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Outlines of English and American Literature|
Mary Ann Evans, "George Eliot"
by Long, William J.
More than other Victorian story-tellers George Eliot regarded her work with
great seriousness as a means of public instruction. Her purpose was to show
that human life is effective only as it follows its sense of duty, and that
society is as much in need of the moral law as of daily bread. Other
novelists moralized more or less, Thackeray especially; but George Eliot
made the teaching of morality her chief business.
In the work as in the face of George Eliot there is a certain
masculine quality which is apt to mislead one who reads Adam
Bede or studies a portrait of the author. Even those who knew
her well, and who tried to express the charm of her personality,
seem to have overlooked the fact that they were describing a woman.
For example, a friend wrote:
"Everything in her aspect and presence was in keeping with
the bent of her soul. The deeply lined face, the too marked
and massive features, were united with an air of delicate
refinement, which in one way was the more impressive,
because it seemed to proceed so entirely from within. Nay,
the inward beauty would sometimes quite transform the
outward harshness; there would be moments when the thin
hands that entwined themselves in their eagerness, the
earnest figure that bowed forward to speak and hear, the
deep gaze moving from one face to another with a grave
appeal,--all these seemed the transparent symbols that
showed the presence of a wise, benignant soul."
A Clinging Vine
That is very good, but somehow it is not feminine. So the
impression has gone forth that George Eliot was a "strong-minded"
woman; but that is far from the truth. One might emphasize her
affectionate nature, her timidity, her lack of confidence in her
own judgment; but the essence of the matter is this, that so
dependent was she on masculine support that she was always
idealizing some man, and looking up to him as a superior being. In
short, she was one of "the clinging kind." Though some may regard
this as traditional nonsense, it was nevertheless the most
characteristic quality of the woman with whom we are dealing.
Mary Ann Evans, or Marian as she was called, was born (1819) and
spent her childhood in Shakespeare's county of Warwickshire. Her
father (whose portrait she has faintly drawn in the characters of
Adam Bede and Caleb Garth) was a strong, quiet man, a farmer and
land agent, who made a companion of his daughter rather than of his
son, the two being described more or less faithfully in the
characters of Maggie and Tom Tulliver in The Mill on the
Floss. At twelve years of age she was sent to a boarding
school; at fifteen her mother died, and she was brought home to
manage her father's house. The rest of her education--which
included music and a reading knowledge of German, Italian and
Greek--was obtained by solitary study at intervals of rest from
domestic work. That the intervals were neither long nor frequent
may be inferred from the fact that her work included not only her
father's accounts and the thousand duties of housekeeping but also
the managing of a poultry yard, the making of butter, and other
farm or dairy matters which at that time were left wholly to women.
The first marked change in her life came at the age of twenty-two,
when the household removed to Coventry, and Miss Evans was there
brought in contact with the family of a wealthy ribbon-maker named
Bray. He was a man of some culture, and the atmosphere of his
house, with its numerous guests, was decidedly skeptical. To Miss
Evans, brought up in a home ruled by early Methodist ideals of
piety, the change was a little startling. Soon she was listening to
glib evolutionary theories that settled everything from an
earthworm to a cosmos; next she was eagerly reading such unbaked
works as Bray's Philosophy of Necessity and the essays of
certain young scientists who, without knowledge of either
philosophy or religion, were cocksure of their ability to provide
"modern" substitutes for both at an hour's notice.
Miss Evans went over rather impulsively to the crude skepticism of
her friends; then, finding no soul or comfort in their theories,
she invented for herself a creed of duty and morality, without
however tracing either to its origin. She was naturally a religious
woman, and there is no evidence that she found her new creed very
satisfactory. Indeed, her melancholy and the gloom of her novels
are both traceable to the loss of her early religious ideals.
Her Union With Lewes
A trip abroad (1849) was followed by some editorial work on The
Westminster Review, then the organ of the freethinkers. This in
turn led to her association with Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill
and other liberals, and to her union with George Henry Lewes in
1854. Of that union little need be said except this: though it
lacked the law and the sacrament, it seems to have been in other
respects a fair covenant which was honestly kept by both parties.
[Footnote: Lewes was separated from his first wife, from whom he
was unable to obtain a legal divorce. This was the only obstacle to
a regular marriage, and after facing the obstacle for a time the
couple decided to ignore it. The moral element in George Eliot's
works is due largely, no doubt, to her own moral sense; but it was
greatly influenced by the fact that, in her union with Lewes, she
had placed herself in a false position and was morally on the
defensive against society.]
Encouraged by Lewes she began to write fiction. Her first attempt,
"Amos Barton," was an excellent short story, and in 1859 she
produced her first novel, Adam Bede, being then about forty
years old. The great success of this work had the unusual effect of
discouraging the author. She despaired of her ability, and began to
agonize, as she said, over her work; but her material was not yet
exhausted, and in The Mill on the Floss and Silas
Marner she repeated her triumph.
On a Pedestal
The rest of her life seems a matter of growth or of atrophy,
according to your point of view. She grew more scientific, as she
fancied, but she lost the freshness and inspiration of her earlier
novels. The reason seems to be that her head was turned by her fame
as a moralist and exponent of culture; so she forgot that she "was
born to please," and attempted something else for which she had no
particular ability: an historical novel in Romola, a drama
in The Spanish Gypsy, a theory of social reform in Felix
Holt, a study of the Hebrew race in Daniel Deronda, a
book of elephantine gambols in The Opinions of Theophrastus
Such. More and more she "agonized" over these works, and though
each of them contained some scene or passage of rare power, it was
evident even to her admirers that the pleasing novelist of the
earlier days had been sacrificed to the moral philosopher.
She Renews her Youth
The death of Lewes (1878) made an end, as she believed, of all
earthly happiness. For twenty-four years he had been husband,
friend and literary adviser, encouraging her talent, shielding her
from every hostile criticism. Left suddenly alone in the world, she
felt like an abandoned child; her writing stopped, and her letters
echoed the old gleeman's song, "All is gone, both life and light."
Then she surprised everybody by marrying an American banker, many
years her junior, who had been an intimate friend of the Lewes
household. Once more she found the world "intensely interesting,"
for at sixty she was the same clinging vine, the same
hero-worshiper, as at sixteen. The marriage occurred in 1880, and
her death the same year. An elaborate biography, interesting but
too fulsome, was written by her husband, John Walter Cross.
George Eliot's first works in fiction were the magazine stories
which she published later as Scenes of Clerical Life (1858). These
were produced comparatively late in life, and they indicate both
originality and maturity, as if the author had a message of her own, and
had pondered it well before writing it. That message, as reflected in "Amos
Barton" and "Janet's Repentance," may be summarized in four cardinal
principles: that duty is the supreme law of life; that the humblest life is
as interesting as the most exalted, since both are subject to the same law;
that our daily choices have deep moral significance, since they all react
on character and their total result is either happiness or misery; and that
there is no possible escape from the reward or punishment that is due to
one's individual action.
Such is the message of the author's first work. In its stern insistence on
the moral quality of life and of every human action, it distinguishes
George Eliot from all other fiction writers of the period.
Her Best Novels
In her first three novels she repeats the same message with more detail,
and with a gleam of humor here and there to light up the gloomy places.
Adam Bede (1859) has been called a story of early Methodism, but in
reality it is a story of moral principles which work their inevitable ends
among simple country people. The same may be said of The Mill on the
Floss (1860) and of Silas Marner (1861). The former is as
interesting to readers of George Eliot as Copperfield is to readers
of Dickens, because much of it is a reflection of a personal experience;
but the latter work, having more unity, more story interest and more
cheerfulness, is a better novel with which to begin our acquaintance with
The scene of all these novels is laid in the country; the characters are
true to life, and move naturally in an almost perfect setting. One secret
of their success is that they deal with people whom the author knew well,
and with scenes in which she was as much at home as Dickens was in the
London streets. Each of the novels, notwithstanding its faulty or
melancholy conclusion, leaves an impression so powerful that we gladly, and
perhaps uncritically, place it among the great literary works of the
Of the later novels one cannot speak so confidently. They move some critics
to enthusiasm, and put others to sleep. Thus, Daniel Deronda has
some excellent passages, and Gwendolen is perhaps the best-drawn of all
George Eliot's characters; but for many readers the novel is spoiled by
scientific jargon, by essay writing on the Jews and other matters of which
the author knew little or nothing at first hand. In Middlemarch she
returned to the scenes with which she was familiar and produced a novel
which some critics rank very high, while others point to its superfluous
essays and its proneness to moralizing instead of telling a story.
Romola is another labored novel, a study of Italy during the
Renaissance, and a profound ethical lesson. If you can read this work
without criticizing its Italian views, you may find in the characters of
Tito and Romola, one selfish and the other generous, the best example of
George Eliot's moral method, which is to show the cumulative effect on
character of everyday choices or actions. You will find also a good story,
one of the best that the author told. But if you read Romola as an
historical novel, with some knowledge of Italy and the Renaissance, you may
decide that George Eliot--though she slaved at this novel until, as she
said, it made an old woman of her--did not understand the people or the
country which she tried to describe. She portrayed life not as she had seen
and known and loved it, but as she found it reflected at second hand in the
works of other writers.
The Quality of George Eliot
Of the moral quality of George Eliot we have
already said enough. To our summary of her method this should be added,
that she tried to make each of her characters not individual but typical.
In other words, if Tito came finally to grief, and Adam arrived at a state
of gloomy satisfaction (there is no real happiness in George Eliot's
world), it was not because Tito and Adam lived in different times or
circumstances, but because both were subject to the same eternal laws. Each
must have gone to his own place whether he lived in wealth or poverty, in
Florence or England, in the fifteenth or the nineteenth century. The moral
law is universal and unchanging; it has no favorites, and makes no
exceptions. It is more like the old Greek conception of Nemesis, or the
Anglo-Saxon conception of Wyrd, or Fate, than anything else you will find
in modern fiction.
Fate and Self-Sacrifice
In this last respect George Eliot again differs radically from her
contemporaries. In her gloomy view of life as an unanswerable puzzle she is
like Thackeray; but where Thackeray offers a cultured resignation, a
gentlemanly making the best of a bad case, George Eliot advocates
self-sacrifice for the good of others. In her portrayal of weak or sinful
characters she is quite as compassionate as Dickens, and more thoughtfully
charitable; for where Dickens sometimes makes light of misery, and relieves
it by the easy expedient of good dinners and all-around comfort for saints
and sinners, George Eliot remembers the broken moral law and the suffering
of the innocent for the guilty. Behind every one of her characters that
does wrong follows an avenging fate, waiting the moment to exact the full
penalty; and before every character that does right hovers a vision of
sacrifice and redemption.
Her real philosophy, therefore, was quite different from that which her
scientific friends formulated for her, and was not modern but ancient as
the hills. On the one hand, she never quite freed herself from the old
pagan conception of Nemesis, or Fate; on the other, her early Methodist
training entered deep into her soul and made her mindful of the Cross that
forever towers above humanity.