I first discovered that Margaret Atwood and George Eliot are identical twins while visiting UCLA'S William F. Clark Library, in Los Angeles. Headed by an old acquaintance from Montreal, Bruce Whiteman, who used to be curator of Rare Books at McGill University, the Clark Library houses the world's largest private collection of Oscar Wilde manuscripts. While taking me on a tour of the building, Bruce showed me a room filled with portraits of Wilde's contemporaries and predecessors, including Dryden, Pope and Milton. Dwarfed by these likenesses of male literary giants hangs a tiny pen and ink sketch of Mary Ann Evans, known to the world as George Eliot. To my astonishment, I saw that it was the face of Margaret Atwood.
I motioned Bruce over to have a look. He said, "My God -- you're right!" Apart from the hairstyle (Eliot wore her dark unruly curls in the Puritan style, pulled back from a centre part to cover her ears), the resemblance was staggering. The same wide- apart, slightly crossed eyes, the aquiline nose, the full lipped Mona Lisa smile, the cheekbones, the rounded chin... Young George Eliot was Atwood in Victorian dress.
I recalled an interview I'd read a year or two before, in which Atwood confided that the only novelist she would claim as a major influence (apart from Dickens) is George Eliot.
Could Atwood be a continuation of George Eliot who -- after death -- chose Toronto as the best environment to continue her career? Canadian poet and novelist Robert Kroetsch once pointed out that Canadian Literature went from its Victorian stage into post- modernism with no intervening period of modernism. Atwood's career is emblematic. She attended the University of Toronto's Victoria College and got her first teaching job in Montreal in 1967, teaching Victorian and American Literature. In the 70's she rose to fame as Canada's premier woman writer.
Hot on the heels of discovering that Margaret Atwood was George Eliot in a past life, I stumbled across a portrait of Eliot's friend and mentor, John Chapman, in Frederick R. Karl's biography of George Eliot, Voice of a Century.
Bearded, handsome, sexy in a patrician kind of way, Chapman ran a lodging house cum publishing operation on the Strand in central London. Chapman was editor of the Westminster Review and a dead ringer for the late Robertson Davies.
Like Davies in his varied career as a journalist, playwright, editor and university man, Chapman was known for his egotistical manner and way with the ladies. Separated by an ocean and a century, he and Robertson Davies look as much alike as Eliot and Atwood.
Chapman introduced the young Eliot to British intellectual life in the early 1850s. In Toronto during the 1980's and '90s, Davies and Atwood teamed up in public, sometimes appearing as a neo-Victorian literary duo, and even going so far as to sing a duet of "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" at a PEN gala in 1992.
Flipping through Karl's biography, I found an 1859 photo of Eliot's long time companion, George Henry Lewes, whose reputation as a novelist has been overshadowed by that of his famous life partner. There's no mistaking his resemblance to Graeme Gibson, Atwood's husband in this lifetime, whose most recent novel was err, ah...
Eliot and Lewes socialized with Robert Browning, and frequently dropped in at Dante Gabriel Rossetti's studio on fashionable Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. After Lewes' death, Eliot married James Walter Cross and the couple moved in to number 4 Cheyne Walk, almost next door to Rossetti -- which made them, in a way, neighbours of Henry VIII (whose 16th century manor house stood at the corner).
If, during the 1970s, Atwood and Gibson had decided to love back to their former Thames-side digs, they would have had to put up with the new kid on the block, Mick Jagger.
Jagger bears a haunting likeness to a second-millennium BC pharaoh, Amenhotep IV -- but that's another story.
parts of this work have appeared in Geist and Matrix magazines