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George Eliot (1902)

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Leslie Stephen


1 THE Leweses had been in the habit of recruiting their health in various country places in the neighbourhood of London, as well as in occasional trips to the Continent. In 1876 they bought a house at Witley, near Godalming, in the charming Surrey country which looks up to Hindhead and Blackdown. They were neighbours of Tennyson, who saw them occasionally both there and in town. An anecdote of a quarrel between them is refuted by Tennyson's son. What really happened was that, as she was leaving his house, Tennyson pressed her hand "kindly and sweetly" and said, "I wish you well with your molecules!" She replied as gently, "I get on very well with my molecules." Tennyson held that the flight of Hetty in Adam Bede and Thackeray's account of Colonel Newcome's decline were "the two most pathetic things in modern fiction." He greatly admired her insight into character, "but did not think her so true to nature as Shakespeare and Miss Austen." I will not argue upon such dicta, though they are interesting in regard to both persons. George Eliot was more or less acquainted with other eminent writers of her time. The Leweses stayed with Mark Pattison at Oxford, and afterwards with Jowett, who sent them the proof-sheets of his Plato. Dickens was friendly till his death, and she speaks with affection of Anthony Trollope, "one of the heartiest, most genuine, and moral men we know." Their life, however, continued to be secluded, and they thought of retiring altogether to Witley. Lewes was now working at his last book, the Problems of Life and Mind, but his health was beginning to break. He was taken ill at the "Priory" towards the end of 1878, and died on 28th November.
2 George Eliot was prostrated by the blow. The first employment to which she could devote herself was the arrangement of Lewes's unfinished work. She resolved to found a "George Henry Lewes studentship," which should enable some young man to carry on physiological research. Henry Sidgwick, Sir Michael Foster, and others gave her advice, and in the course of the year the plan was settled and a student elected. Gradually she revived. Her friend, Madame Bodichon, describes her in June 1879 as "wretchedly thin" and looking "in her long loose black dress like the black shadow of herself." Still, she said that "she had so much to do that she must keep well"; the world was so "intensely interesting." She had at this time published the last of her books, which had already been read and approved by Lewes. The Impressions of Theophrastus Such is a curious performance which certainly seems to suggest that her intellect--though not weakened--had somehow got into the least appropriate application of its energies. A short essay should above all things be bright and clear, and if it touches grave thoughts, touch them with a light hand. Nobody can call Theophrastus Such light in its touch. The mannerism which showed itself occasionally in her first works, the ironical application of scientific analogies to trifling matters, sometimes hits the mark, but was always apt to become ponderous, if not pedantic. Theophrastus Such seems to be entirely composed of such matter, questionable, perhaps, at the best, and making the unpleasant impression of all laborious attempts at witticism. She had, for example, been disgusted, as every real lover of good literature must be disgusted, at flippant and irreverent burlesques. She protests against a practice which she calls "debasing the moral currency." "And yet, it seems, parents will put into the hands of their children ridiculous parodies (perhaps with more ridiculous 'illustrations') of the poems which stirred their own tenderness and filial duty, and cause them to make their first acquaintance with great men, great works, or solemn crises, through the medium of some miscellaneous burlesque which, with its idiotic puns and farcical attitudes, will remain among their primary associations and reduce them throughout their time of studious preparation for life to the moral imbecility of an inward giggle at what might have stimulated the high emulation which fed the fountains of compassion, trust, and constancy." That may be very true, but surely it would be possible to put it a little more pointedly. George Eliot in writing these essays seems first to have got into the too didactic vein to which she was always prone, and then to have put her observations into the most tortuous and cumbrous shape by way of giving them an air of solemnity. What, one asks, had become of Mrs. Poyser? The book, however, succeeded well enough to satisfy her; but I can hardly believe that anybody can now read it except from a sense of duty.
3 The remainder of George Eliot's life may be told in a few words. In 1867 Lewes had been introduced by Mr. Herbert Spencer to Mrs. Cross, a lady then living at Weybridge with a daughter, Miss Elizabeth D. Cross, who had just published a volume of poems. Miss Cross was invited by Lewes to see George Eliot, and a friendship sprang up between the families. In 1869 the Leweses paid a visit to the Crosses at Weybridge, and the friendship became intimacy. The death of Lewes's son, Thornton, and of a married daughter of Mrs. Cross within the next two months, strengthened the bond by mutual sympathy. Mr. John Walter Cross, son of Mrs. Cross, then a banker at New York, was staying at Weybridge during George Eliot's visit, and soon afterwards settled in England in his mother's house. He became very intimate with the Leweses, and frequently visited them at Witley. After Lewes's death he was an able and sympathetic adviser. His mother had died a week after Lewes, and he was anxious to find relief and occupation in some new pursuit. He began to read Dante, and George Eliot proposed to help him in his studies. From that time they saw each other constantly; and as George Eliot's spirit recovered from the shock, she began again to find pleasure in music and in visiting the National Gallery. The support of Mr. Cross's companionship relieved her sense of desolation, and in April 1880 they decided upon marriage. The marriage took place on 6th May, and the only possible comment is her own statement to Mme. Bodichon. "Mr. Cross's family," she says, "welcome me with the utmost tenderness. All this is wonderful blessing falling to me beyond my share after I had thought that life was ended, and that, so to speak, my coffin was ready for me in the next room. Deep down below there is a river of sadness, but this must always be with those who have lived long--and I am able to enjoy my newly reopened life. I shall be a better, more loving creature than I could have been in solitude. To be contantly, lovingly grateful for the gift of a perfect love is the best illumination of one's mind to all the possible good there may be in store for man on this troublous little planet."
4 The Crosses made a tour after their marriage, staying some time at Venice, and returning to Witley by the end of July. Her health seemed at first to have greatly improved, and she was able to take walks and to see sights during the journey. After returning to England, she had a serious attack in September, followed by a partial recovery. On 4th December the Crosses moved into a new house which they had taken at 4 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. A fortnight later a slight chill brought on a fresh attack. Her previous illness had weakened her power of rallying, and she died on 22nd December 1880.
5 George Eliot's main personal characteristics should be sufficiently indicated by what I have already said. A few remarks, however, may help to complete the picture. Among her active employments she found time to lead the life of an industrious student. Though frequently interrupted by ill-health, she was capable of sustained and severe attention to difficult subjects. The list of her accomplishments acquired at different periods is a long one. She had a thorough knowledge of French, German, Italian, and Spanish, and could talk in each language correctly, though "with difficulty." She could read the classical languages with pleasure; and kept up her familiarity with the great masterpieces of all periods by frequent re-reading. She was fond of reading aloud, especially Milton and the Bible; and a fine voice, perfectly under command, gave peculiar power to her rendering of solemn and majestic passages. Hebrew was a favourite study; and though she read little of the lighter literature of the day, she had a very retentive memory of the novels--George Sand's, for example--which she had read in her youth. She read a good many historical works, and, as we have seen, could get up minute antiquarian details with unflagging industry. Besides her main studies, she had dipped into scientific writings, had at one time taken to geometry, and thought that she had some aptitude for mathematics. Her interest in the philosophical speculations of the time we have sufficiently indicated. Her powers of assimilating knowledge were, in fact, extraordinary, and it may safely be said that no novelist of mark ever possessed a wider intellectual culture. With all her knowledge, she attended to the ordinary feminine duties. She was proud of her good housekeeping, and her early training and love of order had given her a thorough knowledge of how such matters should be done. She sympathized, of course, with projects for reforming female education, and was one of the first subscribers to Girton College. She had, however, a characteristic misgiving lest a university system might weaken the bonds of family life. The feminine qualities are as characteristic of the student as of the writer. She read reverently, with a desire to appreciate and admire. The critical, or rather scoffing attitude of mind, was intensely antipathetic to her. She seems to have loved especially the gentler and more serious observers of life, such as Goldsmith and Cowper and Miss Austen, and venerated such great men as Dante and Milton ("her demi-god," as she calls him), whose austerity breathes a lofty moral sentiment. She rarely expresses her antipathies; but one instance is characteristic. Of Byron she speaks with disgust, as the "most vulgar-minded genius that ever produced a great effect in literature." The author of Don Juan could not well be congenial to the creator of Fedalma. Women, it is said, are wanting in humour; and perhaps for the obvious reason that the humorist is apt to find that the easiest roads of making a point lie through profanity or indecency. George Eliot's sense of humour was undeniably keen, but she will not give play to it when it takes the offensive. That need not be regretted. It is a less satisfactory result when her desire to sympathise with all high impulses leads her in her later stories to shut her eyes to the comic side, which forces itself upon the less restrained humorists, and to present us with model characters verging too decidedly upon priggishness. A touch of pedagogic severity saddens her view of the frivolous world. Her profound conviction of the mischief done by stupidity, of the clogging and degrading effect of the general atmosphere of commonplace upon aspiring souls, diminishes her appreciation of fools, and Theophrastus Such suggests even a tinge of sourness. George Eliot, we are told, took little interest in contemporary politics. During the war of 1870 she reminds a friend of the famous anecdote of Goethe's indifference to the Revolution of 1830 as compared with the controversies of Cuvier and Saint-Hilaire. She says that it is impossible to "doff aside" the French and German war after that fashion. In general, however, she seems to have accepted Goethe's attitude, and to have been more interested in the advances of scientific thought than in the reforming energies of Gladstone's first government. She thought that political matters in England were managed by "amateurs," that their quarrels involved a growing quantity of personal abuse and imputation of unworthy motive. That is a natural impression of the philosophical looker-on; and I need not ask whether active politicians are justified in meeting it with simple contempt. Her sympathy with the positivists predisposed her, moreover, to think more of the slow operation of changed ideals than of particular political changes. Her interest in positivism was always strong. She was on terms of intimate friendship with Dr. Congreve, Mr. Frederic Harrison, and Professor Beesly, and subscribed to the funds of the central body. She did not, indeed, accept positivist doctrines unreservedly, and had by her side a keen critic in George Lewes, who had followed Comte's early teaching, but repudiated the theories of social reconstruction propounded in the later Politique Positive. Both, it appears, regarded it as "a Utopia, presenting hypotheses rather than doctrines," and she could sympathize with Comte as "an individual" trying "to anticipate the work of future generations." The special point of sympathy was, of course, the aspect with which the Comtists regarded the old creeds as stages in the continuous evolution of humanity. In that respect, too, George Eliot was eminently feminine. She had the strong religious instinct common to so many noble women in whose sympathy masculine reformers have found comfort amidst the harsh controversies and struggles of active work. The history of her books is on one side a history of the consequent development of her mind. Her intellectual expansion led her to accept the teaching of the men who represented for her the most advanced thought of the time. But the aggressiveness which it generated for a time was a transitory frame of mind. The first series of novels represents the fond dwelling upon all the loftier impulses which had uttered themselves in stammering and imperfect dialects prescribed by dogmas no longer tenable; while the later correspond to a longing to find an utterance reconcilable with full acceptance of scientific truth. Daniel Deronda, one fancies, would have embodied her sentiments more completely if, instead of devoting himself to the Jews, he had become a leading prophet in the church of humanity. That, no doubt, would have brought him into too close a contact with notorious facts.
6 I have said that George Eliot's peculiar place among the novelists of the time was in some sense determined by the philosophical tendencies which were shared by none of her contemporaries. I do not mean to imply that it was her proper function to propagate any philosophical doctrine, and have tried to point out the defects due to her inclinations in that direction. Novels should, I take it, be transfigured experience; they should be based upon the direct observation and the genuine emotions which it has inspired: when they are deliberately intended to be a symbolism of any general formula, they become unreal as representative of fact, and unsatisfactory as philosophical exposition. George Eliot's early success and the faults of her later work illustrate, I have said, the right and wrong methods. But, in conclusion, I may try to indicate what seems to me to be the quality which, in spite of inevitable shortcomings in undertaking the impossible, gives the permanent interest of her works. That, I think appears most simply by regarding them as implicit autobiography. George Eliot gives a direct picture of the England of her early days, and, less directly, a picture of its later developments. Her picture of the old country life owes its charm to the personal memories, and may possibly have a little personal colouring. If a novelist could be thoroughly "realistic," and give the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, there would no doubt be a good deal to add to the descriptions of the life at Shepperton and Dorlcote Mill. But, then, I do not believe that any human intellect can give the whole truth about anything. What can be given truly is the impression made upon the mind of the observer; and when the observer has a mind of such reflective power, so much insight, and such tenderness and sensibility as George Eliot's, its impressions will correspond to realities, and reveal most interesting though not all-comprehensive truths. The combination of an exquisitely sympathetic and loving nature with a large and tolerant intellect is manifest throughout. George Eliot could see the absurdities, and even the brutalities, of her neighbours plainly, but understood them well enough to make them intelligible, not mere absurdities to be caricatured; she saw the charming aspects of the old order with equal clearness, but has no illusions which would convert the country into a pretty Arcadia; and her sympathy with sorrow and unsatisfied longings is too deep and reflective to allow her to stray into mere sentimentalism. Her pathos is powerful because it is always under command. The more superficial writer treats an era of misery as implying a grievance which can be summarily removed, or finds in it an opportunity of exhibiting his own sensibility. Her feeling is too deep and her perception of the complexity of its causes too thorough to admit of such treatment. We see the tender woman who has gone through much experience, always devotedly attached by the strongest ties of affection; but always reflecting, shrinking from excesses of passion or of scoffing, and trying to see men and life as parts of a wider order.
7 The same personal element appears in her later work in spite of the defects which I take to be undeniable. George Eliot, as we have seen, looked on the world with a certain aloofness. She read little of the ephemeral literature of the day, and apparently thought very ill of what she did read. She looked at the political warfare from a distance, and did not go into the society deeply interested in such matters. The "Priory" was frequented by a circle whose talk was of philosophy and scientific discoveries, and which was more interested in theories than in the gossip of the day. She had not therefore the experience which could enable her to describe contemporary life, with its social and political ambitions and the rough struggle for existence in which practical lawyers and men of business are mainly occupied. She thinks of the world chiefly as the surrounding element of sordid aims into which her idealists are to go forth with such hope as may be of leavening the mass. She could not, therefore, draw lifelike portraits of such characters as were the staple of the ordinary novelist. The questions, however, in which she was profoundly interested were undeniably of the highest importance. The period of her writings was one in which, as we can now see more clearly than at the time, very significant changes were taking place in English thought and life. Controversies on "evolutionism" and socialism and democracy were showing the set of the current. George Eliot's heroes and heroines are all more or less troubled by the results, whether they live ostensibly in England or in distant countries and centuries. I need say nothing more of her special view of the questions at issue. But, incidentally, as one may say, she came, in treating of her favourite theme--the idealist in search of a vocation--to exhibit her own characteristics. The long gallery of heroines, from Milly Barton to Gwendolen Harleth, have various tasks set to them, in which we may be more or less interested. But the women themselves, whatever their outward circumstances, have an interest unsurpassed by any other writer. They have, of course, a certain family likeness; and if Maggie is most like her creator, the others show an affinity to some of her characteristics. George Eliot is reported to have said that the character which she found most difficult to support was that of Rosamond Vincy, the young woman who paralyses Lydgate. One can understand the statement, for it is Rosamond's function to do exactly what is most antipathetic to her biographer. She is the embodied contradictory of her creator's morality. Yet she, too, is a vigorous portrait, and the whole series may be given triumphantly as a proof of what is called "knowledge of the human heart." I dislike the phrase, because it seems to imply that an abstract science with that subject-matter is in existence--which I should certainly deny. But if it only means that George Eliot could--without any formula--sympathise with a singularly wide range of motive and feeling, and especially with noble and tender natures, and represent the concrete embodiment with extraordinary power, then I can fully subscribe to the opinion. I think, as I have said, that one is always conscious that her women are drawn from the inside, and that her most successful men are substantially women in disguise. But the two sexes have a good deal in common; and in the setting forth some of the moral and intellectual processes which we can all understand, George Eliot shows unsurpassable skill. Here and there, no doubt, there is too much explicit "psychological analysis," and a rather ponderous enumeration of obvious aphorisms in the pomp of scientific analogy. But she is singularly powerful in describing the conflicts of emotions; the ingenious modes of self-deception in which most of us acquire considerable skill; the uncomfortable results of keeping a conscience till we have learnt to come to an understanding with it; the grotesque mixture of motives which results when we have reached a modus vivendi; the downright hypocrisy of the lower nature, or the comparatively pardonable and even commendable state of mind of the person who has a thoroughly consistent code of action, though he unconsciously interprets its laws in a non-natural sense to suit his convenience. George Eliot's power of watching and describing the various manoeuvres by which people keep their self-respect and satisfy their feelings shows her logical subtlety, which appears again in her quaint description of the odd processes which take the place of reasoning in the uneducated intelligence.
8 George Eliot believed that a work of art not only may, but must, exercise also an ethical influence. I will not inquire how much influence is actually exerted by novels upon the morality of their readers; but so far as any influence is exerted, it is due, I think, in the last resort to the personality of the novelist. That is to say, that from reading George Eliot's novels we are influenced in the same way as by an intimacy with George Eliot herself. Undoubtedly, in effect, that might vary indefinitely according to the prejudices and character of the other party. But, in any case, we feel that the writer with whom we have been in contact possessed a singularly wide and reflective intellect, a union of keen sensibility with a thoroughly tolerant spirit, a desire to appreciate all the good hidden under the commonplace and narrow, a lively sympathy with all the nobler aspirations, a vivid insight into the perplexities and delusions which beset even the strongest minds, brilliant powers of wit, at once playful and pungent, and, if we must add, a rather melancholy view of life in general, a melancholy which is not nursed for purposes of display, but forced upon a fine understanding by the view of a state of things which, we must admit, does not altogether lend itself to a cheerful optimism. I have endeavoured to point out what limitations must be adopted by an honest critic. George Eliot's works, as I have read, have not, at the present day, quite so high a position as was assigned to them by contemporary enthusiasm. That is a common phenomenon enough; and, in her case, I take it to be due chiefly to the partial misdirection of her powers in the later period. But when I compare her work with that of other novelists, I cannot doubt that she had powers of mind and a richness of emotional nature rarely squalled, or that her writings--whatever their shortcomings--will have a corresponding value in the estimation of thoughtful readers.

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