Historical Essays and Studies/George Eliot's Life
GEORGE ELIOT'S LIFE
The Life, while it illustrates the novels, explains what they do not indicate, — the influences which produced the novelist. George Eliot was no spontaneous genius, singing unbidden with unpremeditated art. Her talents ripened successively and slowly. No literary reputation of this century has risen so high after having begun so late. The even maturity of her powers, original and acquired, lasted only thirteen years, and the native imagination was fading when observation and reflection were in the fulness of their prime. Mr. Cross's first volume describes the severe discipline of life and thought, the trials and efforts by which her greatness was laboriously achieved.
Marian Evans spent the first thirty years of her life in a rural shire, and received her earliest and most enduring impressions in a region of social stability, among inert forces, away from the changing scenes that attend the making of history. Isolation, the recurring note of her existence, set in early, for her urgent craving for love and praise was repelled by the relations around her, and her childhood was unhappy. We are assured that she was affectionate, proud, and sensitive in the highest degree ; and the words are significant, because they bear the concurrent testimony of her brother and her husband. The early letters, written with the ceremonious propriety of Miss Seward, give no sign of more than common understanding. She was just out of her teens when she wrote the following words : —
Men and women are but children of a larger growth : they are still imitative beings. We cannot (at least those who ever read to any purpose at all) — we cannot, I say, help being modified by the ideas that pass through our minds. We hardly wish to lay claim to such elasticity as retains no impress. How deplorably and unaccountably evanescent are our frames of mind, as various as the forms and lines of the summer clouds ! A single word is sometimes enough to give an entirely new mould to our thoughts ; at least I find myself so constituted, and therefore to me it is pre-eminently important to be anchored within the veil, so that outward things may be unable to send me adrift. Society is a wide nursery of plants, where the hundreds decompose to nourish the future ten, after giving collateral benefits to their contemporaries destined for a fairer garden. The prevalence of misery and want in this boasted nation
of prosperity and glory is appalling, and really seems to call us away from mental luxury. Oh, to be doing some little towards the regeneration of this growing travailing creation !
Beneath the pale surface of these sentences, and of one touching "that joyous birdlike enjoyment of things which, though perishable as to their actual existence, will be embalmed to eternity in the precious spices of gratitude," there are germs of sentiments to which the writer clung through the coming years. But the contrast with her developed character is stronger than the resemblance. She is struck at this time with compassion at the spectacle presented by people who go on marrying and giving in marriage. Music seems to her an unholy rite. On a visit to London she buys a Josephus, but refuses to go to the play with her brother. Even Shakespeare is dangerous. She lamented that novels had been supplied to her early, teaching her to live by herself in the midst of an imaginary world ; and she had been disturbed at reading in Devereux that religion is not a requisite to moral excellence. She concluded that history is better than fiction ; and her growing energy, her accuracy, her power of mastering hard books, seemed to promise a rival to Clinton or Long. The first literary enterprise in which she was engaged was a chart of ecclesiastical history, intended to include an application of the Apocalyptic prophecies, "which would merely require a few figures," — the sense of humour was still dormant. The taste for material erudition was soon lost, and turned to bitterness. In her books George Eliot has twice exhibited the vanity of pointless learning, and she looked back gratefully upon the agencies which rescued her from the devious and rugged ways by which history approaches truth.
Evangelical and Baptist teachers had imbued her with practical religion, and she enjoyed the writings proper to the school. In after-years Sydney Smith's account of his occupations about this time must have seemed to her a burlesque of her own : "I console myself with Doddridge's Exposition and The Scholar Armed, to say nothing of a very popular book, The Dissenter Tripped Up." She was intent on Doddridge. Wilberforce, and Milner, admired Hannah More, and commended The Infidel Reclaimed. Respect for the logic of Calvinism survived most of her theology, and it was attended originally by a corresponding aversion for what pertains to Rome. She reads the Oxford tracts, and unconsciously applying a noted saying of St. Thomas, detects the Satanic canker amidst so much learning and devotion.
This seriousness is the most constant element which early education supplied to her after career. She knew, not from hearsay or habit, but from the impress of inward experience, what is meant by conversion, grace, and prayer. Her change was not from external conformity to avowed indifference, but from earnest piety to explicit negation, and the knowledge of many secrets of a devout life accompanied her through all vicissitudes. Writers of equal celebrity and partly analogous career, such as Strauss and Renan, have made the same claim, somewhat confounding theological training with religious insight, and deliberate conviction or devotional feeling with faith. But George Eliot continued to draw the best of her knowledge from her own spiritual memories, not from a library of local divinity, and she treated religion neither with learned analysis nor with a gracious and flexible curiosity, but with a certain grave sympathy and gratitude. Her acquaintance with books had been restricted by the taste or scruples of teachers who could not estimate the true proportions or needs of her mind, and the defect was not remedied by contact with any intelligent divine. Such instruction as she obtained has supported thousands faithfully in the trials of life, but for an inquisitive and ambitious spirit, gifted with exceptional capacity for acquiring knowledge, it was no adequate protection under the wear and tear of study.
In the summer of 1841 the thought quickens, the style improves, and a new interest is awakened in disputed questions. She already aspired after that reconciliation of Locke with Kant which was to be the special boast of one of her most distinguished friends, and she was impressed by Isaac Taylor's Ancient Christianity, allowing some drawback for his treatment of the Fathers. At this point, while still a trusted member of the Church, Miss Evans was introduced at Coventry to a family of busy and strenuous freethinkers.
The first visit to their house was early in November 1841, after which she speaks of being absorbed in momentous studies, and on the 1 3th of the same month she writes to her most intimate friend : "Think! is there any conceivable alteration in me that could prevent your coming to me at Christmas?" The obstacle announced in these words was a vital alteration in her religious principles. The revolution was sudden, but it was complete. For a time she continued to speak of eternal hope and a beneficent Creator ; in deference to her father she even consented, uneasily, to go to church. But from that momentous November until her death it would appear that no misgiving favourable to Christianity ever penetrated her mind or shook for an instant its settled unbelief. There was no wavering and no regret. And when George Eliot had become a consummate expert in the pathology of conscience, she abstained from displaying the tortures of doubt and the struggles of expiring faith.
The history of a soul is never fully told, even for edification. We learn that Miss Evans was initiated in the mysteries of scepticism at her first encounter with cultivated society ; and her early convictions, artlessly propped upon Young and Hannah More, yielded to the combined influence. Her new friend was the wife of Mr. Bray, who had written The Philosophy of Necessity, and sister to Mr. Hennell, the author of An Enquiry concerning the Origin of Christianity. The formal country schoolgirl, whose wondering companions called her "Little Mamma," who gathered them for prayer, who knew how to organise and to invigorate district work, and had dismissed her own brother for his High Church propensity, was fascinated and transformed by these surroundings. She pronounced Mrs. Bray the most religious person she knew, and Mr. Hennell a perfect model of manly excellence. She read his Enquiry twice through, and found it more interesting than any book she had seen. It represented in its day the antepenultimate stage of Biblical study ; and Strauss, swathing his German criticism in politer Latin, said that it was written Britannis, Britannice. Mr. Hennell's reading of Gospel history was not the outcome of untried method or hypothesis, and those whom he convinced were tempted to conclude that arguments so specious and acceptable to themselves ought in fairness to satisfy others. They impressed Miss Evans, and at the critical moment she met with some unfavourable specimen ot the Christian advocate. "These dear orthodox people talk so simply sometimes, that one cannot help fancying them satirists of their own doctrines and fears." Endowed with many virtues which go to constitute the ideal of the Christian character, with self-knowledge, unflinching sincerity, and an ardent devotion to the good of others, she became impatient of minds that could not keep pace with her own, and learnt during a portion of her life to reckon prejudice, fallacious reasoning, and wilful blindness among the properties of orthodoxy.
Strauss himself never made so important a proselyte. He provoked a reaction which nearly balanced his direct influence, and the Leben Jesu had already become, like the Génie du Christianisme and the Sermon on National Apostasy, the signal of a religious revival. Between Hennell's Enquiry and George Eliot's answer there is no proportion. His views need not have implied condemnation of all foreign and American Churches. She was more thorough in her rejection of the Gospels, and she at once rejected far more than the Gospels. For some years her mind travelled in search of rest, and, like most students of German thought before the middle of the century, she paid a passing tribute to pantheism. But from Jonathan Edwards to Spinoza she went over at one step. The abrupt transition may be accounted for by the probable action of Kant, who had not then become a buttress of Christianity. Out of ten Englishmen, if there were ten, who read him in 1841, nine got no further than the Critique of Pure Reason, and knew him as the dreaded assailant of popular evidences. When George Eliot stood before his statue at Berlin she was seized with a burst of gratitude, but she hardly became familiar with his later works.
Mr. Bray was a phrenologist who remained faithful to the cause after it had been blighted by Dr. Carpenter ; and he soon found out that, if there is truth in phrenology, Miss Evans must be a portent. Mrs. Bray and her sister, the Cara and Sara of the biography, relieved the sadness and the solitude of her life at home, and comforted her in fits of nervous depression, in her fretful introspection, in her despair of ever winning affection or doing work worth living for. She associated with their friends, used their library, and surveyed the world through their windows. Greek and German, and the depths of unconscious energy within, carried her presently beyond their sphere, and she followed her own path in literature. A time came when the correspondence between them fell under constraint. But for ten eventful years, in which her mind was forming and settling upon fixed lines, this family group was able to encourage and to limit her progress, and the letters to Miss Hennell, written under the stress of transition, described her first attempts to steer without the accustomed stars : —
So much of George Eliot's permanent characteristics had taken root independently of Rousseau, Spinoza, Feuerbach, Goethe, Comte, or Spencer, and before the dynasty of thinkers began to reign in her mind. Mrs. Cross would have recognised herself in these confessions of 1843. The acute crisis was over: a long period of gradual and consistent growth ensued.
Miss Evans translated the Leben Jesu from the fourth edition, in which Strauss betrayed the feeling roused by the violence of the conflict, and withdrew the concessions which his ablest opponents had wrung from him. It was not a labour of love to the translator. In her judgment the problem was exhausted. She had her own more radical solution, which the author did not reach for twenty years, and she shared neither his contentious fervour, his asperity, nor his irresolution. The task was accomplished under a sense of growing repulsion. One of her friends even says that she gathered strength to write on the Crucifixion by gazing on the crucifix, and we may infer from this remark that some confusion of thought prevailed at Coventry.
When she visited Germany in 1854, the first person she met, at Cologne, was Strauss. A miniature revolution had driven him from the career for which he was bred, and he was leading an indeterminate existence, without an occupation fitted for his powers, and without a home. Cologne irritated him by want of literature, and by the cathedral which a Protestant government was proceeding to complete, while those to whom it belonged had been content that it should stand for centuries a monument of profuse and miscalculating zeal. Theology made him sick, and fame did not console him, for he was tired of being called the author of his book, and was not yet reconciled to popularity among classes that could neither substitute precept for dogma nor ideas for facts. The meeting left no agreeable impression. In the life of George Eliot Strauss is an episode, not an epoch. She did not take him up to satisfy doubts or to complete an appointed course. These studies were carried no further, and she was not curious regarding the future of the famous school whose influence extended from Newman and Ritschl to Renan and Keim. But there is no writer on whom she bestowed so large a share of the incessant labour of her life. Two years spent in uncongenial contact with such a mind were an effectual lesson to a woman of twenty-six, unused to strict prosaic method, and averse from the material drudgery of research. She could learn from Strauss to distrust the royal road of cleverness and wit, to neglect no tedious detail, to write so that what is written shall withstand hostile scrutiny.Five studious years followed, which strengthened the solid qualities of her mind. There had been much docility in complying with the nearest teaching and taking the line of least resistance. There was some risk of falling into worn channels, as men do who keep the colours of school and college, who read for agreement, and privately believe in some sage of Highgate or Westminster, Chelsea or Concord, as chance determines. George Eliot set herself earnestly to get out of the current, to be emancipated from the forces about her, and to secure the largest area of choice for guidance and instruction.
I say it now, and I say it once for all, that I am influenced in my own conduct at the present time by far higher considerations, and by a nobler idea of duty, than I ever was while I held the evangelical beliefs. It seems as if my affections were quietly sinking down to temperate, and I every day seem more and more to value thought rather than feeling. I do not think this is man's best estate. Now I am set free from the irritating worn-out integument. I am entering on a new period of my life, which makes me look back on the past was something incredibly poor and contemptible. I am beginning to lose respect for the petty acumen that sees difficulties.
I love the souls that rush along to their goal with a full stream of sentiment, that have too much of the positive to be harassed by the perpetual negatives, which after all are but the disease of the soul, to be expelled by fortifying the principle of vitality. 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.
After losing her father and spending several months at Geneva she settled down to a literary career in London. At Geneva she is still remembered with affection. Her days were spent obscurely, in the hard work which was her refuge from loneliness, from despondency, from the absence of a woman's joys and cares. She kept the secret of her authorship, and avoided aggressive speech ; but those whom she trusted knew her as a pantheist and a stubborn disputant. She is described as talking well but showily, like one overfed on the French of the days when Quinet and Mickiewicz were eminent. France and the emotional philosophers had their time. She became, and to some extent remained, a devoted advocate of Jean Jacques and George Sand, and she startled Emerson by her taste for the Confessions.
Half of the books mentioned at this period are in verse. She knew how to distil working ideas from the obscurest poems ; and her decorated prose, artificial with the strain to avoid commonplace, charged with excessive meaning, and resembling the style of no other writer, was formed on the English poets. She preferred Milton, Shelley, Wordsworth, and the early dramatists, specially excluding Marlowe. No one was fitter by intellectual affinity to penetrate the secret of Shakespeare ; but the influence of Goethe was deeper, and perhaps near the end the influence of Dante. Goethe's preponderance is explicable by Strauss's reason, that Sirius may be larger than the sun, but ripens no grapes for us. It is recorded that George Eliot thought Shakespeare unjust to women ; and we may believe that a mind so carefully poised was repelled by his flagrant insularity, his leaning for obvious characters, his insensibility to the glories of Greece and the mystery of the Renaissance, his indifference to the deeper objects for which his generation contended. The preference for Dante, with all his passion, fanaticism, and poverty of logic, is a symptom of that swerving towards religious sentiments which, in spite of Comte, if not by virtue of Comte, marked the later years.Beyond the pleasures of literature arose the sterner demand for a certain rule of life in place of the rejected creeds. The sleepless sense that a new code of duty and motive needed to be restored in the midst of the void left by lost sanctions and banished hopes never ceased to stimulate her faculties and to oppress her spirits. After the interrupted development and the breach with the entire past, only her own energy could avail in the pursuit that imparted unity to her remaining life. It was the problem of her age to reconcile the practical ethics of unbelief and of belief, to save virtue and happiness when dogmas and authorities decay. To solve it she swept the realm of knowledge and stored up that large and serious erudition which sustains all her work, and in reality far exceeded what appears on the surface of the novels or in the record of daily reading. For an attentive observer there are many surprises, like that of the mathematician who came to give her lessons and found that she was already in the differential calculus. It is her supreme characteristic in literature that her original genius rested on so broad a foundation of other people's thoughts ; and it would be hard to find in her maturer life any parallel to Mr. Spencer's historic inacquaintance with Comte, or to the stranger ignorance of Mr. Spencer's own existence avowed in 1881 by Michelet, the legendary mantle-bearer of Hegel.
George Eliot always read with a purpose before her, and there was no waste and little raw material in her learning. But her acquirements were mainly those of a person who had taught herself, and might not have satisfied University tests. The Latin is dubious in Romola and the Italian in Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story. The Princess of Eboli, who is supposed in the Life to have been a beauty, wore a patch over her eye. A questionable date is assigned to the Platonic anniversary in Romola, and the affair of the Appeal is misunderstood. There is a persistent error regarding the age of Pico ; and Savonarola, instead of proclaiming that he went straight to heaven, gave his evidence the other way. These and all other mistakes which the patience of readers has detected are immeasurably trivial compared to those which occur in the most famous historical novels, such as Ivanhoc and John Inglesant.
Caution and vigilance in guarding even the vestige of inaccuracy are apparent in other ways than the trip to Gainsborough and the consultation with Mr. Harrison on the legal obscurities of Felix Holt. Ladislaw's fatal allusion to German scholarship, which shattered Dorothea's belief in her husband, was an audacious hyperbole. Comparative mythology was as backward in Germany as elsewhere, besides which the Aglaophamus was written in Latin and the Symbolik was already appearing in French. But George Eliot takes care to warn us that Ladislaw did not know what he was talking about, and that Casaubon scorned to learn from a German even writing in Latin. Macchiavelli, in Romola, blows hot and cold on the Frate, but the inconsistency is faithfully taken from his writings. While the enthusiasts prevailed he went easily with the tide ; but after he had been ruined and tortured for the Republic, and had become the officious expounder of Borgian theory to Medicean experts, he spoke as became him of the man who had the blood-feud with Borgias and Medicis. The discovery of a single epithet, of a single letter (versuto for versato), has determined his real opinion since George Eliot wrote. The supreme test of the solidity of her work is the character of Savonarola. She possibly under-estimates the infusion of artifice in the prophecies, but no historian has held more firmly the not very evident answer to the question how a man who denounced the Pope as fiercely as Luther, who was excommunicated and consigned to death by Rome, should nevertheless have left such a reputation behind him that, within eleven years of his execution, Julius the Second declared him a true martyr, and was willing to canonise him ; that Paul the Third suspected any man who should venture to accuse him ; that he was honoured among the saints in the liturgy of his Order. The answer is that Savonarola assailed the intruder, not the institution. He was no reformer of the prerogative, and would have committed full powers to a pontiff of his choice. He upheld the Papal authority against the usurper of the Papacy. Three false Popes were once upon a time removed to make way for Clement the Third, for the same reason for which Savonarola deemed Alexander an illegitimate pretender, who ought to be made to yield his place to a better man.
The essential articles of George Eliot's creed were the fruit of so much preceding study that she impresses us less than some other writers by originality in the common sense of invention. She was anxious to make it known that her abiding opinions were formed before she settled in London. Mr. Spencer confirms the claim, and it is proved by her first paper in the Westminster Review. The doctrine that neither contrition nor sacrifice can appease Nemesis, or avert the consequences of our wrong-doing from ourselves and others, filled a very large space indeed in her scheme of life and literature. From the bare diagram of Brother Jacob to the profound and finished picture of Middlemarch, retribution is the constant theme and motive for her art. It helped to determine her religious attitude, for it is only partly true that want of evidence was her only objection to Christianity. She was firmly persuaded that the postponement of the reckoning blunts the edge of remorse, and that repentance, which ought to be submission to just punishment, proved by the test of confession, means more commonly the endeavour to elude it. She thought that the world would be indefinitely better and happier if men could be made to feel that there is no escape from the inexorable law that we reap what we have sown. When she began to write, this doctrine was of importance as a neutral space, as an altar of the Unknown God, from which she was able to preach her own beliefs without controversy or exposure. For whilst it is the basis of morals under the scientific reign, it is a stimulant and a consolation to many Christians, for whom the line, "The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small," expresses an ancient observation sanctioned by religion, whereas the words once spoken at Salerno, "Dilexi justitiam et odi iniquitatem, propterea morior in exilio," are the last cry of a baffled and despairing fanatic.
This fundamental principle, that the wages of sin are paid in ready money, was borne in upon her by all her early environment. Bray had written a book in its defence, and the strength of Dawson's moral teaching was largely ascribed to the firmness with which he held it. Comte had said that obedience to each natural law has its peculiar reward, and disobedience its appropriate punishment ; and Emerson stated his theory of compensation in these terms : "The specific stripes may follow late upon the offence, but they follow, because they accompany it. Crime and punishment grow out of one stem. We cannot do wrong without suffering wrong." The same law, that evil ensues of necessity from evil deeds, is the pivot of Spinoza's ethics, and it was the belief of Strauss. George Eliot accepted it, and made it bright with the splendour of genius. Other portions of her system, such as altruism and the reign of the dead, exhibit her power of anticipating and of keeping abreast with the quicker movements of the age. In this she plainly followed, and she followed the lead of those who happened to be near.
She belongs to that family of illustrious thinkers whose progress has been made by the ingenious use of existing materials and respect for those who have gone before. Mr. Herbert Spencer owes seminal ideas to Baer, Professor Bain to Johannes Miiller, Helmholtz to Young, Darwin to Malthus, Malthus to Euler, Milne Edwards to Adam Smith, Bentham to Hutcheson. Newton has the demerit of having been preceded in his greatest discovery by three contemporaries, and Helmholtz by five. One of Laplace's theories was in s' Gravesande before him and the other in Kant. Comte, if Mill had not given him a release from the study of German, might have found his law of the three stages anticipated by Fries in 18 19. The Westminster Review adopted a new and characteristic motto when she joined it. There is another maxim of the same writer, which she would have been willing to make her own : "Alles Gescheidte ist schon gedacht worden ; man muss nur versuchen es noch einmal zu denken." Goethe's new commentators track the derivation of his sentences, as we in England know how much Latin and Italian poetry was boiled down in Gray's "Elegy," and from which lines of Coleridge Byron got the "Address to the Ocean." George Eliot's laborious preparation and vast reading have filled her books with reminiscences more or less definite. The suggestion that she borrowed the material of plots from George Sand, Freytag, Heyse, Kraszewski, Disraeli, or Mrs. Gaskell, amounts to nothing ; but the quack medicine which is employed to make the Treby congregation ridiculous is inherited from Faust. The resemblance of ideas is often no more than agreement. The politics of Felix Holt may be found in Guizot — "C'est de l'état intérieur de l'homme que depend l'état visible de la société." A Belgian statesman has said, "Plus on apporte d'eléments personnels, spontanes, humains, dans les institutions, moins elles sont appelees à régler la marche de la société." Probably George Eliot had read neither the one nor the other, though she may have met with the same thoughts constantly. But she had read Delphine, and the conclusion of Delphine is the conclusion of the story of Gwendolen : "On peut encore faire servir au bonheur des autres une vie qui ne nous promet à nousmêmes que des chagrins, et cette espérance vous la ferait supporter." The passage on the roadside crucifix in Adam Bede ends thus : "No wonder man's religion has sorrow in it : no wonder he needs a suffering God!" The sentence reads like a quotation from Chateaubriand, but it is the quintessence of Feuerbach. In the same chapter of Deronda the lament of Francesca is quoted with repeated emphasis, and the moon is entangled among trees and houses. The figure occurs in the poem which Musset wrote against those very verses of Dante. A motto before the fifty-seventh chapter of Daniel Deronda comes very near the preface to Fiesco. Several candidates have felt that Mr. Brooke has purloined their speeches at the hustings. One of his good sayings points to France. "I want that sort of thing — not ideas, you know, but a way of putting them." The speechless deputy in the comedy says, "Ce n'est jamais les idées qui me manquent, c'est le style."
When she left Warwickshire, where Mr. Froude and Miss Martineau had been her friends and Emerson had shone for a moment, she was not dazzled by what she found in London. The discriminating judgment, the sense of proportion were undisturbed by reverence or enthusiasm for the celebrities of the day. The tone towards Macaulay and Mill is generally cold, and she shrinks from avowing the extent of her dislike for Carlyle. Dickens behaved well towards his lofty rival, but she feels his defects as keenly as his merits ; and she is barely just to Darwin and Lecky. A long ground-swell followed her breach with Miss Martineau. The admiration expressed for Mr. Ruskin — the Ruskin of 1858 — is flavoured with the opposite feeling ; and the opposite feeling towards Buckle is not flavoured with admiration ; for her artistic temper revolts against the abstraction of the average man and the yoke of statistics, with its attendant reliance on the efficacy of laws. George Eliot highly esteemed both the Newmans. She wished to be within hearing of the pulpit at Edgbaston. The Apologia breathed much life into her, and she points out the beauty of one passage ; but it is the writer's farewell to friends and no part of his argument. The early vituperation of Disraeli, of his Judaism and the doctrine of race, is a landmark to measure the long procession of her views. In Deronda days she judged Lord Beaconsfield more benignly, relishing his disdain for the popular voice and his literary finish beyond the effective qualities of his rival.
Promptness in opening her mind to new influence, and ardour of gratitude and respect had changed into a quiet resolve to keep cool and resist ascendency. There was nobody among her acquaintances to whom she owed such obligations as she acknowledges to Mr. Herbert Spencer. Although she underrated his constructive talent, and did not overrate his emotional gifts, she foresaw very early the position he afterwards attained. He made the sunshine of her desolate life in London ; they met every day, and the two minds, strangely unlike each other, worked in a like direction. The friendship with Lewes made slower progress.
George Eliot retired from the management of the Review without having found her vocation or struck a vein of ore. She employed herself in translating Spinoza and Feuerbach. The Essence of Christianity had been published more than twelve years, and expressed neither a prevailing phase of philosophy nor the last views of the author. More than any other work it had contributed to the downfall of metaphysics, and it contained an ingenious theory of the rise and growth of religion, and of the relation of the soul to God, while denying the existence of either. Feuerbach repudiated Christianity so decisively that Strauss was distanced and stranded for thirty years and it would have been difficult to introduce to the British public any work of the same kind written with as much ability. It met no demand and was received with cold reserve. A letter of December 1874 shows that Feuerbach's theogony survived in her system longer than his scoffing and destructive spirit. He learnt towards the end of his life that a prominent American politician had been converted from Christianity by his book in the translation of Marian Evans. The news would not have gratified the translator. The book appeared in July 1854, and immediately after she accepted Lewes, who was completing the Life of Goethe, and they started for Weimar and Berlin.
Mr. Cross has judged it unnecessary to explain a step which is sufficiently intelligible from the whole tenor of George Eliot's life. The sanctions of religion were indifferent to her after rejecting its doctrines, and she meant to disregard not the moral obligation of marriage, but the social law of England. Neither the law which assigns the conditions of valid marriage, nor that which denied the remedy of divorce, was of absolute and universal authority. Both were unknown in some countries and inapplicable to certain cases, and she deemed that they were no more inwardly binding upon everybody than the royal edicts upon a Huguenot or the penal laws upon a Catholic.
George Eliot can neither be defended on the plea that every man must be tried by canons he assents to, nor censured on the plea that virtue consists in constant submission to variable opinion. The first would absolve fanatics and the other would supersede conscience. It is equally certain that she acted in conformity with that which in 1854 she esteemed right, and in contradiction to that which was the dominant and enduring spirit of her own work. She did not feel that she was detracting from her authority by an act which gave countenance to the thesis that associates rigid ethics with rigid dogma, for she claimed no authority and did not dream of setting an example. The idea of her genius had not dawned. That she possessed boundless possibilities of doing good to men, and of touching hearts that no divine and no philosopher could reach, was still, at thirty-five, a secret to herself. At first she was astonished that anybody who was not superstitious could find fault with her. To deny herself to old friends, to earn with her pen an income for her whose place she took, to pass among strangers by a name which was not her due, all this did not seem too high a price for the happiness of a home. She urged with pathetic gravity that she knew what she was losing. She did not know it. Ostensibly she was resigning a small group of friends and an obscure position in literature. What she really sacrificed was liberty of speech, the foremost rank among the women of her time, and a tomb in Westminster Abbey.
Mr. Cross is loyal to the memory of Lewes, and affords no support to the conjecture that she longed to be extricated from a position which had become intolerable, or ever awoke to the discovery that she had sacrificed herself to an illusion. With a history open to unfriendly telling there were topics difficult to touch upon and views to which she could not well do justice. She endeavoured, when she became an author, to avert celebrity, to conceal her identity, even to disguise her purpose, and to assume an attitude which was not her own. So essential did secrecy seem to success that the revelation compelled by the report that George Eliot was some one else was felt as a serious injury. There was some cause for diffidence, for toleration, and for a veil of irony. But so far was the difficulty of her position from depressing the moral standard that it served in one respect to raise it. Feuerbach thought it affectation to turn away from immodest scenes, and asserted that enjoyment is a duty. Strauss sneered at the text which laid down the law of Christian chastity. The Westminster Review praised a wife who had procured a mistress for her husband. Rousseau thought Sophie all the better for her sin. With these writers George Eliot had been associated. Her admiration for Rousseau, for Shelley, for Jacques, the most ignominious of George Sand's stories, her description of the indissolubility of marriage as a diabolical law, indicate that her opinions did not always keep the elevated level of her early religion and her later philosophy. But in her novels the tone is extremely high. It is true that the pure mind of Romola had been fed on The Decamerone ; but it is also true that Boccaccio, and not Dante, was the favourite classic of the Florentines of the Renaissance. Gwendolen, having been degraded by marriage without love, is rescued and purified by love without marriage ; but we are not suffered to forget for a moment that the marriage was criminal and the love was pure. George Eliot determined to write nothing from which it might be inferred that she was pleading for herself. She was scrupulous that no private motive should affect the fidelity of art. To write books, as Corinne and Delphine were written, in the interest of the writer, would have seemed to her degradation, and she never puts forward her own ideal of character.
Marriage was not the only chapter of social ethics touched by the Feuerbach phase, and it was not the gravest. Mazzini belonged to Lewes's circle, and Mazzini was currently suspected of complicity in practices which were distinctly criminal, practices for which the law prescribes its last and simplest penalty. George Eliot wavered a good deal between her interest in his cause and her distrust of his methods, but she would never have felt it a stigma to be on amicable terms with him. Elizabeth and Mary, James and William, lie under the same ban of imputed murder, and the friends of the republican conspirator had no reason to apprehend the censure of those who admired the heroes of Catholic and Protestant monarchy.
Those who remember George Henry Lewes in his prosperity, when he was the most amusing talker in the town, so well content with his labours as to regret nothing he had written, and running over with mirth and good-humour until he could bear contradiction, excuse folly, and even tolerate religion, saw what George Eliot had made him. She knew him first under less genial aspects. Disaster had settled on his domestic life ; he had set his hand to too many things to excel in any, and the mark of failure and frustrated effort was upon him. Varnhagen said in 1850 that Lewes's restless endeavours were repulsive, and that he would end badly if he did not mend his ways. His first books did not recommend him; but there were signs in Ranthorpe of large undiscriminating knowledge, and he was, with Mill, the earliest propounder of Positivism in England. He was introduced to George Eliot when his fortunes were almost desperate, and two years passed before she discerned that he was not the flippant man he seemed. She helped him to attain a prominent if not quite an important place among men of letters. For twenty years his Life of Goethe held its position even in Germany ; and the vacant record of incoherent error which he called a History of Philosophy is still read with pleasure. Passing with the drift from the discarded illusions of metaphysics to physiology, and in intelligent pursuance of Comte's leading idea, he conceived the noble design of a History of Science, which, by displaying the discovery and application of scientific methods, would have fitly crowned the Positive Philosophy.
Lewes helped to dispel the gloom and despondency of George Eliot's spirits, and stood manfully between her and all the cares he did not cause. His literary skill must have done her untold service, although the recorded instances of his intervention are contestable, and although his practice of keeping her aloof from all criticism but his own must have profited her comfort more than her art. She deferred to his judgment, but she knew that she could rely on his praise. He admired her essays, her novels, and at last her poetry. He was not quick in detecting her sovereign ability, and must bear the reproach that he under-valued his prize, and never knew until it was too late that she was worthy of better things than the position to which he consigned her. During the years in which she rose to fame she lived in seclusion, with no society but that of Lewes, preferring the country to London, the Continent to England, and Germany to France. In this perfect isolation the man through whose ministry almost alone she kept touch with the wider world exerted much influence. He encouraged her in contempt for metaphysics, in the study of biology, in her taste for French and especially German writers, and in her panoramic largeness of view. The point at which their ways parted and his action ceased most decidedly was religion. She had kept up her early love of the Scriptures, and she contracted a great liking for the solemn services of the Catholic churches. Lewes saw no harm in these tastes, and he even bought her a Bible. But he did not like to hear of it. He was a boisterous iconoclast, with little confidence in disinterested belief and a positive aversion for Christianity. Even Bach, he said, was too Protestant for him. George Eliot's interest in the religious life was therefore kept up under resistance to adverse pressure.
If Lewes did not debase her standard of rectitude, he enlarged her tolerance of error. Having elected to be subject for life to a man still encumbered with his youth, she became indulgent towards sentiments she disapproved, and appreciated the reason and the strength of opinions repugnant to her. Lewes had detached her from the former associations, and she did not accept his views. Step by step, for good or evil, the process of her life had brought her to a supreme point of solitude and neutrality that would have been chilling and fatal to a feebler mind, but gave her the privilege of almost unexampled independence and mental integrity. Her secluded life had important literary consequences. It estranged her from general society and from religious people.
The breach with zealous Churchmen was not new, but it was now irreparable. She knew their ways from the old books and early recollections ; but in the active religious work and movement of her time she shows no more concern than in Plato or Leibnitz. There is no trace of solicitude about Christian Socialism, although Parson Lot's letter furnished forth a speech for Felix Holt. Neither Lamennais nor Gioberti is mentioned, although three volumes are occupied with the protomartyr of Liberal Catholicism. The literature of ethics and psychology, so far as it touched religion, dropped out of her sight, and she renounced intercourse with half the talent in the world. The most eminent of the men who pursued like problems in her lifetime, among the most eminent who have thought about them at any time, were Vinet and Rothe. Both were admirable in their lives, and still more in the presence of death ; and neither of them could be taxed with thraldom to the formulas of preceding divines. George Eliot disregards their existence. At Heidelberg she passes before Rothe's house without alluding to his name. Although she knew and highly valued M. Scherer, she did not remember that he was the friend of Vinet, or that the history of his opinions is as remarkable as anything to be found in the Apologia or told in her own biography.
There are marks of a wound inflicted by Warwickshire pride, which would not heal. She knew how to construct an unseen creature from scanty materials, but the divination is more true, the touch more sure in dealing with classes that subsist for profit than with the class that subsists for pleasure. Having met some friends of Cavour on the Lake of Geneva, she declares that there is nothing but their language and their geniality and politeness to distinguish them from the best English families. The lawyer who on the opening day of the Rugeley trial pronounced Palmer a dead man, "John Campbell was so infernally polite," used an argument of which the author of Romola would have admitted the force. Long retirement prepared her to suspect a snare in conventional gentility, as if company manners concealed a defect of genuine humanity and served to keep classes apart. She would not have assented to the definition of a gentleman that he is one who will bear pain rather than inflict it. This is the angle at which a faint echo of Carlyle strikes the ear. She pursues with implacable vengeance the easy and agreeable Tito. Her chosen hero goes bare-necked and treads on corns. She will not see that Harold Transome is a brute, and salves over his inconsiderate rudeness by asserting, in parabasis, his generosity and goodness of heart. Garth, who might have sent in his resignation by post, prefers an interview which compels a cruel explanation. No rumours preserved in a family of land agents could justify the picture of Grandcourt ; but his odiousness is requisite in order to contrast the wife's momentary flash of guilty delectation when he goes over board with the ensuing expiation. The same discordant note appears in Gwendolen's impatience under the burden of gratitude. One of Charles Reade's characters exclaims, "Vulgar people are ashamed to be grateful, but you are a born lady," and an Academician, expounding the same text, has written, "Avant d'obliger un homme, assurez-vous bien d'abord que cet homme n'est pas un imbécile." The point is almost too subtle for argument, but it is one of the few marks of limitation in George Eliot's field of vision.
Between Felix Holt and Middlemarch her range expanded and she judged less austerely.
We have made some new friendships that cheer us with the sense of new admiration of actual living beings whom we know in the flesh, and who are kindly disposed towards us. — Every one of my best blessings, my one perfect love and the sympathy shown towards me for the sake of my works, and the personal regard of a few friends, have become much intensified in these latter days.— I have entirely lost my personal melancholy. I often, of course, have melancholy thoughts about the destinies of my fellow-creatures, but I am never in that mood of sadness which used to be my frequent visitant even in the midst of external happiness.
Reverence for her genius, for the rare elevation of her teaching, bore down the inevitable reluctance to adjust the rule to an exception. Among the first of her new friends were the ladies of Mr. Cross's family, and they were welcomed with fervent gratitude. When George Eliot came to live near Regent's Park her house was crowded with the most remarkable society in London. Poets and philosophers united to honour her who had been great both in poetry and philosophy, and the aristocracy of letters gathered round the gentle lady who, without being memorable by what she said, was justly esteemed the most illustrious figure that has arisen in literature since Goethe died. There might be seen a famous scholar sitting for Casaubon, and two younger men — one with good features, solid white hands, and a cambric pocket - handkerchief, the second with wavy bright hair and a habit of shaking his head backwards, who evoked other memories of the same Midland microcosm while Tennyson read his own last poem, or Liebreich sang Schumann's "Two Grenadiers," and Lewes himself, with eloquent fingers and catching laugh, described Mazzini's amazement at his first dinner in London, or the lament of the Berlin professor over the sunset of England since Mr. Gladstone had put an Essay-and-Reviewer on the throne of Phillpotts.
The visit to Germany opened out wider horizons. To chat with Varnhagen von Ense, to explore his archives and admire the miniature of Rahel was a function awaiting literary visitors at Berlin, and Lewes, who had reached Weimar in time to see the Teutonic Boswell, Eckermann, had much to say to the man whom the profane Heine called the vicar of Goethe on earth. The chief interpreter of German thought to the travellers was Gruppe, a scholar of many accomplishments, who has since ended extravagantly, but who had vast knowledge of poetry, a keen sense of the exhausted vitality of speculation, and who in the history of cosmology had measured swords with Bockh. George Eliot spent her time in study, seeing little of the intellectual society of the place, and disliking what she saw. She continued to know Germany mainly as it was at the date of initiation in 1855. Even Feuerbach and Strauss remained embalmed in the attitudes of 1841. The aesthetic age, whose veterans still lingered about Dresden and Berlin, was always more present to her mind than the predominant generation between the parliament of Frankfort and the proclamation of Versailles, the Germany of Helmholtz and Mommsen, Jhering and Fischer, Virchow and Riimelin, Roscher and Treitschke. The only master of this stronger and less artistic school who fixed her attention is Riehl, an author worthy of such a commentator, but not faithful to the methods by which his people succeed.
She saw Nathan der Weise, not in vain. "Our hearts swelled and the tears came into our eyes as we listened to the noble words of dear Lessing, whose great spirit lives immortally in this crowning work of his." Twenty years later she explained the design of Deronda by the reasons given in the preface to the Juden. The altered attitude towards the Jews, which gradually prepared her last novel, began at this time, and she must have heard Humboldt's saying that Judaism is more easily reconcilable with science than other religions. The Hamburgische Briefe lay open before her at the table d'hôte ; she pronounces the Laokoon the most un-German of German books, and notices nothing between Berlin and Cologne but "the immortal old town of Wolfenbüttel." If Lessing was the favourite, Goethe was the master. Life at Weimar, with the sublime tradition, closed for George Eliot the season of storm and strain. Although she never practised art for its own sake, or submitted to the canon that poetry is aimless song, Goethe's gospel of inviolate serenity was soothing to a spirit disabled by excess of sensibility, and taught her to be less passionately affected either by sympathy or sorrow. The contrast is great between the agonising tones of the earlier life and the self-restraint and composure that succeeded. The conversion was not immediate. A scene is recorded at Berlin which recalls the time when Miss Evans was too clever to succeed at Coventry, and the crude smartness of the Westminster articles (toned in the reprint), the resentment and even misery caused by the impostor Liggins, were below the dignity of so noble a mind. But the change in the later years is unmistakable. Even the genial warmth of affection for persons was tempered by an impartial estimate of their characters and a disinterested neutrality towards their undertakings. A system that denies the hopes and memories which make pain and sadness shrink cannot be rich in consolation ; yet she strove not to overdo the tragedy of human life. The pathos of Mrs. Browning is less profound, the pathos of the Misérables is less genuine, but they excite more intense emotion. Happiness and success contributed to that majestic calm which is the proper prize of intelligent immersion in Goethe.
George Eliot came back conscious of much affinity with the Germans, and impressed by their methodical energy and massive power. The lack of literary point and grace provoked her ; she yawned even over Schiller and Goethe, and the relief she derived from Heine accentuated the favourable estimate of his character in the essay on German wit. She was nowhere so well and so happy ; but she described the North as a region of unmannerly pedants, and preferred the cheerful ease and cogent hospitality of the South. International culture had disengaged her patriotism from prejudice, and she felt less for the country between the four seas than for the scenery, the character, and the dialect of the Trent valley.
The Italian journey reveals that weakness of the historic faculty which is a pervading element in her life. Her psychology was extracted from fortuitous experience, from observations made on common people in private life, under the sway of thoughtless habit and inherited stupidity, not from the heroic subjects, the large questions and proportions of history. Italy was little more to her than a vast museum, and Rome, with all the monuments and institutions which link the old world with the new, interested her less than the galleries of Florence. She surveys the grand array of tombs in St. Peter's, and remarks nothing but some peasants feeling the teeth of Canova's lion.
Travel supplied the later books with the materials which came at first from home. The Spanish Gypsy was derived from a Venetian picture. The celestial frescoes in Savonarola's home at San Marco suggested the argument of Romola. A Dresden Titian haunted her for years. It became the portrait of her latest hero, whose supposed resemblance to our Lord gives intensity to the contrast between a Jew who sacrificed his people for religion, and a Christian who goes back to Judaism, renouncing his religion in obedience to the hereditary claim of race. When she was writing Adam Bede at Munich, a Moldavian Jew came with introductions to her friends, intent on the same vague errand of national redemption upon which Deronda disappears from sight. Liszt, whom they had known at Weimar, became Klesmer ; and a young lady over whom George Eliot wept in the gambling rooms at Homburg, and who remembers the meeting, served as the model of Gwendolen.
After many years characterised by mental independence and resistance to control, George Eliot inclined to that system which is popular among men who " yield homage only to external laws." The influence of Comte began early and grew with the successive study of his works, until the revolutionary fervour of 1848 was transformed into the self-suppression of the Spanish Gypsy, and the scorn for Liberality and Utilitarianism which appears in Felix Holt. It was the second Comte, the dogmatising and emotional author of the Politique Positive, that she revered, and she has not a word for the arch-rebel Littré. Positivists deem that she never thoroughly conformed. But she renounced much of her unattached impartial freedom for an attitude of doctrinal observance, and submitted her mind to discipline, if not to authority. She continued to analyse and to illustrate with an increasing fertility and accuracy ; but she was in the clasp of the dead hand, and the leading ideas recur with constant sameness. That the yoke was ever shaken does not appear. We learn from the Life that she never became a party politician, and refused to admit that political differences are, what religious differences are not, founded on an ultimate diversity of moral principles.
Comte, who was averse to popular Protestantism, who excluded the reformers from his Calendar, and acknowledged the provisional services rendered to the mediaeval phase of the progress of society by the Church, encouraged the growing favour which she showed to Catholicism. The Imitation, which is the most perfectly normal expression of Catholic thought, as it bears the least qualifying impress of time and place, and which Comte never wearied of reading and recommending, prepared the sympathy. It had been in her hands when she translated Spinoza and afterwards when she wrote the Mill on the Floss. No thought occurs more often in her writings than that of the persecuted Jews ; but she spares the persecutors. Romola suggests that Catholic life and history is guided by visions ; but the stroke is aimed at other religions as well. The man who, for the pure love of holiness, became a brother of the Order of Torquemada, led up to the central problem of Catholicism, how private virtue and public crime could issue from the same root. Comte has extolled De Maistre, the advocate of the Inquisition ; and when, in her next work, George Eliot approaches the subject, it was done with reserve, and without advancement of learning. Although she preferred the Protestant Establishment to Sectarianism, Catholicism to Protestantism, and Judaism to Christianity, the margin of liking was narrow, and she was content to say that the highest lot is to have definite beliefs.
George Eliot's work was done before Lewes died. A year and a half after his death she married Mr. Cross, and went abroad for the last time. Her husband's illness at Venice was a severe shock to her ; but when she came back to her home, released from the constraint of so many years, a new life began. She was able to indulge her own tastes, choosing retirement, reading the Bible and the Divina Commedia, and hearing the Cardinal at Kensington. There was no return to literary composition. The crowding thought had outgrown her control — "E sulle eterne pagine Cadde la stanca man."
Before the summer was over her health gave way. In one of the last letters, written in an interval of recovered strength, she says that she has been cared for with something better than angelic tenderness. "I do not think I shall have many returns of November, but there is every prospect that such as remain to me will be as happy as they can be made by the devoted tenderness which watches over me." During this afterglow of tranquil happiness, George Eliot suddenly fell ill and passed away, silent and unconscious of her approaching end. There has been no deathbed to which the last words of Faust are so appropriate : —
Zum Augenblicke dürft' ich sagen :
Verweile doch ! Du bist so schon !
Es kann die Spur von meinen Erdentagen
Nicht in Aonen untergehn !
Im Vorgefuhl von solchem hohen Glück
Geniess' ich jetzt den hochsten Augenblick.
George Eliot did not believe in the finality of her system, and, near the close of her life, she became uneasy as to the future of her fame. True to the law that the highest merit escapes reward, she had fixed her hope on unborn generations, and she feared to make sure of their gratitude. Though very conscious of power and no longer prone to self-disparagement, she grew less satisfied with the execution of her designs, and when comparing the idea before her with her work in the past, her mind misgave her. She was disconcerted by ignorant applause, and she had not yet poured her full soul. Having seen the four most eloquent French writers of the century outlive their works, and disprove the axiom that style confers immortality, she might well doubt whether writings inspired by distinct views and dedicated to a cause could survive by artistic qualities alone. If the mist that shrouded her horizon should ever rise over definite visions of accepted truth, her doctrine might embarrass her renown. She never attained to the popular pre-eminence of Goethe, or even of Victor Hugo. The name of George Eliot was nearly unknown in France ; she had lost ground in America, and at home her triumph did not pass unchallenged, when men like Beaconsfield, Ruskin, Arnold, Swinburne denied her claims. Lewes himself doubted the final estimate, for he announced with some excitement that she had been compared to Wordsworth, and that somebody thought the comparison inadequate. Men very far asunder — the two Scherers, Montégut, Mr. Spencer and Mr. Hutton, Professor Tyndall and Mr. Myers — have declared with singular unanimity that she possessed a union of qualities seldom, if ever, exceeded by man, and not likely to be seen again on earth ; that her works are the high-water mark of feminine achievement ; that she was as certainly the greatest genius among women known to history as Shakespeare among men. But George Eliot did not live to recognise, in the tribute of admiring friends, the judgment of history.
She has said of herself that her function is that of the aesthetic, not the doctrinal teacher— the rousing of the nobler emotions which make mankind desire the social right, not the prescribing of special measures. The supreme purpose of all her work is ethical. Literary talent did not manifest itself until she was thirty-seven. In her later books the wit and the descriptive power diminish visibly, and the bare didactic granite shows through the cultivated surface. She began as an essayist, and ended as she had begun, having employed meanwhile the channel of fiction to enforce that which, propounded as philosophy, failed to convince. If the doctrine, separate from the art, had no vitality, the art without the doctrine had no significance. There will be more perfect novels and truer systems. But she has little rivalry to apprehend until philosophy inspires finer novels, or novelists teach nobler lessons of duty to the masses of men. If ever science or religion reigns alone over an undivided empire, the books of George Eliot might lose their central and unique importance, but as the emblem of a generation distracted between the intense need of believing and the difficulty of belief, they will live to the last syllable of recorded time. Proceeding from a system which had neglected morals, she became the pioneer in that movement which has produced the Data of Ethics and the Phänomenologie. Her teaching was the highest within the resources to which Atheism is restricted, as the teaching of the Fioretti is the highest within the Christian limits. In spite of all that is omitted, and of specific differences regarding the solemn question of conscience, humility, and death, there are few works in literature whose influence is so ennobling ; and there were people divided from her in politics and religion by the widest chasm that exists on earth, who felt at her death what was said of the Greek whom she had most deeply studied —σκότον είναι τεθνηκότς.
- "George Eliot's Life as related in her Letters and Journals, arranged and edited by her husband, J. W. Cross. In three volumes, London and Edinburgh, William Blackwood & Sons, 1885." The Nineteenth Century, March, 1885.
- Some secrets of style reveal themselves to anybody who compares the articles in the Review with the text which she afterwards prepared, and there are many touches and omissions significant of the vast change her mind had undergone. The last essay, which supposes that Young came into the world without a wig, and calls George the First "that royal hog," was composed at the same time as the first novel ; and the contrast shows with what effort and constraint the scenes were written. The perfection of language was not reached at once. A single paragraph of the Mill on the Floss contains the terms "phiz," "masculinity," "that same Nature." There is a slight mannerism in the formula "which has been observed"; and the perilous word "mutual" is sometimes misapplied. One of her favourite expressions is usual with Comte, and we used to hear another at school in "that central plain, watered at one extremity by the Avon, at the other by the Trent."