In Clare Carlisle’s excellent biography of George Eliot (1819-1880), marriage and the work of a lifetime, the novels and her relationships, take center stage, with a unique philosophy of life undergirding both.
Gossip followed the novelist most of her life, mostly for living with a married man (George Henry Lewes), and could easily be central to any retelling. But Clare Carlisle chooses another way. A distinguished philosopher, and professor at King’s College, London, Carlisle critiques this Victorian era chatter at times (which was often brazenly hypocritical), but without a heavy hand. She focuses on the novels instead, along with Eliot’s essential personal relationships, and her close readings of masterpieces like Middlemarch are outstanding. She took this same measured, macro and micro tact in her equally brilliant biography of Kierkegaard, Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard (2019). Foreground, background, historical, cultural, and philosophical context, give weight and depth to the depiction of individual lives.
It’s exceedingly rare that any of us ever escapes our times, of course. The question is, how hard do we fight to keep our heads above water, how fast and far do we travel over waves, how long do we just tread, or sink, or drown. Fine biographies can answer many of those questions. The finest ask new questions that lead to myriad thoughts off page as well. The Marriage Question is an example of the latter.
In The Vaster Wilds, Lauren Groff, author of Matrix, one of my favorite novels in the last decade, tells the story of a girl’s journey to and away from Jamestown, Virginia, cerca 1610. Flashbacks recount tragic scenes of her life in a British poorhouse, and her “adoption,” servitude, and eventual shipping off to the first English settlement in the (not so) new world. The Powhatan people surround that settlement, in the midst of famine, and the heroine of the story decides to leave for parts unknown. To survive.
The language is beautiful throughout, often appropriately strange, even hallucinatory, and naturalizes an almost Elizabethan musicality and diction in the process. It fits the times, the woods, the animals she encounters, the batterings of her body she endures. It fits the sense of impossible burdens she keeps overcoming. We see this new world through the eyes of an incredibly brave and resourceful girl, and watch as she distances herself from both the settlement and the lies she’s been told her entire life, especially about her own worth and the people of this new land.
Groff sugarcoats nothing. This is far from any romantic ideal of the wilderness, of the potential “freedom” one might think resides in the Open. While moments of ecstatic connection to her environment frequent the journey, and lift her above her pain, that is not her norm. The Vaster Wilds is one of those rare novels that mix the real with the surreal and make it work. For this reader, it’s one of the best novels of 2023.