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George Eliot (1902)

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Leslie Stephen


1 George Eliot had first become known as a writer (by "Amos Barton") in January 1857.  When the concluding part of Romola appeared within six years, she had reached the first rank among her contemporaries. She had published within that time five novels of the highest excellence, and it is at least doubtful whether she was ever again to reach an equally high mark. The effort had been very great, and for the next two years she seems to have allowed her mind to lie fallow. Then she took up a new book, of which I shall have to speak presently, although nothing was published until 1866. In November 1863 the Leweses settled at the Priory, 21 North Bank, Regent's Park. This house came to be especially associated with her memory. She did not go out into society; but many people were attracted by the fame of the great authoress, and found admission to her house. Gradually she came to hold a Sunday afternoon reception, frequented by worshippers of genius and by a large circle of friends, of whom only the more intimate had the privilege of seeing her upon other days. It is needless to say that at meetings of that kind--in England at least, for we are told that in France things are better--there is often a painful sense of awkwardness. The shyness generated by the desire to prove that your homage is genuine, and that you are so brilliant a person that it is also worth having, gives one of those painful sensations which is not least among the minor miseries of life. It may, I think, be said that the evil was reduced to a minimum on those occasions at the Priory. George Lewes, in the first place, was unquenchable. He was always full of anecdote and vivacious repartee; and while more serious interviews were taking place at the centre of the circle, there would be a little knot on the periphery which was a focus of laughter and good-humoured fun. It was a rather awful moment for the neophyte when he was presented to the quiet and dignified lady seated in her armchair, to stammer out the appropriate remarks which sometimes failed to present themselves before he had to make room for a new comer; and if the company was numerous, any general conversation was impossible. George Eliot's gentle voice was not calculated, if she had desired such a result, to hold the attention of a roomful of receptive admirers. But if rainy weather had limited the audience, and the tentative sparks of conversation had been fanned into life, she could be as charming as any admirer could desire. Her personal appearance was intellectually attractive, and had a peculiar pathetic charm. She looked fragile, overweighted perhaps by thought, and with traces of the depression of which she so often complains in her letters. Her abundant hair, auburn-brown, in later years streaked with grey, was covered by a kind of lace mantilla. She could not be called beautiful. She was said to be like Savonarola, of whose face she remarks: "It was strong-featured, and owed all its refinement to habits of mind and rigid discipline of the body." His gaze impressed Romola because it was one "in which simple human fellowship expressed itself as a strongly-felt bond." That at least might be applied to George Eliot. Her features were strongly marked, with a rather large mouth and jaw; her eyes a gray-blue, with very variable expression; her hands were finely formed; her voice low and very musical--"a contralto," it is said, in singing; and the whole appearance expressive of a singular combination of power with intense sensibility. The best likeness is that by her friend Sir Frederick Burton, now in the National Portrait Gallery. If her talk might be at times a little too solemn for the frivolous, she could brighten into genuine playfulness, and, on occasion, into flashes of hearty scorn directed against the unlucky cynic. If the incense offered was not always of the finest quality, there was no want either of dignity or gentleness in the recipient. And nobody could watch Lewes on such occasions without being struck by the cordial and generous devotion of a man not too much given to an excess of veneration. Her belief in him was equally visible in her manner and every allusion to his work.
2 It is perhaps not altogether healthy for any human being to live in an atmosphere from which every unpleasant draught of chilling or bracing influence is so carefully excluded. Lewes performed the part of the censor who carefully prevents an autocrat from seeing that his flatterers are not the mouthpiece of the whole human race. "It is my rule," said George Eliot, "very strictly observed, not to read the criticisms on my writings. For years I have found this abstinence necessary to preserve me from that discouragement as an artist which ill-judged praise no less than ill-judged blame tends to produce in me. For far worse than any verdict as to the proportion of good and evil in our work is the painful impression that we exist for a public which has no discernment of good and evil." She spoke with a contempt for the average quality of contemporary criticism which--as the critics whom we now call contemporary belong to a different generation--I might perhaps venture to approve. But it might be an interesting question for an essayist whether this rule of mental hygiene be really sound. Since the days when Pope writhed under the insults of Grub Street, sensitive authors have called upon gods and men to pity and avenge them. Their meanings seem to be rather unmanly. Which is the proper comment upon the supposed slaughter of Keats: Shelley's denunciation of the "deaf and murderous viper" who could crown

"Life's early cup with such a draught of woe":

or Byron's comment--

"'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,
Should let itself be Huffed out by an article"?
3 I fancy that in these days, when authors subscribe to agencies for newspaper cuttings, the general verdict would be in favour of Byron. It would be regarded, that is, as a contemptible weakness to be thrown off one's balance by a "scathing" review. Yet, it may be asked, if one really despises, is one bound to read? It is unpleasant to be insulted even by a fool, and why expose oneself to a pain which can have no good results? Such abnormally sensitive poets as Tennyson and Rossetti suffered cruelly from harsh criticism, and it is not clear that they gained anything from reading it. Would they not have done better if they could have adopted George Eliot's method? After all, what does a real genius ever learn from a critic? There is, it seems to me, only one good piece of advice which a critic can give to an author, namely, that the author should dare to be himself. When he proceeds to tell the author what the self really is, he is generally mistaken, and is speaking upon a topic upon which he is presumably worse informed than the person to whom he speaks. George Eliot worked upon her own theories, right or wrong; and considering the constant diffidence and depression from which she suffered, it is likely enough that a study of the critics would only have discouraged her without at all directing her into a better path. Against this, it may perhaps be urged that George Eliot's talent scarcely included the rare gift of a just appreciation of her own limitations. It is often, and, no doubt, justly said, that one of Jane Austen's especial merits is that she never let herself be distracted from the sphere in which she showed unsurpassed felicity. When she was requested to write a romance to illustrate the history of the "august house of Coburg," she judiciously declined, and indeed refrained from less palpably absurd divagations. Now George Eliot, as I shall presently have to remark, showed what most people have thought to be--if not so great a misconception, still--a conspicuously erroneous estimate of her own special peculiarities. Perhaps, though she closed her ears to "deaf and murderous vipers," she listened with too much complacency to adoring and "genial" critics who collected her "wise, witty, and tender sayings," and took her for a great poet and philosopher as well as for a first-rate novelist. I will not affect to sum up the argument. It is only worth remarking that most novelists who have given effective portraits of human passion have lived in the world which they described, and that some characteristics of George Eliot's later work must be connected with the secluded life which circumstances and her temperament made congenial. She looked upon outside affairs from a certain distance; and though Lewes's eager interest in all manner of contemporary controversies kept her in touch with the more thoughtful minds of the day, she had little opportunity for direct familiarity with the manners and customs of society.
4 The year 1866 was marked by two new literary ventures, in both of which Lewes took some part. The Pall Mall Gazette was started at the beginning of the year, and the first number of the Fortnightly Review, of which Lewes was the first editor, came out in the following May. Both attracted many able writers, and the adoption of signed articles by the review introduced a novel practice in English journalism. George Eliot contributed a few articles to both, and was interested in the attempt to raise the standard of periodical writing. She was only distracted, however, for the moment from more serious work. The notes in her diary on September 6, 1864: "I am reading about Spain, and trying a drama on a subject that has fascinated me--have written the prologue, and am beginning the first act. But I have little hope of making anything satisfactory." By the end of the year she had written three acts. On 21st February 1865 she describes herself as "ill and very miserable: George has taken my drama away from me"--the consequence, obviously, and not the cause of her misery. The drama was put aside for some time, and by the end of March she had begun her next novel, Felix Holt. It was finished in a little more than a year. Smith, it seems, declined to give £5000 for it--the sum presumably fixed by Lewes; but Blackwood accepted the terms, and she now returned to him for the rest of her life, though without any breach of friendship with Smith. The novel was written amid the usual fits of depression, and with the same elaborate care as its predecessors. "I finished writing," she says, "after days and nights of throbbing and palpitation--chiefly, I suppose, from a nervous excitement which I was not strong enough to support well." She had been painstaking in more ways than one. She went through the Times of 1832-3 at the British Museum in order to correct her childish memories of the period. She is in "a horrible fidget" about certain assumptions in the story. She wants especially to have an answer to two questions: first, whether after the Treaty of Amiens "the seizure and imprisonment of civilians was exceptional, and whether it was continued throughout the war"; and secondly, whether in 1833 a person sentenced to transportation without hard labour might be set at large on his arrival in the colony. The story again involved some complex legal relations. She began, it seems, by reading Sugden, but happily relieved herself from the need of getting up the law of real property by committing the problem to Mr. Frederic Harrison. The right to an estate must be suddenly transferred to a young woman; but the ordinary novelist's device of a discovery that her birth was legitimate is not applicable. The change must be effected by the death of somebody who has himself no interest in the matter; and both the actual possessor and the person to whom the right passes must be left in ignorance that the title to the estate will be affected by the death. How this is brought about may be discovered from the story itself. Mr. Harrison's law is said, as we can well believe, to be perfectly correct. Probably the average reader will be quite content to take it as correct without consulting Sugden. Meanwhile, he is rather bored by the fear that unless he clearly understands both the law and the facts, he will lose something essential to the point of the story. When one reads Wilkie Collins or Gaboriau, one is content to have a secret carefully hidden, and bits of apparent irrelevance introduced, because the chief pleasure is to consist in guessing at the connection and admiring the ingenuity with which the fragments of the puzzle are to be pieced together at the end. But in a work of such serious intention as Felix Holt, the mystery is felt to be teasing, and we should be more really interested if we were taken into the author's confidence at once. The genuine artist ought to be above the "long-lost heir" trick or the complicated substitutes for the old-fashioned device.
5 This worrying perplexity which runs through the whole partly explains the inferiority of Felix Holt to its predecessors. But another change is more important. We have got back from Florence of the Renaissance to the English midlands during the Reform Bill agitation, and for that we may be thankful. But George Eliot is no longer drawing upon the old memories of Griff. She turns to account an election riot which, we are told, she had seen in her schooldays at Nuneaton; but she is thinking mainly of the Coventry time. Mrs. Poyser and her dairy have vanished, and with them the old-world charm. We have no longer the peculiar glamour which invested the former stories; the sense of looking at the little world through the harmonizing atmosphere of childish memories and affections; or of becoming for the nonce denizens of a social order, narrow enough in its interests, but yet wholesome, kindly, and contented. We have some of the old-fashioned country gentry and parsons who fill the subordinate parts satisfactorily enough; but the principal interest is to be in the county-town of Treby Magna, just waking to the consciousness of the great political movement outside, and with little enough that was romantic about its lawyers, tradesmen, or manufacturers. Canals and coal-mines and a saline spring are beginning to rouse it from its "old-fashioned, grazing, brewing, wool-packing, cheese-loading life"; and the change only seems to reveal thoroughly prosaic, not to say vulgar and stupefying characteristics. There is no suggestion of any lingering fondness for an order which is essentially mean as well as obsolete. Naturally, therefore, we are expected to sympathise with Felix Holt the Radical, who is trying to stir up this stagnant pool.
6 George Eliot, in fact, is now occupied with the problem which is already suggested by her previous works. She had strong conservative tendencies, and a dislike for violent and onesided reforms. Hitherto she had emphasized her sympathy for the higher purposes and aspirations which were hidden under the commonplace and even superstitious modes of life and thought. But, after all, she is also fully convinced that intellectual progress and a larger culture are essential and important; and her tenderness for the past must not be allowed to sanction reactionary tendencies. Romola has already been troubled by the problem in one phase, and it is now to be presented to us in various shapes. Young men or women, troubled with active intellects, have to rouse from their comfortable slumbers and to provide themselves with an ideal; they will become missionaries of a new creed, and have the usual difficulties of the position. If they quarrel with the past too contemptuously, they may become mere visionary fanatics; and if too much inclined to compromise, they may sacrifice their aspirations and yield to the benumbing influence of respectability. The ordinary novelist is content with telling us how a young couple contrive to come together without bothering themselves at all about the Universe or their relation to the general progress of humanity. George Eliot, though her interests in philosophical questions may be a little too intrusive, may still deserve gratitude for introducing a new motive, and showing us the fate of young people affected by the unusual weakness of preoccupation with ideals.
7 Felix Holt represents an experiment upon this theme. He is an admirable but, I fear it must be admitted, a far from satisfactory representative of his breed. He is a radical of the days of 1832; and George Eliot, as we have seen, had been refreshing her memories of that period by reading the old newspapers, and had been surprised by the strength of the language about "bloated pluralists" and so forth. We should naturally have expected that the eloquence of Felix Holt would have reflected the same sentiment. He is a working man, and had managed to be a student at Glasgow, where there was plenty of good fiery radicalism; and, in fact, he starts with a hearty contempt for the upper classes, and thinks a Whig no better than a Tory in disguise. Such a man might swear by Cobbett or by Owen, and would probably take his religious views from Paine's Age of Reason. He would be of the stuff of which the Chartists were soon to be made; would believe that the millennium was to be introduced by the famous six points; and would certainly favour the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords and the confiscation of Church property. George Eliot might have shown us how such doctrines were a natural, though it might be, a too precipitate outcome of really philanthropic and generous feelings in a man of the day. Ebenezer Elliott, the "Tyrtaeus" of the Anti-Corn Law movement, and Thomas Cooper, the Chartist poet, were men in Felix Holt's position, who shared his vehemence and came to be alienated from the violent section of their allies. Felix Holt, however, has to be a model young man, and therefore he sees from the first the errors of contemporary zealots. When a self-styled radical orator addresses a public meeting and demands "universal suffrage," and the other points of the Charter, Felix appeals to reason. Systems of suffrage and the rest, he tells the mob, are engines: the force that is to work them must come from men's passions. No scheme will do good, therefore, unless the power behind it takes a right direction. The "steam that is to work the engines" is public opinion, that is, "the ruling belief in society about what is right and what is wrong, what is honourable and what is shameful." Nothing, therefore, is to be expected from a party which sanctions bribery and corruption. When Felix makes a personal application of this lofty doctrine by pointing out that the agent of his own party is an embodiment of corruption, he naturally produces loud cheers; but the doctrine itself, however philosophical, would hardly have pleased his audience. Soon after the appearance of the novel George Eliot published in Blackwood "An Address to Working Men, by Felix Holt," which enforces the same moral. It may be, as I believe myself, that her principle is a very sound one. Still one perceives that it is a principle which will be much more easily accepted by readers of Blackwood's Magazine than by the "working man" to whom it is ostensibly addressed. He will only see that it is a highly convenient argument for putting off all reform. With that, however, I am not concerned. The effect in the novel is to take the sting out of the hero. He is too reasonable for his part. He is introduced as a redhot radical, and shows it by extreme rudeness to Esther, whom he suspects of fine-ladyism. Esther, being an admirable young woman, comes to see that he is right, and even that there is something complimentary in his exasperation against her. I should have liked him better if he had been exasperated to rudeness against his political enemies, and shown his sound judgment by gentle treatment of the trifling petulance of a pretty girl. No doubt, Felix is an honourable man, for he refuses to live upon a quack medicine or to look leniently at bribery when it is on his own side. But there is a painful excess of sound judgment about him. He gets into prison, not for leading a mob, but for trying to divert them from plunder by actions which are misunderstood. He is very inferior to Alton Locke, who gets into prison for a similar performance. The impetuosity and vehemence only comes out in his rudeness to Esther and plain speaking to her adopted father; and in trying to make him an ideal of wisdom, George Eliot only succeeds in making him unfit for his part.
8 If, therefore, we are to accept the indication given by the title, and suppose that Felix Holt is to be the focus of interest, the novel, I think, fails of its effect. We no more see the rough, thorough-going radical, stung to fury by pauperism and the slavery of children in factories, and sharing the zeal and the illusions of Jacobins, than we saw the true spirit of the Renaissance in Romola. Mr. Felix Holt would have been quite in his place at Toynbee Hall; but is much too cold-blooded for the time when revolution and confiscation were really in the air. Perhaps this indicates the want of masculine fibre in George Eliot and the deficient sympathy with rough popular passions which makes us feel that he represents the afterthought of the judicious sociologist and not the man of flesh and blood who was the product of the actual conditions. Anyhow, the novel appears to be regarded as her least interesting. There are undoubtedly many charming scenes. One would be disposed to think that Rufus Lyon, the old dissenting minister, was more of a contemporary of Baxter than could have been possible at the time; but one cannot say confidently what survivals of the type there may have been at Coventry, and his simplicity and pedantry and power of emphasizing the highest elements in the creed of his sect show the art of a skilled humorist. Esther, too, with her naïve appreciation of the charms of a luxurious life, is too good for Felix. But the really strongest part of the novel is old Mrs. Transome, brooding over her sorrows, and dwelling remorsefully upon her error in the past. "If she had only been more haggard and less majestic, those who had glimpses of her outward life might have said that she was a griping harridan with a tongue like a razor. No one said exactly that; but they never said anything like the full truth about her, or divined what was hidden under her outward life--a woman's keen sensibility and dread, which lay screened behind all her petty habits and narrow notions as some quivering thing with eyes and throbbing heart may lie crouching behind withered rubbish. The sensibility and dread had palpitated all the faster in the prospect of her son's return; and now that she had seen him, she said to herself in her bitter way, 'It is a lucky cub that escapes skinning. The best happiness I shall ever know will be to escape the worst misery.'" That is one of the striking passages in which George Eliot shows her vivid insight into certain moods and characters. Mrs. Transome, I confess, interests me so much that I should have liked to know a little more about that early intrigue which has soured her, and how she came to be fascinated by the old lover, who by the time at which the book opens has shown his inferior nature and uses the old memories to insult her. I could willingly have spared, in order to make room for a little more of the family scandal, some of the elaborate legal complications, and of Mr. Felix Holt's clumsy performances as a prophet of social reform.

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