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George Eliot’s Scandalous Answer to ‘The Marriage Question’

Though unsanctioned by church or state, the union with Lewes was considerably more peaceful and productive, and receives the bulk of Carlisle’s attention.

She details how the couple met as journalists, through an editor of The Economist magazine for whom Marian had harbored unreciprocated feelings. Neither was considered good-looking, but the smallpox-pitted Lewes had a “racy glamour” and Evans remarkable intelligence, ambition and humor; her thinking that marriage was a state of heart and mind was informed by Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, as well as the anthropologist and philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, whose book “The Essence of Christianity” she had translated.

Condemned by more conventional thinkers, the two traveled widely, starting with a pilgrimage to Goethe’s Germany, where they were dazzled by the genius of Franz Liszt and developed a domestic routine of writing, walking and reading aloud — a “solitude à deux.” In this summer of gravely imperiled coral reefs, a scene of them examining anemones on the Devon coast, as documented in Eliot’s diary, is particularly affecting.

Not long after this seaside sojourn, Eliot finished and sold her first story, “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton.” “O what a capital title!” said Lewes, who would thereafter encourage and advise his beloved, protect her from criticism, negotiate better fees (granted, to his financial benefit), often triangulating with her work husband, the “best and most sympathizing of editors,” the loyal John Blackwood.

Lewes also enjoyed her fame by “stage-managing a salon dedicated to her genius,” Carlisle writes, welcoming Emerson, Longfellow, Wagner, Turgenev and other 19th-century celebrities to the Priory, their well-appointed Regency villa in St. John’s Wood. Charles Dickens was among those writing early mash notes. A later fan sent her elaborately carved woodwork and hand-knit woolen underwear. Another, an Eve Harrington type named Edith Simcox, fell in love with Eliot herself, and suffered her rebuffings.

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