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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.

Her Girlhood

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 author.

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 Victorian era.

Later Works

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.


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