Is this a new portrait of the author as a young woman?
The long face, the flinty eyes and the open book in the background - experts believe this is a sketch of the young Eliot and that it has a romantic story of its own to tell.
In February 2016 a London picture dealer called Andrew Sim was clicking through the online auction catalogue for a saleroom in South Oxfordshire, hoping that something might turn up while knowing that it probably wouldn't. In among the wavy mirrors and scuffed-up sofas, his attention was caught by a chalk pastel portrait of a young woman.
"My first thought was that it was from the 1840s - a period that interests me because it is so undervalued," says Sim. More specifically it looked a bit like the work of George Richmond, the pre-eminent portrait painter of the period who did everyone from Charlotte Brontë to Charles Darwin. Richmond, though, was always more than a mere memorialist. Drawing on the grammar of physiognomy, his talent was for producing portraits in which the inner life of a sitter might be read from the cast of a glance, the bulge of a nose or tilt of the chin.
It was this psychological attention that flared off the picture that had caught Sim's eye. The young woman in it is revealed as an individual, not a type. Her long face, big nose and flinty grey eyes are the opposite of the generic dolliness that passed for beauty in the early Victorian period. And then there is her kinetic vitality: hair slightly dishevelled, she appears to be perched on the edge of the sofa, as if she has just this moment sat down and might jump up again at any moment.
And while her glance veers off to one side, you get the feeling that she is perfectly aware of the artist's appreciative eyes resting on her. Portrait "taking" was the only occasion on which a respectable man might stare with impunity at a respectable woman and, in return, the respectable woman might feel pleased to be the object of his gaze. This woman looks pleased.
So it was with reluctance that Sim concluded that the picture wasn't by Richmond after all. The technique was good but not good enough and the youth of the female sitter, not to mention her plain dress, made her an unlikely subject for a painter who charged £50 a go. But if the identity of the artist remained unclear, what about the sitter? Sim found himself tugged back again to that singular young woman with her sheeny intelligence.
"My facial recognition software kicked in and I said to myself in a flash: "that's a young George Eliot". Convinced of his hunch, and hardly daring to believe that no other bidder had spotted the likeness to the author of Middlemarch, Sim bought the picture for £50, exactly what Richmond was charging 170 years earlier.
Long-lost likenesses of 19th-century novelists have a habit of turning up in a fizz of excitement, only to fade away again when someone points out just why the thing is impossible. In 2012 and again in 2015 photographs of "the Brontë sisters" surfaced, quickly followed by a cacophony of commentators saying it couldn't be them (the bonnets were wrong, the women looked French, one of them was far too old). Then, earlier this year, the so called "Rice portrait" of a young Jane Austen was declared to be of someone else entirely (something which the present owners dispute).
In cases like these, the enthusiasts risk looking gushy and gullible and museum curators appear like spoilsports, refusing to venture an opinion unless there is a paper trail, showing an unbroken chain of custodianship back to the sitter or their family.
And that is something that Sim doesn't have. Despite his best efforts, he has been unable to plot the provenance of his Eliot picture back before 2014 when it popped up on a market stall in Thame. From there it was bought by an elderly man in the hope it might be a Richmond. Realising it wasn't, the disappointed owner consigned it to a local saleroom to take its chances amid the chipped china and exhausted sideboards.
Still, several Eliot scholars, myself included, think that there's a good chance that this portrait is the real deal. For Nancy Henry, professor of English literature at the University of Tennessee and author The Life of George Eliot and The Cambridge Introduction to George Eliot, the picture "shows a remarkable resemblance to the famous photograph of Eliot, taken in 1858 when she was approaching 40, as well as to other portraits".
For me the clincher is how strikingly similar this saleroom portrait is to a drawing of the 28-year-old Eliot made by a friend who traced her shadowed profile, a technique popular with amateur artists who worried about their ability to catch a proper likeness. Here is the same long nose, generous mouth and jutting jaw. If the woman in Sim's picture turned 90 degrees, you would say it was a match.
So let's set aside caution for a moment and imagine that this really is a portrait of Eliot. How and where could it have been made? The most promising hypothesis is that it is the work of the nameless young "picture restorer" with whom the young Mary Ann Evans - still years away from becoming George Eliot - is known to have fallen briefly and deliriously in love in the spring of 1845.
We know from family letters that in March that year the young man had been staying at Baginton, a country estate just outside Coventry. Something about his "simple, earnest, unstudied" manner caught the eye of a local farmer's wife, Fanny Houghton who wondered if the visiting artist might make a possible suitor for her half-sister Mary Ann, who was still worryingly and conspicuously single at the age of 25.
The only problem, everyone agreed, was that picture restoring was "not lucrative or over-honourable" as jobs went. The young man was not what you would call a catch for the daughter of a self-made businessman. This discrepancy in social standing became even more apparent the following week when the young picture restorer went to visit Evans in Coventry for a second date and, like a fish out of water, suddenly appeared nervous, clumsy and shy.
On the spot Mary Ann made up her mind that she "could never love or respect him enough to marry him" and wrote to break it off. It wasn't easy though. Potential husbands were thin on the ground, and almost immediately, Evans wondered if she had been too rash. She toyed with the idea of starting the whole thing up again, fretting herself into a series of excruciating headaches.
There is one last thing which, for those of us who want the portrait to be of Eliot, is a clincher. When Sim got it home and took it off its mount for cleaning he found that the painting extended further than he had initially realised. In its newly borderless state you can see the back of the sofa on which the young woman sits. On this rests an open book, which she has temporarily thrown down but has been careful to keep close enough so that it can be snatched up again at any moment.
Books often appear in portraits of young women at this period, but they are mostly there as props or accessories, something to occupy slack hands or fill an awkward corner. Here, by contrast, it is presented almost as a sentient being, an essential companion. If this really is Evans, then the artist, whoever he is, has found the perfect object to place next to the woman who, as George Eliot, would one day change the reach and shape of English literature.
The writer is a literary contributor.The write-up has appeared on www.theguardian.com