UTEL [ History of English | English Composition | Literary Authors | Literary Works | Literary Criticism ]


George Eliot (1902)

Title Page | Prev Chapter | Next Chapter

Leslie Stephen


1 UPON her return from Geneva, George Eliot had gone to the Brays, with whom she stayed for some months. A turning-point in her life was now to occur. The Westminster Review, started originally by the Benthamites in their most hopeful days, was in its normal state of insufficient circulation. J. S. Mill had given it up when the decline of the "philosophical radicals" made the management of their organ a thankless task. Since his day it had been in the hands of Mr. Hickson. It was now to be transferred to Mr. Chapman, who hoped to make it an adequate organ for the best liberal thought of the day. He paid a visit to the Brays in October 1850 with Robert William Mackay, an amiable and accomplished man whose chief work, The Progress of the Intellect, had just appeared. George Eliot wrote a sympathetic review of this book for the Westminster Review. Her article was in the number for January 1851, and was the first writing in which she attempted anything more ambitious than translation. Mackay's aim, as she defines it, was to show that "divine revelation" is not to be found exclusively in the records of any one nation, "but is coextensive with the history of human development." A phrase about the "inexorable law of consequences" shows that she was still a disciple of Bray, who praises her for illustrating that "law" in her novels. She seems, too, to have accepted the phrenology of Combe and Bray, as is shown by occasional references to the "anterior lobes" of such great men as Dickens and Professor Owen, whom she was presently to see. Chapman finally bought the Westminster, and arranged that George Eliot should become assistant-editor. She took up her duties in September 1851, and boarded with the Chapmans at their house in the Strand. Her wide knowledge of foreign and English literature, her industry and willingness to perform any kind of drudgery, were admirable qualifications for the post. It might be doubted whether a young lady who had hitherto lived only in the provinces, and had had no concern in periodical literature, would possess an instinct for the qualities which secure popular success. That, however, would be mainly a question for the Editor-in-chief, and the Westminster endeavoured to make its way by enlisting contributors already distinguished or soon to win distinction. The list of persons who were more or less interested in the undertaking is remarkable, and in one way or other George Eliot saw something of most of the writers who have left their mark upon the time. Some of the lights have paled. She is introduced to the daughter of the Religion of the Universe, and perhaps few readers will be able to say offhand that the phrase means the religion of Mr. Robert Fellowes. But in many cases we regret that her letters, written hastily in the intervals of continuous labour, give us only tantalising glimpses. The philosophical radicals had ceased to be efficient contributors. J. S. Mill, whose position had been established by the Logic and the Political Economy, was at this time much of a recluse. He was, however, "propitiated" by Grote, who was "very friendly," and he contributed one article (upon Whewell's Moral Philosophy) of which the sub-editor did not think highly. Mill's early friend, William Ellis, of whose "apostolical labour" in trying to get Political Economy taught in primary schools he spoke enthusiastically, was personally kind, but does not appear to have contributed. Carlyle, who had just published The Life of Sterling, and beginning to plunge into Frederick, was invited to denounce the peerage. "Insinuating letters," offering "three other most glorious subjects," failed to bring him down, but he called and strongly, though fruitlessly, recommended "Browning the poet." With Froude, then just becoming a disciple of the prophet, she was more fortunate. She had greatly admired the Nemesis of Faith, and written a notice of it for the Coventry Herald. A personal acquaintance had followed; and but for his marriage at the time, Froude would have joined the Brays in their trip with her to Geneva. He now contributed a striking article upon the Book of Job, and afterwards wrote upon Spinoza. The number in which the "Job" appeared included contributions from Theodore Parker and Harriet Martineau. Miss Martineau attracted her by kindness and cordiality, and was an effective contributor. To James Martineau there are admiring references, though he generally wrote in other organs. Francis Newman, whom she had already called "our blessed St. Francis"; W. R. Greg, whose Creed of Christendom had produced a marked effect; W. J. Fox, the veteran radical author and orator; and W. E. Forster, who wrote an article greatly approved by her upon American Slavery, are other names incidentally mentioned. Mazzini wrote an article, pronounced by Greg to be "sad stuff." The most important contributor, however, appears to have been Mr. Herbert Spencer. His article upon the "Universal Postulate" made a special impression. He had just brought out his Social Statics, pronounced, as she had heard, by G. H. Lewes to be the "best book on the subject." They rapidly became friends, and she declares him to be "a good, delightful creature." She "always feels better for being with him." By Mr. Herbert Spencer she was introduced towards the end of 1851 to George Henry Lewes, of whom more must be said directly.
2 Meanwhile it may be remarked that she was thus becoming more or less familiar with nearly all the eminent writers who, in one sense or other, were on the side of intellectual advance. They differed widely enough from each other, and there could hardly be a more fundamental contrast than that between Carlyle and Mr. Herbert Spencer. It was as well that she should learn that the Brays and Hennells, however excellent in their way, did not represent the only line of thought. She had, indeed, read too widely to be kept within the prison house of a single sect. One point may be noticed in passing, as it had a marked influence upon her later views. The philosophy of Comte was at this time attracting notice in England. Mill had been for a time a warm personal disciple, and had spoken of him with great respect in the Logic; Miss Martineau was compiling an abridgment of his work; and G. H. Lewes had written as an adherent of his doctrine. George Eliot was interested; and in later life drew nearer to the Positivist than to any other school. Her editorial work seems to have been absorbing and often dispiriting. It was too much like flogging a dead horse. The public declined to care for the admirable articles addressed to them, and showed no very keen hankering for sound philosophy. She had to plod through much ponderous manuscript on arid topics. Her hands, she complains, are "hot and tremulous," while there is a "great dreary article" by her side asking for reading and abridgment. One day she has to read a review article upon taxation, to collate it with newspaper articles, and consider all that J. S. Mill says on the subject. Then Mr. Chapman produces a thick German volume, of which she is to read enough to form an opinion. Mr. Lewes calls, and "of course sits talking till the second bell rings," and at 11 P.M. she is still puzzling over taxation. Letters and callers and meetings of Associations distract her, and she is glad to fly for occasional relief to her friends at Coventry. In addition to her regular work she is translating Ludwig Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity, which appeared as by "Marian Evans" (the only time her real name was used) in July 1854. Feuerbach had developed Hegelianism into naturalism, and the translation apparently implies an extension of George Eliot's anti-theological tendencies. Another book by her on the Idea of a Future Life was advertised, but never appeared. She complains of headaches and rheumatism; and one is not surprised that by the end of 1853 she is becoming tired of it, and is giving notice of resignation to Mr. Chapman. She was living alone in lodgings, snatching brief holidays to be spent with the Brays, and, we may guess, feeling the want of the domestic circle, which, even when not intellectually sympathetic, had satisfied her craving for affection.
3 George Henry Lewes, born in 1817, if not the profoundest reasoner, was certainly one of the most brilliant of the literary celebrities of the time. He was the grandson of a second-rate actor, and had had a very desultory education. The dates and facts seem to be rather confused. He had, it is said, passed through several schools, had then been a clerk in a merchant's office, and for some time a medical student; he had spent some years in France and Germany, and almost forgotten the use of his mother tongue. On returning to England he had for a time gone upon the stage; at the age of twenty he had given lectures upon philosophy at the chapel of W. J. Fox; and he had finally settled down to write books and articles on the most various topics. He had written a play and a couple of novels, one of which, Rose, Blanche, and Violet, made something of a mark. He had written articles upon French and German philosophy and literature; discoursed upon the Greek, Spanish, and Italian drama; and criticized Browning, Tennyson, and Macaulay. His Biographical History of Philosophy, which appeared in 1845 and 1846, showed that in spite of all distracting interests he thought himself qualified to expound ultimate truths. Learned professors who, like Sir William Hamilton, had spent lives upon abstruse metaphysical treatises, might despise the audacity of the young man who entered the arena with so slender an apparatus of learning. The brightness and vivacity of the book, however, and the happy introduction of the biographical element, roused the interest of ordinary readers, and perhaps persuaded some of them that much of the mystery in which the more ponderous philosophers wrapped themselves could be dispelled by a little common sense. The preface, indeed, announced that "philosophy" had had its day, and was to be superseded by Comte's Positivism. Lewes afterwards wrote the Life of Goethe, which though ardent Goethe worshippers may pronounce it to show a want of sympathy for some aspects of the hero, is singularly interesting and well written, and deserved the success which has made it a standard work in biography. He afterwards took to physiology, and after producing some popular books, approved, it is said, by "scientific bigwigs," proceeded to show the philosophical bearing of his studies in his Problems of Life and Mind. This was left as a fragment at his death. I need only say here that whatever their value, his later writings show the old alertness and keenness of intellect and his continued interest in the philosophical disquisitions to which, spite of all distractions, he was constantly recurring.
4 At this time Lewes was literary editor of the Leader, a weekly paper representing the same tendencies as the Westminster. He was publishing a series of articles upon Comte, to whom he had been personally introduced by J. S. Mill. He was what is generally called a Bohemian, though always with serious ambition. He could converse ably upon all such matters as interested literary and journalistic circles in London, and his wide knowledge of continental writers gave him an authority in some matters not shared by many English contemporaries. He was a brilliant talker, fully able to turn his knowledge to account. His conversation abounded in lively anecdotes, told with infinite zest; he was thoroughly genial, and ready at good-humoured repartee; and he was not hampered by any excessive reverence for conventional proprieties. He was of slight figure, and, according to Douglas Jerrold, the "ugliest man in London." It would be presumptuous to express any opinion upon the justice of so sweeping an observation. But if not beautiful, he was a man to forget, and to induce companions to forget, any such defects. He had bright eyes and a fine brow, and the whole face and bearing was full of intelligence. A social gathering must have consisted of very ponderous interests if it could not be stirred into animation by a man with so much more quicksilver in his composition than falls to the lot of the average Briton. Nobody, one might guess, was more likely to dazzle the grave young lady, profoundly interested in philosophy, and anxious to get the newest lights in speculation, than this daring and brilliant writer, who knew all that was being done in France and Germany, and could talk with equal confidence upon Comte and Hegel, or upon the last new play or oratorio in London. She was apparently rather repelled by his levity at first; but after a time says that he has "quite won her liking in spite of herself." He has had a good deal of her "vituperation"; but, "like a few other people in the world, he is much better than he seems--a man of heart and conscience, wearing a mask of flippancy."
5 Lewes had married in 1840; and for some time later lived in the same house with Thornton Hunt, who had edited the Leader in co-operation with him. Mrs Lewes had already borne children to her husband. Circumstances arose which, though Lewes's view of the marriage tie were anything but strict, had led some two years previously to a break-up of the family. A legal divorce was impossible; but George Eliot held that the circumstances justified her in forming a union with Lewes, which she considered as equivalent to a legitimate marriage. I have not, and I suppose that no one now has, the knowledge which would be necessary for giving an opinion as to the proper distribution of praise and blame among the various parties concerned, nor shall I argue the ethical question raised by George Eliot's conduct. It may be a pretty problem for casuists whether the breach of an assumed moral law is aggravated or extenuated by the offender's honest conviction that the law is not moral at all. George Eliot at any rate emphatically took that position. She had long protested against the absolute indissolubility of marriage. She thought, we are told, that the system worked badly, because wives were less anxious to please their husbands when their position was "invulnerable." She held, with Milton, that so close a tie between persons not united in soul was intolerable. "All self-sacrifice is good," she had said upon reading Jane Eyre in 1848, "but one would like it to be in a somewhat nobler cause than that of a diabolical law which chains a man body and soul to a putrefying carcass." Mrs. Lewes was not so bad as Mrs. Rochester, but the hardship was sufficient to justify an exception to the ordinary rule. Writing a few months after the union, she says that she cannot understand how any unworldly unsuperstitious person, who is sufficiently "acquainted with the realities of life," can pronounce her relation to Lewes "immoral." Nothing in her life, she declares, has been more "profoundly serious," which means, it seems, that she does not approve "light and easily broken ties." In her writings, indeed, her tendency is to insist upon the sanctity of the traditional bonds, which, whatever their origin, are essential to social welfare, and so far she agrees on this, as on many points, with her friends the Positivists. Comte, though he admired the Catholic doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage, discovered the necessity for making an exception which happened to cover his own case. George Eliot, it seems, who had never accepted the strictest doctrine, was more consistent. No one can deny that the relation to Lewes was "serious" enough in her sense. It lasted through their common lives, and their devotion to each other was unlimited, and appears only to have strengthened with time. She never misses an opportunity of expressing her affection for her "husband," or her gratitude for the blessings due to his devotion. Lewes expressed his feeling with equal emphasis. In a journal of 1859 he speaks of a walk with Mr. Herbert Spencer. Mr. Spencer's friendship had been the brightest ray in a very dreary "wasted period of my life"; it had roused him from indifference to fresh intellectual interest; but, he adds, "I owe Spencer another and a deeper debt. It was through him that I learned to know Marian--to know her was to love her--and since then my life has been a new birth. To her I owe all my prosperity and all my happiness. God bless her!" Lewes, like other men of his buoyant temperament, was well enough satisfied with himself; but his vanity was made inoffensive by his generosity. He recognized all talent gladly; and the recognition in the case of George Eliot rose to enthusiastic devotion. He looked up to her as in her own field an entirely superior being, in the front rank of contemporary genius. Their house became a temple of a domestic worship, in which he was content to be the high priest of the presiding deity. He stood as much as possible between her and all the worries of the outside world. He transacted her business, wrote her letters, kept her from the knowledge of unpleasant criticism, read all her books with her as they were composed, made suggestions and occasional criticisms; but, above all, encouraged her by hearty and sincere praise during the fits of depression to which she was constitutionally liable. She gave him the manuscripts of her books with inscriptions recording her gratitude, and the inscription in Romola may sum up her permanent sentiment: "To the Husband, whose perfect love has been the best source of her insight and strength, this manuscript is given by his devoted wife, the writer."
6 The Leweses left England together in July 1854 and went to Weimar, where he worked upon the Life of Goethe. In November they went to Berlin, and returned to England in March 1855. They saw a good many distinguished Germans, only one of whom "seemed conscious of his countrymen's deficiencies." They were, however, kindly received, and George Eliot's intellectual horizon was no doubt widened by intercourse with Rauch the sculptor, Liszt the musician, Liebig the chemist, Varnhagen von Ense, and others well known in various departments. She worked at a translation of Spinoza's Ethics, which was never published, though much of it seems to have been completed. On reaching England they settled for a time at Richmond, and had to take seriously to writing. Lewes had to support his wife's children, and both had to depend upon their pens. Lewes was bringing out his Life of Goethe. George Eliot continued her labours upon Spinoza, and contributed articles to the Westminster and other periodicals. She wrote upon Heine, Young of the Night Thoughts, Margaret Fuller, and Mary Wollstonecraft, and upon Dr. Cumming, who in those days was interpreting the Apocalypse and thrilling simple readers by a prospect of the approaching battle of Armageddon. Her remarks upon Cumming--rather small game, it must be admitted, for such an adversary--had one result. They convinced Lewes that she possessed not only great talent, but true genius. In 1856 the Leweses made some stay at Ilfracombe and Tenby, where Lewes was seeking materials for his Seaside Studies. Upon their return to Richmond in September, George Eliot at last took up the work by which she was to become famous.

Title Page | Prev Chapter | Next Chapter
HTML files generated by Marc Plamondon for the University of Toronto English Library, under the direction of Professor Ian Lancashire.

UTEL [ History of English | English Composition | Literary Authors | Literary Works | Literary Criticism ]