George Eliot was born Mary Anne Evans in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, in 1819. She was a brilliant but unattractive girl. Her father adored her, but her mother thought she was ugly. Even when she was the most famous novelist in England, her ugliness was the first thing people remarked upon when they had met her. Henry James called her "magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous" and a "great horse-faced blue-stocking." Even her obituary in the Times called her ugly. Throughout her life, she suffered from a lack of self-confidence, and from poor health, and from an aversion to having her photograph taken. When she was a young woman, men (like Herbert Spencer) fell in love with her intellect, but were repulsed by her looks. When she finally settled down happily with ugly George Henry Lewes (nicknamed "the Ape"), Spencer piggishly published an essay on "Personal Beauty" in which he seemed to describe George Eliot's face as the paradigm of ugliness.
As a girl, Mary Anne (or Mary Ann, or Marian) was first drawn toward evangelical Christianity, and aspired toward sainthood. She later lost her faith, and became notorious for living in sin with another woman's husband. She had sympathies with Positivism, but in the end settled down, in good English fashion, to attending the Anglican church without believing a word of it. She was complicated. She had a brilliant mind, and was the most successful novelist of her time, and lived for twenty-five years with a married man, but she was essentially conservative. She rejected the idea of giving women the vote, and was lukewarm at best in her support for women's higher education. Her brilliant novels often disappoint modern feminists with their message of female self-sacrifice and domesticity. Some women fell madly in love with her (at her funeral, one of them knelt down and kissed her coffin), but she preferred men.
Brenda Maddox's brief biography is a fresh, fluid, and sympathetic introduction to George Eliot's life. It ably captures the contradictions in Eliot's life, the brilliance and insecurity, the ugliness and beauty, the rebellion against social norms and the essential conservatism. It suggests how George Eliot's own life—her childhood and family, her deep need to be loved, her struggles to find a place for herself in a man's world—informed her fiction, without reducing her brilliantly complex novels to veiled autobiography. Maddox writes so fluently and well that I read the book in two sittings. She has an ear for the telling anecdote and the pointed quotation which makes her biography of George Eliot both entertaining and informative.