GEORGE ELIOT by Jennifer Uglow (Pantheon: $15.95, cloth; $9.95, paper; 273 pp.).
People are surprised to learn that the great 19th-Century novelist George Eliot did not support the suffragist movement in England. Jennifer Uglow attempts to explain the apparent contradiction of an emancipated woman opposed to emancipation for other women, by tracing the "double curve" of Eliot's life and fiction.
For many years, Eliot defied convention by living openly with a married man, and, at 60, again shocked Victorians by marrying a man 20 years younger. But as Uglow demonstrates, Eliot had a long struggle with her divided self in the provinces before she chose her unorthodox life style. Symptomatic of her quest for identity were her name changes--from her birth as Mary Ann Evans to Clematis, Apollyon, Marianne, Marian, Polly, George Eliot, M. E. Lewes, and finally as Mrs. J. W. Cross. Even after having won fame as a literary genius, Eliot was still preoccupied with repressive roles designated for women. Uglow argues that instead of prescribing in her fiction, Eliot described the world as it was. The author of "The Mill on the Floss" and "Middlemarch" could have been speaking of herself when she wrote: "There is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life."
Uglow's "George Eliot" consists of more literary analysis than biography. She appears to strain to excuse Eliot's refusal to support the feminist movement. Her book would interest readers who are familiar with Eliot's novels, but would have less appeal for those who read biography for its drama, or even as a reflection of an era.