1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Eliot, George
ELIOT, GEORGE, the pen-name of the famous English writer, née Mary Ann (or Marian) Evans (1819–1880), afterwards Mrs J. W. Cross, born at Arbury Farm, in Warwickshire, on the 22nd of November 1819. Her father, Robert Evans, was the agent of Mr Francis Newdigate, and the first twenty-one years of the great novelist’s life were spent on the Arbury estate. She received an ordinary education at respectable schools till the age of seventeen, when her mother’s death, and the marriage of her elder sister, called her home in the character of housekeeper. This, though it must have sharpened her sense, already too acute, of responsibility, was an immense advantage to her mind, and, later, to her career, for, delivered from the tiresome routine of lessons and class-work, she was able to work without pedantic interruptions at German, Italian and music, and to follow her unusually good taste in reading. The life, inasmuch as she was a girl still in her teens, was no doubt monotonous, even unhappy. Just as Cardinal Newman felt, with such different results, the sadness and chain of evangelical influences from his boyhood till the end of his days, so Marian Evans was subdued all through her youth by a severe religious training which, while it pinched her mind and crushed her spirit, attracted her idealism by the very hardness of its perfect counsels. It is not surprising to find, therefore, that when Mr Evans moved to Coventry in 1841, and so enlarged the circle of their acquaintance, she became much interested in some new friends, Mr and Mrs Charles Bray and Mr Charles Hennell. Mr Bray had literary taste and wrote works on the Education of the Feelings, the Philosophy of Necessity, and the like. Mr Hennell had published in 1838 An Enquiry concerning the Origin of Christianity. Miss Evans, then twenty-two, absorbed immediately these unexpected, and, at that time, daring habits of thought. So compelling was the atmosphere that it led to a complete change in her opinions. Kind in her affection, she was relentless in argument. She refused to go to church (for some time, at least), wrote painful letters to a former governess—the pious Miss Lewis—and barely avoided an irremediable quarrel with her father, a churchman of the old school. Here was rebellion indeed. But rebels come, for the most part, from the provinces where petty tyranny, exercised by small souls, show the scheme of the universe on the meanest possible scale. George Eliot was never orthodox again; she abandoned, with fierce determination, every creed, and although she passed, later, through various phases, she remained incessantly a rationalist in matters of faith and in all other matters. It is nevertheless true that she wrote admirably about religion and religious persons. She had learnt the evangelical point of view; she knew—none better—the strength of religious motives; vulgar doubts of this fact were as distasteful to her as they were to another eminent writer, to whom she refers in one of her letters (dated 1853) as “a Mr Huxley, who was the centre of interest” at some “agreeable evening.” Her books abound in tributes to Christian virtue, and one of her own favourite characters was Dinah Morris in Adam Bede.
She undertook, about the beginning of 1844, the translation of Strauss’s Leben Jesu. This work, published in 1846, was considered scholarly, but it met, in the nature of things, with no popular success. On the death of Mr Evans in 1849, she went abroad for some time, and we hear of no more literary ventures till 1851, when she accepted the assistant-editorship of the Westminster Review. For a while she had lodgings at the offices of that publication in the Strand, London. She wrote several notable papers, and became acquainted with many distinguished authors of that period—among them Herbert Spencer, Carlyle, Harriet Martineau, Francis Newman and George Henry Lewes. Her friendship with the last-named led to a closer relationship which she regarded as a marriage. Among the many criticisms passed upon this step (in view of the fact, among other considerations, that Lewes had a wife living at the time), no one has denied her courage in defying the law, or questioned the quality of her tact in a singularly false position. That she felt the deepest affection for Lewes is evident; that we owe the development of her genius to his influence and constant sympathy is all but certain. Yet it is also sure that what she gained from his intimate companionship was heavily paid for in the unceasing consciousness that most people thought her guilty of a grave mistake, and found her written words, with their endorsement of traditional morality, wholly at variance with the circumstances of her private life. Doubts of her suffering in this respect will be at once dismissed after a study of her journal and letters. Stilted and unnatural as these are to a tragic degree, one can read well enough between the lines, and also in the elaborate dedication of each manuscript to “my husband” (in terms of the strongest love), that self-repression, coupled with audacity, does not make for peace. Her sensitiveness to criticism was extreme; a flippant paragraph or an illiterate review with regard to her work actually affected her for days. The whole history of her union with Lewes is a complete illustration of the force of sheer will—in that case partly her own and not inconsiderably his—over a nature essentially unfitted for a bold stand against attacks. At first she and the man whom she had described “as a sort of miniature Mirabeau in appearance,” went abroad to Weimar and Berlin, but they returned to England the same year and settled, after several moves, in lodgings at East Sheen.
In 1854 she published The Essence of Christianity, a translation from Feuerbach, a philosopher to whom she had been introduced by Charles Bray. During 1855 she translated Spinoza’s Ethics, wrote articles for the Leader, the Westminster Review, and the Saturday Review—then a new thing. It was not until the following year that she attempted the writing of fiction, and produced The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton—the first of the Scenes of Clerical Life. These, published in Blackwood’s Magazine, were issued in two volumes in 1858. The press in general extended a languid welcome to this work, and although the author received much encouragement from private sources, notably from Charles Dickens, the critics were mostly non-committal, and it was not until the publication of Adam Bede in 1859 that enthusiasm was attracted to the quality of the earlier production. Adam Bede, in the judgment of many George Eliot’s masterpiece, met with a success (in her own words) “triumphantly beyond anything she had dreamed of.” In 1860 appeared The Mill on the Floss. After the sensational good fortune of Adam Bede, the criticism applied to the new novel seems to have been disappointing. We find Miss Evans telling her publisher that “she does not wish to see any newspaper articles.” But the book made its way, and prepared an ever-growing army of readers for Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1862–1863), and Felix Holt (1866).
Silas Marner shows a reversion to her early manner—the manner of Scenes of Clerical Life. Romola, which is what is called an historical novel, owesvitality not to the portraits of Savonarola or of the heroine, or to its vigorous pictures of Florentine life in the 15th century, but to its superb presentment of the treacherous, handsome Tito Melema, who belongs not to any one period but to every generation. Felix Holt, a novel dealing with political questions, is strained by a painfulness too severe for any reader’s pleasure. Where other eminent authors have produced mechanical books, or books which were mere repetitions of their most popular effort, she erred only on the side of the ponderous and the distressing. Felix Holt is both, and it is the only one of her novels which lacks an unforgettable human note. The Spanish Gypsy (1868), a drama in blank verse, received more public response than most compositions of the kind executed by those connected with the drama or with poetry only; and she published in 1874 another volume of verses, The Legend of Jubal and other Poems.
Any depression which the author may have felt with regard to the faults found with some of the last-named books was completely cured by the praise bestowed on Middlemarch (1872). This profound study of certain types of English character was supreme at the time of its writing, and it remains supreme, of its school, in European literature. Thackeray is brilliant; Tolstoi is vivid to a point where life-likeness overwhelms any consideration of art; Balzac created a whole world; George Eliot did not create, but her exposition of the upper and middle class minds of her day is a masterpiece of scientific psychology. Daniel Deronda (1876), a production on the same lines, was less satisfactory. It exhibited the same human insight, the passionate earnestness, the insinuated special pleading for hard cases, the same intellectual strength, but the subject was unwieldy, almost forbidding, and, as a result, the novel, in spite of its distinction, has never been thoroughly liked. The death of Mr Lewes in 1878 was also the death-blow to her artistic vitality. She corrected the proofs of Theophrastus Such (a collection of essays), but she wrote no more. About two years later, however, she married Mr J. W. Cross, a gentleman whose friendship was especially congenial to a temperament so abnormally dependent on affectionate understanding as George Eliot’s. But she never really recovered from her shock at the loss of George Lewes, and died at 4 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, on the 22nd of December 1880.
No right estimate of her, whether as a woman, an artist or a philosopher, can be formed without a steady recollection of her infinite capacity for mental suffering, and her need of human support. The statement that there is no sex in genius, is on the face of it, absurd. George Sand, certainly the most independent and dazzling of all women authors, neither felt, nor wrote, nor thought as a man. Saint Teresa, another great writer on a totally different plane, was pre-eminently feminine in every word and idea. George Eliot, less reckless, less romantic than the Frenchwoman, less spiritual than the Spanish saint, was more masculine in style than either; but her outlook was not, for a moment, the man’s outlook; her sincerity, with its odd reserves, was not quite the same as a man’s sincerity, nor was her humour that genial, broad, unequivocal humour which is peculiarly virile. Hers approximated, curiously enough, to the satire of Jane Austen, both for its irony and its application to little everyday affairs. Men’s humour, in its classic manifestations, is on the heroic rather than on the average scale: it is for the uncommon situations, not for the daily tea-table.
Her method of attacking a subject shows the influence of Jane Austen, especially in parts of Middlemarch; one can detect also the stronger influence of Mrs Gaskell, of Charlotte Brontë, and of Miss Edgeworth. It was, however, but an influence, and no more than a man writer, anxious to acquire a knowledge of the feminine point of view, might have absorbed from a study of these women novelists. One often hears that she is not artistic; that her characterization is less distinct than Jane Austen’s; that she tells more than should be known of her heroes and heroines. But it should be remembered that Jane Austen dealt with familiar domestic types, whereas George Eliot excelled in the presentation of extraordinary souls. One woman drew members of polite society with correct notions, while the other woman depicted social rebels with ideas and ideals. In every one of George Eliot’s books, the protagonists, tortured by dreams of perfection, are in revolt against the prudent compromises of the worldly. All through her stories, one hears the clash of “the heroic for earth too high,” and the desperate philosophy, disguised it is true, of Omar Khayyam. In her day, Epicureanism had not reached the life of the people, nor passed into the education of the mob. Few dared to confess that the pursuit of pleasure, whether real or imagined, was the aim of mankind. The charm of Jane Austen is the charm of the untroubled and well-to-do materialist, who sees in a rich marriage, a comfortable house, carriages and an assured income the best to strive for; and in a fickle lover of either sex or the loss of money the severest calamities which can befall the human spirit. Jane Austen despised the greater number of her characters: George Eliot suffered with each of hers. Here, perhaps, we find the reason why she is accused of being inartistic. She could not be impersonal.
Again, George Eliot was a little scornful to those of both sexes who had neither special missions nor the consciousness of this deprivation. Men are seldom in favour of missions in any field. She demanded, too strenuously from the very beginning, an aim, more or less altruistic, from every individual; and as she advanced in life this claim became the more imperative, till at last it overpowered her art, and transformed a great delineator of humanity into an eloquent observer with far too many personal prejudices. But she was altogether free from cynicism, bitterness, or the least tendency to pride of intellect. She suffered from bodily weakness the greater part of her life, and, but for an extraordinary mental health—inherited from the fine yeoman stock from which she sprang—it is impossible that she could have retained, at all times, so sane a view of human conduct, or been the least sentimental among women writers of the first rank—the one wholly without morbidity in any disguise. The accumulation of mere book knowledge, as opposed to the friction of a life spent among all sorts and conditions of men, drove George Eliot at last to write as a specialist for specialists: joy was lost in the consuming desire for strict accuracy: her genius became more and more speculative, less and less emotional. The highly trained brain suppressed the impulsive heart,—the heart described with such candour and pathos as Maggie Tulliver’s in The Mill on the Floss. For this reason—chiefly because philosophy is popularly associated with inactive depression, whereas human nature is held to be eternally exhilarating—her later works have not received so much praise as her earlier productions. But one has only to compare Romola or Daniel Deronda with the compositions of any author except herself to realize the greatness of her designs, and the astonishing gifts brought to their final accomplishment.
See also the Life of George Eliot, edited by J. W. Cross (3 vols., 1885–1887); George Eliot, by Sir Leslie Stephen, in the “English Men of Letters” series (1902); by Oscar Browning, “Great Writers” series (1890), with a bibliography by J. P. Anderson; by Mathilde Blind, “Eminent Women” series, a new edition of which also contains a bibliography (Boston, Mass., 1904). (P. M. T. C.)