George Eliot (Blind 1883)/Chapter 13

George Eliot  (1883)  by Mathilde Blind
Chapter XIII. Felix Holt and Middlemarch



In 'Felix Holt,' which was published in 1866, George Eliot returned once more to her own peculiar field, where she stands supreme and unrivalled—the novel of English provincial life. This work, which, however, is not equal to her earlier or later fictions, yet possesses a double interest for us. It is the only one of her writings from which its author's political views may be inferred, if we exclude a paper published in Blackwood's Magazine in January 1868, which, indeed, seems to be part of the novel, seeing that it is entitled, "Address to Working Men, by Felix Holt." The paper contains, in a more direct and concise form, precisely the same general views as regards the principles of government which were previously enunciated through Felix the Radical. It was an appeal to the operative classes who had been only recently enfranchised by the Reform Bill. Its advice is mainly to the effect that genuine political and social improvements to be durable must be the result of inward change rather than of outward legislation. The writer insists on the futility of the belief that beneficial political changes can be effected by revolutionary measures. She points out the necessity of a just discrimination between what is curable in the body politic and what has to be endured. She dwells once again, with solemn insistence, on the "aged sorrow," the inheritance of evil transmitted from generation to generation, an evil too intimately entwined with the complex conditions of society to be violently uprooted, but only to be gradually eradicated by the persistent cultivation of knowledge, industry, judgment, sobriety, and patience.

"This is only one example," she says, "of the law by which human lives are linked together; another example of what we complain of when we point to our pauperism, to the brutal ignorance of multitudes among our fellow-countrymen, to the weight of taxation laid on us by blamable wars, to the wasteful channels made for the public money, to the expense and trouble of getting justice, and call these the effects of bad rule. This is the law that we all bear the yoke of; the law of no man's making, and which no man can undo. Everybody now sees an example of it in the case of Ireland. We who are living now are sufferers by the wrong-doing of those who lived before us; we are sufferers by each other's wrong-doing; and the children who come after us will be sufferers from the same causes."

To remedy this long-standing wrong-doing and suffering, so argues Felix Holt, is not in the power of any one measure, class, or period. It would be childish folly to expect any Reform Bill to possess the magical property whereby a sudden social transformation could be accomplished. On the contrary, abrupt transitions should be shunned as dangerous to order and law, which alone are certain to insure a steady collective progress; the only means to this end consisting in the general spread of education, to secure which, at least for his children, the working man should spare no pains. Without knowledge, the writer continues, no political measures will be of any benefit, ignorance with or without vote always of necessity engendering vice and misery. But, guided by a fuller knowledge, the working classes would be able to discern what sort of men they should choose for their representatives, and instead of electing "platform swaggerers, who bring us nothing but the ocean to make our broth with," they would confide the chief power to the hands of the truly wise, those who know how to regulate life "according to the truest principles mankind is in possession of."

The "Felix Holt" of the story is described by George Eliot as shaping his actions much according to the ideas which are here theoretically expressed. His knowledge and aptitude would enable him to choose what is considered a higher calling. But he scorns the vulgar ambition called "getting on in the world;" his sense of fellowship prompting him to remain a simple artisan that he may exert an elevating influence on the class to which he belongs. Class differences, so argues this Radical-Conservative, being inherent in the constitution of society, it becomes something of a desertion to withdraw what abilities one may have from the medium where they are urgently needed, in order to join, for the sake of selfish aims, some other body of men where they may be superfluous.

The other distinctive feature of 'Felix Holt' consists in its elaborate construction, ranking it, so to speak, amongst sensation novels. As a rule, George Eliot's stories have little or no plot, the incidents seeming not so much invented by the writer for the sake of producing an effective work, as to be the natural result of the friction between character and circumstance. This simplicity of narrative belongs, no doubt, to the highest class of novel, the class to which 'The Vicar of Wakefield,' 'Waverley,' and 'Vanity Fair' belong. In 'Felix Holt,' however, the intricate network of incident in which the characters seem to be enmeshed, is not unlike the modern French art of story-telling, with its fertility of invention, as is also the strangely repellent intrigue which forms the nucleus of the whole. All the elements which go to make up a thrilling narrative—such as a dubious inheritance, the disappearance of the rightful claimant, a wife's guilty secret, the involvements of the most desperate human fates in a perplexing coil through sin and error—are interwoven in this story of 'Felix Holt the Radical.'

Though ingeniously invented, the different incidents seem not so much naturally to have grown the one from the other as to be constructed with too conscious a seeking for effect. There is something forced, uneasy, and inadequate in the laborious contrivance of fitting one set of events on to another, and the machinery of the disputed Transome claim is so involved that the reader never masters the "ins" and "outs" of that baffling mystery. Still, the groundwork of the story is deeply impressive: its interest is, notwithstanding the complex ramification of events, concentrated with much power upon a small group of personages, such as Mrs. Transome, her son Harold, the little dissenting minister, Rufus Lyon, Esther, and Felix Holt. Here, as elsewhere, the novelist reveals the potent qualities of her genius. Not only does this story contain such genuine humorous portraiture as the lachrymose Mrs. Holt, and the delightfully quaint Job Tudge, but it is also enriched by some descriptions of rural scenery and of homely existence in remote country districts as admirable as any to be found in her writings. Rufus Lyon is a worthy addition to that long gallery of clerical portraits which are among the triumphs of George Eliot's art. This "singular-looking apostle of the meeting in Skipper's Lane"—with his rare purity of heart, his unworldliness, his zeal in the cause of dissent, his restless argumentative spirit, and the moving memories of romance and passion hidden beneath the odd, quaint physique of the little minister encased in rusty black—is among the most loving and lovable of characters, and recalls more particularly that passage in the poem entitled 'A Minor Prophet,' which I cannot but think one of the author's finest, the passage beginning—

"The pathos exquisite of lovely minds
Hid in harsh forms—not penetrating them
Like fire divine within a common bush
Which glows transfigured by the heavenly guest,
So that men put their shoes off; but encaged
Like a sweet child within some thick-walled cell,
Who leaps and fails to hold the window-bars,
But having shown a little dimpled hand,
Is visited thenceforth by tender hearts
Whose eyes keep watch about the prison walls."

Esther, on the other hand, is one of those fortunate beings whose lovely mind is lodged in a form of corresponding loveliness. This charming Esther, though not originally without her feminine vanities and worldly desires, is one of those characters dear to George Eliot's heart, who renounce the allurements of an easy pleasurable existence for the higher satisfactions of a noble love or a nobler ideal. It is curious to notice that Eppie, Esther, Fedalma, and Daniel Deronda are all children that have been reared in ignorance of their real parentage, and that to all of them there comes a day when a more or less difficult decision has to be made, when for good or evil they have to choose, once for all, between two conflicting claims. Like Eppie, Esther rejects the advantages of birth and fortune, and elects to share the hard but dignified life of the high-minded Felix. But this decision in her case shows even higher moral worth, because by nature she is so keenly susceptible to the delicate refinements and graceful elegancies which are the natural accompaniment of rank and wealth.

The most curious feature of this book consists, perhaps, in its original treatment of illicit passion. Novelists, as a rule, when handling this subject, depict its fascinations in brilliant contrast to the sufferings and terrors which follow in its train. But George Eliot contents herself with showing us the reverse side of the medal. Youth has faded, joy is dead, love has turned to loathing, yet memory, like a relentless fury, pursues the grey-haired Mrs. Transome, who hides within her breast such a heavy load of shame and dread. The power and intensity with which this character of the haughty, stern, yet inwardly quailing woman is drawn are unsurpassed in their way, and there is tragic horror in the recoil of her finest sensibilities from the vulgar, mean, self-complacent lawyer, too thick-skinned ever to know that in his own person he is a daily judgment on her whose life has been made hideous for his sake. Never more impressively than here does the novelist enforce her teaching that the deed follows the doer, being imbued with an incalculable vitality of its own, shaping all after life, and subduing to its guise the nature that is in bondage to it. Like those fabled dragon's teeth planted by Cadmus, which sprung up again as armed men, spreading discord and ruin, so a man's evil actions seem endowed with independent volition, and their consequences extend far beyond the individual life where they originated.

If 'Felix Holt' is the most intricately constructed of George Eliot's novels, 'Middlemarch,' which appeared five years afterwards, is, on the other hand, a story without a plot. In fact, it seems hardly appropriate to call it a novel. Like Hogarth's serial pictures representing the successive stages in their progress through life of certain typical characters, so in this book there is unrolled before us, not so much the history of any particular individual, as a whole phase of society portrayed with as daring and uncompromising a fidelity to Nature as that of Hogarth himself. In 'Middlemarch,' English provincial life in the first half of the nineteenth century is indelibly fixed in words "holding a universe impalpable" for the apprehension and delight of the furthest generations of English-speaking nations. Here, as in some kind of panorama, sections of a community and groups of character pass before the mind's eye. To dwell on the separate, strongly-individualised figures which constitute this great crowd would be impossible within the present limits. But from the county people such as the Brookes and Chettams, to respectable middle-class families of the Vincy and Garth type, down to the low, avaricious, harpy-tribes of the Waules and Featherstones, every unit of this complex social agglomeration, is described with a life-like vividness truly amazing, when the number and variety of the characters especially are considered. I know not where else in literature to look for a work which leaves such a strong impression on the reader's mind of the intertexture of human lives. Seen thus in perspective, each separate individuality, with its specialised consciousness, is yet as indissolubly connected with the collective life as that of the indistinguishable zoophyte which is but a sentient speck necessarily moved by the same vital agency which stirs the entire organism.

Among the figures which stand out most prominently from the crowded background are Dorothea, Lydgate, Casaubon, Rosamond Vincy, Ladislaw, Bulstrode, Caleb, and Mary Garth. Dorothea belongs to that stately type of womanhood, such as Romola and Fedalma, a type which seems to be specifically George Eliot's own, and which has perhaps more in common with such Greek ideals as Antigone and Iphigenia, than with more modern heroines. But Dorothea, however lofty her aspirations, has not the Christian heroism of Romola, or the antique devotion of Fedalma. She is one of those problematic natures already spoken of; ill-adjusted to her circumstances, and never quite adjusting circumstances to herself. It is true that her high aims and glorious possibilities are partially stifled by a social medium where there seems no demand for them: still the resolute soul usually finds some way in which to work out its destiny.

"Many 'Theresas'" says George Eliot, "have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet, and sank unwept into oblivion. With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but, after all, to common eyes, their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness; for these later-born 'Theresas' were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul.

"Some have felt that these blundering lives are due to the inconvenient indefmiteness with which the Supreme Power has fashioned the natures of women; if there were one level of feminine incompetence as strict as the ability to count three and no more, the social lot of woman might be treated with scientific certitude. Meanwhile the indefiniteness remains, and the limits of variation are really much wider than any one would imagine from the sameness of women's coiffure, and the favourite love stories in prose and verse."

Such a life of mistakes is that of the beautiful Dorothea, the ill-starred wife of Casaubon. In his way the character of Casaubon is as great a triumph as that of Tito himself. The novelist seems to have crept into the inmost recesses of that uneasy consciousness, to have probed the most sensitive spots of that diseased vanity, and to lay bare before our eyes the dull labour of a brain whose ideas are stillborn. In an article by Mr. Myers it is stated, however incredible it may sound, that an undiscriminating friend once condoled with George Eliot on the melancholy experience which, from her knowledge of Lewes, had taught her to depict the gloomy character of Casaubon; whereas, in fact, there could not be a more striking contrast than that between the pedant groping amid dim fragments of knowledge, and the vivacious littérateur and thinker with his singular mental energy and grasp of thought. On the novelist's laughingly assuring him that such was by no means the case, "From whom, then," persisted he, "did you draw 'Casaubon'?" With a humorous solemnity, which was quite in earnest, she pointed to her own heart. She confessed, on the other hand, having found the character of Rosamond Vincy difficult to sustain, such complacency of egoism, as has been pointed out, being alien to her own habit of mind. But she laid no claim to any such natural magnanimity as could avert Casaubon's temptations of jealous vanity, and bitter resentment.

If there is any character in whom one may possibly trace some suggestions of Lewes, it is in the versatile, brilliant, talented Ladislaw, who held, that while genius must have the utmost play for its spontaneity, it may await with confidence "those messages from the universe which summon it to its peculiar work, only placing itself in an attitude of receptivity towards all sublime chances." But however charming, the impression Ladislaw produces is that of a somewhat shallow, frothy character, so that he seems almost as ill-fitted for Dorothea as the dreary Casaubon himself. Indeed the heroine's second marriage seems almost as much a failure as the stultifying union of Lydgate with Rosamond Vincy, and has altogether a more saddening effect than the tragic death of Maggie, which is how much less pitiful than that death in life of the fashionable doctor, whose best aims and vital purposes have been killed by his wife.

Much might be said of Bulstrode, the sanctimonious hypocrite, who is yet not altogether a hypocrite, but has a vein of something resembling goodness running through his crafty character; of Farebrother, the lax, amiable, genuinely honourable vicar of St. Botolph's; of Mrs. Cadwallader, the glib-tongued, witty, meddling rector's wife, a kind of Mrs. Poyser of high life; of Caleb Garth, whose devotion to work is a religion, and whose likeness to Mr. Robert Evans has already been pointed out; of the whole-hearted, sensible Mary, and of many other supremely vivid characters, whom to do justice to would carry us too far.

'Middlemarch' is the only work of George Eliot's, I believe, in which there is a distinct indication of her attitude towards the aspirations and clearly formulated demands of the women of the nineteenth century. Her many sarcastic allusions to the stereotyped theory about woman's sphere show on which side her sympathies were enlisted. On the whole, she was more partial to the educational movement than to that other agitation which aims at securing the political enfranchisement of women. How sincerely she had the first at heart is shown by the donation of 50l. "From the author of 'Romola,'" when Girton College was first started. And in a letter to a young lady who studied there, and in whose career she was much interested, she says, "the prosperity of Girton is very satisfactory." Among her most intimate friends, too, were some of the ladies who had initiated and organised the Women's Suffrage movement. Likewise writing to Miss Phelps, she alludes to the Woman's Lectureship in Boston, and remarks concerning the new University: "An office that may make a new precedent in social advance, and which is at the very least an experiment that ought to be tried. America is the seed-ground and nursery of new ideals, where they can grow in a larger, freer air than ours."

In 1871, the year when 'Middlemarch' was appearing in parts, George Eliot spent part of the spring and summer months at Shottermill, a quaint Hampshire village situated amid a landscape that unites beauties of the most varied kind. Here we may imagine her and Mr. Lewes, after their day's work was done, either seeking the vast stretch of heath and common only bounded by the horizon, or strolling through the deep-sunk lanes, or finding a soothing repose in "places of nestling green for poets made." They had rented Brookbank, an old-fashioned cottage with tiled roof and lattice-paned windows, belonging to Mrs. Gilchrist, the widow of the distinguished biographer of William Blake.

The description of Mrs. Meyrick's house in 'Daniel Deronda' "where the narrow spaces of wall held a world-history in scenes and heads," may have been suggested by her present abode, rich in original drawings by Blake, and valuable prints, and George Eliot writes: "If I ever steal anything in my life, I think it will be the two little Sir Joshuas over the drawing-room mantelpiece." At this time she and Mr. Lewes also found intense interest in reading the 'Life of Blake.' Some correspondence, kindly placed at my disposal by Mrs. Gilchrist, passed between this lady and the Leweses in connection with the letting of the house, giving interesting glimpses into the domesticities of the latter. Their habits here, as in London, were of clockwork regularity, household arrangements being expected to run on wheels. "Everything," writes George Eliot, "goes on slowly at Shottermill, and the mode of narration is that typified in 'This is the house that Jack built.' But there is an exquisite stillness in the sunshine and a sense of distance from London hurry, which encourages the growth of patience.

"Mrs. G——'s" (their one servant) "pace is proportionate to the other slownesses, but she impresses me as a worthy person, and her cooking—indeed, all her attendance on us—is of satisfactory quality. But we find the awkwardness of having only one person in the house, as well as the advantage (this latter being quietude). The butcher does not bring the meat, everybody grudges selling new milk, eggs are scarce, and an expedition we made yesterday in search of fowls, showed us nothing more hopeful than some chickens six weeks old, which the good woman observed were sometimes 'eaten by the gentry with asparagus.' Those eccentric people, the gentry!

"But have we not been reading about the siege of Paris all the winter, and shall we complain while we get excellent bread and butter and many etceteras? . . . Mrs S—— kindly sent us a dish of asparagus, which we ate (without the skinny chicken) and had a feast.

"You will imagine that we are as fond of eating as Friar Tuck—I am enlarging so on our commissariat. But you will also infer that we have no great evils to complain of, since I make so much of the small."

George Eliot rarely went out in the day-time during her stay at Shottermill, but in the course of her rambles she would sometimes visit such cottagers in remote places as were not likely to know who she was. She used also to go and see a farmer's wife living at a short distance from Brookbank, with whom she would freely chat about the growth of fruits and vegetables and the quality of butter, much to the astonishment of the simple farm people. Speaking of her recollection of the great novelist to an American lady by whom these facts are recorded, the old countrywoman remarked: "It were wonderful, just wonderful, the sight o' green peas that I sent down to that gentleman and lady every week."

After the lapse of a few months spent in this sweet rural retreat, George Eliot again writes to Mrs. Gilchrist: "I did not imagine that I should ever be so fond of the place as I am now. The departure of the bitter winds, some improvement in my health, and the gradual revelation of fresh and fresh beauties in the scenery, especially under a hopeful sky such as we have sometimes had—all these conditions have made me love our little world here, and wish not to quit it until we can settle in our London home. I have the regret of thinking that it was my original indifference about it (I hardly ever like things until they are familiar) that hindered us from securing the cottage until the end of September."

George Eliot's conscientiousness and precision in the small affairs of life are exemplified in her last note to Mrs. Gilchrist: "After Mr. Lewes had written to you, I was made aware that a small dessert or bread-and-butter dish had been broken. That arch-sinner, the cat, was credited with the guilt. I am assured by Mrs. G—— that nothing else has been injured during her reign, and Mrs. L—— confirmed the statement to me yesterday. I wish I could replace the unfortunate dish. . . . This note, of course, needs no answer, and it is intended simply to make me a clean breast about the crockery."

About this time George Eliot was very much out of health: indeed, both she and Lewes repeatedly speak of themselves as "two nervous, dyspeptic creatures, two ailing, susceptible bodies," to whom slight inconveniences are injurious and upsetting. Although it was hot summer weather, Mrs. Lewes suffered much from cold, sitting always with artificial heat to her feet. One broiling day in August, after she had left Brookbank, and taken another place in the neighbourhood, an acquaintance happening to call on her, found her sitting in the garden writing, as was her wont, her head merely shaded by a deodara, on the lawn. Being expostulated with by her visitor for her imprudence in exposing herself to the full blaze of the midday sun, she replied, "Oh, I like it! To-day is the first time I have felt warm this summer."

They led a most secluded life, George Eliot being at this time engaged with the continuation of 'Middlemarch;' and Lewes, alluding to their solitary habits, writes at this date: "Work goes on smoothly away from all friendly interruptions. Lord Houghton says that it is incomprehensible how we can live in such Simeon Stylites fashion, as we often do, all alone—but the fact is we never are alone when alone. And I sometimes marvel how it is I have contrived to get through so much work living in London. It's true I'm a London child." Occasionally, however, they would go and see Tennyson, whose house is only three miles from Shottermill, but the road being all uphill made the ride a little tedious and uncomfortable, especially to George Eliot who had not got over her old nervousness. The man who used to drive them on these occasions was so much struck by this that he told the lady who has recorded these details in the Century Magazine: "Withal her being such a mighty clever body, she were very nervous in a carriage—allays wanted to go on a smooth road, and seemed dreadful feared of being thrown out." On one of these occasional meetings with Tennyson, the poet got involved in a conversation with the novelist concerning evolution and such weighty questions. They had been walking together in close argument, and as the Poet-Laureate bade George Eliot farewell, he called to her, already making her way down the hill, "Well, goodby, you and your molecules!" And she, looking back, said in her deep low voice (which always got lower when she was at all roused), "I am quite content with my molecules."

The country all around Shottermill with its breezy uplands, its pine-clad hills, its undulating tracts of land purpled with heath in the autumn, became more and more endeared to George Eliot, who, indeed, liked it better than any scenery in England. Here she could enjoy to the full that "sense of standing on a round world," which, she writes to Mrs. Gilchrist who had used the phrase, "was precisely what she most cared for amongst out-of-door delights." Some years afterwards we find her and Mr. Lewes permanently taking a house not far off, at Witley in Surrey, which has the same kind of beautiful open scenery. Writing from her town residence about it to her old friend Mrs. Bray, George Eliot says: "We, too, are thinking of a new settling down, for we have bought a house in Surrey about four miles from Godalming on a gravelly hill among the pine-trees, but with neighbours to give us a sense of security. Our present idea is that we shall part with this house and give up London except for occasional visits. We shall be on the same line of railway with some good friends at Weybridge and Guildford."