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George Eliot (1902)

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Leslie Stephen


1 THE poetic impulse seems to have decayed soon after the Spanish Gypsy, as George Eliot gradually became absorbed in another novel. On 1st January 1869 she notes that she has projected a novel, to be called Middlemarch, besides a "long poem on Timoleon," of which we hear nothing more. Middlemarch at first made slow progress She began the "Vincy and Featherstone parts" in August. It is not till December 1870 that she is beginning a story to be called "Miss Brooke," without any very serious intention "of carrying it out lengthily." It became amalgamated with the other story. George Eliot appears to have suffered even more than usual from ill-health and despondency during the composition, and was troubled at times by the difficulty of bringing a superabundant variety of motives into artistic unity. The book was published on a new plan, coming out in eight parts--the first on 1st December 1871, and the last in December 1872. Middlemarch, she says, was received with as much enthusiasm as any of her former books, not even excepting Adam Bede. Its commercial success is proved by the fact that she made more by it than by Romola. Nearly 25,000 copies had been sold before the end of 1875. George Eliot was now admittedly the first living novelist. Thackeray and Dickens were both dead, and no survivor of her generation could be counted as a rival. When a writer's fame is once established, the reception of his books is apt to be disproportionately favourable. They are read not only by genuine admirers, but by all who know that they ought to admire. The immediate success of Middlemarch may have been proportioned rather to the author's reputation than to its intrinsic merits. It certainly lacks the peculiar charm of the early work, and one understands why the Spectator should have been led to say that George Eliot was "the most melancholy of authors." The conclusion was apparently softened to meet this objection. There is not much downright tragedy, but the general impression is unmistakably sad. This, however, does not prevent Middlemarch from having, in some ways, even a stronger interest than its companions. George Eliot was now over fifty, and the book represents the general tone of her reflection upon life and human nature. By that age most people have had some rather unpleasant aspects of life pretty strongly forced upon their attention; and George Eliot, though she made it a principle to take things cheerfully, had never had much of the buoyancy which generates optimism. She was not, she used to say, either an optimist or a pessimist, but a "meliorist"--a believer that the world could be improved, and was perhaps slowly improving, though with a very strong conviction that the obstacles were enormous and the immediate outlook not specially bright. Some people, it seems, attributed her sadness to her creed, though I fancy that, in such matters, creed has much less to do with the matter than temperament. So sensitive a woman, working so conscientiously and with so many misgivings, could hardly make her imaginary world a cheerful place of residence. Middlemarch is primarily a portrait of the circles which had been most familiar to her in youth, and its second title is "a study provincial life." Provincial life, however, is to exemplify the results of a wider survey of contemporary society. One peculiarity of the book is appropriate to this scheme. It is not a story, but a combination of at least three stories--the love affairs of Dorothea and Casaubon, of Rosamond Vincy and Lydgate, and of Mary Garth and Fred Vincy, which again are interwoven with the story of Bulstrode. The various actions get mixed together as they would naturally do in a country town. Modern English novelists seem to have made up their mind that this kind of mixture is contrary to the rules of art. I am content to say that I used to find some old novels written on that plan very interesting. It is tiresome, of course, if a reader is to think only of the development of the plot. But when the purpose is to get a general picture of the manners and customs of a certain social stratum, and we are to be interested in all the complex play of character and the opinions of neighbours, the method is appropriate to the design. The individuals are shown as involved in the network of surrounding interests which affects their development. Middlemarch gives us George Eliot's most characteristic view of such matters. It is her answer to the question, What on the whole is your judgment of commonplace English life? for "provincialism" is not really confined to the provinces. Without trying to put the answer into a single formula, and it would be very unjust to her to assume that such a formula was intended, I may note one leading doctrine:--
2 "An eminent philosopher among my friends," she says, with a characteristiclly scientific illustration, "who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass, an extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling into an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable"--showing the effect of egoism., It may also represent the effect of a novelist's mental preoccupation. Many different views of human society may be equally true to fact; but the writer, who has a particular "candle," in the shape of a favourite principle, produces a spontaneous unity by its application to the varying cases presented. The personages who carry out the various plots of Middlemarch may be, as I think they are, very lifelike portraits of real life, but they are seen from a particular point of view. The "prelude" gives the keynote. We are asked to remember the childish adventure of Saint Theresa setting out to seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors. Her "passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life ... some object which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self.... She ultimately found her epos in the reform of a religious order." There are later-born Theresas, who had "no epic life with a constant unfolding of far-resonant action." They have had to work amid "dim lights and tangled circumstances"; they have been "helped by no coherent social faith and ardour which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently thrilling soul." They have blundered accordingly; but "here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an attained goodness tremble off, and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centering on some long recognizable deed." We are to see how such a nature manifests itself--no longer in the remote regions of arbitrary fancy, but in the commonplace atmosphere of a modern English town. In Maggie Tulliver and in Felix Holt we have already had the struggle for an ideal; but in Middlemarch there is a fuller picture of the element of stupidity and insensibility which is apt to clog the wings of aspiration. The Dodsons, among whom Maggie is placed, belong to the stratum of sheer bovine indifference. They are not only without ideas, but it has never occurred to them that such things exist. In Middlemarch we consider the higher stratum, which reads newspapers and supports the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and whose notions constitute what is called enlightened public opinion. The typical representative of what it calls its mind is Mr. Brooke, who can talk about Sir Humphry Davy, and Wordsworth, and Italian art, and has a delightful facility in handling the small change of conversation which has ceased to possess any intrinsic value. Even his neighbours can see that he is a fatuous humbug, and do not care to veil their blunt commonsense by fine phrases. But he discharges the functions of the Greek chorus with a boundless supply of the platitudes which represent an indistinct foreboding of the existence of an intellectual world.
3 Dorothea, brought up with Mr. Brooke in place of a parent, is to be a Theresa struggling under "dim lights and entangled circumstances." She is related, of course, both to Maggie and to Romola, though she is not in danger of absolute asphyxiation in a dense bucolic atmosphere, or of martyrdom in the violent struggles of hostile creeds. Her danger is rather that of being too easily acclimatized in a comfortable state of things, where there is sufficient cultivation and no particular demand for St. Theresas. She attracts us by her perfect straightforwardness and simplicity, though we are afraid that she has even a slight touch of stupidity. We fancy that she might find satisfaction, like other young ladies, in looking after schools and the unhealthy cottages on her uncle's estate. Still, she has a real loftiness of character, and a disposition to take things seriously, which make her more or less sensible of the limitations of her circle. She has vague religious aspirations, looks down upon the excellent country gentleman, Sir James Chettam, and fancies that she would like to marry the judicious Hooker, or Milton in his blindness. We can understand, and even pardon her, when she takes the pedant Casaubon at his own valuation, and sees in him "a living Bossuet, whose work would reconcile complete knowledge with devoted piety, a modern Augustine who united the glories of doctor and saint."
4 Dorothea's misguided adoration is, I think, very natural, but it is undeniably painful, and many readers protested. The point is curious. George Eliot declared that she had lived in much sympathy with Casaubon's life, and was especially gratified when some one saw the pathos of his career. No doubt there is a pathos in devotion to an entirely mistaken ideal. To spend a life in researches, all thrown away from ignorance of what has been done, is a melancholy fate. One secret of Casaubon's blunder was explained to his wife during the honeymoon. He had not--as Ladislaw pointed out--read the Germans, and was therefore groping through a wood with a pocket compass where they had made carriage roads. But suppose that he had read the last authorities? Would that have really mended matters? A deeper objection is visible even to his own circle. Solid Sir James Chettam remarks that he is a man "with no good red blood in his body," and Ladislaw curses him for "a cursed white-blooded pedantic coxcomb." Their judgment is confirmed by all that we hear of him. He marries, we are told, because he wants "female tendance for his declining years. Hence he determined to abandon himself to the stream of feeling, and perhaps was surprised to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was." His petty jealousy and steady snubbing of his wife is all in character. Now we can pity a man for making a blunder, and perhaps, in some sense, we ought to "pity" him for having neither heart nor passion. But that is a kind of pity which is not akin to love. Dorothea's mistake was not that she married a man who had not read German, but that she married a stick instead of a man. The story, the more fully we accept its truthfulness, becomes the more of a satire against young ladies who aim at lofty ideals. It implies a capacity for being imposed upon by a mere outside shell of presence. Then we have to ask whether things are made better by her subsequent marriage to Ladislaw? That equally offended some readers, as George Eliot complained. Ladislaw is almost obtrusively a favourite with his creator. He is called "Will" for the sake of endearment; and we are to understand him as so charming that Dorothea's ability to keep him at a distance gives the most striking proof of her strong sense of wifely duty. Yet Ladislaw is scarcely more attractive to most masculine readers than the dandified Stephen Guest. He is a dabbler in art and literature; a small journalist, ready to accept employment from silly Mr. Brooke, and apparently liking to lie on a rug in the houses of his friends and flirt with their pretty wives. He certainly shows indifference to money, and behaves himself correctly to Dorothea, though he has fallen in love with her on her honeymoon. He is no doubt an amiable Bohemian, for some of whose peculiarities it would be easy to suggest a living original, and we can believe that Dorothea was quite content with her lot. But that seems to imply that a Theresa of our days has to be content with suckling fools and chronicling small beer. We are told, indeed, that Ladislaw became a reformer--apparently a "philosophical radical"--and even had the good luck to be returned by a constituency who paid his expenses. George Eliot ought to know; but I cannot believe in this conclusion. Ladislaw, I am convinced, became a brilliant journalist who could write smartly about everything, but who had not the moral force to be a leader in thought or action. I should be the last person to deny that a journalist may lead an honourable and useful life, but I cannot think the profession congenial to a lofty devotion to ideals. Dorothea was content with giving him "wifely help"; asking his friends to dinner, one supposes, and copying his ill-written manuscripts. Many lamented that "so rare a creature should be absorbed into the life of another," though no one could point out exactly what she ought to have done. That is just the pity of it. There was nothing for her to do; and I can only comfort myself by reflecting that, after all, she had a dash of stupidity, and that more successful Theresas may do a good deal of mischief.
5 The next pair of lovers gives a less ambiguous moral. Lydgate, we are told, though we scarcely see it, was a man of great energy, with a high purpose. His ideal is shown by his ambition to be a leader in medical science. In contrast to Casaubon, he is thoroughly familiar with the latest authorities, and has a capacity for really falling in love. Unfortunately, Rosamond Vincy is a model of one of the forms of stupidity against which the gods fight in vain. Being utterly incapable of even understanding her husband's aspirations, fixing her mind on the vulgar kind of success, and having the strength of will which comes from an absolute limitation to one aim, she is a most effective torpedo, and paralyses all Lydgate's energies. He is entangled in money difficulties; gives up his aspirations; sinks into a merely popular physician, and is sentenced to die early of diphtheria. A really strong man, such as Lydgate is supposed to be, might perhaps have made a better fight against the temptation and escaped that slavery to a pretty woman which seems to have impressed George Eliot as the great danger to the other sex. But she never, I think, showed more power than in this painful history. The skill with which Lydgate's gradual abandonment of his lofty aims is worked out without making him simply contemptible, forces us to recognise the truthfulness of the conception. It is an inimitable study of such a fascination as the snake is supposed to exert upon the bird: the slow reluctant surrender, step by step, of the higher to the lower nature, in consequence of weakness which is at least perfectly intelligible. George Eliot's "psychological analysis" is here at its best; if it is not surpassed by the power shown in Bulstrode. Bulstrode, too, has an ideal of a kind; only it is the vulgar ideal which is suggested by a low form of religion. George Eliot shows the ugly side of the beliefs in which she had more frequently emphasized the purer elements. But she still judges without bitterness; and gives, perhaps, the most satisfactory portrait of the hypocrisy which is more often treated by the method of savage caricature. If he is not as amusing as a Tartuffe or a Pecksniff, he is marvellously lifelike. Nothing can be finer than the description of the curious blending of motives and the ingenious self-deception which enables Bulstrode to maintain his own self-respect. He is afraid of exposure by the scamp who has known his past history. "At six o'clock he had already been long dressed, and had spent some of his wretchedness in prayer, pleading his motives for averting the worst evil if in anything he had used falsity and spoken what was not true before God. For Bulstrode shrank from a direct lie with an intensity disproportionate to the number of his direct misdeeds. But many of those misdeeds were like the subtle muscular movements which are not taken account of in the consciousness, though they bring about the end that we fix our mind on and desire. And it is only what we are naïvely conscious of that we can vividly imagine to be seen by Omniscience." The culminating scene in which Bulstrode comes to the edge of murder, and, though he does not kill his enemy, refrains from officiously saving life, is the practical application of the principles; and one is half inclined to think that there was some excuse for the proceeding.
6 It is, I think, to the force and penetration shown in such passages that Middlemarch owes its impressiveness. It shows George Eliot's reflective powers fully ripened and manifesting singular insight into certain intricacies of motive and character. There is, indeed, a correlative loss of the early power of attractiveness. The remaining pair of lovers, Mary Garth and Fred Vincy, the shrewd young woman and the feeble young gentleman whom she governs, do not carry us away; and Caleb Garth, though he is partly drawn from the same original as Adam Bede, is unimpeachable, but a faint duplicate of his predecessor. The moral most obviously suggested would apparently be that the desirable thing is to do your work well in the position to which Providence has assigned you, and not to bother about "ideals" at all. Il faut cultiver notre jardin is an excellent moral, but it comes more appropriately at the end of Candide than at the end of a story which is to give us a modern Theresa.
7 This, I think, explains the rather painful impression which is made by Middlemarch. It is prompted by a sympathy for the enthusiast, but turns out to be virtually a satire upon the modern world. The lofty nature is to be exhibited struggling against the circumambient element of crass stupidity and stolid selfishness. But that element comes to represent the dominant and overpowering force. Belief is in so chaotic a state that the idealist is likely to go astray after false lights. Intellectual ambition mistakes pedantry for true learning; religious aspiration tempts acquiescence in cant and superstition; the desire to carry your creed into practice makes compromise necessary, and compromise passes imperceptibly into surrender. One is tempted to ask whether this does not exaggerate one aspect of the human tragicomedy. The unity, to return to our "parable, is to be the light carried by the observer in search of an idealist. In Middlemarch the light shows the aspirations of the serious actors, and measures their excellence by their capacity for such a motive. The test so suggested seems to give a rather onesided view of the world. The perfect novelist, if such a being existed, looking upon human nature from a thoroughly impartial and scientific point of view, would agree that such aspirations are rare and obviously impossible for the great mass of mankind. People, indisputably, are "mostly fools" and care very little for theories of life and conduct. But, therefore, it is idle to quarrel with the inevitable or to be disappointed at its results; and, moreover, it is easy to attach too much importance to this particular impulse. The world, somehow or other, worries along by means of very commonplace affections and very limited outlooks. George Eliot, no doubt, fully recognises that fact, but she seems to be dispirited by the contemplation. The result, however, is that she seems to be a little out of touch with the actual world, and to speak from a position of philosophical detachment which somehow exhibits her characters in a rather distorting light. For that reason Middlemarch seems to fall short of the great masterpieces which imply a closer contact with the world of realities and less preoccupation with certain speculative doctrines. Yet it is clearly a work of extraordinary power, full of subtle and accurate observation; and gives, if a melancholy yet an undeniably truthful portraiture of the impression made by the society of the time upon one of the keenest observers, though upon an observer looking at the world from a certain distance, and rather too much impressed by the importance of philosophers and theorists

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