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Reviews289 Rosemary Ashton. George Eliot A Life. London: Hamish Hamilton, 19%. xiv + 465. Oddly, this major new biography of George Eliot, which appeared to wide acclaim in London in November, 1996, has as yet received little or no attention in American journals. Possibly this is because it was not published simultaneously in North America, and has only now, in May, 1997, come out in the United States in a Viking Penguin edition. The book was very successful in England, having been chosen as a Christmas book, or Book of the Year, by several book shops and reviewers, and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Biography Prize. This is the rare scholarly biography, so readable it is of interest both to scholars and to the general reading public. Professor Ashton is admirably qualified to tackle her subject, having recently completed the definitive biography, George Henry Lewes A Life (1991), in which she uncovered much hitherto unpublished material on Lewes' life and on his relation with George Eliot. She also had the advantage of scholarly consultation with the late Gordon S. Haight, up until now the definitive biographer, who admired her scholarship and fully approved of Ashton's project. She has been very generous in acknowledging her debt to Haight (indeed, the debt all scholars will always owe to Haight) for the magnificent nine-volume edition of the novelist's letters, plus his own biography. Ashton states that her book "does not seek to supercede Haight's work" (xi) but "is intended to be a critical biography rather than a purely documentary one" (xii). Ashton's approach differs from Haight's because she devotes a good deal of her text to close critical analysis of the novels, which was the one slight criticism of Haight's prize-winning book of 1968. As would be inevitable, during the intervening 30 years, new material has been unearthed, much of it by Ashton, including miscellaneous letters, and one important collection at the Huntington Library from George Eliot to John Chapman. Another great strength which Ashton brings to her work is her thorough understanding of the European cultural movements which influenced Eliot's fiction, and her assessment of Eliot's novels against those of such authors as Goethe, Balzac, George Sand, and Tolstoy. Among the new insights offered by Ashton is the picture she develops of a brave, intelligent and determined young woman with the courage to reject her faith despite incurring the enmity of her family; to move, alone, to London from the Provinces, to earn her own living as a journalist, to make her way, to adapt her country ways to the more sophisticated life-style of the metropolis, and to do this almost entirely alone; and of the friends she made, mostly among men, with the great 290Victorian Review cultural and literary figures of the day, such as Dickens, Darwin, Huxley, Tennyson, and Browning. Ashton declares, "With her formidable intellect her wide-ranging knowledge of the languages, literatures, philosophy, and science, she was the greatest woman of the century" (xii). And from that vast fund of information Eliot was able to weave into her novels the wide range of allusion which adds depth and texture to her fiction. Ashton is particularly effective in her criticism of individual novels. In a wonderfully perceptive discussion of Adam Bede, she notes the "sudden expansive ease of the writing and sureness of touch in plotting a larger and more complex story" as compared with the earlier Scenes of Clerical Life She suggests, sensibly, it is a story of "youthful mistakes, lost chances, dashed hopes, shame and misery" written with the "irony" of a Fielding, the "tolerant amusement" of a Scott, and the "quiet clever plotting" of a Jane Austen (201). Turning to Silas Marner, she sees it tinged with the pastoral elements of both Wordsworth and Coleridge, and calls this book, which has been "taught to death" in American high schools, a remarkable fusion of "realism and romance, the historical and the legendary, [an] exquisite blend of humour and pathos, and [notable] for its structural tautness" (248). To Middlemarch Ashton brings the seasoned critical appreciation of one who has edited and introduced a major annotated copy of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 289-291
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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