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George Eliot (1902)

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Leslie Stephen


1 HITHERTO George Eliot, who was now thirty-six, had confined herself to comparatively humble work. She was at home in the upper sphere of philosophy and the historical criticism of religion; but she was content to be an expositor of the views of independent thinkers. She had spent years of toil upon translating Strauss, Feuerbach, and Spinoza; and was fully competent to be in intellectual communion with her friends Charles Bray and Mr. Herbert Spencer. It does not appear, however, that she ever aspired to make original contributions to speculative thought. The effect of her philosophical studies upon her imaginative work was very marked; but she was not to be the first example of a female metaphysician of high rank. She was only to be the first female novelist whose inspiration came in a great degree from a philosophical creed. I have already spoken of the apparently slow development of the purely artistic impulse. Most women at the present day begin, I believe, to write novels in their teens. Miss Burney made herself famous at the age of twenty-five by Evelina, written some years previously. Miss Brontë had already finished her brilliant career before George Eliot had begun to write. The most famous of her predecessors, Miss Austen, had written stories in her childhood, though her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, did not appear till she was thirty-five. Miss Edgeworth published her first novel, Castle Rackrent, at the age of thirty-three; and Miss Ferrier her Marriage at the age of thirty-five. Mrs. Gaskell's (George Eliot's senior by ten years) first novel, Mary Barton, appeared when the author was thirty-eight. These precedents may perhaps suggest that women who have the gift have been often kept back by the feminine virtue of diffidence. Of that virtue, if it be a virtue, George Eliot undoubtedly possessed a large share, and the circumstances of her youth fostered the tendency. Her reverence for her intellectual guides, who were not much given to novel reading and writing, would act in the same direction. Mr. Herbert Spencer's philosophy may be admirable in its own sphere, but is not of itself likely to stimulate an interest in purely imaginative work. It almost seems as if George Eliot would never have written a novel at all had it not been for the quick perception of Lewes. In their circumstances, too, there were sound utilitarian reasons for trying an experiment in the direction of the most profitable variety of literature.
2 George Eliot indeed had always cherished a "vague dream" that some time or other she might write a novel. She had as yet got no further than an "introductory chapter" descriptive of life in a Staffordshire village and the neighbouring farmhouses. The dream had died away. She became despondent of success in that, as in other undertakings. She thought that, though she could describe, she had no dramatic or constructive power. She happened, however, to have the old fragment with her in Germany, and read it to Lewes one evening at Berlin. He shared her doubts as to the dramatic power; but the ability shown in her other articles led him to think the experiment of novel-writing worth trying. One day, in a dreamy mood, she fancied herself writing a story to be called "The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton." Lewes was struck by the title, and encouraged her to make a start. "You have wit, description, and philosophy," he would say; "those go a good way towards the production of a novel." On 22nd September she at last began to write. She showed the first part to Lewes, suggesting that it might open a series of sketches drawn from her observations of the clergy. The scene at Cross Farm convinced him that she could write good dialogue. It was still to be seen whether she had a command of pathos. This was settled by a chapter describing the last illness of Mrs. Barton. They both "cried over it," and Lewes kissed her, saying, "I think your pathos is better than your fun." Thus encouraged, she finished the story on the 5th of November, and next day Lewes sent the MS. with a note to John Blackwood. Lewes stated that the story, intended for the first of a series, had been written by a friend whose powers he had doubted. The doubts had been changed by the reading into "very high admiration." "Such humour, pathos, vivid presentation, and nice observation," he thought, "had not been exhibited in this style since the Vicar of Wakefield." Blackwood answered, saying that the story "would do," though making some criticisms, and adding that till he had seen more of the proposed series he could not make "any decided proposition for the publication of the Tales" in the Magazine. The rather guarded approval called forth a stronger eulogy from Lewes, declaring that the story showed the rarest of all faculties--"dramatic ventriloquism." A publisher can hardly be expected to praise too enthusiastically the wares for which he is bargaining. As Blackwood put it undeniably, "criticism would assume a much soberer tone were critics compelled seriously to act whenever they compressed an opinion." He showed his genuine opinion by accepting the story at once, and waiving his objection to taking it without seeing its successors. The confidence of Lewes's friend, which had been shaken, was greatly restored by this letter. "He" was afraid, said Lewes, of failure, and "by failure would understand that which I suspect most writers would be apt to consider as success--so high is his ambition. I tell you this," added Lewes, "that you may understand the sort of shy, shrinking, ambitious nature you have to deal with." The first part of the story accordingly appeared in Blackwood's Magazine in January 1857; and Blackwood sent fifty guineas and some very cordial praises in return. "Mr. Gilfil's Love Story" and "Janet's Repentance" appeared in the Magazine in the following months; and these appeared together as Scenes of Clerical Life at the beginning of 1858. The name "George Eliot," under which these and all her later works appeared, was assumed, it appears, because Lewes's name was George, and "Eliot" was "a good mouth-filling, easily pronounced word." She had intended to continue the series; but Blackwood's "want of sympathy with the first part" of "Janet's Repentance" had annoyed her, though he came round to admiration of the third part. She wound up the book, therefore, and in October began a more elaborate work.
3 The Scenes of Clerical Life soon attracted notice, though the quiet tone was hardly calculated to produce an instantaneous success of the startling kind. Copies of the collective edition were sent to Froude, Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson, Ruskin, Faraday, Helps, Albert Smith, and Mrs. Carlyle. Mrs. Carlyle wrote warmly, and declared in Carlylean phrase that it was a human book, written out of the heart of a man, not merely out of the brain of an author, full of tenderness and pathos, without a scrap of sentimentality, of sense without dogmatism, of earnestness without twaddle--a book that makes one feel friends at once and for always with the man or woman who wrote it." Carlyle, she added, had promised for once to break his rule of never reading novels when he should emerge from Frederick. Froude was also cordial, but the most enthusiastic praise came from Dickens. He had never, he declared, seen the like of the "exquisite truth and delicacy both of the humour and pathos of these stories." Upon another point Dickens showed a keener insight than other writers. In spite of the assumed name, he thought that the author must be a woman. If not, "no man ever before had the art of making himself so like a woman since the world began." Mrs. Carlyle suggested a more complex hypothesis, such as is often put forward in the regions of the "higher criticism." The author might be first cousin to a clergyman, with a wife from whom he had got the "beautiful feminine touches." Thackeray, it was reported, though he "spoke highly" of the book, thought that the author was a man, which, if true, gives a superfluous proof that even the finest critics are fallible. Meanwhile, it seems that certain touches in the book had convinced George Eliot's old neighbours that the author came from their district. The Scenes, as she admitted soon afterwards, contained "portraits," a mistake which should not occur again, and was due to the fact that her "hand was not well in." The plots, too, were more or less reproductions of remembered incidents. Milly Barton, we are told, is the wife of a Mr. Gwyther, curate of Chilvers-Coton. He died when George Eliot was sixteen, and was a friend of Mrs. Robert Evans, who appears in the story as Mrs. Racket. A persecution of a clergyman, like that upon which Janet's Repentance turns, really took place, though she filled in details from imagination. Mr. Gilfil's Love Story was a more interesting application of the same method. Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel represent Sir Roger and Lady Newdigate. The Newdigates had taken charge of a girl called Sally Shilton, daughter of a collier on the property, who had given promise of musical talent. They had her trained as a singer; and when ill-health forced her to give up the attempt, they continued their protection. She married a Mr. Ebdell, vicar of Chilvers-Coton (the "Shepperton" of the story), in 1801, and died twenty-two years later. Sir Roger's heir, Charles Parker, died suddenly, when Sally was a little over twenty, in 1795. George Eliot, who must have learned the facts from family tradition, converted Sally Shilton into Caterina Sarti, by way of explaining her musical talent as a case of "heredity," and then invented the love affair with Captain Wybrow, who takes the place of Charles Parker. Thus a very touching and consistent love story is based upon a true history, though Charles Parker in his new character has to be guilty of a thoughtless flirtation in which he never indulged, and Sally Shilton is sentenced to a shorter life than she really enjoyed. The representatives of the Newdigate family seem to have regarded this adaptation of their family history as rather impertinent; and though Sir Christopher is admitted to be an admirable portrait of Sir Roger, we are assured that other persons concerned were better than their representatives. As George Eliot must have learned the story from common talk, and given a more distinct colouring to it from her familiarity with Arbury House and the family portraits, and then modified the characters so as to make them work out the story effectively, the deviation from literal truth will not scandalise those who have not the honour to be Newdigates. To them the interest lies in the skill with which these childish recollections have been converted into one of the most charming of stories. The critic of this first book might perhaps be content with saying ditto to Lewes, Mrs. Carlyle, and Dickens. At most he might be inclined to make a few deductions from the superlatives which are natural, or, one would rather say, commendable in an enthusiastic recognition of a new writer of genius. Some defects perhaps show that the writer had not yet acquired a full command of her art. In writing to Blackwood, she says that her "scientific illustrations [in Amos Barton] must be a fault, since they seem to have obtruded themselves disagreeably on one of my readers." She declares her innocence of any but a superficial knowledge of science. The one reader showed some acuteness, for the scientific allusions are not yet so prominent as they came to be in her later style. In the society of Lewes and his friends a scientific allusion, which might alarm the average reader of a magazine, would no doubt pass for commonplace. George Eliot's environment was always so scientific and philosophical that it would have been difficult to be quite free from the taint. The weakness does not imply affectation, and should be taken as an implied, if undeserved, compliment to the reader's intelligence. Blackwood seems to have been vexed by a different indication of defective skill in this story. He did not like the "wind up," and thought that there was "too minute a specification" of the children who gather round Milly Barton's deathbed, and of other persons not previously introduced. I confess that, as the story now stands, I see no force in this criticism; but it may, I think, be said that it marks a slight awkwardness. George Eliot, it would seem, wanted to draw a portrait of the rustic society, and she wanders a little from the main situation in search of characteristic touches. The description of the clerical dinner party seems to be dragged in merely for the purpose of describing different types of clergymen; and here, and in the rather irrelevant Mr. Farquhar, we probably have some of the undesirable portraits from life. If this be true, and I only pretend to speak for myself, the weakness entirely disappears in Mr. Gilfil's Love Story. That appears to be almost faultless, and as admirable a specimen of the literary genus to which it belongs as was ever written. Janet's Repentance is to me less pleasing for a different reason. The coarse attorney, Dempster, to whom Janet is made a victim, is undoubtedly drawn with great vigour, and is perhaps one of the characters which convinced readers that his creator must be of his own sex. Lady novelists are not generally familiar with such blackguards. Janet, however, is so charming as to make her subjection to the snuffy, brandy-smelling, wife-beating bully a little too repulsive; and, moreover, I fancy that a really sharp lawyer would have found some less clumsy methods of insulting the evangelical clergyman. With all her keenness of observation, George Eliot seems to be getting a little beyond her tether when she enters the bar of the "Red Lion."
4 It is, however, needless to insist upon trifling shortcomings, except as they may indicate limitations to be displayed hereafter. The stories have a very definite, and, in spite of certain prejudices suggested by the word, a very legitimate moral. Amos Barton, she admits, is an extremely commonplace person--so commonplace, indeed, as Blackwood put it, that the "asinine stupidity of his conduct about the Countess" disposes one "to kick him." Commonplace people, she observes, have consciences and "sublime promptings to do the painful right"; they have their unspoken sorrows and their sacred joys; their hearts have perhaps "gone out towards their firstborn, and they have mourned over the irreclaimable dead.... Depend upon it, you would gain unspeakably if you would learn with me to see some of the poetry and the pathos, the tragedy and comedy, lying in the experience of a human soul that looks out through dull grey eyes and that speaks in a voice of quite ordinary tones." In a letter written after her next book, she gives her theory: "If art does not enlarge men's sympathies, it does nothing morally.... The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring human creatures." This is apparently meant to meet some remonstrance against her recognition of good qualities in characters regarded by her freethinking friends as embodiments of superstitious bigotry. The desire to rouse sympathy for figures who at first sight repel the more cultivated and intelligent is the motive of these stories. Amos Barton, who represents sheer crass stupidity, and Mr. Gilfil, who, to outward appearance, is the old high-and-dry parson, respected by his "bucolic parishioners" for his general shrewdness and special knowledge of shorthorns, and by the squires for his youthful performances in the hunting field, and Mr. Tryan, to whom the evangelicism of Wilberforce and Newton represents the most exalted form of religion, have all had their romances, indicative of true and tender natures beneath the superficial crust of old-fashioned oddities. It is the especial function of the genuine humorist to make such revelations. Sir Roger de Coverley and Parson Adams and Uncle Toby and Dominic Sampson and Colonel Newcome have this much in common that the lovable in them is brought into relief by the superficial oddities; and George Eliot is only following with more consciousness the path which had been indicated by many predecessors of genius. One of whom she always spoke with marked affection was Goldsmith. I remember (it is one of my few reminiscences) to have heard her speaking with enthusiasm of the Vicar of Wakefeld, and, if my memory be correct, contrasting it with Paul et Virginie, much to the advantage of the British author. The vicar, she held, represented the most wholesome vein in the sentimentalism of the period. I dislike attempts to class literary masterpieces "in order of merit," and I need not here ask what are the qualities to which Goldsmith's inimitable work owes its lasting charm. I think in any case that there is something characteristic in George Eliot's admiration of a book in which the pathos is made effective by a combination of the tenderest feeling with the most exquisite literary tact; and in which we can indulge "great dispositions to cry" without the sense that the crying would have an absurd side. The vicar, however, differs from George Eliot's clergy in this respect (as in many others) that he lives in an idyllic world. Wakefield has, I believe, been identified with some actual locality; but I fancy that it is really in some Arcadia, not to be approached by any boat or railway; and Shepperton, on the contrary, is clearly Chilvers-Coton in Warwickshire, and the inhabitants were but modifications of real people. Miss Mitford's Village, which made her reputation in the year of George Eliot's birth, is a description of Three Mile Cross in Berkshire; and Mrs. Gaskell's Cranford, which was contributed in 1851 to Dickens's Household Words, describes the little town of Knutsford. Both of them are very charming in widely different ways; and in them, as, of course, in Miss Austen, George Eliot had precedents for her choice of a subject. What is characteristic is the tone of feeling and the power of the execution. Dickens's appreciation is the more creditable to him because the work is conspicuous by its freedom from his besetting faults. The humour is perfectly unforced, and shows the comic side of prosaic commonplace without a touch of grotesque extravagance, and the pathos is made to tell by scrupulous self-restraint. Milly Barton dies in the presence of her husband and children, and we are never crossed by the thought which disturbs so many deathbeds in fiction, that she is somehow conscious of an audience applauding her excellence in the part. The situations are simple, and the effect is produced by what we can recognize as the natural development of the characters involved. And this is the indication of a profoundly reflective intellect, which contemplates the little dramas performed by commonplace people as parts of the wider tragi-comedy of human life; and the village communities, their thoughts and customs, as subordinate elements in the great "social organism." The reflections suggested by Caterina's troubles may illustrate the remark: "When this poor little heart was being bruised with a weight too heavy for it, Nature was holding on her calm inexorable way, in unmoved and terrible beauty. The stars were rushing in their eternal courses; the tides swelled to the level of the last expectant weed; the sun was making brilliant day to the busy nations on the other side of the swift earth. The stream of human thought was hurrying and broadening onward. The astronomer was at his telescope; the great ships were labouring over the waves; the toiling eagerness of commerce, the fierce spirit of revolution, were only ebbing in brief rest; and sleepless statesmen were dreading the possible crisis of the morrow. What were our little Tina and her trouble in this mighty torrent, rushing from one awful unknown to another? Lighter than the smallest centre of quivering life in the water-drop, hidden and uncared for as the pulse of anguish in the breast of the tiniest bird that has fluttered down to its nest with the long-sought food, and has found the nest empty and torn."
5 This may recall the famous passage in Carlyle's French Revolution, speaking of the fall of the Bastille. It may be that a too frequent and explicit suggestion of such reflections would become tiresome. That criticism cannot, I think, be applied to anything in the Scenes of Clerical Life. It is the constant, though not obtrusive, suggestion of the depths below the surface of trivial life which gives an impressive dignity to the work; and, in any case, marks one most distinctive characteristic of George Eliot's genius.

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