Elsewhere, the filling in of unknowable details is modest. Marian Evans does engage in tender embraces with the alluring John Chapman and one day, when the servants are off and his wife and children are in Brighton, she falls into bed with him. The biographers could only suspect as much. There is no doubt that O’Shaughnessy has saturated herself in the most important biographical and critical literature on Eliot. The narrative is larded with passages from Eliot’s own letters and journals. O’Shaughnessy has also plundered these for shards of her dialogue; there is a great deal of Eliot uncontestably there in the novel.
O’Shaughnessy’s modern academic Ann scorns Eliot for not being what she thinks of as a “real” feminist, for holding back from a real commitment to change for women. “[It was] all right for her”, she says, “she was the giant exception.” This novel’s great achievement is to see beyond the extraordinary, exceptional Eliot and into the lonely, troubled, love-hungry Marian Evans.
O’Shaughnessy’s tepid treatment perhaps reflects a similar ambivalence towards her subject. Yet Eliot’s complicated reticence about what the Victorians called “the Woman Question” has not prevented generations of female readers from finding inspiration in her life, and both solace and stimulation in her work. O’Shaughnessy acknowledges this influence when Kate recalls reading Middlemarch after a painful breakup: “When everything seemed darker and chillier still … it was she, and only she, who comforted me”. So far, novels about Eliot, with their predictable deficiencies, have been poor substitutes for that profound experience. To understand what it means to be in love with George Eliot, it may be wiser to re-read Middlemarch instead.