The World’s Wife: On Clare Carlisle’s “The Marriage Question”

By Victoria BaenaAugust 15, 2023

The World’s Wife: On Clare Carlisle’s “The Marriage Question”

The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life by Clare Carlisle

KNOWLEDGE AND MARRIAGE: two relatedly dangerous pursuits. Both organize and demarcate our terms of endearment; both invite endless speculation and impose practical constraints; both involve the power to create and destroy. Or so argued the late philosopher Stanley Cavell, as he justified juxtaposing Kant with Cary Grant in his 1981 book Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Cavell’s dazzling reading of seven romantic comedies from the 1930s and ’40s took marriage seriously as a philosophical question: a problem of how to live with others, of how to seek truth under the pressures of an institution.

Even so prominent a fashioner of the marriage plot as Jane Austen was wont to betray a certain impatience with the genre: “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.” Thus Emma Woodhouse, having finally given up her penchant for matchmaking, accepts Mr. Knightley as her own most suitable match. But in the narrator’s discretion, there also seems to be a hint of exasperation, as if seeking an excuse to avoid the tropes of the conventional scene.

Unlike a wedding, a marriage is no singular event. Once the ceremony is over and the guests go home, the couple can veer off script. The rhythms of marriage, including its shifting balances of power, pose a distinct set of possibilities and challenges for narrative. In what Cavell called the “comedy of remarriage,” the narrative suspense hangs less on whether a couple will marry than whether they will separate and, ultimately, reunite. The advantage, compared to the Austenian trope, is that the participants can talk more freely once they have abandoned the coyness of courtship.

As Clare Carlisle, professor of philosophy and theology at King’s College London, writes in her new literary and intellectual biography The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life, Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–72) is also “a story that turns on the question of a woman’s second marriage.” Dorothea Brooke’s dying husband all but ensures that this will be the case when he denies her an inheritance if she marries his cousin Will Ladislaw, thus helping to put the very idea of remarriage into her head.

That much of Middlemarch explores the ordinary life of marriage rather than courtship might account for Virginia Woolf’s well-known characterization of “that magnificent book which, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Eliot’s heroine isn’t among them; at the start, she has “very childlike ideas about marriage.” Like many Eliot protagonists, Dorothea initially attaches herself to a man on whom she projects dreams of grandeur, only to recognize, beginning with her honeymoon in Rome, that she has made a terrible mistake. In her case, the pedantic scholar Casaubon’s appeal is a function of her own desire for a cause in which she can believe and to which she can devote herself. (Self-sacrifice, in an Eliot novel, is often merely a mask for another kind of egotism.) Lest we think this error of judgment is limited to women, Middlemarch also gives us the doctor Lydgate’s marriage to the local beauty Rosamond, a slight and silly person to whom he too is distinctly unsuited. Meanwhile, the novel’s happier unions—Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, as well as Mary’s parents—seem to prove Cavell’s point that conversation is crucial: these couples know how to talk to each other.

As the inhabitants of Middlemarch are well aware, the inner workings of a marriage are propitious for gossip. They are equally fodder for gossip’s more respectable cousins, the novel and the biography. “Curiosity, the desire to know, is a philosophical passion,” writes Carlisle, one that can be triggered by the “sheer contingency of marriage.” In other words, how to decide whether to marry one person and not another, or no one at all: a choice that one presumably hopes will be irrevocable, though of course it need not be. Literary historians won’t be surprised to hear that Carlisle has claimed Eliot for moral philosophy. But as the editor of Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics (translated by Eliot herself), as well as the author of a 2020 biography of Søren Kierkegaard, Carlisle aims to situate Eliot’s writing and thinking squarely at the heart of a philosophical tradition still largely headlined by unmarried men. She argues that Eliot’s literary representations foregrounded social and emotional life, rather than abstract thinking, as a vehicle to knowledge and wisdom—a conviction that emerged from Eliot’s deep theoretical reading but also from her lifelong attempt to negotiate between convention, desire, and commitment to others.


In Eliot’s own life, her “husband,” George Henry Lewes, was the one “remarrying” in pursuit of happiness. Lewes’s wife Agnes, whom he had married in 1841 and fathered four children with, had a longtime lover—editor Thornton Leigh Hunt, also married—with whom Agnes had four other children. In July 1854, when she was 34 years old, Marian Evans (as Eliot was then known) “eloped” with Lewes. They went on to live together for 26 years, until his death in 1878, and though they called each other husband and wife, no official document ever sanctioned the couple’s commitment.

Reading Jane Eyre (1847), Eliot thought it was obvious that Jane should have chosen to live with Mr. Rochester despite the “legal fiction” of his marriage to the madwoman in the attic. The Eliot-Lewes-Hunt series of ménages was among the domestic strategies by which Victorian middle-class families navigated the intersecting constraints of love, commitment, and law. As unconventional as it may have been on paper, however, and as radical as it has sometimes been described, the daily life of Eliot and Lewes’s “marriage” was more striking for its settled, domestic stability amid their social impropriety. “They were the perfect married couple,” Phyllis Rose wrote 40 years ago: “Only—they weren’t married.” Identifying the pair as her favorite couple among the five Victorian marriages recounted in her 1983 book Parallel Lives, Rose wondered: “How much did their happiness depend upon the irregularity of their union?”

To answer that question, or rather rephrase it, Carlisle has waded deep into the correspondence, novels, and journals, as well as Eliot criticism old and new. A number of the main inflections and anecdotes recounted in The Marriage Question will be familiar to readers of earlier biographies, especially those of Gordon S. Haight, Rosemarie Bodenheimer, and Nancy Henry. There is the journal entry describing Eliot lying in bed, dreaming up the name of her first story, “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton.” Lewes gives his imprimatur to her writing of fiction, responding, “O what a capital title!” There is his reading of the story, which was included in Scenes of Clerical Life (1857), upon which he gives her a kiss and tells her, “I think your pathos is better than your fun.” And there is the image of the conscientious Lewes at his desk, scrutinizing the newspapers for any mention of his “wife,” carefully cutting out negative reviews and deciding what she can stand to hear on any given day.

Eliot once described Lewes as her “housekeeper, secretary and Nurse all in one.” Haight’s 1968 biography took from this a leitmotif, borrowed from Eliot’s friend Charles Bray, that the writer “was not fitted to stand alone.” Carlisle follows Bodenheimer and Henry in rejecting that patronizing assessment. But neither does she find exactly what Elizabeth Hardwick extracted from her own reading of the Letters: a “fantastic partnership” of “two writers, brilliant and utterly literary,” who “led the literary life from morning to midnight, working, reading, correcting proofs, traveling, entertaining, receiving and writing letters, planning literary projects, worrying, doubting their powers, experiencing a delicious hypochondria.”

Carlisle is rather more skeptical of Hardwick’s and Rose’s “perfect” couple. Her Eliot is more insecure, more compromised, more petulant. The Marriage Question is especially interested in the intellectual asymmetries between Eliot and Lewes, in the shifting status of their mutual dependency. As Eliot became more famous, more fêted, her domestic situation more socially accepted, visitors to the couple’s home often contrasted her solid, stable presence to Lewes’s jumpy geniality. Always eager to get back to work, “Mrs Lewes” styled herself as a doting mother to her three stepsons but could grow resentful when their needs intruded into her routine. She wasn’t thrilled at having to move to London in order to support her stepson Charles, for instance, and she was relieved at the middle-class opportunities offered by the British Empire, which gave them a way to deal with the two younger sons’ failure to launch by dispatching them to the colonies. As Eliot’s marriage unfolded over time, as it encompassed the disappointments of daily life, there was the ever-present specter of social opinion, which she both scorned and coveted. Carlisle doubts whether Eliot’s marriage lived up to her admittedly mighty hopes. But she also wants to resist summing up Eliot’s take on marriage or reducing it to a set of precepts. The temporality of marriage is precisely, she thinks, what makes it an appealing “medium for philosophical inquiry,” and why it has to be recounted in narrative—here biographical—form.

In a letter to her friend Cara Bray, Eliot celebrated marriage as “this double life which helps me to feel and think with double strength.” But, as Carlisle shows, Eliot’s life contained other resonances of doubling, sometimes more fraught than that citation implies. To begin with, Eliot’s authorial, social, and private monikers multiplied over the course of her life, posing an ongoing problem of what to call her. While the identity of “George Eliot” was kept a secret from her editor John Blackwood for barely two years before it became generally known, that “double life” continued to be expressed by the structure of her diary, in which the daily activities of Mrs Lewes were recorded from front to back, with the affairs of George Eliot listed from back to front. Elsewhere, a character’s clairvoyant powers in The Lifted Veil (1859) are described as a “double consciousness” (to be distinguished from W. E. B. Du Bois’s later coinage of the same phrase to describe the double bind of Black American life). The double in this sense is the shadow-image of the couple, a frightening, if potentially alluring, collapse of autonomy that threatens to blur the boundaries of the self.

Before the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, Victorians could only divorce through an act of Parliament; after that, there was still the financial cost, as well as the reality of public scrutiny. Nevertheless, the plotlines of Eliot’s novels tend to belie the flexibility of domestic arrangements in and around her own life. Eventually the worst of the husbands—Casaubon in Middlemarch, Grandcourt in Daniel Deronda (1876), Tito in Romola (1862–63)—are killed off. One of her earliest stories, “Janet’s Repentance” (published in Scenes of Clerical Life), tackles an abusive relationship head-on, illuminating how “the law sanctioned marital violence instead of protecting abused wives.” In Daniel Deronda, the trauma and shame of Gwendolen Harleth’s wedding night is elided and displaced, as Gwendolen catches sight of her own demonic reflection in a mirror “like so many women petrified white.” In works like Middlemarch, Eliot turned to examples of more ordinary unhappiness. Her novels are notable for their careful etiology of the spread of scandal, in how gossip can disrupt lives, unravel destinies, and expose secrets. In writing fiction, she found a way to successfully align social judgment with her own ethical vision. In Middlemarch, the circulation of gossip ultimately restores a moral order, while the assured omniscient narrative voice remains perched above public opinion—“the world’s wife,” as it is known in The Mill on the Floss (1860).

Carlisle sees the “marriage question” as a reigning focus of nearly all of Eliot’s writings, not just her studies of provincial life. In an especially deft reading of Romola, Eliot’s historical novel of late-15th-century Florence, Carlisle explores how this “dark psychological marriage drama” was informed by the confluence of Stoicism, skepticism, and Renaissance humanism. Even The Mill on the Floss is approached as a “marriage question, staged in an intimate domestic setting,” though here it is Maggie Tulliver whose death by drowning forestalls her own marriage plot.

Along the way, Carlisle shows how Eliot’s early devoutness continued to resonate in a “Feuerbachian sense of the sacredness of human ties” long after the writer had lost her religious faith. In Spinoza, Eliot discovered a “philosophy of dependence and empowerment that perfectly reflected her situation”—but also a language for describing herself and Lewes as one body and mind, whose intellectual labors could become more powerful together than either would have been on their own. Her vision of a world characterized by shifting relations between self and society (in the terms of contemporary science, between organisms and their environment or “milieu”) arose in turn from her interpretation of Goethe’s organicist model of becoming, alongside the writings of Cuvier, Darwin, and Comte. We see, finally, how Hegel’s “vibrant negativity” is woven into the very structure of Eliot’s sentences, his “world of relations” staged on a shrunken, provincial scale in order that its stakes might emerge with greater relief.

According to Eliot’s famous “parable” of a pier glass, when illuminated by the candlelight of any single subject, its haphazard scratches only seem to produce “the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement.” There is a certain risk that marriage, when filtered through Carlisle’s pier glass, comes to be another version of that key to all mythologies that so obsessed Middlemarch’s Casaubon. Though her discussions are packed with insights, “marriage” sometimes becomes a somewhat baggy metaphor for the different ways in which Eliot worked to metabolize abstract philosophies of relation.

Cavell’s cinematic couples form what he called “a world elsewhere”: they create a shared past in order to come to terms with the inconclusiveness of their shared future. The “spirit of comedy” works best, he thought, when the audience agrees to entertain both possibilities: remarriage and divorce. For Carlisle, Eliot’s sensibility is not quite comic in either of the genre’s senses, high or low; Eliot’s work features less laughter and fewer happy endings. Eliot relates to her objects from a more ironic distance, one in which any possible perspective has to be relativized and any ultimate conclusion deferred. As a result, she is able to see more, know more. She also, maybe, has a bit less fun.


As Carlisle acknowledges, focusing on the marriage plot means de-emphasizing the possibilities of other couplings in Eliot’s novels as well as in her life: the love and agonism between the Brooke sisters, the Bede brothers, or the Tulliver siblings; the female friends like Sara Hennell who receded from view when Lewes entered the scene. When the feminist and suffragist Edith Simcox declared her love for Eliot—recalling Eliot’s own early, strident, and unrequited profession of love to Herbert Spencer in her early thirties—Eliot was anxious to rein in her friend’s affections. Her advice was essentially to forget about her and to marry a man. Consigning her speculations to a footnote, Carlisle wonders: “Was some kind of shared life with this younger woman an ‘imagined otherwise’ which came briefly into being that evening?” But The Marriage Question mostly avoids the waves of identification, aspiration, and disappointment that might characterize a more subjective, memoiristic account, as in Rebecca Mead’s recent My Life in Middlemarch (2014). Carlisle brings a frank realism to the ideology of heterosexual marriage under modern capitalism, as when discussing Eliot’s own squeamishness about writing and finances, a source of debate and some tension in her marriage: “[P]eople write for money, just as they marry for money. And the success of authorship, like the success of a marriage, is often measured by financial gain.”

In tracing Eliot’s lifelong marriage plots, Carlisle cannot avoid the final, awkward denouement that mystified contemporary observers and later biographers alike: her late-in-life legal marriage to John Walter Cross, 20 years her junior, a few months after Lewes’s death, a marriage that lasted only around half a year until Eliot died rather unexpectedly in December 1880. Carlisle is mostly invisible as a character in her narrative, so it comes as something of a surprise when she bursts in here, in a scene that has her objecting to her own editor’s disappointment at the Victorian writer’s latter-day embrace of legal commitment and its attendant respectability. It is Carlisle’s own “but why always Dorothea?” moment: “Why does anyone get married?” she asks him. She doesn’t want to “purify marriage of its self-interest, its worldliness, its pragmatism.” Marriage is propelled by curiosities and desires (which it then goes on to limit); it promises security (through a decision beset by uncertainty); its intimacies can be authorized through daily deceits. Having spent the bulk of the book probing the metaphysics and ethics behind Eliot’s “fictional marriages,” Carlisle turns late in the game to a far more pragmatic defense of marriage’s contradictions and inconsistencies.

In Victorian England, these negotiations took place against a particular political backdrop: Eliot’s contemporary John Stuart Mill critiqued marriage, with some high-imperialist parochialism, as a state-sanctioned means of domination, “the only actual bondage known to our law.” Many feminists have since argued for it to be not just reformed but abolished, while recent assaults on reproductive rights have made it clearer than ever how marriage also operates as a privileged mechanism for inheritance, accumulation, and class reproduction. Given the various other advantages—tax benefits, hospital visiting rights, visa and citizenship status, property ownership—that continue to accrue to married couples, Jeffrey Eugenides’s 2011 novel The Marriage Plot was probably too hasty in suggesting that free love and divorce and liberalism have ruined the narrative possibilities for tales of love and courtship. But as Rose wrote, “The plots we choose to impose on our own lives are limited and limiting.” The Marriage Question lands on a grown-up (if not quite grudging) respect for the sometimes vicious, sometimes enabling, sometimes joyful constraints of the institutions one inherits—before, with any luck, they might wither away.


Victoria Baena is a research fellow in English and modern languages at Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge.

LARB Contributor

Victoria Baena is a research fellow in English and modern languages at Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge.


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