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  • The Action Inside
  • Tom Sperlinger (bio)
The Transferred Life of George Eliot by Philip Davis. Oxford University Press, 2017. £25. ISBN 9 7801 9957 7378

In Daniel Deronda (1876), George Eliot's final novel, the eponymous hero meets his mother for the first time in the latter stages of the action. She is an actress, now known as Princess Leonora Halm-Eberstein, who is scornful of her son's desire for her to explain their separation: 'Oh–the reasons of our actions!' The narrator concludes:

The speech was in fact a piece of what may be called sincere acting: this woman's nature was one in which all feeling–and all the more when it was tragic as well as real–immediately became a matter of conscious representation: experience immediately passed into drama, as she acted her own emotions. In a minor degree this is nothing uncommon, but in the Princess the acting had a rare perfection of physiognomy, voice, and gesture. It would not be true to say that she felt less because of this double-consciousness: she felt–that is, her mind went through–all the more, but with a difference: each nucleus of pain or pleasure had a deep atmosphere of the excitement or spiritual intoxication which at once exalts and deadens. But Deronda made no reflection of this kind.

(p. 539)

It is characteristic of Eliot that the narrator knows more than her character, even in this late novel that experiments with subjective perspectives. Biographers have often paused over the Princess's speeches since they seem to offer insights into Eliot's views on art and her experiences as a female artist. Leonora later scolds her son, in his attempts to sympathise with her early life: 'You are not a woman. You may try–but you can never [End Page 299] imagine what it is to have a man's force of genius in you, and yet to suffer the slavery of being a girl' (p. 541).

The Princess's perspective has particular resonance for Philip Davis's new biography, which takes relatively little interest in the external actions of Eliot's life (or the reasons for them). Davis quotes D. H. Lawrence, who remarked of Eliot that 'It was she who started putting all the action inside' (p. 317). In focusing on her 'transferred life', Davis seeks to understand how Marian Lewes's experiences, and above all her feelings, were acted out and reinterpreted in her fiction. He thus suggests that the creation of George Eliot also involved a double consciousness, elevating the author's (sometimes painful) earlier life and gifting understanding to her equally flawed characters and readers. Davis's title is taken from The Mill on the Floss (1860), where the phrase 'transferred life' is used by Philip Wakem, in a painful letter to Maggie Tulliver:

The new life I have found in caring for your joy and sorrow more than for what is directly my own, has transformed the spirit of rebellious murmuring into that willing endurance which is the birth of strong sympathy. I think nothing but such complete and intense love could have initiated me into that enlarged life which grows and grows by appropriating the life of others; for before, I was always dragged back from it by ever-present painful self-consciousness. I even think sometimes that this gift of transferred life which has come to me in loving you, may be a new power to me.1

One can read hesitation throughout the last sentence ('even think sometimes . . . may be'), and thus Wakem uses the phrase 'transferred life' with less assurance than Davis. It can be difficult to read the tone of a letter within fiction, but it is possible that Eliot intended these words to sound at least partly ironic. When Wakem claims that his love for Maggie has been a 'gift' to him, this is (at best) complicated by the pain she has caused him.

The Transferred Life of George Eliot is organised in eleven chapters, the final six of which focus on the fiction. Five of those chapters are each dedicated to an individual work, with Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1863...


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pp. 299-303
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