Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lewes, George Henry
LEWES, GEORGE HENRY (1817–1878), miscellaneous writer, born in London in 1817, was the grandson of the actor, Charles Lee Lewes [q. v.] His education was desultory. He passed through various schools in London, Jersey, and Brittany, and was finally at Dr. Burney's at Greenwich. He entered a notary's office, and was at one time in the employment of a Russian merchant. For a time he walked the hospitals, but gave up the profession from his dislike to witnessing physical pain, a feeling which in later years restricted the range of his physiological experiments. At the age of nineteen he belonged to a club, consisting chiefly of small tradesmen, who discussed philosophy and, in particular, Spinoza. He described it in the ‘Fortnightly Review’ for 1866. One of its members, Kohn, a journeyman watchmaker, is said to have been the original of Mordecai in George Eliot's ‘Daniel Deronda.’ By 1836, he says (Problems of Life and Mind, Preface), he had planned a treatise, in which the philosophy of the Scottish school was to be physiologically interpreted, and he lectured upon the subject in 1837 in Fox's chapel in Finsbury. The interest in philosophical questions thus indicated was probably the cause of a visit to Germany in 1838. He speaks in a letter to Macvey Napier (7 June 1844, Napier Correspondence, p. 464) of having spent the greater part of his youth in France and Germany, and of having regained the use of his mother-tongue by the last three or four years in England. Lewes had inherited or imbibed from the surroundings of his youth a passion for the drama. At the age of sixteen he had written a play to be acted in his own house by a company of boy amateurs. After his return from Germany he made some attempts to take up acting as a profession. In 1841 he appeared at the Whitehall Theatre in Garrick's comedy, ‘The Guardian.’ The experiment was more than once renewed. In 1848 he played in Dickens's amateur company. In 1849 he appeared as Shylock in company with Barry Sullivan and others, and in 1850 he acted in his own play, ‘The Noble Heart’ at the Olympic and in the provinces. It is said that his performances, especially as Shylock, were thoughtful and artistic, but he was deficient in physical power.
Lewes married in 1840 Agnes, daughter of Swynfen Stevens Jervis (1798–1867) of Chatcull, Staffordshire, M.P. for Bridport in 1837, in whose family he had, it is believed, acted as tutor. He had to support himself by literary work, and the Leweses became known to many of the most distinguished authors of the time, especially to Carlyle, Thackeray, and J. S. Mill. He wrote many articles in the chief quarterly reviews, principally upon topics connected with the drama. He tells Macvey Napier (Correspondence, p. 463) in 1844 that an article of his upon Goethe in the ‘British and Foreign Quarterly’ had been translated into both French and German. In 1840 he wrote in the ‘Westminster’ upon ‘The French Drama;’ in 1841 in the ‘Westminster’ upon Shelley, whom he contrasts favourably with Byron; in 1842 in the ‘Westminster’ upon ‘The Errors and Abuses of English Criticism,’ attacking the system of anonymous writing, and in the ‘British and Foreign Review’ upon ‘Hegel's Æsthetics;’ in 1843 in the ‘Foreign Quarterly’ upon ‘The Spanish Drama’ (articles afterwards reprinted in 1846 as a volume), and upon A. W. von Schlegel, whom he attacks as a philosophic impostor; in the ‘Edinburgh’ upon ‘Dramatic Reform’ and ‘The Classification of Theatres;’ and in the ‘British and Foreign Quarterly’ upon ‘The Modern Philosophy of France,’ describing Cousin as a charlatan, and speaking favourably of Comte; in 1844 in the ‘British and Foreign’ upon ‘Alfieri and Italian Drama;’ in the ‘New Quarterly’ upon ‘Goldoni and Italian Comedy;’ and in the ‘Classical Museum’ upon the ‘Antigone and the Dancing of the Greek Chorus;’ in 1845 in the ‘Edinburgh’ upon Lessing, for whom he has the highest admiration, partly as ‘the least German of all Germans;’ in 1847 in the ‘British Quarterly’ upon ‘Browning and the Poetry of the Age,’ Tennyson being in his view the only true poet living; in 1848 in ‘Fraser's Magazine’ upon Leopardi, and in the ‘British Quarterly’ upon ‘Historical Romance: Alexandre Dumas;’ and in 1849 in the ‘British Quarterly’ upon ‘Disraeli's Writings’ and upon Macaulay. Lewes was invariably bright, clear, and eminently independent in his criticism. He had greater sympathy than most Englishmen with French canons of taste, disliked the clumsiness and obscurity of German literature, and thought that our national idolatry of Shakespeare had made us blind to the merits of the classical school.
Besides criticising Lewes had attempted independent authorship in his play of the ‘Noble Heart,’ and had made some adaptations from the French dramas, especially ‘The Game of Speculation,’ which had a lasting popularity. He wrote also two novels, ‘Ranthorpe’ (written in 1842) and ‘Rose, Blanche, and Violet,’ which were published in 1847 and 1848 respectively. The second shows great improvement in literary skill, and is very superior to the ordinary run of ephemeral novels. Lewes, however, was not a born novelist, and his attempts are enough to disprove the suggestion that he played any other part than that of a judicious critic in regard to the novels of George Eliot.
Lewes's continuous interest in philosophy was shown by the ‘Biographical History of Philosophy.’ The two first volumes appeared in 1845, and the last two in 1846. The vivacity of the writing, and the skill with which the personal history of philosophers was connected with the history of their speculations, gave a deserved popularity to the work. The general aim is to show the vanity of all metaphysics, and to represent Comte's positivism as the ultimate goal of philosophy. The book represents rather the impressions of a very quick and brilliant journalist than the investigations of a profound student. In later editions much was added, but in so unsystematic a fashion, according to the temporary course of Lewes's reading, as to destroy the symmetry without proportionally adding to the value of the work.
In 1850 Thornton Leigh Hunt [q. v.] established the ‘Leader’ in co-operation with Lewes, who was editor for literary subjects. A series of articles appeared in the ‘Leader’ from April to August 1852, which were reprinted in 1853, with considerable alteration and additions, as ‘Comte's Philosophy of the Sciences.’ The letters which (with some additions) form the first part of the book were founded upon an analysis of Comte's philosophy by George Walker, a lawyer of Aberdeen (information from Professor Bain). The assistance of two friends is acknowledged, perhaps insufficiently, in a note to the second letter; but the names were not given, as at that time sympathy with Comte's views was not an advantage for a professional man in Scotland. The Leweses were at this time living with the Thornton Hunts. Lewes made in 1851 the acquaintance of Miss Evans [see Cross, Mary Anne], who had come to London to help in editing the ‘Westminster Review.’ The views of marriage held by Lewes and his immediate circle were not more strict than those of Godwin and Shelley. When, however, the conduct of the persons concerned exemplified the theories which he had inculcated, complications arose which became practically trying. In July 1854 Lewes left his family, with whom he had lived until that date, and went with Miss Evans to Germany. The circumstances were such as to preclude the possibility of a divorce. It would apparently be unjust to say that the wrong was exclusively upon either side; but it does not appear that moral laxity was combined with cruelty. Lewes had for a time to work hard to support his wife and children (Life of George Eliot, i. 312), and sent his boys to school in Switzerland.
For the rest of his life Lewes passed as the husband of Miss Evans, and was most affectionate and generous, devoting himself to shield her from all the troubles of authorship, and promoting her success by judicious criticism and by every means in his power. After spending some time at Weimar and Berlin, Lewes returned to England in March 1855. His ‘Life of Goethe,’ finished at Weimar, appeared in the following November with marked success, and has become the standard English work upon the subject. It was used in France as the base of two works, one of which was described by Lewes as a barefaced reproduction of his own. It has been widely accepted, in spite of some national jealousy in Germany. It shows his characteristic merits of clear good sense, independent criticism, and unflagging vivacity. Goethe's idolaters were of course dissatisfied, and Lewes's general prepossession against German style and dislike of the mystic and the allegorical may disqualify him for adequate appreciation of some aspects of Goethe's genius. The book, however, has merits which have seldom been equalled in similar work, and it retains its position in our literature.
The great success of ‘George Eliot's’ writings began in 1857 with the publication of the ‘Scenes of Clerical Life.’ Lewes was no longer under the necessity of writing for immediate profit. He now turned his attention to physiology, and published a good many articles, which showed his powers as a popular expounder of science. He visited Ilfracombe in the summer of 1856 to study marine zoology, and the ‘Seaside Studies,’ which were the result of his work, appeared early in 1858. It was welcomed by many ‘scientific bigwigs’ (Life of George Eliot, ii. 12), as well as by the public. It was followed by the ‘Physiology of Common Life’ (1859), and ‘Studies in Animal Life’ (1862), chiefly reprints from the ‘Cornhill Magazine.’ They contain suggestions due to serious scientific research, as well as popular exposition. Among various suggestions is that of the fundamental homogeneity of all nervous structures, which he appears to have first put forward, and which has been adopted by Wundt and other German physiologists. Lewes contemplated a history of science, of which his book upon Aristotle, published in 1864, was a first instalment. He endeavours to show that Aristotle's anticipations of modern science have been exaggerated.
In 1865 Lewes became the editor of the ‘Fortnightly Review,’ but without any pecuniary interest in the adventure. The first number appeared 15 May 1865, and was the first English periodical to adopt as a rule the plan of signed articles. He received contributions from many distinguished writers, but resigned his post at the end of 1866, and was succeeded by Mr. John Morley. He contributed to the ‘Pall Mall Gazette’ in its early years, and in 1875 republished from it some of his criticisms upon the drama.
Lewes had been always interested in philosophical and physiological problems. His researches into the nervous system had in 1860 given him ‘a clue through the labyrinth of mental phenomena,’ and about 1862 he began more systematically to try to put together the fundamental principles of a scientific psychology. The result was his ‘Problems of Life and Mind,’ the first volume of which appeared at the end of 1873 (dated 1874), the second in 1875, the third in 1877, and the fourth (posthumously) in 1879. The book was compiled from many papers written at different times, and is a series of discussions rather than a systematic exposition. Lewes had always been more or less a follower of Comte. He said in an article upon Comte in the ‘Fortnightly Review’ for 1867: ‘I have been criticising him for more than twenty years, and lost his friendship by my freedom.’ In the ‘Problems’ he probably diverged to some extent from his early master by admitting the relevance of some metaphysical inquiries, although by excluding the ‘metempirical’ or ontological problems which lie beyond possible experience he held that he was still adhering to Comte's doctrine. He differed from Comte also by admitting the possibility of a separate science of mind, although he connected it closely on one side with physiology, and on the other attributed new importance to the ‘sociological’ factor. He gives special prominence to the doctrine that the mind, like the bodily organism, is a unit, whose aspects can be logically separated, but which are not really distinct. Although his admirers do not claim that he contributed any radically new conception to philosophy, they hold that he did much to bring out new aspects of doctrines not fully perceived by his predecessors.
Lewes's health had been often feeble during his later years. He had, however, a remarkable buoyancy of spirit, and was, till the last, most brilliant and agreeable in conversation. Whatever his faults, he was a man of singular generosity, genial and unpretentious, quick to recognise merit, and ready to help young authors. Though an incisive critic he was never bitter, and was fair and open-minded in controversy. His extraordinary versatility is shown by his writings, and was, perhaps, some hindrance to his eminence in special departments. He was short and slight, with a fine brow and very bright eyes, but the other features were such that Douglas Jerrold is said to have called him too unequivocally the ‘ugliest man in London.’ Yet in animated talk his personal defects would vanish.
Lewes died at the Priory, St. John's Wood, where he had lived from 1863, on 28 Nov. 1878. Two of his sons, Thornton and Herbert, died before him in 1869 and 1875. His eldest son, Charles, born in 1843, gained a clerkship in the post office in 1860, and became the heir of George Eliot on her death in 1880. He left the post office in 1886. He was a promoter of the Hampstead Heath extension, and was elected a member of the first London County Council for the St. Pancras district in 1888. He died 26 April 1891 at Luxor in Egypt. By his wife Gertrude, sister of Miss Octavia Hill, whom he married in 1864, he left three daughters (Times, 2 May 1891).
Lewes's works are: 1. ‘Biographical History of Philosophy,’ 2 vols. 8vo, 1845–6 (later editions in 1857, 1867, 1871, 1880; translated into German and Magyar). 2. ‘The Spanish Drama: Lope da Vega and Calderon,’ 1847. 3. ‘Ranthorpe,’ 1847. 4. ‘Rose, Blanche, and Violet,’ 1848. 5. ‘The Noble Heart’ (play). 6. ‘Life of Maximilien Robespierre, with Extracts from unpublished Correspondence,’ 1849. 7. ‘Comte's Philosophy of the Sciences,’ 1853. 8. ‘The Life of Goethe,’ 2 vols. 8vo, 1855, 1864, 1875, 1890 (abridgment in 1873). 9. ‘Seaside Studies at Ilfracombe, Tenby, the Scilly Isles, and Jersey,’ 1858. 10. ‘Physiology of Common Life,’ 2 vols. 8vo, 1859–60. 11. ‘Studies in Animal Life,’ 1862. 12. ‘Aristotle, a Chapter from the History of the Sciences, including an Analysis of Aristotle's Scientific Writings,’ 1864. 13. ‘Problems of Life and Mind’ (see above), 1874–9. 14. ‘On Actors and the Art of Acting,’ 1875. 15. ‘The Study of Psychology: its Object, Scope, and Method,’ 1879.
[The fullest account of Lewes is in an article in the New Quarterly for October 1879, written by Mr. Sully, with information from George Eliot; see also Cross's Life of George Eliot; information has been received from private sources.]