There was a fascinating programme on radio this morning about George Eliot’s new biography by Brenda Maddox, with interviews with Brenda and also with the historian and biographer Kathryn Hughes – whose own (better biography?) George Eliot: the Last Victorian (1999) won the James Tait Black award – and the novelist Zoe Heller.
In the first interview Brenda Maddox focused a bit too much on the more superficial and slightly seamy sides of Eliot’s life, including her ugliness and sexual frustration. Do we really want to speculate on whether she had sex with “toy boy” husband John Cross whom she married at the age of 60? The incident when he leapt out of the window on their honeymoon in Venice and was rescued (against his will) by a gondolier was bizarre, almost gothic, leading to gossip and speculation about the nature of their relationship.
However, in the latter part of the programme, Kathryn Hughes and Zoe Heller turned the discussion to Eliot’s extraordinary achievements – both as a journalist and a writer.
A surprise came at the end, however, when Kathyrn Hughes provocatively remarked that, if she were alive today, George Eliot – who now would probably call herself Mary Anne (or should that be Marian) Evans – would refuse to take part in the Orange Prize (the winner will be announced this evening, but clips of the authors reading from their works are here).
“She would have considered it a nonsense!” says Hughes. “She would have found the whole idea quite ridiculous and slightly demeaning.”
Instead, she would want her writing to be judged against a full cast of writers rather than one restricted by gender. Ouch! That’ll enliven the discussion about the merits of a prize open solely to female writers!
On a less contentious note, but none the less interesting, Jenni Murray asked both Kathryn Hughes and Zoe Heller to name three “must read” novels from the Victorian era – this time choosing from both male and female authors!
Here are their choices – perhaps not wildly adventurous or unexpected!
Zoe Heller chose Our Mutual Friend, Middlemarch and Bleak House
while Kathryn Hughes went for Silas Marner, Great Expectations and Jane Eyre.
Hughes went on to say the Silas Marner was her special “Desert Island” book, much shorter than Eliot’s other books, and with something “fairytale-ish” and charming about it: “When the world seems very very bleak, I just retire to a corner and re-read Silas Marner, and I feel happy again!”