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George Eliot (1902)

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Leslie Stephen


1 WHEN George Eliot was just twenty-one a change took place in her life which was to produce most important results. Her brother had married, and it was arranged that he should take over his father's business at Griff. Mr. Robert Evans, now sixty-six, with his daughter migrated to Coventry. They took a semi-detached house in the Foleshill Road, with a "good bit of garden round it," and commanding a wide reach of country, though the view was disfigured by mills and chimneys in the foreground. The secluded agricultural district was exchanged for an energetic manufacturing town, and George Eliot was gaining a new set of experiences, to be turned to account in good time. Hitherto her life had been one of intellectual isolation, though she had been encouraged by the sympathy of Miss Lewis. She had aspirations as well as reflections, and complains to her Methodist aunt that her "besetting sin was ambition--a desire insatiable for the esteem of my fellow-creatures. This seems the centre whence all my actions proceed." But the powers of which she was conscious were choked in the confined atmosphere where men, as Johnson's friend complained, talked of "runts," that is (according to Boswell) young cows. Dr. Johnson, replied an admirer, would learn to talk of runts. George Eliot certainly listened to the talk, and then or in memory could perceive its humorous aspect; but talk confined to runts becomes tiresome in the long run; and when her loftiest hope was to compile a historical chart, she must have felt a painful need for some better end for her energies. Some one who would share her interests and direct her aspirations was obviously desirable if she was to escape from the diffident "despair" into which she was tempted to sink. Coventry could hardly be described, I imagine, as a Warwickshire Athens, or even Edinburgh; but at Coventry, as it happened, there were some people of much wider outlook than could have been expected. Charles Bray (1811-1884) was a ribbon manufacturer and a man of energy and philanthropic aims. He was a disciple of George Combe the phrenologist, whose Constitution of Man had a great influence at this time, though not much recognized by the authoritative expounders of philosophy. Bray himself in 1841 published The Philosophy of Necessity, intended to apply Combe's scientific principles to the regeneration of society. Like George and Andrew Combe, he sympathised with Robert Owen the Socialist, and took a special interest in the attempt to found a community at Queenwood. Upon its failure he took a part in less ambitious schemes for the improvement of the working classes. In 1836 Bray married Caroline, sister of Charles and Sara Hennell. The Hennells had been brought up as Unitarians; and after his sister's marriage to Bray, a thoroughgoing sceptic, Charles Hennell undertook to examine the evidences of Christianity with a view to meeting his brother-in-law's objections. The result of the examination was that he became a sceptic himself, and in 1838 published an Enquiry concerning the Origin of Christianity in defence of his conclusions. The book is intended to show that Christianity is explicable by purely natural causes. A criticism of the New Testament narrative leads to the conclusion that Jesus was a man of high moral genius, who belonged originally to the sect of the Essenes, and developed their teaching under the influence of the time. Strauss, whose Life of Christ had appeared in 1835, procured a translation of Hennell's book into German; and in a preface says that Hennell, although ignorant of recent German criticism, was "on the very track" which the Germans had entered. He had, too, the practical insight of an English man of business, and solved "at one spring" problems over which the German "flutters with many learned formulae." Hennell treated the subject in the "earnest and dignified tone of the truthseeker"; and, unlike rancorous assailants of Christianity, derived religion, not from priestcraft, but from the essential needs of human nature. George Eliot's admiration for the book is shown by an analysis [Given in Life, i. 76-83] which she wrote on the occasion of its republication in 1852. She bought a copy soon after going to Coventry, and had read it before she met the Brays. Kingsley mentions it as one of the books which Alton Locke studied as a representative of the "intelligent artisans of the period." Hennell's sister Sara was interested in the same questions, and expounded her doctrines at length in Present Religion as a Faith owning Fellowship with Thought. It appeared in three volumes in 1865, 1873, and 1887, and is one of the many attempts to present a philosophical theism in consistence with scientific thought by the help of a doctrine of evolution. I am not qualified to speak of its philosophical merits on the strength of a very superficial inspection, but it is plain that Miss Hennell had read and reflected sufficiently to be accepted by George Eliot as a valuable ally in the sphere of philosophical speculation. Her decided theism led her to criticize Comte with a hostility which separated her opinions from those of her friend. They continued, however, to correspond with mutual respect and affection.
2 The Evanses' house in Coventry was next door to that occupied by Mrs. Pears, a sister of Mr. Bray. An acquaintance with her neighbour Mrs. Pears soon ripened into friendship, and led in November 1841 to an introduction to the Brays. A very warm friendship sprang up. Cara and Sara (Mrs. Bray and Miss Hennell) became as sisters to George Eliot, and Mr. Bray her most intimate male friend. The alliance lasted through life, and produced an important correspondence. The effect upon George Eliot's mental development was immediate and remarkable. The little circle at Coventry introduced her to a new world of thought. It became clear that there were regions of speculation into which her respected governess Miss Lewis and her beloved aunt Mrs. Samuel Evans had never entered. A letter to Miss Lewis of 13th November 1841 indicates the change which had come over her, and apparently refers to a recent study of Hennell's Enquiry. "My whole soul," she says, "has been engrossed in the most interesting of all inquiries for the last few days, and to what result my thoughts will lead I know not--possibly to one that will startle you; but my only desire is to know the truth, my only fear to cling to error." She hopes that their "love will not discompose under the influence of separation." "What a pity," she says to the same correspondent a few days later, "that while mathematics are indubitable, immutable, and no one doubts the properties of a triangle or a circle, doctrines infinitely important to man are buried in a charnel heap of bones, over which nothing is heard but the barks and growls of contention." The change of belief thus indicated appears to have been rapid, though there are indications of previous doubts as to her childish creed. By January 1842 it had led to a refusal to go to church, and a consequent family difficulty. It is not surprising that George Eliot should have followed a path which was being taken by many contemporaries; but something must be said of her special position, which was in many ways characteristic. The chief light upon her conversion--if I may use the phrase--comes from another source. George Eliot had been introduced to a family named Sibree by her old school-mistress, Miss Franklin, and came to entertain a high regard for several of its members. The Sibrees were of the Evangelical persuasion. A son, Mr. John Sibree, went to a German university in 1842, and afterwards translated Hegel's Philosophy of History, a fact apparently implying that the Brays were not the only inhabitants of Coventry with some taste for philosophical speculation. George Eliot took a fancy to a daughter, Miss Mary Sibree, then a young girl, gave her German lessons, and "talked freely on all subjects," without attempting "directly to unsettle her Evangelical beliefs." Miss Sibree (afterwards Mrs. John Cash) preserved some interesting records of the intercourse, which show that the change of opinions, if rapid, was not unprepared. Till she left Griff, George Eliot had still used the religious language of her own circle. But the studies which have already been mentioned had raised doubts. Isaac Taylor's book, which she proposed to "assimilate," was in substance an attempt to show that the early Church, to which the Tractarians referred as the embodiment of pure Christianity, was in fact already corrupt. The obvious difficulty of such an argument is to stop at the right point. If the early fathers, to whom Pusey and his friends appealed, were already unworthy of confidence, what is to be said of their predecessors? That was just the line taken by Hennell. He rejects the supernatural explanation in the case of the first teachers as well as in the case of their followers. George Eliot's "chart" already implied an interest in ecclesiastical history which might lead to a criticism of the origins as well as of the later development of the creed. It might be noticed, too, that she was making excursions into scientific reading--Mrs. Somerville's Connextion of the Physical Sciences, for example--and would, of course, be interested in the bearing of geology upon the book of Genesis. But the purely intellectual aspect of the question was in a great degree subordinate to other considerations. She told Mrs. Sibree that she had been shocked by the union of low morality with strong religious feeling among the poor, chiefly Methodists, whom she had been in the habit of visiting. There were, it seems, specimens there of the "Holy Willie" type. They held to the Calvinism expressed in his famous prayer--

      'O Thou, wha in the heavens dost dwell,
      Wha, an it pleases best Thysel',
      Sends ain to heaven and ten to hell,
            A' for Thy glory,
      And no' for onie guid or ill
            They've done afore Thee!'

and apparently were capable of following his very defective practice. "I do not feel," said a woman convicted of lying, "that I have grieved the Spirit much." "Calvinism," George Eliot is reported to have said at the time, "is Christianity, and that granted, it is a religion based on pure selfishness." I need not ask whether Christianity can be identified with Calvinism, or whether antinomianism or pure egoism be in reality a logical deduction from Calvinism. Anyhow, it is clear that she might be led to one conclusion. Since Mrs. Samuel Evans and the lying old woman held the same dogmatic creed, it followed that Mrs. Evans' lovely moral nature could not be the product of the dogmas. Other reflections tended to the same result. Robert Hall, she said, had been made unhappy for a week by reading Miss Edgeworth's Tales. In them the characters led good, useful, and pleasant lives without reference to the cares and fears of religion. They were, in fact, model Utilitarians. When George Eliot was asked in later life what influence had unsettled her orthodoxy, she replied, "Walter Scott's!" Scott has generally been credited with a different influence. His romantic tendency was one of the causes, according to Newman, the highest authority on the point, which led to the reaction towards the mediaeval Church. George Eliot sympathized with another, and perhaps a really deeper, characteristic of his writings. Scott was a man of sympathies wide enough to do justice to many different types. He hated the fanaticism of the Covenanters, and speaks of them in his letters as scarcely human except in outward form. Yet he was too good an artist to yield to his antipathies; and in Old Mortality and the Heart of Midlothian has drawn the most striking pictures of the iron heroism and stern morality of the sect. George Eliot would have taken a similar view of Balfour of Burley and Davie Deans. But, in a wider sense, it is obvious that while Scott sincerely respects religious feelings and sympathises with belief, he shows as little sectarian zeal as Shakespeare. The division between good and bad does not correspond in his pages with the division between any one Church and its antagonists. The qualities which he really admires--manliness, patriotism, unflinching loyalty, and purity of life--are to be found equally among Protestants and Catholics, Roundheads and Cavaliers. The wide sympathy which sees good and bad on all sides makes it difficult to accept any version of the doctrine which supposes salvation to be associated with the acceptance of a dogma. That clearly was George Eliot's frame of mind. She would not directly attack her young friend's Evangelicism, but she smiled in the kindest way at the doctrine that there could be no true morality without it. "The great lesson of life," she said, "is tolerance," and a width of sympathy was perhaps her most characteristic quality. Her revolt from orthodox views was therefore unaccompanied by the bitterness which often accompanies the emancipation from the strictness of a sectarian tyranny. She continued to revere her aunt; only she had made up her mind that the beauty of character was in no sense the product of the creed. Nor, on the other hand, had it produced the immorality of coarse hypocrites. Taken literally and seriously, the dogmas might tend to suppress and trammel the emotional nature; but, in point of fact, beautiful souls manage to turn even their creeds to account by an unconscious logical artifice which leaves the dark side out of sight and dwells upon the higher and gentler aspirations embodied.
3 Her first recognition of a change of creed engendered a passing aggressiveness. A Baptist minister was induced by Miss Franklin to attempt a recovery of the lost sheep. "That young lady," he said, "must have had the devil at her elbow to suggest doubts, for there was not a book that I recommended to her in support of Christian evidences that she had not read." The phrase is a little ambiguous, and may be taken to attribute the books on the evidences to the devil's suggestion. "I have attended the University sermon for forty years," said a well-known Squire Bedell, "and I thank God that I am still a Christian." An unconvincing refutation is apt to be irritating, and for a time George Eliot was stimulated to the combative mood. Her father was a "churchman of the old school." His religious notions partook of those ascribed in the Mill on the Floss to Mr. Tulliver and the Dodsons. They, we are told, had the strongest respect for whatever was customary, including an acceptance of the rites of the Established Church; though their "theory of life" had "the very slightest tincture of theology." Mr. Evans was so much annoyed by his daughter's abandonment of churchgoing, that he resolved to give up the house at Coventry and to take up his abode with his married daughter. George Eliot proposed to take lodgings at Leamington and try to support herself by teaching. Friends on both sides, however, effected a reconciliation. She agreed to go to church again, and her father was glad to receive her again upon those terms, and apparently asked no questions about her opinions, and made no difficulty as to the employment of her talents which they were soon to suggest. Some months later she wrote to Sara Hennell, giving the view to which she had been brought by further reflection. "When the soul," she says, "is just liberated from the wretched giant's bed of dogmas on which it has been racked and stretched ever since it began to think, there is a feeling of exultation and strong hope. In that state of mind we wish to proselytize." We soon find that we can ourselves "ill afford to part even with the crutch of superstition," and that the errors which we took to be a "mere incrustation" have grown into the living body, "and cannot be wrenched away without destroying vitality." Intellectual agreement seems to be unattainable, and "we turn to the truth of feeling as the only universal bond of union." It is quackery to say to every one, "Swallow my opinions and you shall be whole." When the proselytizing impulse is abandoned, we ask, "Are we to remain aloof from our fellow-creatures on occasions when we may fully sympathise with the feelings exercised, although our own have been melted into another mood? Ought we not on every opportunity to seek to have our feelings in harmony, though not in union, with those who are often richer in the fruits of faith, though not in reason, than ourselves?" The position is characteristic of her attitude through life. She shrank with deep repugnance from attacking even what she regarded as superstitions which, in the minds of believers, were interwoven with the highest aspirations. She still insists upon the necessity of free discussion and open avowals of honest belief; but her own temperament demanded the tenderest treatment of other creeds. To her exquisitely sensitive nature, the pain of inflicting pain on others would not have been compensated by any share of the true controversialist's joy in battle. In later years she did not hold that she had deserved blame for the domestic difficulty, but she regretted a collision which might have been avoided by judicious management.
4 The reconciliation was made in the spring of 1842, and for the next seven years George Eliot lived at Coventry with her father. The friendship with the Brays provided her with congenial society and intellectual sympathy. She made summer expeditions with them to Wales, the Lakes (where she made acquaintance with Miss Martineau), and Scotland. She met Robert Owen at their house, and thought that if his system flourished, it would be in spite of the founder; and some time later Emerson came to see them, and she went with him and the Brays to Stratford-on-Avon. "He is," she says, "the first man I have ever seen"; but does not expound the statement, and it does not appear that Emerson had any specific influence upon her mind. Meanwhile, she had been led to her first important piece of literary work. An excursion with the Brays and Hennells was shared by Miss Brabant, daughter of Dr. Brabant of Devizes, and followed by the engagement of Miss Brabant to Charles Hennell. Dr. Brabant was a personal friend of Strauss, and his daughter had undertaken a translation of Strauss's Life of Jesus, for which funds were provided by Joseph Parkes (well known as a Radical politician) and others. Before her marriage she gave up the task, which was transferred to George Eliot in January 1844. For the next two years George Eliot's energies were absorbed in this task. Translating in general is not very exhilarating work, nor Strauss's book specially exhilarating to translate. Before the book was finished she was often depressed, and towards the end thoroughly bored. She was encouraged by Sara Hennell when she had ceased to "sit down to Strauss with any relish," and was longing for proof sheets to convince her that her "soul-stupefying labour" would not be thrown away. She worked, however, in the most conscientious way, and finally achieved an admirable and workmanlike translation. Dull as the labour was, the continual effort at accurate reproduction was probably of some use to her English style. Whether her father knew of her employment, or thought that her churchgoing made amends for her share in propagating scepticism, is not recorded. She seems from her letters to have accepted Strauss's general position, though now and then she had qualms. She says, writes Mrs. Bray in 1846, that "she is Strauss-sick; it makes her ill dissecting the beautiful story of the Crucifixion, and only the sight of the Christ image" (a statuette after Thorwaldsen in her study) "and picture made her endure it." To others the image might perhaps have suggested rather remonstrance than encouragement. The book appeared, without the translator's name, in June 1846.
5 Her father's health was now beginning to break, and her time was much occupied for the next three years by her devoted care of him. She did all the nursing herself, and is reported to have done it admirably. In the later part of the time she found some distraction in beginning a translation of Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Her letters give a few indications of her thoughts upon the outward events of an exciting time. She sympathized warmly with the French Revolution of 1848, and admired Lamartine and Louis Blanc. She shows, however, some misgiving, and is depressed by the contrast between French enthusiasts and their English sympathizers. Englishmen have a much larger proportion of "selfish radicalism and unsatisfied brute sensuality than of perception or desire of justice"; and a revolution here would be simply destructive. A little later she is made melancholy by the tone of the newspapers about Louis Blanc: "The day will come when there will be a temple of white marble, where sweet incense and anthems shall rise to the memory of every man and woman who has had ... a clear vision of the time when this miserable reign of Mammon shall end." She has, she says, been wrought into fury "by the loathsome fawning, the transparent hypocrisy, the systematic giving as little as possible for as much as possible, that one meets with here at every turn. I feel that society is training men and women for hell." In this high-wrought and pessimistic frame of mind she speaks with remarkable enthusiasm of Rousseau and George Sand. Spite of all that may be said against him, Rousseau's genius has "sent that electric thrill through my intellectual and moral frame which has wakened me to new perceptions, which has made man and nature a fresh world of thought and feeling to me; and this not by teaching me any new belief." The "rushing mighty wind of his inspiration has so quickened my faculties that I have been able to shape more definitely for myself ideas which had previously dwelt as dim Ahnungen pen in my soul." George Sand has a similar power. "It is sufficient for me as a reason for bowing before her in eternal gratitude to that 'great power of God manifested in her' that I cannot read six pages of hers without feeling that it is given to her to delineate human passion and its results, and (I must say, in spite of your judgment) some of the moral instincts and their tendencies, with such truthfulness, such nicety of discrimination, such tragic power, and withal such loving gentle humour, that one might live a century with nothing but one's own dull faculties and not know so much as those six pages will suggest." She adds that she has just acquired a "most delightful" De Imitatione Christi, with quaint woodcuts--a book which affected Maggie Tulliver in the same way. "It makes one long to be a saint for a few months. Verily, its piety has its foundations in the depth of the dumb human soul." One may note, too, in passing, her delight in Sir Charles Grandison. "The morality," she says, "is perfect--there is nothing for the new lights to correct." During this period she must have been accumulating the experience to be turned to account in Middlemarch. It is curious to contrast the tone of that book with the passionate enthusiasm for such prophets of sentimentalism as Richardson, Rousseau, or George Sand. But of this I must speak hereafter.
6 She was meanwhile soothing her father's last hours of consciousness by reading the Waverley novels. He died on the 31st May 1849. "What shall I be without him?" she asks. "It will seem as if a part of my moral nature were gone." Soon afterwards she joined the Brays in a visit to the continent. They went through France to the North of Italy, and returned by Switzerland, where she remained at Geneva. There she stayed from July till March 1850, recovering strength and spirits after the long strain caused by her father's illness. For the greater part of the time she was living with M. and Mme. D'Albert, to both of whom she became strongly attached. M. D'Albert was a man of artistic tastes, and became Conservateur of the Athénée--the National Gallery of Geneva. He afterwards translated several of George Eliot's novels; and the friendship lasted till the end of her life. A fortnight after coming to stay with them, George Eliot says that Mme. D'Albert makes a spoilt child of her, and that she already loves M. D'Albert as "if he were father and brother both. It is so delightful to get among people who exhibit no meannesses, no worldlinesses, that one may well be enthusiastic." In fact, she had fortunately fallen into a thoroughly congenial circle; and her characteristic craving for affection had been satisfied by worthy objects. She admired the beauties of Geneva, had a little quiet and refined society, and left Spinoza's Tractatus on the shelf. She attended certain lectures of Professor De la Rive on "Experimental Physics," which we will hope were cheering, but otherwise resigned herself to judicious relaxation. She found, in fact, that Geneva was in itself superior to Coventry, though there were some people at Coventry "better than lake, trees, and mountains." But for them, she would think with a shudder of returning to England. "It looks to me like a land of gloom, of ennui, of platitude, but in the midst of all this it is the land of duty and affection; and the only ardent hope I have for my future life is to have given to me some woman's duty, some possibility of devoting myself where I may see a daily result of pure calm blessedness in the life of another."
7 The phrase is significant. She was now thirty years old, and her outlook was sufficiently vague. She had grown to her full intellectual stature. She had read widely and intelligently; and if she had not devoted herself to any special line of inquiry, she was becoming familiar with the world of ideas which were ignored in the early domestic circle. So far, however, there is no appearance of any intention to take up original work. "We fancy," says Mrs. Bray in 1846, that "she must be writing her novel"--apparently, because she "is looking very brilliant just now." But the "novel" appears to be merely conjectural, and her labours upon Strauss had not suggested a possibility of her taking up an independent part in such inquiries. Her diffidence would suggest rightly or wrongly that she was not qualified to contribute to philosophical or critical literature. She was therefore at a loss to find any channel for the store of intellectual energy already enriched by much experience and reflection. A poem, written some years later, suggests a state of mind which may illustrate her position at this period. She describes a "Minor Prophet," a gentleman of Puritan descent who has taken up new ideas with the old dogmatic confidence. He is a phrenologist and a vegetarian, interested in "psychical research," and fully expecting a regeneration of the world by the adoption of scientific inventions and the elimination of "faulty human types." She smiles sadly at the prospect, and feels "short-sighted pity" for the coming man who

   "Will not know half the dear imperfect things
   That move my smiles and tears--will never know
   The fine old incongruities that raise
   My friendly laugh; the innocent conceits
   That, like a needless eyeglass or black patch,
   Give those who wear them harmless happiness;
   The twists and cracks in our poor earthenware
   That touch me to more conscious fellowship
   (I am not myself the finest Parian)
   With my coevals."

She goes on to explain that she is anything but indifferent to hopes for another future--

   "The earth yields nothing more divine
   Than high prophetic vision--than the seer
   Who, fasting from man's meaner joy, beholds
   The paths of beauteous order and constructs
   A fairer type, to shame our low content.
   But prophecy is like potential sound
   Which turned to music seems a voice sublime
   From out the soul of light, but turns to noise
   In scrannel pipes and makes all ears averse."
8 She is, she would seem to intimate, distracted between the past and the present; between the old-fashioned Griff and the society of the squires and farmers narrow and stupid, but somehow picturesque, cordial and humorous; and the pragmatical tiresome preacher of scientific or quasi-scientific "fads," who is as undeniably right in his aspirations as he is intolerably prosaic and harsh in his judgment of his predecessors. Now Mr. Bray clearly did not stand for the minor prophet. George Eliot was far too loyal to her friends not to be a little blind to their defects; and Bray was a man of real sense and ability. Yet the "minor prophet" was a kind of inferior Bray, and among his disciples and colleagues there were plenty of people who showed the ugly side of scientific arrogance and the readiness to substitute a tune upon "scrannel pipes" for the pathetic if imperfect music of the older creeds. George Eliot desired to sympathise with these leaders of progress, but contempt for the past jarred most painfully upon her feelings, and seemed treasonable to the best human affections. The intensely tender and sensitive nature which prompted her longing for some "woman's mission" made her shrink from too close an alliance with the iconoclasts who would indiscriminately condemn things sacred to her memory.

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