George Eliot with the gloves off: Patricia Duncker’s Sophie and the Sibyl

sophie-bookcoverExpect energetic storytelling in this excellent novel about the manipulative life and marital sufferings of George Eliot. It’s also a gently funny love story between Max Duncker, a vain and very young dilettante publisher and the thunderingly hearty Sophie, a German countess who never glides gracefully when she can pound across a ballroom. Other pleasing details in the beautifully managed plot include seamless slides into and out of literary and archaeological history, retrofitting the plot of Daniel Deronda, dipping into the hopeless passion of a thwarted female Eliot fan, and the looming importance of Lucian and Darwin in nineteenth-century thought.

Max Duncker (no relation to the author, based on several real people) is introduced by his older brother Wolfgang to Mrs Lewes, at present visiting Berlin with her Goethe biographer husband. Max is also told to court Sophie, Countess van Hahn, as her father is a client of the Duncker family publishing house, and he wants Sophie settled before she gets too out of hand. Max is equivocal about Sophie, and uncertain about what Mrs Lewes is doing to his mind. She rapidly becomes ‘the Sibyl’ in the novel, for her majestic intellectual authority and the deference paid her by everyone she encounters. In Homburg Max accidentally witnesses the teenage Sophie pawning her mother’s jewels to be able to gamble at the Kursaal, and he drags her away with her winnings before she brings scandal on the family and herself. The Sibyl buys back the necklace, and proceeds to play curious mind games with Max, and literary games with Sophie’s life. ‘George Eliot needed to be adored, but, even more deeply, she longed to be worshipped, revered.

not the novel's Max Duncker, but another publisher called Max Duncker of the same period, so he's a might-have-been
not the novel’s Max Duncker, but another publisher called Max Duncker of the same period, so he’s a might-have-been

The Sibyl is a manipulative egotist sheltering under the protection of her ebullient ‘husband’ Lewes. She has pains and sufferings, she is sensitive, she attracts adoring young men and ignores worshipping girls. The adjectives and verbs used for her character are gentle, patient, majestic, sighed, massive, trembling. She dominates every gathering by being fragile, enormously eminent, intellectually intimidating, submissive. ‘The lady is old. The lady is ugly. The lady has wonderful eyes.’ Towards the end of the novel, helped by the furious reactions of Sophie to how the Sibyl has been toying with the pliable Max, we begin to think that perhaps she is a monster rather than a monument.

Could Patricia Duncker have written this novel if she weren’t also a professor of English? Teaching the life and novels of authors gives you extraordinary exposure, year after year, to how and why the novels work. Talking to students about them tests your ideas and makes you dig deep to be sure of your assumptions, because when you teach you have got to know what you’re talking about. Duncker’s experience as an Eliot scholar gives her the background to make every detail of nineteenth-century publishing in Sophie and the Sibyl convincing: I could almost see the journal articles she’s been reading, and the original editions she’s been reading. She deftly fillets of the last years of Marian Evans’ relationship with her ‘husband’ of twenty years, George Lewes, and how and why she married John Cross.

photograph of Eliot looking gracious
photograph of Eliot looking gracious

I have never been a convinced reader of George Eliot. I can’t get past the first few chapters of Middlemarch, because I cannot abide the characters. I liked Scenes from Clerical Life, and tolerated Silas Marner, but I haven’t got any further than that, despite the efforts of my friends to bring me back from literary apostasy. After reading Sophie and the Sibyl I’m newly intrigued by the Eliot legend, the events of her life (the age difference in the Cross marriage is a long-standing puzzle). Duncker’s evident, erudite ambivalence about Marian Evans’ motivations as a woman novelist writing against her own experience encourages me to have another try.

Here are some remarks from the novel about George Eliot the person and author that made me sit up bolt upright, reaching for a sticky note marker: her ‘heroines are young women with everything to learn and everything to lose.’

The older women in the Sibyl’s books are startling creations: unfettered, unleashed, seeking their prey and hungry for vengeance.

Some say the Sibyl was fragile, insecure, lacking in confidence and self-esteem. But do frail and timid women decide to be atheists, challenge their fathers, refuse to go to church, educate themselves to an astonishingly high degree, run off to London, live abroad on their own, fling themselves at married men, beguile women too, and clearly enjoy doing so, edit distinguished literary journals, learn Hebrew, write fiction that will live forever as long as we remember how to read, become rich and famous, and think for themselves?

Ida, Countess Von Hahn-Hahn, who might have been Sophie, or perhaps not
Ida, Countess Von Hahn-Hahn, who might have been Sophie, or perhaps not

The succubus-like allure of the Sibyl, who is not at all a sympathetic figure despite her impressive accomplishments, is one of several reasons to enjoy this novel. Sophie is a bouncing, confident modern young bride and mother, whom no-one will overcome and nothing will dismay. Her son is ferociously healthy; she and he do not succumb to the normal threat to nineteenth-century characters or die of consumption or a fever, and that is a pleasant relief. This is, as Patricia Duncker tells us, a ‘Victorian romance’ and a Neo-Victorian novel following the method of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by which history can be tweaked to serve the purposes of critical art. Sophie’s energy and vigour explode onto the pages she inhabits, and bring life to her world. She sings risqué songs to a family audience, she learns to ride a bicycle, she insists on contraception (and a good thing, too, since we have been witnessing Max’s enjoyment of prostitutes), and she gambles at the Kursaal to buy her own horses with her own money. She is a marvellously boisterous creation, and cannot do anything in quiet or muted tones. Max is enjoyable for his decisiveness and his weaknesses, and their nineteenth-century environment is as appealing and convincing as a really well-written travelogue. This novel is great fun and curiously thought-provoking. It’s persuaded me to try reading Daniel Deronda, I’ll take that cautious step towards a proper appreciation of George Eliot, but I reserve the right to continue to resist Middlemarch.

Patricia Duncker, Sophie and the Sibyl (4 April 2015, Bloomsbury), 978-1-4088-6052-6 

Postscript: the afternoon after I posted the above, I went to the city library and took out Daniel Deronda AND Middlemarch. I finished Daniel Deronda 2 days later, helped by a Sunday afternoon and evening of absolute liberty to read. I won’t burden you with my reflections on DD, but would like to point out that reading Sophie and the Sibyl can bring results.

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