Like many people I first came to George Eliot when I was at university reading “Middlemarch.” I’ve rated it highly as one of my favourite novels ever since. Later on, I started an online discussion forum with the mission to read all of her books – although I still haven’t read “Felix Holt, the Radical” or “Daniel Deronda.” Eliot is an endlessly fascinating author who took serious ideas and wove them into fantastic tales. With “Sophie and the Sibyl” Patricia Duncker has taken the historical author George Eliot – referred to primarily as The Sibyl within the novel – and inserted fictional characters to interact alongside her within the historical framework of the final eight years of the author’s life. It’s written in the style of a Victorian comedy of manners/romance, yet there are sections where Patricia Duncker herself intrudes to comment upon the characters or give her thoughts on literary traditions. This all sounds very self-conscious and artificial, but this novel works both as a stunning tribute to George Eliot and a gripping, moving, spectacular story in its own right.
Max Duncker is the younger brother of George Eliot’s German publisher Wolfgang Duncker. (It’s not a coincidence that they share a name with the author of this book.) He’s been roped into the family business when he really wants to spend most of his time gambling or visiting whore houses. He’s sent on a mission to meet Eliot who lives with the writer George Lewes (who was famously and scandalously already married). Eliot takes a shine to the star-struck boy, but only ever shows fraternal feeling for him. Sophie is a teenage countess and heiress to a great fortune. She’s also the daughter of Count Wilhelm von Hahn who is also published by the Duncker brothers. The Count and Wolfgang plan that Max and Sophie should marry as it is an arrangement that is socially and financially advantageous to both of them. The couple are willing to do this, but there is disruption when George Eliot unexpectedly comes between them through a series of dramatic events.
Sophie is an ardent fan of Eliot’s writing, but her opinion changes when she feels betrayed by the writer. The books we love have a way of deeply affecting us and sometimes that ardour can spill into a fanaticism for the individual author herself. Eliot inspired many to feel this way. One character Edith Simcox spends all her days hovering outside Eliot’s residence hoping for scraps of information from people associated with her or a brief audience with Eliot. Although we can sometimes feel a spiritual connection to authors, we don’t really know that person. This novel beautifully encompasses this complicated relationship between writer and reader.
“Sophie and the Sibyl” is also a powerful story about the degree to which our egos play into relationships in general. Late in the novel it’s observed that “We barge into other people’s lives, desperate to make ourselves heard, to have our feelings noticed, our rage and blame taken into account.” Much ardent passion and many romantic entanglements come out of a desire to “play out” feelings which are pent up within us. Yet, to be seen as someone worthy of this attention is a beautiful thing and can lead to meaningful connections. At one point in the novel Eliot states: “This is undoubtedly the deepest pleasure on this earth: to deserve the love of those close to us, and to see that diffusive goodness spreading ever outwards.”
Patricia Duncker observes within this novel how Eliot is subject to a ferocious desire to be wanted as well. Specifically in regards to Edith Simcox she notes: “George Eliot loved to be loved. We have had to wait a hundred years for all the lesbian attachments to be revealed, and even now I’ll be accused of tendentious anachronism for even mentioning that fatal word, and for suggesting that the great writer herself harboured Sapphic sentiments.” Although any possible lesbian relations Eliot might have had don’t play into the primary plot of this novel, Duncker gives a fascinatingly “queer” spin on the tale and doesn’t hide the fact she’s giving an interpretation on Eliot’s life coloured by her own agenda.
One of the most refreshing things about this novel is the way Patricia Duncker directly participates in it. Somehow it’s as if she becomes the reader of the story alongside you, providing commentary and observations while you’re reading. You might assume that such a device could be too intrusive, but for me this only added to the gusto of the story’s flow. It’s as if Duncker has combined the 19th century comedy/romance novel form (for instance, each chapter heading lays out what that chapter will contain) and the experimental meta-fictional sense of Ali Smith to create an entirely new novel form which enlightens the reader while entertaining them. I truly cared about these characters even though I was frequently being reminded that they were only characters in a story. Part of why Duncker is so successful at this is the emphatic deep-feeling and meaningful ideas she addresses in this novel ranging from the question of physical/spiritual beauty to contemplations about the nature of mortality. This is a seriously intelligent novel, but never reads like an essay because the concepts are deeply felt by the actors (characters) in the drama Duncker has created.
This book is the most beautiful love letter to George Eliot. Reading the dialogue between Eliot and other characters, I felt as if I could actually hear Eliot’s voice in my mind. Of course, like all idols we aren’t blind to their foibles. Duncker admits that “I have not loved her unchangeably.” Towards the end, Eliot’s motives and the way she engaged with people comes under scrutiny, but there is no question that she was a tremendously intelligent and important figure. Duncker states that by creating this story she “wanted fiction and history, as the historian Richard Holmes once put it, speaking of the biographer and his subject, to shake hands across time.” It will be fascinating to come back to this novel again and again to pick out what’s real and what Duncker made up especially after (re)reading Eliot’s novels and the many biographies written about her. That’s something I really want to do now: run out and read things by and about George Eliot. It’s brilliant that a novel can inspire this kind of feeling. I absolutely loved “Sophie and the Sibyl” and I don’t think you need to be an Eliot fan to appreciate what a revolutionary book and fantastic story it is.