The Transferred Life of George Eliot

by Philip Davis, OUP, £25

If there is no God, George Eliot will do, author Philip Davis’s mentor used to joke – by which he meant that she was “the best version of what a novel’s omniscient narrator might really stand for”. The woman herself might have balked at comparison to the deity – or she might not have. With followers of Feuerbach one never knows.

George Eliot’s peculiar worldview is the subject of Davis’s intellectual biography, which aims to show how Mary Ann (or Marian) Evans’s life taught her to think like a novelist. The intersection of fiction and real life is Davis’s speciality. A professor at Liverpool, he also works with The Reader, an organisation promoting the use of literature for socially beneficial purposes – sponsoring book clubs for prisons, training psychologists in “bibliotherapy”, etc.

It is the subject, not the author, that is poorly suited for a book of this type. George Eliot had no moral system. She rejected the very idea of moral systems. Before her pseudonym was unmasked, a reviewer for the Athenaeum speculated that the author of Adam Bede must be “a clever woman with an observant eye and an un-schooled moral nature”. Un-schooled is precisely the right word. Moral feelings assailed her in gusts, but she refused any effort to discipline them.

Not all of these feelings were humanitarian, and if Davis has a weakness it is his refusal to admit how discreditable his subject’s motivations could be. He defends one “sarcastic attack on the stupidity of ‘the average man’ ” (in Daniel Deronda, in this case, though it could have come from any of her books) by insisting that it “is not made out of intellectual snobbery; on the contrary, it is made on account of the demeaning damage done to unconventional people … by ignorant dismissiveness”. Does Davis know any intellectual snobbery that would not describe itself in just that way?

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