George Eliot’s Ugly Beauty | The New Yorker
If george eliot’s wikipedia entry has received an unusually high number of hits this week, the onus falls on lena dunham, who tweeted a couple of days ago that the victorian novelist’s page was “the most scandalous and soap opera than you”. I will read this month. thesis: she was ugly and horny! ”
unfortunately, for the prurient-minded, eliot’s wiki-biography is rather more elliptical in its characterization of the victorian author. it does say that “he was considered to have an unpleasant appearance and formed a series of embarrassing and unrequited emotional attachments.” of course, that’s only a fraction of what he says about her. The Wikipedia contributors also provide a summary account of her remarkable transformation from a provincial girl (Mary Ann Evans, the daughter of an estate agent, was born in Coventry in 1819) to one of the foremost intellectuals of the 19th century and author of “Middlemarch,” widely considered the best novel in the English language. (Dunham told me in an email this week that he’s just embarked on “Middlemarch” for the first time, having been inspired to read it by “The Love Adventures of Nathaniel P.”, Adelle Waldman’s clever Eliot-inflected debut. novel.) There is much more to George Eliot than his less-than-conventionally beautiful appearance and possession of a sexual desire, as there is to every other woman whose appearance and sexual desire have been the subject of popular comment, including Dunham and her alter ego of “girls”, hannah horvath.
Still, there’s no escaping the fascination with eliot’s romantic life and his appearance, both of which challenged acceptable norms. Having turned down a marriage proposal from a painting restorer when she was twenty-five, Eliot became entangled in her early thirties with men she wasn’t married to: the social theorist Herbert Spencer, who refused. to fall in love With her, and with men who were married to someone else, including John Chapman, the editor of Westminster magazine and Eliot’s landlord and patron. Both Chapman’s wife and his resident mistress, the Chapman children’s governess, were so disgusted by the attentions he was paying their interesting guest that Eliot was forced to move out, at least until Chapman’s need for his skills editing overrides your women’s preferences.
After those illuminating, if sometimes harrowing, adventures, Eliot lived for twenty-four years with another married man, George Henry Lewes, in a happy and consummate defiance of custom. A year and a half after Lewes’s death, Eliot finally married: John Walter Cross, a former friend and advisor twenty years her junior. Whether this action indicated arousal or something more subtle, such as love, most of her contemporaries found it even more shocking than her extramarital cohabitation. And most of his later biographers have also found him distasteful in their own way, not least because, while the newlyweds were on their honeymoon in Venice, Cross jumped out of a window into the Grand Canal, an action that many Commentators attempt to explain life and Eliot’s choices seem to imply that a grotesque inequality of desire underlies his marriage.
and eliot’s supposed ugliness? For as long as there have been biographies of George Eliot, there have been George Eliot biographers commenting on his ugly appearance. “It must be a terrible shame to be young and unprepossessing: to look in the mirror and see a sallow, sickly face, with sallow skin, a straight nose, and mouse-colored hair,” twenty-four-year-old critic Anne Fremantle wrote in 1933. As k. k. Collins discovered in compiling the indispensable volume of hers, “George Eliot, Interviews and Memoirs,” many who encountered George Eliot were moved to describe his appearance. She was “a woman with almost no beauty or feminine charm or face or person,” according to William Michael Rossetti, the critic and brother of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti. Grace Greenwood, the American novelist, described her as “extremely simple, with her aggressive jaw and evasive blue eyes.” Henry James characterized it as “magnificently ugly, deliciously horrible.”
but james also noted an interesting phenomenon about eliot’s supposed ugliness: when she began to converse, her expression was one of such tenderness and sympathy that it left his interlocutor with an abiding feeling of beauty. “Look at me, literally in love with this big horse-faced bluefooter!” James wrote after her first meeting with her. Many others who knew her made similar comments, including Lucy Clifford, a novelist, who said that Eliot did, in fact, resemble a horse: “a strange variety of horse that was full of knowledge and beauty of thought, and mysteries of which the human being had no conception.” Eliot possessed a radiant, luminous intelligence that dwarfed her perceived flaws, rendering irrelevant the petty criticism of her character and face that she was subjected to for much of her life.
george eliot knew she wasn’t pretty (he made painful and unfunny jokes about her appearance in letters to friends when she was young), but he also knew she had more important things to spend her time on, including love commitments . she that she did to the men that everyone around her disapproved of. “Light and easy-to-break ties are what I neither want in theory nor could live in practice,” she told a friend of hers who criticized her after eloping with Lewes. “Women who are satisfied with such ties don’t act like I have, they get what they want and are still invited to dinner.” And George Eliot’s intelligence was comprehensive enough to belie facile, post-Freudian interpretations of Johnnie Cross’s great leap, interpretations that suggested, in essence, that Eliot was too horny and too ugly for Cross to handle. Eliot was adept at charting the intricacies of desire and disgust in her novels, and in her life he knew what it was like to live in full and lasting intimacy with a passionate and loving partner. the wisest among us are capable of being under terrible misunderstandings about our own desires, or those of the people around us; but the possibility that this particular honeymoon failed on the basis of a simple case of erotic cold feet seems implausible. In any case, whatever happens in that Venetian chamber, no one was better equipped to play it than Eliot, who chose not to, at least not in public.