“Marriage is so unlike anything else,” writes George Eliot in Middlemarch. “There is something even awful in the nearness it brings.” By the time that novel was published in 1871, Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans, was 17 years into her partnership with George Lewes, himself an author and member of the mid-19th-century intelligentsia. Lewes was already married when he met Eliot but had long been estranged from his wife, who by that time had given birth to multiple children with another man. Eliot and Lewes determined to form their own sort of marriage despite being unable to marry legally; they even set off on a honeymoon to Germany. That excursion led to a lifelong union that became the complicated scandal of Eliot’s life, making her “unfit” for drawing room visits and causing her family to shun her, even as she penned wildly successful novels.
It’s impressive how King’s College London professor Clare Carlisle (Philosopher of the Heart) finds her way inside this deeply intimate partnership in The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life. Though Lewes was more exuberant and extroverted, Eliot guarded her private life closely. She had a deep desire for acceptance and love, which possibly led her to gloss over uncomfortable problems in her partnership with Lewes. On the one hand, Lewes was Eliot’s first cheerleader, encouraging her through her professional endeavors and proudly promoting her work in the literary sphere. On the other hand, Lewes could be difficult in ways that were typical for a Victorian husband. For example, the immense earnings from Eliot’s work were deposited into Lewes’ bank account, and he availed himself of them freely. He could also sometimes be controlling, according to Carlisle’s narrative, basking a little too much in Eliot’s reflected glory.
Wielding a combination of biography and thoughtful analysis of Eliot’s novels and verse, Carlisle examines what marriage has been historically and what it is today, noting that it is as sticky and complex as ever. In many ways, Eliot’s relationship was thoroughly modern: an unsanctified union with a female breadwinner who struggled to balance the demands of parenting with the time and space she needed to work. Carlisle demonstrates that Eliot’s thoughts on marriage were reflected in her work as she picked through romantic joys and frustrations, ruminating over the what-could-have-beens that haunt every long partnership.
There are no neat answers to Eliot’s marriage questions—“whether to marry, whom to marry, how to live in a marriage, whether to remain married,” as Carlisle summarizes it. Instead, The Marriage Question is a deep examination of long partnership—how it affects us, how it is negotiated—through Eliot’s deliciously thoughtful prose and reflective journal entries. Carlisle has written a book that seems to tell us a story about others but instead deeply informs us about ourselves.