Sarah Wah, ”The Most Churlish of Celebrities’: George Eliot, John Cross and the Question of High Status’

George Eliot (1819 – 22 December 1880), aged 30, by the Swiss artist Alexandre-Louis-François d'Albert-Durade (1804-86)

Published in 1885, John Cross’s biography of his late wife, George Eliot’s Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals, was written with the intention to ‘make known the woman as well as the author’. Yet, ironically, the biography is renowned precisely for the lack of insight it affords readers into the private life of George Eliot. Why did Cross make a promise that he could not keep?

In JVC 15.3, Sarah Wah seeks to answer this question by examining George Eliot’s Life in the context of the fame culture of the late nineteenth century. Wah suggests that it is possible to read Cross’s unwillingness in the Life to make Eliot more ‘available’ to her public as a reaction against the sorts of publicity which, throughout the 1870s, had pushed Eliot’s persona into a celebrity arena. George Eliot’s Life represents Cross’s effort to preserve Eliot’s high professional reputation by emphasizing her distance from celebrity culture and her status as a female sage. Through close examination of the reviews of the biography, the author identifies the contemporary attitudes that made stressing Eliot’s greatness appear urgent to her biographer and, paradoxically, so unpopular with the general public. Wah calls attention, in particular, to changing expectations about the relationship between public figures and their audiences as well as the purpose and content of famous Lives.

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