20 years younger than her, a man who, his behavior in Italy suggests, is either gay, having a nervous breakdown, or both. While Smith’s portrait of the author is nicely detailed, effectively locating her in time, place, and society, its focus on Eliot’s “need for love, for tenderness, a longing to be held” detracts from a sense of what made her writing so exceptional. The impression created is of an unusual but often emotionally needy woman who happened also to write supremely successful, uneclipsed works of fiction.
An intelligent, delicate, but not quite rounded portrait of genius.