In Love With George Eliot

Kathy O'Shaughnessy

Scribe, £16.99

Review by Dani Garavelli

THERE is a temptation when considering George Eliot's scandalous relationship with George Henry Lewes, and the national adulation she received despite it, to cast her as a great Victorian rebel, defying the mores which prevented most women from achieving their potential.

The opposite, of course, is true. Eliot wanted nothing more than a traditional marriage to Lewes, who was unable to divorce his wife, and, in the course of a monogamous 25-year union, she secured it in all but name.

As for the fame, she relished it, but she wasn't always sisterly; her refusal to become the poster girl for the fledgling suffragette/suffragist movement was a source of irritation for her more radical friends.

It was her slightly po-faced morality rather than her breach of conventions that did for her in the end. After her death in 1880, the woman who once had the British literati at her feet, was scorned as humourless and old-fashioned.

In her debut novel, In Love with George Eliot, Kathy O'Shaughnessy, takes all these conflicting elements to draw a layered, tender portrait of a clever but emotionally-needy woman who fluctuates between an unnerving belief in her own talent to a terror of being misunderstood.

Initially isolated by her relationship with Lewes, O'Shaughnessy's Eliot is hungry for friendship and at war with her own forthright personality. She seems to suffer from a sort of emotional Tourette's. She steals her old friend Sara's thunder by revealing herself as the author of the celebrated Adam Bede at exactly the moment Sara is presenting her own work, which she goes on to dismiss. Yet, the next day she wakes up petrified she has lost Sara's affection forever.

This is the pattern of Eliot's encounters. She says too much; she says too little. She overshares; she undershares. Then, in a panic, she pens earnest little missives clarifying her sentiments; trying to reset the friendship.

Always desperate for displays of affection, she allows – perhaps even incites – literary reviewer Edith Simcox's romantic feelings for her, only to recoil when Simcox tries to kiss her. According to O'Shaughnessy's vision, Eliot is self-aware enough to know she is doing and why, but unable to stop. "I have a painful susceptibility to encourage a certain approach in others," O'Shaughnessy writes. "As I person I need – 'these things' – she gestured vaguely. What she really meant was love."

The book is based on letters to and from the writer, and on Simcox's obsessive chronicling of their relationship. What makes it a "novel", rather than a fictionalised biography, is a second, contemporary story: a love triangle involving three academics organising an Eliot conference. This format allows Eliot to be seen both up close and from distance and provides a platform for an airing of competing perspectives on the writer, particularly her refusal to be co-opted as a figurehead for those campaigning for sexual equality.

Like Eliot's masterpiece Middlemarch, In Love with George Eliot is principally an exploration of matrimony: Eliot's successful, but unofficial marriage to Lewes, her official but less successful marriage to John Cross, 20 years her junior, whom she wed after Lewes' death, and the one between two modern academics.

O'Shaughnessy is not the first to note the irony that Eliot, who wrote about disastrous marriages with such insight and was forced to "live in sin", found, in Lewes, the ideal husband – a man willing to sacrifice his own literary ambitions to her superior talent. Her portrayal of their relationship is uplifting. She depicts Lewes as a man in intellectual harmony with his wife and their union as a partnership of equals. A great promoter of her ability, he appears to have managed her fits of melancholy, hiding bad reviews and sending the jealous, sniping Herbert Spencer on his way.

It is less clear what purpose the modern love story serves, but it matters little. There is enough pleasure to be had from immersing oneself in Eliot's world and gaining an appreciation of this clever, mercurial, yet vulnerable woman.