Living Memory: Patricia Duncker reimagines George Eliot

The appetite for Victoriana is endless; it seems we can’t get enough of corsets and bonnets. As Patricia Duncker releases a new novel, she talks to us about the neo-Victorian tale, her fascination with George Eliot and the nature of literary celebrity

Feature by Holly Rimmer-Tagoe | 01 Apr 2015

“George Eliot doesn’t compromise,” asserts Patricia Duncker, recalling the first time that she read Eliot as a teenager. “If you don’t understand it, that’s your problem. You have to make the effort and actually that’s very flattering for a young reader.”

As she says this, it strikes me that Duncker could in fact be describing herself. It would be easy to feel alienated by someone who makes casual references to 18th-century adventure literature and can recite fragments of early 19th-century patriotic poetry at the drop of a hat – Duncker is Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of Manchester and the author of five well-received novels – but her warmth, coupled with her passion and vast knowledge of literature, somehow makes you feel like the intelligent, interesting one.

As we meet at Contact, the home of experimental and innovative theatre in Manchester, to talk about her latest novel Sophie and the Sibyl, Duncker has just received the final printed edition of her text. We both admire the shiny prettiness of the book (and maybe spend too long stroking the cover), agreeing that publishers are now using the materiality of books to override the rise of the e-book. Readers have to want the book as a beautiful object.

Duncker states that she would never publish solely in e-book form. “There are several reasons for that,” she says. “One is because I do believe in the book as object and as beautiful object, but the further reason is technology is moving so fast that already there are some electronic records that I have on floppy disk that I cannot read with my present computer. So the e-book is in the process of making itself redundant and vanishing and there will be some manuscripts that, if they exist only on e-book, will be illegible – not in 20 years’ time, but next year. It’s going to be that fast. I think it’s a good idea to stick with pen and paper, possibly even with parchment and papyrus. You have to be sensible about technology, you have to judge whether it’s going to be useful or not.”

Sophie and the Sibyl is a neo-Victorian book that is a hybrid in every sense of the word. Biography is blurred with fiction, literary analysis meets historical depiction and George Eliot’s characters become entangled with Duncker’s imaginative creations. At the novel’s centre is the renowned literary figure of Eliot – the Sybil of the title – whose masterpiece Middlemarch (an interwoven narrative set in the context of the Great Reform Act of 1832) is considered by some as the greatest English novel and who, in Duncker’s work, is at the height of her powers.

“I think what first strikes you when you read George Eliot is this monstrous intelligence,” says Duncker. “The first one I read was Middlemarch, the second one was Daniel Deronda, and the third one was Romola. I read all the big ones first because I love reading very long novels; you get more value out of the book. I never read any children’s books. We didn’t have any because I was brought up in the West Indies and I read my parents’ books. So, as far as I was concerned, a book for children was something like Oliver Twist, or Great Expectations. Though I have to admit straight away, I was scared shitless by both. Especially Great Expectations – it’s gothic; it’s all about being haunted. Oliver Twist is even more frightening, when he sees Sikes and Fagin at the window. This horror world is always there and it can come into the bourgeois world of respectability. It just appears as faces at the windows.”

The idea for the novel occurred during a trip to Berlin in 2007. “I visited the Bode Museum, which is one of the museums on Museum Island right at the heart of Berlin,” Duncker recalls. “I was sitting in the museum and I had been thinking about George Eliot because I’d been re-reading Adam Bede, or The Mill on the Floss. I went round the museum and I was thinking about her visits to Berlin. The original idea and inspiration came from the fact that her publishers had my name [publisher brothers Max and Wolfgang share with Patricia the surname Duncker]. That was the seed of it. I thought; why don’t I become her publisher? So that the character I was closest to in the novel was Max. I adored Max. He’s a bit more feckless than I am; I’m not given to gambling.”

“"There is no writer who is not jealous of another writer whom they see as their master" – Patricia Duncker

While the notion of a literary celebrity may seem like a recent occurrence, with writers like J.K. Rowling and Lena Dunham commanding the attention of millions of followers on social media and embarking on seemingly endless worldwide book tours, the celebrity author is not a new phenomenon. “It’s always been there,” says Duncker. “Think about Byron – Byron was one of our huge celebrity authors. It’s whether the writer wants to perform that role, or not. Some writers absolutely won’t perform it. [J. D. Salinger] wouldn’t, he went and lived up a track and sat there with a gun. There are some writers like that who guard their privacy ferociously. Now there’s a danger with doing that, I think, which is that it makes people think you’re more interesting than you are. Probably they’re only hiding their own banality. It’s very difficult because you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

In her case, Duncker says, “I think it is simple curiosity. If [I] love the work, I’d quite like to meet the author. That’s the situation I found myself in with Sophie and the Sibyl. Sophie wanted to meet her heroine.”

The novel implicitly interrogates ideas about female reading and writing, cultural portrayals of femininity (the abandoned Ariadne versus the eroticism of Cleopatra), and social conventions of gender – Eliot is rejected by English society for her unusual relationship with the married George Henry Lewes, yet is courted by the liberal elite of Berlin. Duncker describes the role of gender in the novel as “passionate.” “What were the expectations for a woman born in 1819 and for a woman born in 1854?” Duncker wonders. “There are such vast changes in the 19th century, in transport, communications and industrialisation which changes the face of the countryside in England. I thought, if I invent a narrator who is in the 21st century looking at the 19th century, what will happen? The interesting thing was that while I was imagining my narrator, I felt the distance between her and I lengthen.”

It seems a strange anomaly that the pseudonym George Eliot is still ascribed to Marian Evans Lewes; it would be absurd to continue referring to Charlotte Brontë as Currer Bell or Sylvia Plath as Victoria Lucas. Duncker is interested in the division between the celebrity persona of Eliot and the figure of Lewes: “I always think of George Eliot as the real person and Marian Evans Lewes as the sort of shadow behind it. I thought it would be interesting to look at the relationship between the shadow and the writer. It’s exploring all the connections I had with Eliot and the jealousies and resentments. There is no writer who is not jealous of another writer whom they see as their master.”

Sophie and the Sibyl, published by Bloomsbury, is out 9 Apr