The Marriage Question: George Eliot's Double Life (Hardcover)

The Marriage Question: George Eliot's Double Life By Clare Carlisle Cover Image
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Named one of the ten Best Reviewed Nonfiction Books of 2023 by Literary Hub

A startling new portrait of George Eliot, the beloved novelist and a rare philosophical mind who explored the complexities of marriage.

In her mid-thirties, Marian Evans transformed herself into George Eliot—an author celebrated for her genius as soon as she published her debut novel. During those years she also found her life partner, George Lewes—writer, philosopher, and married father of three. After “eloping” to Berlin in 1854, they lived together for twenty-four years: Eliot asked people to call her "Mrs Lewes" and dedicated each novel to her "Husband." Though they could not legally marry, she felt herself initiated into the "great experience" of marriage—"this double life, which helps me to feel and think with double strength." The relationship scandalized her contemporaries yet she grew immeasurably within it. Living at once inside and outside marriage, Eliot could experience this form of life—so familiar yet also so perplexing—from both sides.

In The Marriage Question, Clare Carlisle reveals Eliot to be not only a great artist but also a brilliant philosopher who probes the tensions and complexities of a shared life. Through the immense ambition and dark marriage plots of her novels, we see Eliot wrestling—in art and in life—with themes of desire and sacrifice, motherhood and creativity, trust and disillusion, destiny and chance. Carlisle's searching new biography explores how marriage questions grow and change, and joins Eliot in her struggle to marry thought and feeling.

Includes black-and-white images

About the Author


Clare Carlisle is Professor of Philosophy at King's College London. She is the author of several books, including Spinoza's Religion, Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard, and On Habit. She has also edited George Eliot's translation of Spinoza's Ethics. She grew up in Manchester, studied philosophy and theology at Cambridge, and now lives in London.

Praise For…


"Eloquent and original . . . [Carlisle] combines a biographer’s eye for stories with a philosopher’s nose for questions . . . Masterly and enriching . . . The ideal historian [of marriage] will need great tact and an impious curiosity. Carlisle has both." —James Wood, The New Yorker

"Carlisle conveys [Eliot's] shades of emotion and temperament while expertly charting both the intellectual and artistic development of her subject and the dramas that beset Eliot’s personal life. With formidable erudition and insight, this sympathetic author paints her own memorable portrait of the soft-spoken woman who quietly revolutionized the English novel—and who scandalized society by never marrying her husband . . . [Carlisle] shrewdly illuminates Eliot’s consciousness and, in turn, her fiction." —Anna Mundow, The Wall Street Journal

"Careful but impassioned . . . [Carlisle's biography] is different in its close focus on an idea: that the titular institution shaped Eliot’s identity and work . . . One need not have read all [Eliot's] works to appreciate The Marriage Question, but, in the most meta sense, it is an ideal companion volume." —Alexandra Jacobs, New York Times

"A fascinating new biography . . . Carlisle is an empathetic and ambitious interpreter. She delves beneath the surface of marriage in Eliot’s novels, finding a world that hums with big questions—about 'desire, freedom, selfhood, change, morality, happiness, belief, the mystery of other minds.'" —Ann Hulbert, The Atlantic

"Brilliant . . . [Carlisle] guides us, by way of biography, philosophy, literary interpretation, literary history, and the histories of art and religion, through a profound consideration of Eliot’s unconventional “marriage,” and how that emotional—and, in many ways, strategic—choice influenced her life and career . . . Ultimately, Carlisle’s thoughtful, comprehensive account of this particular liaison exquisitely probes the complex, thorny, and fascinating question: How much does our choice of partner determine who we ultimately become?" —Jenny McPhee, Air Mail

"Fascinating . . . Carlisle’s reading of Eliot’s marriage informs and imbues her reading of the novels. As a biographer, Carlisle does not seek to draw parallels between Eliot’s life and art or to establish her fiction’s autobiographical roots. Rather, she probes how Eliot’s experience of marriage played out across her books and her life—how it shaped the concerns she interrogated through her fiction." —Francesca Wade, The Nation

"Eliot’s imaginative attraction to violently cruel and thwarting marriages, in contrast with her personal investment in a trustful, lasting intimacy, is a fascinating paradox that Clare Carlisle’s interesting book sets out to investigate . . . Carlisle aims to turn George Eliot’s real and fictional marriages into an examination of her philosophy of life . . . [Carlisle's] philosophical approach provides a clear guide to the workings of the novelist’s mind." —Hermione Lee, New York Review of Books

"A wonderfully intimate portrait [of marriage]. Eliot described her marriage as 'this double life, which helps me to feel and think with double strength.' Carlisle’s captivating biography brilliantly examines that life and how those feelings and thoughts produced a run of remarkable novels that 'still open our eyes and stretch our souls.'" —Malcolm Forbes, Washington Examiner

"A deep examination of long partnership—how it affects us, how it is negotiated . . . Carlisle has written a book that seems to tell us a story about others but instead deeply informs us about ourselves." —Anna Spydell, BookPage

"A richly textured and absorbing biographical study Carlisle’s intense, empathetic study reflects Eliot back to us, echoes her and rises up to meet her in order to give Eliot her philosophical due." —Marina Benjamin, Prospect

"Carlisle, a brilliant philosophical mind herself, is perfectly matched to her subject here. The kind of book you savor page by page." —Sophia Stewart, The Millions

"A dazzling intellectual prism . . . Presenting revelatory glimpses into her subject's social and domestic life, Carlisle employs biography as a philosophical enquiry into the Victorian author's romantic life, her craft, and her characteristic use of marriage plots as a literary device . . . The Marriage Question is an eloquent, elegant tribute to the brilliant Victorian novelist who gave voice to hidden female fears and desires." —Shahina Piyarali, Shelf Awareness

"A highly illuminating portrait of the acclaimed writer’s evolution as a novelist and a wife . . . Carlisle’s ability to distill and connect ideas from such disparate fields as philosophy, theology, and literary analysis only brings Eliot into tighter focus . . . Fans of literary history will savor this book. Carlisle’s empathetic exploration of a unique relationship provides a clear lens through which to view Eliot’s life and work." —Kirkus

"Captivating . . . Carlisle’s cogent prose brings Eliot’s story to life, and astute literary analysis shows how Eliot’s biography influenced her novels . . . This is a must for devotees of Victorian literature." —Publishers Weekly

"Clare Carlisle's The Marriage Question is the best book I've read on George Eliot." —John Carey, Sunday Times (UK)

"Magisterial . . . a book that triumphantly enlarges our understanding of [Eliot], and of her time." —Kathy O’Shaughnessy, Financial Times (UK)

"Finally, Eliot has got the biographer she deserves, namely an ardent and eloquent feminist philosopher who shows us how and why Eliot's books, rightly read, are as philosophically profound as any treatise written by a man." —Stuart Jeffries, The Observer (UK)

"Thrilling . . . Frankly brilliant . . . In her introduction to The Marriage Question, Carlisle speaks of wanting to employ biography as philosophical inquiry and here she succeeds magnificently. With great skill and delicacy she has filleted details from Eliot’s own life, read closely into her wonderful novels and, most importantly, considered the wider philosophical background in which she was operating." —Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian (UK)

"A richly considered study that brings one close to the heart and mind of a great writer and a wise soul." —Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph (UK)

"Like her subject, Carlisle conveys the fruits of her studies and reflection with a light, sometimes even lyrical touch." —Jacqueline Banerjee, The Times Literary Supplement (UK)

"Carlisle, a seasoned researcher, biographer, and philosopher, wisely emulates Eliot’s own reluctance to make definitive pronouncements . . . A brilliant and important biography." —Beverley Park Rilett, The George Eliot Review



Product Details
ISBN: 9780374600457
ISBN-10: 0374600457
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: August 15th, 2023
Pages: 400
Language: English