Eliot sometimes referred to her books as her children, and the writing of them as a form of parturition. She once wrote in a letter of the experience of completing a novel: “the sense that the work has been produced within one, like offspring, developing and growing by some force of which one’s life has served as a vehicle, and that what is left of oneself is only a poor husk.” The image of a new mother as dried out and used up is one of the few places where Eliot’s comprehension strikes me as limited. There are doubtless many new mothers who do feel this way, but it seems to me that a more typical experience might be that which combines utter exhaustion with an unprecedented sense of vitality. (Nothing has ever made me feel so alive as actually producing a new life.) Perhaps this image of being devoured or despoiled by a voracious, needy infant helps explain why Eliot did not follow a conventional course of motherhood. The way she describes it doesn’t sound particularly appealing. Eliot may have decided that she could meet the needs of only one incessantly demanding voice, and that was the voice of her inner creativity.
And yet in her fiction she was able to give expression to an entirely different experience of motherhood than the one she sketchily characterizes in that letter. As I write in my book, one of the most moving moments in “Middlemarch” occurs when Fred Vincy, the mayor’s son, is dangerously ill. Suddenly his mother, the silly, frivolous Mrs. Vincy, is catapulted from her mundane diversions into the direst fears for her firstborn. “All the deepest fibres of the mother’s memory were stirred, and the young man whose voice took a gentler tone when he spoke to her, was one with the babe whom she had loved, with a love that was new to her, before he was born,” Eliot writes. The precision and comprehension in that characterization floors me. How did she know so well, and so exactly, what that experience was like? In a few, perfectly apt words she expresses what was for me at least the most dumbfounding surprise about motherhood: the way in which becoming a mother granted me access to—forced me into—an entirely new sphere of love, care, selflessness, and terror, a dimension that I had no idea was there. From out of nowhere, I knew a love that was new to me.