George Eliot (Blind 1883)/Chapter 5

George Eliot  (1883)  by Mathilde Blind
Chapter V. The "Westminster Review"



Dr. and Mrs. Chapman were at this time in the habit of admitting a few select boarders, chiefly engaged in literary pursuits, to their large house in the Strand, and Miss Evans, at their invitation, made her home with them. Thus she found herself at once in the centre of a circle consisting of some of the most advanced thinkers and brilliant littérateurs of the day; a circle which, partly consisting of contributors to the Westminster Review, was strongly imbued with scientific tendencies, being particularly partial to the doctrines of Positive Philosophy.

Those were in truth the palmy days of the Westminster Review. Herbert Spencer, G. H. Lewes, John Oxenford, James and Harriet Martineau, Charles Bray, George Combe, and Professor Edward Forbes were among the writers that made it the leading expositor of the philosophic and scientific thought of the age. It occupied a position something midway between that of the Nineteenth Century and the Fortnightly. Scorning, like the latter, to pander to the frivolous tastes of the majority, it appealed to the most thoughtful and enlightened section of the reading public, giving especial prominence to the philosophy of the Comtist School; and while not so fashionable as the Nineteenth Century, it could boast among its contributors names quite as famous, destined as they were to become the foremost of their time and country. With this group of illustrious writers Miss Evans was now associated, and the articles she contributed from the year 1852 to 1858 are among the most brilliant examples of periodical literature. The first notice by her pen is a brief review of Carlyle's 'Life of Sterling' for January 1852, and judging from internal evidence, as regards style and method of treatment, the one on Margaret Fuller, in the next number, must be by the same hand.

To the biographer there is a curious interest in what she says in her first notice about this kind of literature, and it would be well for the world if writers were to lay it more generally to heart. "We have often wished that genius would incline itself more frequently to the task of the biographer, that when some great or good personage dies, instead of the dreary three- or five-volumed compilations of letter, and diary, and detail, little to the purpose, which two-thirds of the public have not the chance, nor the other third the inclination, to read, we could have a real "life," setting forth briefly and vividly the man's inward and outward struggles, aims, and achievements, so as to make clear the meaning which his experience has for his fellows. A few such lives (chiefly autobiographies) the world possesses, and they have, perhaps, been more influential on the formation of character than any other kind of reading." Then again, speaking of the 'Memoirs of Margaret Fuller,' she remarks, in reference to the same topic, "The old-world biographies present their subjects generally as broken fragments of humanity, noticeable because of their individual peculiarities, the new-world biographies present their subjects rather as organic portions of society."

George Eliot's estimate of Margaret Fuller (for there can be little doubt that it is hers) possesses too rare an interest for readers not to be given here in her own apposite and pungent words: "We are at a loss whether to regard her as the parent or child of New England Transcendentalism. Perhaps neither the one nor the ether. It was essentially an intellectual, moral, spiritual regeneration—a renewing of the whole man—a kindling of his aspirations after full development of faculty and perfect symmetry of being. Of this sect Margaret Fuller was the priestess. In conversation she was as copious and oracular as Coleridge, brilliant as Sterling, pungent and paradoxical as Carlyle; gifted with the inspired powers of a Pythoness, she saw into the hearts and over the heads of all who came near her, and, but for a sympathy as boundless as her self-esteem, she would have despised the whole human race! Her frailty in this respect was no secret either to herself or her friends. . . . We must say that from the time she became a mother till the final tragedy when she perished with her husband and child within sight of her native shore, she was an altered woman, and evinced a greatness of soul and heroism of character so grand and subduing, that we feel disposed to extend to her whole career the admiration and sympathy inspired by the closing scenes.

"While her reputation was at its height in the literary circles of Boston and New York, she was so self-conscious that her life seemed to be a studied act, rather than a spontaneous growth; but this was the mere flutter on the surface; the well was deep, and the spring genuine; and it is creditable to her friends, as well as to herself, that such at all times was their belief."

In this striking summing-up of a character, the penetrating observer of human nature—taking in at a glance and depicting by a few masterly touches all that helps to make up a picture of the real living being—begins to reveal herself.

These essays in the Westminster Review are not only capital reading in themselves, but are, of course, doubly attractive to us because they let out opinions, views, judgments of things and authors, which we should never otherwise have known. Marian Evans had not yet hidden herself behind the mask of George Eliot, and in many of these wise and witty utterances of hers we are admitted behind the scenes of her mind, so to speak, and see her in her own undisguised person—before she had assumed the rôle of the novelist, showing herself to the world mainly through her dramatic impersonations.

In these articles, written in the fresh maturity of her powers, we learn what George Eliot thought about many subjects; we learn who were her favourite authors in fiction; what opinions she held on art and poetry; what was her attitude towards the political and social questions of the day; what was her conception of human life in general. There is much here, no doubt, that one might have been prepared to find, but a good deal, too, that comes upon one with the freshness of surprise.

A special interest attaches naturally to what she has to say about her own branch of art—the novel. Though she had probably no idea that she was herself destined to become one of the great masters of fiction, she had evidently a special predilection for works of that kind, noticeable because hitherto her bent might have appeared almost exclusively towards philosophy. To the three-volume circulating-library novel of the ordinary stamp she is merciless in her sarcasm. One of her most pithy articles of this time, or rather later, its date being 1856, is directed against "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists." "These," she says, "consist of the frothy, the prosy, the pious, or the pedantic. But it is a mixture of all these—a composite order of feminine fatuity, that produces the largest class of such novels, which we shall distinguish as the mind and millinery species. We had imagined that destitute women turned novelists, as they turned governesses, because they had no other 'ladylike' means of getting their bread. Empty writing was excused by an empty stomach, and twaddle was consecrated by tears. . . . It is clear that they write in elegant boudoirs, with violet-coloured ink and a ruby pen, that they must be entirely indifferent to publishers' accounts, and inexperienced in every form of poverty except poverty of brains."

After finding fault with what she sarcastically calls the white neck-cloth species of novel, "a sort of medical sweetmeat for Low Church young ladies," she adds, "The real drama of Evangelicalism, and it has abundance of fine drama for any one who has genius enough to discern and reproduce it, lies among the middle and lower classes. Why can we not have pictures of religious life among the industrial classes in England, as interesting as Mrs. Stowe's pictures of religious life among the negroes?"

She who asked that question was herself destined, a few years later, to answer her own demand in most triumphant fashion. Already here and there we find hints and suggestions of the vein that was to be so fully worked out in 'Scenes of Clerical Life' and 'Adam Bede.' Her intimate knowledge of English country life, and the hold it had on her imagination, every now and then eats its way to the surface of her writings, and stands out amongst its surrounding matter with a certain unmistakable native force. After censuring the lack of reality with which peasant life is commonly treated in art, she makes the following apposite remarks, suggested by her own experience: "The notion that peasants are joyous, that the typical moment to represent a man in a smock-frock is when he is cracking a joke and showing a row of sound teeth, that cottage matrons are usually buxom, and village children necessarily rosy and merry, are prejudices difficult to dislodge from the artistic mind which looks for its subjects into literature instead of life. The painter is still under the influence of idyllic literature, which has always expressed the imagination of the town-bred rather than the truth of rustic life. Idyllic ploughmen are jocund when they drive their team afield; idyllic shepherds make bashful love under hawthorn bushes; idyllic villagers dance in the chequered shade and refresh themselves not immoderately with spicy nut-brown ale. But no one who has seen much of actual ploughmen thinks them jocund, no one who is well acquainted with the English peasantry can pronounce them merry. The slow gaze, in which no sense of beauty beams, no humour twinkles; the slow utterance, and the heavy slouching walk, remind one rather of that melancholy animal the camel, than of the sturdy countryman, with striped stockings, red waistcoat, and hat aside, who represents the traditional English peasant. Observe a company of haymakers. When you see them at a distance tossing up the forkfuls of hay in the golden light, while the wagon creeps slowly with its increasing burden over the meadow, and the bright green space which tells of work done gets larger and larger, you pronounce the scene 'smiling,' and you think these companions in labour must be as bright and cheerful as the picture to which they give animation. Approach nearer and you will find haymaking time is a time for joking, especially if there are women among the labourers; but the coarse laugh that bursts out every now and then, and expresses the triumphant taunt, is as far as possible from your conception of idyllic merriment. That delicious effervescence of the mind which we call fun has no equivalent for the northern peasant, except tipsy revelry; the only realm of fancy and imagination for the English clown exists at the bottom of the third quart pot.

"The conventional countryman of the stage, who picks up pocket-books and never looks into them, and who is too simple even to know that honesty has its opposite, represents the still lingering mistake, that an unintelligible dialect is a guarantee for ingenuousness, and that slouching shoulders indicate an upright disposition. It is quite sure that a thresher is likely to be innocent of any adroit arithmetical cheating, but he is not the less likely to carry home his master's corn in his shoes and pocket; a reaper is not given to writing begging-letters, but he is quite capable of cajoling the dairy-maid into filling his small-beer bottle with ale. The selfish instincts are not subdued by the sight of buttercups, nor is integrity in the least established by that classic rural occupation, sheep-washing. To make men moral something more is requisite than to turn them out to grass."

Every one must see that this is the essay writing of a novelist rather than of a moral philosopher. The touches are put on with the vigour of a Velasquez. Balzac, or Flaubert, or that most terrible writer of the modern French school of fiction, the author of 'Le Sabot Rouge,' never described peasant life with more downright veracity. In the eyes of Miss Evans this quality of veracity is the most needful of all for the artist. Because "a picture of human life, such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of sentiment." For "art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot. All the more sacred is the task of the artist when he undertakes to paint the life of the People. Falsification here is far more pernicious than in the more artificial aspects of life. It is not so very serious that we should have false ideas about evanescent fashions—about the manners and conversation of beaux and duchesses; but it is serious that our sympathy with the perennial joys and struggles, the toil, the tragedy, and the humour in the life of our more heavily laden fellow-men should be perverted, and turned towards a false object instead of a true one."

George Eliot afterwards faithfully adhered to the canons fixed by the critic. Whether this consciousness of a moral purpose was altogether a gain to her art may be more fitly discussed in connection with the analysis of her works of fiction. It is only needful to point out here how close and binding she wished to make the union between ethics and æsthetics.

Almost identical views concerning fundamental laws of Art are discussed in an equally terse, vigorous, and pictorial manner in an article called 'Realism in Art: Recent German Fiction.' This article, however, is not by George Eliot, but by George Henry Lewis. It was published in October 1858, and appeared after their joint sojourn in Germany during the spring and summer of that year. I think that if one carefully compares 'Realism in Art' with George Eliot's other articles, there appears something like a marriage of their respective styles in this paper. It seems probable that Lewis, with his flexible adaptiveness, had come under the influence of George Eliot's powerful intellect, and that many of the views he expresses here at the same time render George Eliot's, as they frequently appear, identical with hers. In the article in question the manner as well as the matter has a certain suggestion of the novelist's style. For example she frequently indicates the quality of human speech by its resemblance to musical sounds. She is fond of speaking of "the staccato tones of a voice," "an adagio of utter indifference," and in the above-mentioned essay there are such expressions as the "stately largo" of good German prose. Again, in the article in question, we find the following satirical remarks about the slovenly prose of the generality of German writers: "To be gentlemen of somewhat slow, sluggish minds is perhaps their misfortune; but to be writers deplorably deficient in the first principles of composition is assuredly their fault. Some men pasture on platitudes, as oxen upon meadow-grass; they are at home on a dead-level of common-place, and do not desire to be irradiated by a felicity of expression." And in another passage to the same effect the author says sarcastically, "Graces are gifts: it can no more be required of a professor that he should write with felicity than that he should charm all beholders with his personal appearance; but literature requires that he should write intelligibly and carefully, as society requires that he should wash his face and button his waistcoat." Some of these strictures are very similar in spirit to what George Eliot had said in her review of Heinrich Heine, published in 1856, where complaining of the general cumbrousness of German writers, she makes the following cutting remark: "A German comedy is like a German sentence: you see no reason in its structure why it should ever come to an end, and you accept the conclusion as an arrangement of Providence rather than of the author."

A passage in this article, which exactly tallies with George Eliot's general remarks on Art, must not be omitted here. "Art is a representation of Reality—a Representation inasmuch as it is not the thing itself, but only represents it, must necessarily be limited by the nature of its medium. . . . Realism is thus the basis of all Art, and its antithesis is not Idealism but Falsism. . . . To misrepresent the forms of ordinary life is no less an offence than to misrepresent the forms of ideal life: a pug-nosed Apollo, or Jupiter in a great-coat, would not be more truly shocking to an artistic mind than are those senseless falsifications of Nature into which incompetence is led under the pretence of 'beautifying' Nature. Either give us true peasants or leave them untouched; either paint no drapery at all, or paint it with the utmost fidelity; either keep your people silent, or make them speak the idiom of their class."

Among German novelists (or rather writers of short stories), Paul Heyse is one of the few who is singled out for special praise in this review. And it is curious that there should be a tale by this eminent author called 'The Lonely Ones' (which also appeared in 1858), in which an incident occurs forcibly recalling the catastrophe of Grandcourt's death in 'Daniel Deronda': the incident—although unskilfully introduced—of a Neapolitan fisherman whose momentary murderous hesitation to rescue his drowning friend ends in lifelong remorse for his death.

What makes the article in question particularly interesting are the allusions to the German tour, which give it an almost biographical interest. As has been mentioned already, Mr. Lewis and George Eliot were travelling in Germany in the spring of 1858, and in a letter to a friend she writes: "Then we had a delicious journey to Salzburg, and from thence through the Salz-Kammergut to Vienna, from Vienna to Prague, and from Prague to Dresden, where we spent our last six weeks in quiet work and quiet worship of the Madonna." And in his essay on Art Mr. G. H. Lewis alludes to the most priceless art-treasure Dresden contains, "Raphael's marvellous picture, the Madonna di San Sisto," as furnishing the most perfect illustration of what he means by Realism and Idealism. Speaking of the child Jesus he says: "In the never-to-be-forgotten divine babe, we have at once the intensest realism of presentation with the highest idealism of conception: the attitude is at once grand, easy and natural; the face is that of a child, but the child is divine: in those eyes and in that brow there is an indefinable something which, greater than the expression of the angels, grander than that of pope or saint, is to all who see it a perfect truth; we feel that humanity in its highest conceivable form is before us, and that to transcend such a form would be to lose sight of the human nature there represented." A similar passage occurs in 'The Mill on the Floss,' where Philip Wakem says: "The greatest of painters only once painted a mysteriously divine child; he couldn't have told how he did it, and we can't tell why we feel it to be divine."

Enough has probably been quoted from George Eliot's articles to give the reader some idea of her views on art. But they are so rich in happy aphorisms, originality of illustration, and raciness of epithet that they not only deserve attentive study because they were the first fruits of the mind that afterwards gave to the world such noble and perfect works as 'The Mill on the Floss' and 'Silas Marner,' but are well worth attention for their own sake. Indeed nothing in George Eliot's fictions excels the style of these papers. And what a clear, incisive, masterly style it was! Her prose in those days had a swiftness of movement, an epigrammatic felicity, and a brilliancy of antithesis which we look for in vain in the over-elaborate sentences and somewhat ponderous wit of 'Theophrastus Such.'

A very vapid paper on 'Weimar and its Celebrities,' April 1859, which a writer in the Academy attributes to the same hand, I know not on what authority, does not possess a single attribute that we are in the habit of associating with the writings of George Eliot. That an author who, by that time, had already produced some of her very finest work, namely, the 'Scenes of Clerical Life,' and 'Adam Bede,' should have been responsible simultaneously for the trite commonplaces ventilated in this article is simply incredible. It is true that Homer is sometimes found nodding, and the right-hand of the greatest master may forget its cunning, but would George Eliot in her most abject moments have been capable of penning such a sentence as this in connection with Goethe? "Would not Fredricka or Lili have been a more genial companion than Christina Vulpius for that great poet of whom his native land is so justly proud?" It is not worth while to point out other platitudes such as flow spontaneously from the facile pen of a penny-a-liner; but the consistent misspelling of every name may be alluded to in passing. Thus we read "Lily" for "Lely," "Zetter" for "Zelter," "Quintus Filein" for "Fixlein," "Einsedel" for "Einsiedel," etc. etc. This, in itself, would furnish no conclusive argument, supposing George Eliot to have been on the Continent and out of the way of correcting proofs. But as it happened she was in England in April 1859, and it is, therefore, on all grounds impossible that this worthless production should be hers.

Perhaps her two most noteworthy articles are the one called 'Evangelical Teaching,' published in 1855, and the other on 'Worldliness and other Worldliness,' which appeared in 1857. This happy phrase, by the way, was first used by Coleridge, who says, "As there is a worldliness or the too much of this life, so there is another worldliness or rather other worldliness equally hateful and selfish with this worldliness." These articles are curious because they seem to occupy a midway position between George Eliot's earliest and latest phase of religious belief. But at this period she still felt the recoil from the pressure of a narrowing dogmatism too freshly not to launch back at it some of the most stinging shafts from the armoury of her satire. Not Heine himself, in his trenchant sallies, surpasses the irony with which some of her pages are bristling. To ignore this stage in George Eliot's mental development would be to lose one of the connecting links in her history: a history by no means smooth and uneventful, as some times superficially represented, but full of strong contrasts, abrupt transitions, outward and inward changes sympathetically charged with all the meaning of this transitional time. Two extracts from the above-mentioned articles will amply testify to what has just been said.

"Given a man with a moderate intellect, a moral standard not higher than the average, some rhetorical affluence and great glibness of speech, what is the career in which, without the aid of birth or money, he may most easily attain power and reputation in English society? Where is that Goshen of intellectual mediocrity in which a smattering of science and learning will pass for profound instruction, where platitudes will be accepted as wisdom, bigoted narrowness as holy zeal, unctuous egoism as God-given piety? Let such a man become an evangelical preacher; he will then find it possible to reconcile small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the prestige of erudition, a middling morale with a high reputation for sanctity. Let him shun practical extremes, and be ultra only in what is purely theoretic. Let him be stringent on predestination, but latitudinarian on fasting; unflinching in insisting on the eternity of punishment, but diffident of curtailing the substantial comforts of time; ardent and imaginative on the pre-millenial advent of Christ, but cold and cautious towards every other infringement of the status quo. Let him fish for souls, not with the bait of inconvenient singularity, but with the drag-net of comfortable conformity. Let him be hard and literal in his interpretation only when he wants to hurl texts at the heads of unbelievers and adversaries, but when the letter of the Scriptures presses too closely on the genteel Christianity of the nineteenth century, let him use his spiritualising alembic and disperse it into impalpable ether. Let him preach less of Christ than of Antichrist; let him be less definite in showing what sin is than in showing who is the Man of Sin; less expansive on the blessedness of faith than on the accursedness of infidelity. Above all, let him set up as an interpreter of prophecy, rival 'Moore's Almanack' in the prediction of political events, tickling the interest of hearers who are but moderately spiritual by showing how the Holy Spirit has dictated problems and charades for their benefit; and how, if they are ingenious enough to solve these, they may have their Christian graces nourished by learning precisely to whom they may point as 'the horn that had eyes,' 'the lying prophet,' and the 'unclean spirits.' In this way he will draw men to him by the strong cords of their passions, made reason-proof by being baptized with the name of piety. In this way he may gain a metropolitan pulpit; the avenues to his church will be as crowded as the passages to the opera; he has but to print his prophetic sermons, and bind them in lilac and gold, and they will adorn the drawing-room table of all evangelical ladies, who will regard as a sort of pious 'light reading' the demonstration that the prophecy of the locusts, whose sting is in their tail, is fulfilled in the fact of the Turkish commander having taken a horse's tail for his standard, and that the French are the very frogs predicted in the Revelations."

Even more scathing than this onslaught on a certain type of the popular evangelical preacher, is the paper on the poet Young, one of the wittiest things from George Eliot's pen, wherein she castigates with all her powers of sarcasm and ridicule that class of believers who cannot vilify this life sufficiently in order to make sure of the next, and who, in the care of their own souls, are careless of the world's need. Her analysis of the 'Night Thoughts' remains one of the most brilliant criticisms of its kind. Young's contempt for this earth, of all of us, and his exaltation of the starry worlds above, especially provoke his reviewer's wrath. This frame of mind was always repulsive to George Eliot, who could never sufficiently insist on the need of man's concentrating his love and energy on the life around him. She never felt much toleration for that form of aspiration that would soar to some shadowy infinite beyond the circle of human fellowship. One of the most epigrammatic passages in this article is where she says of Young, "No man can be better fitted for an Established Church. He personifies completely her nice balance of temporalities and spiritualities. He is equally impressed with the momentousness of death and of burial fees; he languishes at once for immortal life and for 'livings;' he has a fervid attachment to patrons in general, but on the whole prefers the Almighty. He will teach, with something more than official conviction, the nothingness of earthly things; and he will feel something more than private disgust, if his meritorious efforts in directing men's attention to another world are not rewarded by substantial preferment in this. His secular man believes in cambric bands and silk stockings as characteristic attire for 'an ornament of religion and virtue;' he hopes courtiers will never forget to copy Sir Robert Walpole; and writes begging letters to the king's mistress. His spiritual man recognizes no motives more familiar than Golgotha and 'the skies;' it walks in graveyards, or soars among the stars. . . . If it were not for the prospect of immortality, he considers it would be wise and agreeable to be indecent, or to murder one's father; and, heaven apart, it would be extremely irrational in any man not to be a knave. Man, he thinks, is a compound of the angel and the brute; the brute is to be humbled by being reminded of its 'relation to the stars,' and frightened into moderation by the contemplation of deathbeds and skulls; the angel is to be developed by vituperating this world and exalting the next, and by this double process you get the Christian—'the highest style of man.' With all this our new-made divine is an unmistakable poet. To a clay compounded chiefly of the worldling and the rhetorician there is added a real spark of Promethean fire. He will one day clothe his apostrophes and objurgations, his astronomical religion and his charnel house morality, in lasting verse, which will stand, like a Juggernaut made of gold and jewels, at once magnificent and repulsive: for this divine is Edward Young, the future author of the 'Night Thoughts.'"

It has seemed appropriate to quote thus largely from these essays, because, never having been reprinted, they are to all intents and purposes inaccessible to the general reader. Yet they contain much that should not willingly be consigned to the dust and cobwebs, among which obsolete magazines usually sink into oblivion. They may as well be specified here according to their dates. 'Carlyle's Life of Sterling,' January 1852; 'Woman in France: Madame de Sablé,' October 1854; 'Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming,' October 1855; 'German Wit: Heinrich Heine,' January 1856; 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,' October 1856; 'The Natural History of German Life,' July 1856; and 'Worldliness and other Worldliness: the Poet Young,' January 1857.

Miss Evans's main employment on the Westminster Review was, however, editorial. She used to write a considerable portion of the summary of contemporary literature at the end of each number. But her co-operation as sub-editor ceased about the close of 1853, when she left Dr. Chapman's house, and went to live in apartments in a small house in Cambridge Terrace, Hyde Park. Marian Evans was not entirely dependent at this time on the proceeds of her literary work, her father having settled the sum of 80l. to 100l. a year on her for life, the capital of which, however, did not belong to her. She was very generous with her money; and although her earnings at this time were not considerable, they were partly spent on her poor relations.