George Eliot by Kristin Brady (auth.)

By Kristin Brady (auth.)

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At the age of twenty-five - by Victorian standards rather old for the marriage market - Eliot put her 'mind and pursuits' before the need to have a man to support her or someone to lean upon. And this was the case in spite of the fact that during these important years of her young womanhood, in addition to tending to her housekeeping duties, Eliot spent much of her time taking care of her father, often with emotionally taxing results. On one occasion, for example, she was called back by her brother from a vacation in Scotland when her father broke his leg.

In 1843, she was an attendant at the marriage of Rufa Brabant to Charles Hennell, Cara Bray's brother. Rufa had undertaken to translate for publication David Friedrich Strauss's Life of Jesus, a work that challenged the divinity of Christ. When Rufa found the task too much to handle, Eliot took it over and spent the next two years working almost daily to produce a publication on whose title page her name never appeared and for which she was paid a meagre £20. Even at this early stage of her literary career, moreover, Eliot was confronted by a defensive self-loathing at taking up the masculine professional position: she expressed regret that Strauss had learned the translation was being done by a 'young lady' and wrote to Cara Bray, 'I am sure he must have some twinges of alarm to think he was dependent on that most contemptible specimen ofthe human being for his English reputation' (GEL 1: 177).

Haight bases his diagnosis on an account in the diary of the Westminster Review's editor John Chapman, which in turn was based on the oral reports of Rufa Brabant Hennell. While calling Brabant 'the chief cause of all that passed', Chapman saw at the heart of the situation Eliot's 'simplicity of ... heart and her ignorance of (or incapability of practising) the required conventionalisms' (quoted in GE 50). Both these readings need to be contextualised, however. As usual, Haight is returning to Charles Bray's analysis of Eliot's character, while Chapman's account - given the fact that he attempted an extra-marital liaison with Eliot a few years after the Brabant incident and so was hardly himself an observer of 'the required conventionalisms' - is not entirely to be trusted.

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