George Eliot (Blind 1883)/Chapter 15

George Eliot  (1883)  by Mathilde Blind
Chapter XV. Last Years



'Daniel Deronda' is the last great imaginative work with which George Eliot was destined to enrich the world. It came out in small volumes, the appearance of each fresh number being hailed as a literary event. In allusion to an author's feeling on the conclusion of a weighty task, George Eliot remarks in one of her letters: "As to the great novel which remains to be written, I must tell you that I never believe in future books. . . . Always after finishing a book I have a period of despair that I can never again produce anything worth giving to the world. The responsibility of the writer grows heavier and heavier—does it not?—as the world grows older, and the voices of the dead more numerous. It is difficult to believe, until the germ of some new work grows into imperious activity within one, that it is possible to make a really needed contribution to the poetry of the world—I mean possible to oneself to do it."

This singular diffidence, arising from a sense of the tremendous responsibility which her position entailed, was one of the most noticeable characteristics of this great woman, and struck every one who came in contact with her. Her conscientiousness made her even painfully anxious to enter sympathetically into the needs of every person who approached her, so as to make her speech a permanently fruitful influence in her hearer's life. Such an interview, for example, as that between Goethe and Heine—where the younger poet, after thinking all the way what fine things to say to Goethe, was so disconcerted by the awe-inspiring presence of the master, that he could find nothing better to say than that the plums on the road-side between Jena and Weimar were remarkably good—would have been impossible with one so eager always to give of her best.

This deep seriousness of nature made her Sunday afternoon receptions, which became more and more fashionable as time went on, something of a tax to one who preferred the intimate converse of a few to that more superficially brilliant talk which a promiscuous gathering brings with it. Among the distinguished visitors to be met more or less frequently at the Priory may be mentioned Mr. Herbert Spencer, Professor Huxley, Mr. Frederic Harrison, Professor Beesly, Dr. and Mrs. Congreve, Madame Bodichon, Lord Houghton, M. Tourguénief, Mr. Ralston, Sir Theodore and Lady Martin (better known as Helen Faucit), Mr. Burton of the National Gallery, Mr. George Howard and his wife, Mr. C. G. Leland, Mr. Moncure Conway, Mr. Justin McCarthy, Dr. Hueffer, Mr. and Mrs. Buxton Forman, Mr. F. Myers, Mr. Sully, Mr. Du Maurier, Mr. and Mrs. Mark Pattison, Mr. and Mrs. Clifford, Lady Castletown and her daughters, Mr. and Mrs. Burne Jones, Mr. John Everett Millais, Mr. Robert Browning, and Mr. Tennyson.

Persons of celebrity were not the only ones, however, that were made welcome at the Priory. The liveliest sympathy was shown by both host and hostess in many young people as yet struggling in obscurity, but in whom they delighted to recognise the promise of some future excellence. If a young man were pursuing some original scientific inquiry, or striking out a new vein of speculation, in all London there was none likely to enter with such zest into his ideas as G. H. Lewes. His generous appreciation of intellectual gifts is well shown in the following lines to the late Professor W. K. Clifford:

"Few things have given us more pleasure than the intimation in your note that you had a fiancée. May she be the central happiness and motive force of your career, and, by satisfying the affections, leave your rare intellect free to work out its glorious destiny. For, if you don't become a glory to your age and time, it will be a sin and a shame. Nature doesn't often send forth such gifted sons, and when she does, Society usually cripples them. Nothing but marriage—a happy marriage—has seemed to Mrs. Lewes and myself wanting to your future."

On the Sunday afternoon receptions just mentioned, G. H. Lewes acted, so to speak, as a social cement. His vivacity, his ready tact, the fascination of his manners, diffused that general sense of ease and abandon so requisite to foster an harmonious flow of conversation. He was inimitable as a raconteur, and Thackeray, Trollope, and Arthur Helps were fond of quoting some of the stories which he would dramatise in the telling. One of the images which, on these occasions, recurs oftenest to George Eliot's friends, is that of the frail-looking woman who would sit with her chair drawn close to the fire, and whose winning womanliness of bearing and manners struck every one who had the privilege of an introduction to her. Her long, pale face, with its strongly-marked features, was less rugged in the mature prime of life than in youth, the inner meanings of her nature having worked themselves more and more to the surface, the mouth, with its benignant suavity of expression, especially softening the too prominent under-lip and massive jaw. Her abundant hair, untinged with grey, whose smooth bands made a kind of frame to the face, was covered by a lace or muslin cap, with lappets of rich point or Valenciennes lace fastened under her chin. Her grey-blue eyes, under noticeable eyelashes, expressed the same acute sensitiveness as her long, thin, beautifully-shaped hands. She had a pleasant laugh and smile, her voice being low, distinct, and intensely sympathetic in quality: it was contralto in singing, but she seldom sang or played before more than one or two friends. Though her conversation was perfectly easy, each sentence was as finished, as perfectly formed, as the style of her published works. Indeed, she laid great stress on the value of correct speaking and clearness of enunciation; and in 'Theophrastus Such' she laments "the general ambition to speak every language except our mother English, which persons 'of style' are not ashamed of corrupting with slang, false foreign equivalents, and a pronunciation that crushes out all colour from the vowels, and jams them between jostling consonants."

Besides M. d'Albert's Genevese portrait of George Eliot, we have a drawing by Mr. Burton, and another by Mr. Lawrence, the latter taken soon after the publication of 'Adam Bede.' In criticising the latter likeness, a keen observer of human nature remarked that it conveyed no indication of the infinite depth of her observant eye, nor of that cold, subtle, and unconscious cruelty of expression which might occasionally be detected there. George Eliot had an unconquerable aversion to her likeness being taken: once, however, in 1860, she was photographed for the sake of her "dear sisters" at Rosehill. But she seems to have repented of this weakness, for, after the lapse of years, she writes: "Mr. Lewes has just come to me after reading your letter, and says, 'For God's sake tell her not to have the photograph reproduced!' and I had nearly forgotten to say that the fading is what I desired. I should not like this image to be perpetuated. It needs the friendly eyes that regret to see it fade, and must not be recalled into emphatic black and white for indifferent gazers. Pray let it vanish."

Those who knew George Eliot were even more struck by the force of her entire personality than by her writings. Sympathetic, witty or learned in turn, her conversation deeply impressed her hearers, being enriched by such felicities of expression as: "The best lesson of tolerance we have to learn is to tolerate intolerance." In answer to a friend's surprise that a clever man should allow himself to be contradicted by a stupid one, without dropping down on him, she remarked: "He is very liable to drop down as a baked apple would." And of a very plain acquaintance she said: "He has the most dreadful kind of ugliness one can be afflicted with, because it takes on the semblance of beauty."

Poetry, music, and art naturally absorbed much attention at the Priory. Here Mr. Tennyson has been known to read 'Maud' aloud to his friends: Mr. Browning expatiated on the most recondite metrical rules: and Rossetti sent presents of poems and photographs. In the following unpublished letters George Eliot thanks the latter for his valued gifts—"We returned only the night before last from a two months' journey to the Continent, and among the parcels awaiting me I found your generous gift. I am very grateful to you both as giver and poet.

"In cutting the leaves, while my head is still swimming from the journey, I have not resisted the temptation to read many things as they ought not to be read—hurriedly. But even in this way I have received a stronger impression than any fresh poems have for a long while given me, that to read once is a reason for reading again. The sonnets towards 'The House of Life' attract me peculiarly. I feel about them as I do about a new cahier of music which I have been 'trying' here and there with the delightful conviction that I have a great deal to become acquainted with and to like better and better." And again, in acknowledgment of some photographs: "The 'Hamlet' seems to me perfectly intelligible, and altogether admirable in conception, except in the type of the man's head. I feel sure that 'Hamlet' had a square anterior lobe.

"Mr. Lewes says, this conception of yours makes him long to be an actor who has 'Hamlet' for one of his parts, that he might carry out this scene according to your idea.

"One is always liable to mistake prejudices for sufficient inductions, about types of head and face, as well as about all other things. I have some impressions—perhaps only prejudices dependent on the narrowness of my experience—about forms of eyebrow and their relation to passionate expression. It is possible that such a supposed relation has a real anatomical basis. But in many particulars facial expression is like the expression of hand-writing: the relations are too subtle and intricate to be detected, and only shallowness is confident."

George Eliot read but little contemporary fiction, being usually absorbed in the study of some particular subject "For my own spiritual good I need all other sort of reading," she says, "more than I need fiction. I know nothing of contemporary English novelists with the exception of ——, and a few of ——'s works. My constant groan is that I must leave so much of the greatest writing which the centuries have sifted for me unread for want of time." For the same reason, on being recommended by a literary friend to read Walt Whitman, she hesitated on the ground of his not containing anything spiritually needful for her, but, having been induced to take him up, she changed her opinion and admitted that he did contain what was "good for her soul." As to lighter reading, she was fond of books of travel, pronouncing "'The Voyage of the Challenger' a splendid book." Among foreign novelists she was very partial to Henry Gréville, and speaks of 'Les Koumiassine' as a pleasant story.

Persons who were privileged enough to be admitted to the intimacy of George Eliot and Mr. Lewes could not fail to be impressed by the immense admiration which they had for one another. Lewes's tenderness, always on the watch lest the great writer, with her delicately poised health, should over-exert herself, had something of doglike fidelity. On the other hand, in spite of George Eliot's habitually retiring manner, if any one ever engaged on the opposite side of an argument to that maintained by the brilliant savant, in taking his part, she usually had the best of it, although in the most gentle and feminine way.

Although there was entire oneness of feeling between them, there was no unanimity of opinion. George Eliot had the highest regard for Lewes's opinions, but held to her own. One of the chief subjects of difference consisted in their attitude towards Christianity: whereas he was its uncompromising opponent, she had the greatest sympathy with its various manifestations from Roman Catholic asceticism to Evangelical austerity and Methodist fervour. Her reverence for every form of worship in which mankind has more or less consciously embodied its sense of the mystery of all "this unintelligible world" increased with the years. She was deeply penetrated by that tendency of the Positivist spirit which recognises the beneficial element in every form of religion, and sees the close, nay indissoluble, connection between the faith of former generations and the ideal of our own. She herself found ample scope for the needs and aspirations of her spiritual nature in the religion of humanity. As has already been repeatedly pointed out, there runs through all her works the same persistent teaching of "the Infinite Nature of Duty." And with Comte she refers "the obligations of duty, as well as all sentiments of devotion, to a concrete object, at once ideal and real; the Human Race, conceived as a continuous whole, including the past, the present, and the future."

Though George Eliot drew many of her ideas of moral cultivation from the doctrines of Comte's Philosophie Positive, she was not a Positivist in the strict sense of the word. Her mind was far too creative by nature to give an unqualified adhesion to such a system as Comte's. Indeed, her devotion to the idea of mankind, conceived as a collective whole, is not so much characteristic of Positivists as of the greatest modern minds, minds such as Lessing, Bentham, Shelley, Mill, Mazzini, and Victor Hugo. Inasmuch as Comte co-ordinated these ideas into a consistent doctrine, George Eliot found herself greatly attracted to his system; and Mr. Beesly, after an acquaintance of eighteen years, considered himself justified in stating that her powerful intellect had accepted the teaching of Auguste Comte, and that she looked forward to the reorganisation of belief on the lines which he had laid down. Still her adherence, like that of G. H. Lewes, was only partial, and applied mainly to his philosophy, and not to his scheme of social policy. She went farther than the latter, however, in her concurrence. For Mr. Lewes, speaking of the Politique Positive in his 'History of Philosophy,' admits that his antagonistic attitude had been considerably modified on learning from the remark of one very dear to him, "to regard it as an Utopia, presenting hypotheses rather than doctrines—suggestions for future inquiries rather than dogmas for adepts."

On the whole, although George Eliot did not agree with Comte's later theories concerning the reconstruction of society, she regarded them with sympathy "as the efforts of an individual to anticipate the work of future generations." This sympathy with the general Positivist movement she showed by subscribing regularly to Positivist objects, especially to the fund of the Central Organisation presided over by M. Laffitte, but she invariably refused all membership with the Positivist community. In conversation with an old and valued friend, she also repeatedly expressed her objection to much in Comte's later speculations, saying on one occasion, "I cannot submit my intellect or my soul to the guidance of Comte." The fact is that, although George Eliot was greatly influenced by the leading Positivist ideas, her mind was too original not to work out her own individual conception of life.

What this conception is has been already indicated, so far as space would permit, in the discussion of her successive works. Perhaps in the course of time her moralising analytical tendency encroached too much on the purely artistic faculty. Her eminently dramatic genius—which enabled her to realise characters the most varied and opposite in type, somewhat in the manner of Shakespeare—became hampered by theories and abstract views of life. This was especially shown in her latest work, 'The Impressions of Theophrastus Such,' a series of essays chiefly satirising the weaknesses and vanities of the literary class. In these unattractive "impressions" the wit is often laboured, and does not play "beneficently round the changing facets of egoism, absurdity, and vice, as the sunshine over the rippling sea or the dewy meadows." Its cutting irony and incisive ridicule are no longer tempered by the humorous laugh, but have the corrosive quality of some acrid chemical substance.

One of the papers, however, that entitled 'Debasing the Moral Currency,' expresses a strongly marked characteristic of George Eliot's mind. It is a pithy protest against the tendency of the present generation to turn the grandest deeds and noblest works of art into food for laughter. For she hated nothing so much as mockery and ridicule of what other people reverenced, often remarking that those who considered themselves freest from superstitious fancies were the most intolerant. She carried this feeling to such a pitch that she even disliked a book like 'Alice in Wonderland' because it laughed at the things which children had had a kind of belief in. In censuring this vicious habit of burlesquing the things that ought to be regarded with awe and admiration, she remarks, "Let a greedy buffoonery debase all historic beauty, majesty and pathos, and the more you heap up the desecrated symbols, the greater will be the lack of the ennobling emotions which subdue the tyranny of suffering, and make ambition one with virtue."

'Looking Backward' is the only paper in 'Theophrastus Such' quite free from cynicism. It contains, under a slightly veiled form, pathetically tender reminiscences of her own early life. This volume, not published till May 1879, was written before the incalculable loss which befell George Eliot in the autumn of the preceding year.

After spending the summer of 1878 in the pleasant retirement of Witley, Lewes and George Eliot returned to London. A severe cold taken by Lewes proved the forerunner of a serious disorder, and, after a short illness, this bright, many-sided, indefatigable thinker, passed away in his sixty-second year. He had frequently said to his friends that the most desirable end of a well-spent life was a painless death; and although his own could not be called painless, his sufferings were at least of short duration. Concerning the suffering and anguish of her who was left behind to mourn him, one may most fitly say, in her own words, that, "for the first sharp pangs there is no comfort—whatever goodness may surround us, darkness and silence still hang about our pain." In her case, also, the "clinging companionship with the dead" was gradually linked with her living affections, and she found alleviation for her sorrow in resuming those habits of continuous mental occupation which had become second nature with her. In a letter addressed to a friend, who, only a few short months afterwards, suffered a like heavy bereavement, there breathes the spirit in which George Eliot bore her own sorrow: "I understand it all. . . . There is but one refuge—the having much to do. You have the mother's duties. Not that these can yet make your life other than a burden to be patiently borne. Nothing can, except the gradual adaptation of your soul to the new conditions. . . . It is among my most cherished memories that I knew your husband, and from the first delighted in him. . . . All blessing—and even the sorrow that is a form of love has a heart of blessing—is tenderly wished for you."

On seeing this lady for the first time after their mutual loss, George Eliot asked her eagerly; "Do the children help? Does it make any difference?" Some help there was for the widowed heart of this sorrowing woman in throwing herself, with all her energies, into the work which Lewes had left unfinished at his death, and preparing it for publication, with the help of an expert. Another subject which occupied her thoughts at this time, was the foundation of the "George Henry Lewes Studentship," in order to commemorate the name of one who had done so much to distinguish himself in the varied fields of literature, science, and philosophy. The value of the studentship is slightly under 200 a year. It is worth noticing that persons of both sexes are received as candidates. The object of the endowment is to encourage the prosecution of original research in physiology, a science to whose study Lewes had devoted himself most assiduously for many years. Writing of this matter to a young lady, one of the Girton students, George Eliot says: "I know . . . will be glad to hear also that both in England and Germany the type, or scheme, on which the studentship is arranged has been regarded with satisfaction, as likely to be a useful model."

Amid such preoccupations, and the preparation of 'Theophrastus Such' for the press, the months passed on, and George Eliot was beginning to see her friends again, when one day she not only took the world, but her intimate circle by surprise, by her marriage with Mr. John Walter Cross, on the 6th of May, 1880. The acquaintance with this gentleman, dating from the year 1867, had long ago grown into the warmest friendship, and his boundless devotion to the great woman whose society was to him as his daily bread, no doubt induced her to take a step which could not fail to startle even those who loved her the most. But George Eliot's was a nature that needed some one especially to love. And though that precious companionship, at once stimulating and sympathetic, which she had so long enjoyed, was taken from her, she could still find comfort during the remainder of her life in the love, the appreciation, and the tender care which were proffered to her by Mr. Cross. Unfortunately her life was not destined to be prolonged.

Although seeming fairly well at this date, George Eliot's health, always delicate, had probably received a shock, from which it never recovered. Only six months before her marriage three eminent medical men were attending her for a painful disease. However, there seemed still a prospect of happiness for her when she and Mr. Cross went for a tour in Italy, settling, on their return, at her favourite country house at Witley. In the autumn they once more made their home in London, at Mr. Cross's town house at 4 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, and Mrs. Cross, who was again beginning to receive her friends, seemed, to all appearances, well and happy, with a prospect of domestic love and unimpaired mental activity stretching out before her. But it was not to be. On Friday, the 17th of December, George Eliot attended a representation of the 'Agamemnon,' in Greek, by Oxford undergraduates, and was so stirred by the grand words of her favourite Æschylus, that she was contemplating a fresh perusal of the Greek dramatists with her husband. On the following day she went to the Saturday popular concert, and on returning home played through some of the music she had been hearing. Her fatal cold was probably caught on that occasion, for, although she received her friends, according to custom, on the Sunday afternoon, she felt indisposed in the evening, and on the following day an affection of the larynx necessitated medical advice. There seemed no cause for alarm at first, till on Wednesday it was unexpectedly discovered that inflammation had arisen in the heart, and that no hope of recovery remained. Before midnight of the 22nd of December, 1880, George Eliot, who died at precisely the same age as Lewes, had passed quietly and painlessly away; and on Christmas Eve the announcement of her death was received with general grief. She was buried by the side of George Henry Lewes, in the cemetery at Highgate.

George Eliot's career has been habitually described as uniform and uneventful. In reality nothing is more misleading. On the contrary, her life, from its rising to its setting, describes an astonishingly wide orbit. If one turns back in imagination from the little Staffordshire village whence her father sprang, to the simple rural surroundings of her own youth, and traces her history to the moment when a crowd of mourners, consisting of the most distinguished men and women in England, followed her to the grave, one cannot help realising how truly eventful was the life of her who now joined in spirit the

"Choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end in self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man's search
To vaster issues."