“GREAT LITERATURE has always been the […] Forgiveness of Sin,” W.B. Yeats wrote in 1901, “and when we find it becoming the Accusation of Sin, as in George Eliot […] literature has begun to change into something else.” Eliot’s problem, as Yeats recognized, lay in finding a balance between her conflicting instincts: to sympathize with people and to judge them. Eliot felt it her duty to cultivate “direct fellow-feeling” and be generous toward the little people, even though, as she well knew, they had often failed to be generous to her.

The Eliot problem helps to explain why some 15 biographies of her have appeared over the past 30 years or so. (There doesn’t seem to be any Dickens problem or Trollope problem that requires such obsessive attention.) Philip Davis’s The Transferred Life of George Eliot is the latest entry in this series, and it is a brief for the greatness of George Eliot as a thinker, a novelist, and a person, and thus a justification of literature as she chose to write it. Davis’s particular approach is “to understand [Eliot’s] life through her work because it was to her work that she transferred and dedicated her life.” What defines Eliot, in Davis’s view, is “her commitment to the role of imaginative sympathy in understanding,” which makes her not just a great writer, but also an admirable person.

This humanist view of Eliot has held its ground, despite the theory wars of the 1980s and ’90s. One of the few to question it was J. Hillis Miller, who has argued that Eliot’s novels are typically structured around failures of sympathy (or, Miller would say, of interpretation): Adam Bede misinterprets Hetty Sorrel, Philip Wakem misinterprets Maggie Tulliver, Dorothea misinterprets Casaubon, Gwendolen misinterprets Grandcourt. Eliot’s art reaches its highest pitch with these miserable confrontations, such as Lydgate and Rosamond’s quarrel over money in chapter 58 of Middlemarch. “What can I do?” Rosamond says. Lydgate wants to hear “how can I help?”; but what Rosamond means to say is “this is not my problem.” When we try to sympathize with other people, Eliot suggests, we often get it radically wrong. The dominant perspective of Eliot’s narrators, Miller suggests, is not sympathy but irony.

Davis, though, is not much bothered by the limitation that Eliot, like any novelist, must speak mainly through her characters. Eliot provides her own copious commentary on the action, seeming to speak directly to her reader. He assumes that “life” can be freely transferred between the author and her fiction. So the sorrows of little Maggie Tulliver, in The Mill on the Floss, are inseparable from “the long slow unrecognized struggle” of Mary Ann Evans “to become the author ‘George Eliot’ at the age of 37.” It is through her fiction that Eliot becomes her true self — paradoxically, under a different name.

The Transferred Life of George Eliot makes its case with impressive force and eloquence. In doing so, it leaves aside many of the standard elements of a biography: an orderly sequence of life-events, financial affairs, contacts with other cultural figures, and so forth. Davis’s narrative sticks to Eliot’s emotional and intellectual development, as revealed in her fiction and letters. It presents Eliot’s life as the heroic overcoming of the multiple oppressions inflicted on a brilliant but awkward and misunderstood provincial girl.

Except for her father’s loyal encouragement, Eliot was unlucky in her childhood, enduring an upbringing that seemed to have the narrowest of horizons. In Middlemarch, Lydgate memorably describes this as “the hampering threadlike pressure of small social conditions.” Yet, Davis argues, Eliot followed Wordsworth in accepting “the hidden and neglected value of common life.” She did not go quite as far as the Lyrical Ballads in finding special virtue in obscure lives, but still kept her respect for Midlands village life, warts and all.

By the time Eliot began writing fiction, she had received an overflowing measure of criticism and humiliation from her family, and from the respectable folk among whom she had grown up. Her readers might be appalled by the narrow-minded Dodsons and their ilk in The Mill on the Floss, but Eliot told her friend Emily Davies that in real life they were much worse. Nonetheless they survive and prosper, while Maggie perishes, condemned for a love affair that wasn’t even consummated. For Davis, this shows Eliot’s overcoming of youthful resentment, on her way to becoming the great soul revealed in her mature works. Yet resentment is an emotion that tends to linger, if beneath the surface, and Eliot often rebuked herself for her habit of “evil speaking.”

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In concentrating primarily on Eliot’s intellectual progress, Davis sets a different course from the swarm of recent biographers who have pored over the primary materials of her life. He assumes that events in Eliot’s childhood, or in her intimate relations, need only be viewed through the traces left by them in her fiction. For the injuries specific to Victorian girls, for example, Davis looks to “those unforgettably primal, wounding moments” suffered by Maggie in The Mill on the Floss. But putting his reader on the side of Eliot’s heroine is only a partial move for her biographer. Eliot’s own experience — and the way that others saw her — cannot be identical with Maggie’s. Further, the conventions of Victorian publishing made it impossible to explore certain areas. Other biographers speculate about Eliot’s sexual history, which the novels naturally leave blank: How, one wonders, did Hetty Sorrel ever manage to get pregnant? What happened, if anything, on Dorothea’s wedding night? Davis does not occupy himself with such questions.

In her ascent to fame, Eliot was far from being, like Maggie, “always subdued.” The fates of Maggie (drowned), Hetty (condemned to death), and Dorothea (disinherited) are various kinds of gendered misfortunes that Eliot herself managed to escape. That she sympathized with her characters does not guarantee that they are simply surrogates for her own feelings. There must be gaps and contradictions between life and work. This does not require writing what Joyce Carol Oates called “pathography,” but Davis may be too enthusiastic about presenting Eliot as her own finest creation.

Some of Davis’s partiality to Eliot appears in not troubling much about some of her more dubious episodes. Eliot committed herself to G. H. Lewes in July 1854 by going to live with him in Weimar. Before that, she had spent 12 years ensnared in a web of sexually compromising situations. At the age of 22 she had met the freethinking couples Charles and Cara Bray, and Charles and Rufa Hennell. Eliot stopped going to church two months later. The Brays had a casual view of marital obligations, and under their roof, Eliot was exposed to a freedom of thought and behavior that radically challenged the mores of Midlands society: what Eliot would call, in Middlemarch, “a walled-in maze of small paths.”

Before Lewes, Eliot experienced a series of passionate but unsatisfying attachments, often to older men. One was to the philosopher Herbert Spencer, a grandiose but ultimately futile systematizer; later, he would contribute to Eliot’s characterization of Casaubon in Middlemarch. Eliot wrote an abject letter, pleading for Spencer’s love, only to be told that he felt no desire for her (nor, as it turned out, for any other woman). She then joined her publisher John Chapman’s ménage-à-trois in London, where she probably slept with him but still had to endure being the third-ranked woman in the house. When at last Eliot found true love with Lewes, she had to cope with the presence of his friend Thornton Hunt, the biological father of several of Lewes’s five legitimate children, in addition to 10 children with his own wife.

Lewes could not divorce, so Eliot had to face social ostracism, including a lawyer’s letter on behalf of her brother Isaac informing her that he would never see her again. Yet she survived it all and launched her fictional career in 1856 with Scenes of Clerical Life. That began 15 years of amazing productivity, culminating in the capstone of Middlemarch. Davis provides a deep and subtle appreciation of Eliot’s art, emphasizing the authority of her moral history of Midlands society. But how was she able to construct such a mighty edifice on the foundation of her chaotic personal history?

Other biographers have explored Eliot’s anarchic years, before she began writing fiction. She was busy with journalism, and with translating revisionist theological works by David Strauss, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Benedict Spinoza. Direct knowledge of her emotional life remains scanty, apart from her chagrin over her lack of conventional prettiness, which doomed her to failure in the Victorian system of courtship and marriage. As with Jane Austen, Emily and Anne Brontë, and Emily Dickinson, it seems an unavoidable cliché that so many masterworks by 19th-century women grew out of similar failure. Eliot was equally sensitive, though, to the cost of courtship success, for characters like Rosamond Vincy, Gwendolen Harleth, or Hetty Sorrel.

Davis also makes little of Eliot’s strange final year, when, after the death of Lewes, she quickly married her business manager John Cross, who was 20 years younger. On their honeymoon in Venice he tried to commit suicide by jumping into the canal, an impulsive act with little connection to his life before or since. Cross may have been gay or just celibate by disposition; if Eliot sensed this, it cannot have been much consolation to her. Davis can only speculate that, if the cause was some kind of sexual failure, it must have been “the Valley of Humiliation again, the second life gone in the return of the old miseries, ugly needs and lonelinesses of which, for so long, her writing had been able to make something better.”

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Davis’s central purpose is the appreciation of Eliot’s intellectual achievement, which he sees as inseparable from her literary work. Henry James complained of a lack of artistic form in Eliot’s novels, but for Davis plot and character are less important than the quality of her thought, which he places in the context of her philosophical contemporaries, such as Feuerbach or Spencer. Above all of these, in Davis’s view, was Lewes’s attempt to build a grand system of human psychology. Unlike Casaubon, whose “Key to All Mythologies” comes to naught, Lewes did manage to complete and publish five volumes of his magnum opus Problems of Life and Mind. Eliot worked closely with Lewes on his project, and Davis even suggests that Lewes’s philosophy might be an interpretive key to Eliot’s novels. But a panoramic novel like Middlemarch cannot easily be the vehicle for a unitary social theory. Still less can Silas Marner or The Mill on the Floss be considered “thesis novels,” and if Eliot’s enthusiasm for Zionism qualifies Daniel Deronda for that label, most critics see that as the weaker half of its double plot. In any case, Lewes’s philosophical system never gained much traction in his own time, and it is now no more than a historical curiosity. One might even speculate that, although Eliot remained loyal to Lewes, she may well have seen that he had spent years of his life on an ultimately futile project. If so, its only positive achievement would be to help her imagine the relationship between Dorothea and Casaubon.

The most significant intellectual event of Eliot’s life was her loss of religious faith, and her life’s work is often seen as an attempt to reconcile the legacy of Christian morality with the new culture of secularism. Here is Nietzsche’s skeptical assessment, written eight years after Eliot’s death, in Twilight of the Idols:

G. Eliot. — They have got rid of the Christian God, and now feel obliged to cling all the more firmly to Christian morality: that is English consistency, let us not blame it on little blue-stockings à la Eliot. In England, in response to every little emancipation from theology one has to reassert one’s position in a fear-inspiring manner as a moral fanatic.

After Nietzsche’s “God is Dead” there came Hardy’s poem “God’s Funeral,” and his comment on Jude’s longing for someone to come and help him to learn Latin: “But nobody did come, because nobody does.” The nihilist novel arrives with Hardy. What mattered most for Eliot, though, was preserving the necessary ingredients for a sociological novel. There must be room for a modern-minded scientist like Dr. Lydgate, or an aesthete like Ladislaw, but the point is to place them in opposition to the still-potent older order of Bulstrodes and Casaubons. Eliot saw her task as an “extension of sympathies” that would make her readers into better people by the time they had finished her book. Speaking in her own voice, Eliot even says that she is “very sorry for [Casaubon]” and his “small hungry shivering self.” When her friend F. W. H. Myers asked her “from whom, then, did you draw Casaubon?” she responded with the Flaubertian gesture of silently pointing to her heart.

The only proper response to Nietzsche would be that Eliot may have lost her Christian belief, but that did not entail her writing nihilistic novels. Her preferred solution was to set her fiction 40 or 70 years in the past. Like Nietzsche, Casaubon was a philologist, but also a clergyman contemporary with the Reform Bill of 1832, whose “mental state [had been] mapped out a quarter of a century before.” Nothing in the England of Middlemarch anticipates the “higher criticism” of Strauss and Feuerbach that produced Eliot’s agnosticism.

Davis’s response to Nietzsche, however, does not resort to literary arguments. “George Eliot’s wager,” he writes, “is that the great agnostic space she occupies between faith and unbelief is not merely historical and transitional […] but a recurrent in-between place lodged deep in the configuration of the human psyche.” Part of that stance is that most people cannot be satisfied by an apparently bloodless skepticism and universalism. Bentham asked of belief: “Is it true?”; Davis suggests that Eliot preferred Coleridge’s answer: “What needs does it satisfy?” Her “commitment to the role of imaginative sympathy” determined the kind of novels she wrote, about people deep-rooted in their place, time, and religious belief.

Eliot’s last book, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, continues her nativist musings. “The time has not come for cosmopolitanism to be highly virtuous,” it proclaims. In the same work, Eliot asks why, if we believe that individuals have the right to be “idiosyncratic,” nations should not have the same right? “The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!,” Eliot’s last essay, is an attack on contemporary British anti-Semitism. (“Hep-Hep” was the rallying cry for the German pogroms in 1819.) But, like her friend Trollope, Eliot wants both to welcome the Jews and keep them at arm’s length. It would be “a calamity to the English, as to any other great historic people, to undergo a premature fusion with immigrants of alien blood.” Each nation should cherish its “spirit of separateness.” So those Jews who want to establish their separate nation in Palestine are the best of their “race,” even if others prefer to stay in England and grow rich.

Davis argues that the essay does not promote “racialism or nationalism”; rather, it recognizes a human need to belong, and to have a collective future. The Midlands folk of Eliot’s novels have a distinct language and way of life, formed over centuries. Eliot takes note of their suspicion of Will Ladislaw’s “Polish blood,” but this does not make her indignant. She puts her faith in a friendly identity politics: let there be separation, but with mutual respect and kindness. How has that been working out?

In order to claim the idiosyncratic life of a common-law union with G. H. Lewes, Eliot had to leave England for Germany. But then she came back, seven months later, to face the disapproval of respectable society, and to launch her fictional career under the shelter of a male pseudonym. She wanted to evade the mob, rather than defy it. One side of her temperament is revealed in Dorothea’s admission: “I am always angry with people who do not say just what I like.” The other speaks through Maggie Tulliver: “the need of being loved would always subdue her.” The Mary Ann who had upset her family by refusing to go to church in 1842 ended up as the Marian who married Cross in an Anglican church in 1879, much to the satisfaction of the brother who had disowned her for living with Lewes.

When Eliot was talked into going to a ball, no one asked her to dance. Was that unhappy evening in 1843 redeemed by a classic novel written 15 years later? Such is Davis’s justification for his biography, “the transmutation of ordinary sorrow into human achievement.” But Eliot, like the characters in her novels, shed many tears for which, at the time, there was no consolation.

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Paul Delany’s recent books include biographies of Bill Brandt, George Gissing, and Rupert Brooke.