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George Eliot (1902)

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Leslie Stephen


1 THE publication of Silas Marner marks an important change in the direction of George Eliot's work. The memories of early days are no longer to be the dominant factor in her imaginative world; and henceforth one charm disappears, however completely, to the taste of some readers, it may be replaced by others. She has begun, as we have seen, to consider theories about the relations of ethics and aesthetics and psychology; and hereafter the influence of her theory upon her writing will be more obvious. This brings one in sight of certain general canons of criticism, upon which I do not desire to touch any further than is necessary for an appreciation of George Eliot herself. Yet the moral and philosophical implications of her novels are so prominent that it is impossible to omit altogether one or two questions as to their propriety. Many critics seem to lose their temper at any suggestion that a poem or a novel can have any legitimate didactic purpose. Everybody must sympathise with their annoyance. It is undeniably vexatious to take up a novel and find that it is a pamphlet in disguise, and that the envelope of fiction merely coats the insipid pill of a moral platitude. We have all suffered from such well-meant impositions in our childhood; "we," I mean, who were born in the good old days when children read the Parent's Assistant and Hymns for Infant Minds. Somehow many of the old stories with a moral were very delightful. I am still grateful to the author of Sandford and Merton, though I fear that I did not assimilate the ethical teaching of the excellent Mr. Barlow. The objection, however, expresses a most undeniable and indeed painfully obvious proposition. There is, beyond all dispute, a fundamental distinction between the literature of the imagination and the literature of science. "We need not say," observes the historian of King Valoroso, " that blank verse is not argument." A novelist's facts can prove nothing, for the simple reason that they are fictions; and his narrative, when it is reasoning in disguise, becomes intolerable. But still we must ask, What is a poor novelist to do who happens to have been impressed by some of the great masters of thought, such as Plato or Spinoza, whose philosophies are embodied poetry? Is he to forget all the thoughts that have occurred to him in his philosophical capacity, and to write as though he had no more speculations about the world or human nature than the most frivolous of his readers? If his "philosophy" has really modified his own microcosm, can he drop it when he describes the world? And why should he be called upon to drop it? Must he not, at any rate, have some tinge of psychology? When Fielding wrote Tom Jones, the first great English novel upon modern lines, he announced that he took "human nature" for his subject; and all his successors have aimed, according to their capacity, at providing us with studies of the same subject from different points of view. We might describe this by saying that fiction must be applied psychology. The phrase, no doubt, would startle innocent readers who fear the intrusion of some hideous scientific doctrine. Yet it is a way of stating a harmless commonplace. Shakespeare was, no doubt, a very different writer from Professor Bain. He did not write a treatise upon the Emotions and the Will; but when he described Hamlet, he imagined a character which forcibly illustrates the relation between those faculties. The merit of the character depends upon the insight, and therefore upon the correctness of the psychology, though Shakespeare had not read Bain, nor even Bacon, and had never thought of the possibility of any such science, or of taking a scientific view at all. To George Eliot, of course, various psychological theories, Mr. Herbert Spencer's and others, were familiar. They were too familiar, we may fancy, when in defending Maggie Tulliver she appeals, as I have said, to the desirability of conforming to enlightened expositions of modern psychology. That may suggest a possible danger--the danger of constructing her characters out of abstract formulae instead of reversing the process. But certainly it was not any abstract theory that taught her that a girl of Maggie's character would be likely to comfort herself with the mysticism of à Kempis, or to fall in love with Stephen Guest. She simply knew the fact from her own experience or her observation of others. But not the less, we may say without offense that her insight is justified by psychology, and that Maggie, like Hamlet, is profoundly interesting--not because her character has been constructed from psychological formulae, but because when presented it offers problems to the psychologist as fascinating as any direct autobiography. The truthfulness goes far beyond any explanation from our crude guesses at the appropriate scientific formulae. The imaginative intuition presents the concrete reality which no theorist can analyse into its constituent elements, and we can recognize, though we cannot logically prove, its fidelity and subtlety. Nor need we really be frightened by the "philosophy." There is a rather quaint entry in her diary about this time: "Walked with George over Primrose Hill. We talked of Plato and Aristotle." We may dread a possible intrusion of disquisitions upon the theories of those sages into the uncongenial sphere of fiction as well as into familiar talk. But, so far as we have yet gone, I cannot perceive any ground for offense of that kind. George Eliot was a "philosopher" in the sense that she had reflected long and seriously with all her very remarkable intellectual power upon some of the greatest problems which can occupy the mind. She had, in particular, thought of the part which is played by the religious beliefs and their real meaning and value. She had accepted, more or less, a particular system, though hitherto at least she made no special reference to it, and certainly did not change her novels into propagandist manifestoes. What, in fact, she had acquired was a cordial respect and sympathy for creeds embodied even in crude and superstitious dogmas; and she had, therefore, described many types, which in less thoughtful minds suggested only absurdities and provoked caricatures, with the intention of laying stress upon the nobler aspirations of such humble people as Silas Marner and Dolly Winthrop. If by "philosophy" we understand some metaphysical system constructed by logical subtlety, it has certainly no direct relation to poetry; but if it corresponds to that state of mind in which the varying beliefs and instincts, even of the vulgar, have been considered with a desire to understand and appreciate their value, then it is likely, I fancy, to give harmony and sympathetic warmth to pictures of human life. George Eliot's merit in these novels is just proportioned to our sense that we are looking through the eyes of a tender, tolerant, and sympathetic observer of the aspirations of muddled and limited intellects.
2 This suggests one other stumblingblock. George Eliot speaks, we have seen, of the "ethics of art," and to some people this appears to imply a contradiction in terms. Esthetic and ethical excellence, it seems, have nothing to do with each other. George Eliot repudiated that doctrine indignantly, and I confess that I could never quite understand its meaning. The "ethical" value of artistic work, she held, is simply its power of arousing sympathy for noble qualities. The "artist," if we must talk about that personage, must, of course, give true portraits of human nature and of the general relations of man to the universe. But the artist must also have a sense of beauty; and, among other things, of the beauty of character. He must recognize the charm of a loving nature, of a spirit of self-sacrifice, or of the chivalrous and manly virtues. He shares, indeed, with the scientific observer the obligation of seeing things as they are; and must not only admit the prevalence of evil, but see even what "soul of goodness" is to be found in things evil. He must be as absolutely impartial as the physiologist describing the physical organization. But the impartiality does not imply insensibility. The fairest statement of the facts ought, if our morality be sound, to bring out the beauty of the moral character most fully. In fact, the charm of all the great novelists, from Cervantes downwards, consists essentially in the power with which they have drawn attractive heroes, and won love both for them and their creators. If anybody holds that morality is a matter of fancy, and that the ideal of the sensualist is as good as that of the saint, he may logically conclude that the morality of the novelist is really a matter of indifference. I hold myself that there is some real difference between virtue and vice, and that the novelist will show consciousness of the fact in proportion to the power of his mind and the range of his sympathies. Whether, as a matter of fact, novels do exert much ethical influence is another question; and the answer depends a good deal upon the character of the readers. But I cannot doubt that one secret of George Eliot's power lay in a sympathy with many types in which was essentially implied a power of responding spontaneously to noble and tender sentiment.
3 George Eliot's theory of the relation of novels to morality appears to me to be so far essentially sound. It must be admitted, however, that theories are dangerous things. They become shackles or suggest erroneous applications of power. They are dangerous to the spontaneity which marks a true imaginative inspiration. The writer who wishes to enforce some moral maxim is apt not only to pervert facts, but to force his humour. He cudgels his brain into framing illustrations which he takes for proofs. When this error is avoided, even the most direct didactic intention may cease to be mischievous. Richardson's novels, for example, were gigantic tracts, written deliberately and intentionally to enforce certain moral doctrines. That did not prevent Clarissa Harlowe from being one of the great novels of the world, nor was the Nouvelle Héloïse of his disciple, Rousseau, less important on account of its didactic purpose. It does not matter so much why a writer should be profoundly interested in his work, nor to what use he may intend to apply it, as that, somehow or other, his interest should be aroused, and the world which he creates be a really living world for his imagination. This suggests the difficulty about George Eliot's later writings. The spontaneity of the early novels is beyond all doubt. She is really absorbed and fascinated by the memories tinged by the old affections. We feel them to be characteristic of a thoughtful mind, and so far to imply the mode of treatment which we call philosophical. Her theories, though they may have guided the execution, have not suggested the themes. A much more conscious intention was unfortunately to mark her later books, and the difficulties resulted of which I shall have to speak.
4 The Leweses had lived at 8 Park Street, Richmond, from 1855 till the end of 1858. They then moved to Holly Lodge, where she formed an intimate friendship with the Congreves. Mr. Congreve was a leading member of the Positivist Society, which had much of her sympathy in the following years. In 1860, after the publication of the Mill on the Floss, they moved again to 16 Blandford Square. The union with Lewes had involved a breach with many of her early friends, and in some cases the separation was obviously painful. She declares that it was never a trial to her to have been cut off from what is called the "world," and thinks that she "never loved her fellow-creatures the less for it." Still she has a "peculiar regard" for those who stood by her at the time. "The list of those who did so," she adds, "is a short one, so that I can often and easily recall it." She explains a few days afterwards that she has made it a rule never to pay visits. "Without a carriage, and with my easily perturbed health, London distances would make any other rule quite irreconcilable for me with any efficient use of my days, and I am obliged to give up the few visits which would be really attractive and fruitful in order to avoid the quaky visits which would be the reverse." Other reasons for the same course are obvious; but those mentioned were, no doubt, genuine and sufficient. The rest of her life was passed with very little indulgence in society. Lewes's children formed part of the household, though they were mainly educated abroad. They were on thoroughly affectionate terms with her; and, for the most part, she led a quiet domestic life, finding her chief recreation in music. She read, she says, slowly; but she read much, eschewing most modern literature of the lighter kind, and absorbing very thoroughly what she did read. The Life, afterwards published by Mr. Cross, was made upon the plan, no doubt the right one, of telling her story from her own letters. There were, however, few incidents to be told; and Lewes undertook most of her correspondence. One result is that comparatively little is told in her letters of her later mental history. A great part of the correspondence consists of accounts of holiday tours, which cannot be said to have any remarkable interest. In 1860, after finishing the Mill on the Floss, she made a three months' tour in Italy. Visits to Italy have been a turning-point in the lives of many great English writers; and this tour had, as we shall see, a very important effect upon George Eliot. The diary and letters, however, in which it is described leave a disappointing blank. The Leweses saw Rome, Naples, Florence, Venice, Milan, and other famous places; went most conscientiously through all the regular sights; and, of course, made plenty of judicious and intelligent remarks. In Florence, for example, they admire "Brunelleschi's mighty dome" and "Giotto's incomparable campanile." They visit the palaces and the churches, and we have a list of the art treasures which specially attract them in the Pitti Palace and the Uffizi Gallery. In the Pitti Palace "there is a remarkably fine sea piece by Salvator Rosa; a striking portrait of Aretino, and a portrait of Vesalius by Titian; one of Inghirami by Raphael; a delicious rosy baby--future cardinal--lying on a silken bed; a placid, contemplative young woman, with her finger between the leaves of a book, by Leonardo da Vinci"--and so forth. No doubt it is all true; only one has read something very like it before; and with the help of Baedeker and Murray one might make out such a list without being a great author. Of course, it would be absurd to infer that George Eliot did not receive many impressions which she did not confide to her diary. I must, however, confess that there is, to my mind, something characteristic in the docility with which she accepts the part of the intelligent sightseer. There are plenty of appreciative remarks; but none of those brilliant flashes with which Ruskin could light up the well-worn topics of descriptive enthusiasm, and couch our dull eyes to new aspects of familiar beauties. We feel that the man of genius gives his personal impressions, which are, therefore, more or less governed by accident or prejudice, but which, nevertheless, extort a partial assent, and at the lowest make us more vividly conscious of one element in our emotions. George Eliot, so far as this diary goes, seems to be simply recording the verdicts already pronounced by the most enlightened and respectable authorities.

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