[The following essay on George Eliot forms a chapter in Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign: A Book of Appreciations (1897). The Project Gutenberg text indicates page breaks in the original print edition, which here appear in the following way: [66/67] — George P. Landow.]
n this essay it is not intended to go into the vexed question of George Eliot's private life and character. Death has resolved her individuality into nothingness, and the discrepancy between her lofty thoughts and doubtful action no longer troubles us. But her work still remains as common property for all men to appraise at its true value — to admire for its beauty, to reverence for its teaching, to honour for its grandeur, yet at the same time to determine its weaknesses and to confess where it falls short of the absolute perfection claimed for it in her lifetime.
For that matter indeed, no one has suffered from unmeasured adulation more than has George Eliot. As a philosopher, once bracketed with Plato and Kant; as a novelist, ranked the highest the world has seen; as a woman, set above the law and, while living in open and admired [63/64] adultery, visited by bishops and judges as well as by the best of the laity; her faults of style and method praised as genius — since her death she has been treated with some of that reactionary neglect which always follows on extravagant esteem. The mud-born ephemeridæ of literature have dispossessed her. For her profound learning, which ran like a golden thread through all she wrote till it became tarnished by pedantry, we have the ignorance which misquotes Lemprière and thinks itself classic. For her outspoken language and forcible diction, wherein, however, she always preserved so much modesty, and for her realism which described things and feelings as they are, but without going into revolting details, we have those lusciously suggestive epithets and those unveiled presentations of the sexual instinct which seem to make the world one large lupanar. For her accurate science and profound philosophy, we have those claptrap phrases which have passed into common speech and are glibly reproduced by facile parrots who do not understand and never could have created; and for her scholarly diction we have the tawdriness of a verbal ragbag where grammar is as defective as taste. Yet our modern tinselled dunces have taken the place of the one who, in her lifetime, was made almost oppressively great — almost too colossal in her supremacy.
But when all this rubbish has been thrown into the abyss [64/65] of oblivion, George Eliot's works will remain solid and alive, together with Thackeray's, Scott's and Fielding's. Our Immortals will include in their company, as one of the "choir invisible" whose voice will never be stilled for man, the author of Adam Bede and Romola, of the Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch.
Her first essays in fiction, her Scenes of Clerical Life, show the germs of her future greatness as well as the persistency of her aim. In "Janet's Repentance," which to our mind is the best of the three, those germs are already shaped to beauty. Nothing can be more delicately touched than the nascent love between Janet and Mr. Tryon. No more subtle sign of Janet's besetting sin could be given than by that candlestick held "aslant;" while her character, compounded of pride, timidity, affectionateness, spiritual aspiration and moral degradation, is as true to life as it was difficult to portray. It would be impossible to note all the gems in these three stories. We can indicate only one or two. That splendid paragraph in "Mr. Gilfil's Love Story," beginning: "While this poor heart was being bruised" — the sharp summing up of Mr. Amos Barton's "middling" character — Lady Cheverel's silent criticisms contrasted with her husband's iridescent optimism — the almost Shakesperean [65/66] humour of the men, the author's keen appraisement of the commonplace women; such aphorisms as Mrs. Linnet's "It's right enough to be speritial — I'm no enemy to that — but I like my potatoes meally;" — these and a thousand more, eloquent, tender, witty, deep, make these three stories masterpieces in their way, despite the improbability of the Czerlaski episode in Amos Barton and the inherent weakness of the Gilfil plot. We, who can remember the enthusiasm they excited when they first appeared in Blackwood's Magazine, on re-reading them in cooler blood can understand that enthusiasm, though we no longer share its pristine intensity. It was emphatically a new departure in literature, and the noble note of that religious feeling which is independent of creed and which touches all hearts alike, woke an echo that even to this day reverberates though in but a poor, feeble and attenuated manner.
Adam Bede, the first novel proper of the long series, shows George Eliot at her best in her three most noteworthy qualities — lofty principles, lifelike delineation of character, and fine humour, both broad and subtle. The faults of the story are the all-pervading anachronism of thought and circumstance; the dragging of the plot in the earlier half of the book; and the occasional ugliness of style, where, as in that futile opening sentence the [66/67] author as I directly addresses the reader as You. The scene is laid in the year 1799 — before the Trades Unions had fixed a man's hours of work so accurately as to make him leave off with a screw half driven in, so soon as the clock begins to strike — before too the hour of leaving off was fixed at six. We older people can remember when workmen wrought up to eight and were never too exact even then. Precision of the kind practised at the present day was not known then; and why were there no apprentices in Adam's shop? Apprentices were a salient feature in all the working community, and no shop could have existed without them. Nor would the seduction by the young squire of a farmer's niece or daughter have been the heinous crime George Eliot has made it. If women of the lower class held a somewhat better position than they did in King Arthur's time, when, to be the mother of a knight's bastard, raised a churl's wife or daughter far above her compeers and was assumed to honour not degrade her, they still retained some of the old sense of inferiority. Does any one remember that famous answer in the Yelverton trial not much more than a generation ago? In 1799 Hetty's mishap would have been condoned by all concerned, save perhaps by Adam himself; and Arthur Donnithorne would have suffered no more for his escapade than did our well-known Tom Jones for his little diversions. And [67/68] — were there any night schools for illiterate men in 1799? And how was that reprieve got so quickly at a time when there were neither railroads nor telegraphs? — indeed, would it have been got at all in days when concealment of birth alone was felony and felony was death? Also, would Hetty have been alone in her cell? In 1799 all prisoners were herded together, young and old, untried and condemned; and the separate system was not in existence. Save for Hetty's weary journey on foot and in chance carts, the story might have been made as of present time with more vraisemblance and harmoniousness.
These objections apart, how supreme the whole book is! The characters stand out fresh, firm and living. As in some paintings you feel as if you could put your hand round the body, so in George Eliot's writings you feel that you have met those people in the flesh, and talked to them, holding them by the hand and looking into their eyes. There is not a line of loose drawing anywhere. From the four Bedes, with that inverted kind of heredity which Zola has so powerfully shown, to the stately egoism of Mrs. Irwine — from the marvellous portraiture of Hetty Sorrel with her soft, caressing, lusciously-loving outside, and her heart "as hard as a cherry-stone" according to Mrs. Poyser — from the weak-willed yet not conscienceless Arthur Donnithorne to the exquisite purity of Dinah, the character-drawing [68/69] is simply perfect. Many were people personally known to George Eliot, and those who were at all behind the scenes recognised the portraits. Down at Wirksworth they knew the Bedes, Dinah, the Poysers, and some others. In London, among the intimates of George Lewes, Hetty needed no label. Mrs. Poyser's good things were common property in the neighbourhood long before George Eliot crystallised them for all time, and embellished them by her matchless setting; and Dinah's sermon was not all imaginary. But though in some sense her work was portraiture, it was portraiture passed through the alembic of her brilliant genius, from commonplace material distilled into the finest essence.
It is impossible here again to give adequate extracts of the wise, witty, tender and high-minded things scattered broadcast over this book — as, indeed, over all that George Eliot ever wrote. That paragraph beginning — "Family likeness has often a deep sadness in it"; the description of Hetty's flower-like beauty, which fascinated even her sharp-tongued aunt; phrases like "John considered a young master as the natural enemy of an old servant," and "young people in general as a poor contrivance for carrying on the world"; that sharp little bit of moral and intellectual antithesis, with the learned man "meekly rocking the twins in the cradle with his left hand, while [69/70] with his right he inflicted the most lacerating sarcasms on an opponent who had betrayed a brutal ignorance of Hebrew" — forgiving human weaknesses and moral errors as is a Christian's bounden duty, but treating as "the enemy of his race, the man who takes the wrong side on the momentous subject of the Hebrew points"; how masterly, how fine are these and a dozen other unnoted passages!
Hetty in her bedroom, parading in her concealed finery, reminds one too closely of Gretchen with her fatal jewels to be quite favourable to the English version; and we question the truth of Adam Bede's hypothetical content with such a Dorothy Doolittle as his wife. Writers of love stories among the working classes in bygone days forget that notableness was then part of a woman's virtue — part of her claims to love and consideration — and that mere flower-like kittenish prettiness did not count to her honour any more than graceful movements and æsthetic taste would count to the honour of a Tommy in the trenches who could neither handle a spade nor load a rifle. Blackmore made the same mistake in his "Lorna Doone," and George Eliot has repeated it in Adam's love for Hetty solely for her beauty and without "faculty" as her dower. In his own way Bartle Massey, misogynist, is as smart as Mrs. Poyser herself, as amusing [70/71] and as trenchant; but the coming-of-age dance is fifty years and more too modern, and the long dissertation at the beginning of the second book is a blot, because it is a clog and an interruption. Not so that glorious description of nature in August when "the sun was hidden for a moment and then shone out warm again like a recovered joy;" — nor that deep and tender bit of introspection, setting forth the spiritual good got from sorrow as well as its indestructible impress.
Yet for all the beauty of these philosophic passages there are too many of them in this as in all George Eliot's works. They hamper the action and lend an air of pedantry and preaching with which a novel proper has nothing to do. It is bad style as well as bad art, and irritating to a critical, while depressing to a sympathetic reader. But summing up all the faults together, and giving full weight to each, we gladly own the masterly residuum that is left. The dawning love between Adam and Dinah alone is enough to claim for Adam Bede one of the highest places in literature, had not that place been already taken by the marvellous truth, diversity and power of the character-drawing. Mrs. Poyser's epigrams, too, generally made when she was "knitting with fierce rapidity, as if her movements were a necessary function like the twittering of a crab's antennæ," both too numerous [71/72] and too well known to quote, would have redeemed the flimsiest framework and the silliest padding extant.
The light that seemed to flash on the world when this glorious book was published will never be forgotten by those who were old enough at the time to read and appreciate. By the way, is that would-be famous Liggins still alive? When he sums it all up, how much did he get out of his bold attempt to don the giant's robe?
If Adam Bede was partly reminiscent, The Mill on the Floss was partly autobiographical. There is no question that in the sensitive, turbulent, loving nature of Maggie Tulliver Marian Evans painted herself. Those who knew her when she first came to London knew her as a pronounced insurgent. Never noisy and never coarse, always quiet in manner, sensitive, diffident and shrinking from unpleasantness, she yet had not put on that "made" and artificial pose which was her distinguishing characteristic in later years. She was still Maggie Tulliver, with a conscience and temperament at war together, and with a spiritual ideal in no way attained by her practical realisation. For indeed, the union between Marian Evans and George Lewes was far more incongruous in some of its details than was Maggie's love for Philip or her passion for Stephen. Philip appealed to [72/73] her affection of old time, her pity and her love of art — Stephen to her hot blood and her sensuous love of beauty. But George Lewes's total want of all religiousness of feeling, his brilliancy of wit, which was now coarse now mere persiflage, his cleverness, which was more quickness of assimilation than the originality of genius, were all traits of character unlike the deeper, truer and more ponderous qualities of the woman who braved the world for his sake when first she linked her fate with his — the woman who did not, like Maggie, turn back when she came to the brink but who boldly crossed the Rubicon — and who, in her after efforts to cover up the conditions, showed that she smarted from the consequences.
Read in youth by the light of sympathy with insurgency, Maggie is adorable, and her brother Tom is but a better-looking Jonas Chuzzlewit. Read in age by the light of respect for conformity and self-control, much of Maggie's charm vanishes, while most of Tom's hardness becomes both respectable and inevitable. Maggie was truly a thorn in the side of a proud country family, not accustomed to its little daughters running off to join the gipsies, nor to its grown girls eloping with their cousin's lover. Tom was right when he said no reliance could be placed on her; for where there is this unlucky divergence between principle and temperament, the will can never be firm nor the [73/74] walk steady. Sweet little Lucy had more of the true heroism of a woman in her patient acceptance of sorrow and her generous forgiveness of the cause thereof, than could be found in all Maggie's struggles between passion and principle. The great duties of life lying at our feet and about our path cannot be done away with by the romantic picturesqueness of one character contrasted with the more prosaic because conventional limitations of the other; nor is it right to give all our sympathy to the one who spoilt so many lives and brought so much disgrace on her family name, merely because she did not mean, and did not wish, and had bitter remorse after terrible conflicts, which never ended in real self-control or steadfast pursuance of the right.
There is something in The Mill on the Floss akin to the gloomy fatalism of a Greek tragedy. In Adam Bede is more spontaneity of action, more liberty of choice; but, given the natures by which events were worked out to their final issues in "The Mill on the Floss," it seems as if everything must have happened precisely as it did. An obstinate, litigious and irascible man like Mr. Tulliver was bound to come to grief in the end. Fighting against long odds as he did, he could not win. Blind anger and as blind precipitancy, against cool tenacity and clear perceptions, must go under; and Mr. Tulliver was no match [74/75] against the laws of life as interpreted by Mr. Wakem and the decisions of the law courts. His choice of a fool for his wife — was not Mrs. Tulliver well known at Coventry? — was another step in the terrible March of Fate. She was of no help to him as a wife — with woman's wit to assist his masculine decisions — nor as a mother was she capable of ruling her daughter or influencing her son. She was as a passive instrument in the hands of the gods — one of those unnoted and unsuspected agents by whose unconscious action such tremendous results are produced. George Eliot never did anything more remarkable than in the union she makes in this book between the most commonplace characters and the most majestic conception of tragic fate. There is not a stage hero among them all — not a pair of buskins for the whole company; but the conception is Æschylean, though the stage is no bigger than a doll's house.
The humour in The Mill on the Floss is almost as rich as that of Adam Bede, though the special qualities of the four sisters are perhaps unduly exaggerated. Sister Pullet's eternal tears become wearisome, and lose their effect by causeless and ceaseless repetition; and surely sister Grigg could not have been always such an unmitigated Gorgon! Mrs. Tulliver's helpless foolishness and tactless interference, moving with her soft white hands [75/76] the lever which set the whole crushing machinery in motion, are after George Eliot's best manner; and the whole comedy circling round sister Pullet's wonderful bonnet and the linen and the chaney — comedy at last linked on to tragedy — is of inimitable richness. The girlish bond of sympathy between sister Pullet and sister Tulliver, in that they both liked spots for their patterned linen, while sister Grigg — allays contrairy to Sophy Pullet, would have striped things — is repeated in that serio-comic scene of the ruin, when the Tullivers are sold up and the stalwart cause of their disaster is in bed, paralysed. By the way, would he have recovered so quickly and so thoroughly as he did from such a severe attack? Setting that aside, for novelists are not expected to be very accurate pathologists, the humour of this part of the book is all the more striking for the pathos mingled with it.
"The head miller, a tall broad-shouldered man of forty, black-eyed and black-haired, subdued by a general mealiness like an auricula": — "They're nash things, them lop-eared rabbits — they'd happen ha' died if they'd been fed. Things out o' natur never thrive. God Almighty doesn't like 'em. He made the rabbit's ears to lie back, and it's nothing but contrariness to make 'em lie down like a mastiff dog's": — "Maggie's tears began [76/77] to subside, and she put out her mouth for the cake and bit a piece; and then Tom bit a piece, just for company, and they ate together and rubbed each other's cheeks and brows and noses together, while they ate, with a humiliating resemblance to two friendly ponies": — Is there anything better than these in Mrs. Poyser's repertory?
Of acute psychological vision is that fine bit on "plotting contrivance and deliberate covetousness"; and the summing up of the religious and moral life of the Dodsons and Tullivers, beginning "Certainly the religious and moral ideas of the Dodsons and Tullivers," is as good as anything in our language. No one theoretically knew human nature better than George Eliot. Practically, she was too thin-skinned to bear the slightest abrasion, such as necessarily comes to us from extended intercourse or the give and take of equality. But theoretically she sounded the depths and shallows, and knew where the bitter springs rose and where the healing waters flowed; and when she translated what she knew into the conduct and analysis of her fictitious characters, she gave them a life and substance peculiarly her own.
Hitherto George Eliot has dealt with her own experiences, her reminiscences of old friends and well-known [77/78] places, of familiar acquaintances, and, in Maggie Tulliver, of her own childish frowardness and affectionateness — her girlish desire to do right and facile slipping into wrong. In Silas Marner she ventures into a more completely creative region; and, for all the exquisite beauty and poetry of the central idea, she has failed her former excellence. The story is one of the not quite impossible but highly improbable kind, with a Deus ex machinâ as the ultimate setter-to-rights of all things wrong. As with Adam Bede, the date is thrown back a generation or two, without the smallest savour of the time indicated, save in the fashion of the dresses of the sisters Lammeter — a joseph substituted for a cloak, and riding on a pillion for a drive in a fly. Else there is not the least attempt to synchronise time, circumstances and sentiment, while the story is artificial in its plot and unlikely in its treatment. Yet it is both pretty and pathetic; and the little introduction of fairyland in the golden-haired child asleep by the fire, as the substitute for the stolen hoard, is as lovely as fairy stories generally are. But we altogether question the probability of a marriage between the young squire and his drunken wife. Such a woman would not have been too rigorous, and was not; and such a man as Godfrey Cass would not have married a low-born mistress from "a movement of compunction." As [78/79] we said before, in the story of Hetty and Arthur, young squires a century ago were not so tender-hearted towards the honour of a peasant girl. It was a pity, of course, when things went wrong; but then young men will be young men, and it behoved the lasses to keep themselves to themselves! If the young squire did the handsome thing in money, that was all that could be expected of him. The girl would be none the worse thought of for her slip; and the money got by her fault would help in her plenishing with some honest fellow who understood things. This is the sentiment still to be found in villages, where the love-children of the daughters out in service are to be found comfortably housed in the grandmother's cottage, and where no one thinks any the worse of the unmarried mother; and certainly, a century ago, it was the universal rule of moral measurement. George Eliot undoubtedly made a chronological mistake in both stories by the amount of conscientious remorse felt by her young men, and the depth of social degradation implied in this slip of her young women.
The beginning of Silas Marner is much finer than that of either of her former books. It strikes the true note of a harmonious introduction, and is free from the irritating trivialities of the former openings. In those early days of which Silas Marner treats, a man from the next [79/80] parish was held as a "stranger"; and even now a Scotch, Irish or Welsh man would be considered as much a foreigner as a "Frenchy" himself, were he to take up his abode in any of the more remote hamlets of the north or west. The state of isolation in which Silas Marner lived was true on all these counts — his being a "foreigner" to the autochthonous shepherds and farmers of Ravaloe — his half mazed, half broken-hearted state owing to the false accusation brought against him and the criminal neglect of Providence to show his innocence — and his strange and uncongenial trade. Yet, for this last, were not the women of that time familiar with the weaving industry? — else what could they have done with the thread which they themselves had spun? If it were disposed of to a travelling agent for the hand-loom weavers, why not have indicated the fact? It would have been one touch more to the good of local colour and conditional accuracy. To be sure, the paints are laid on rather thickly throughout; but eccentricities and folks with bees in their bonnets were always to be found in remote places before the broom of steam and electricity came to sweep them into a more common conformity; and that line between oddity and insanity, always narrow, was then almost invisible.
The loss of the hoarded treasure and the poor dazed weaver's terrified flight to the Rainbow introduces us to [80/81] one of George Eliot's most masterly of her many scenes of rustic humour.
"The more important customers, who drank spirits and sat nearest the fire, staring at each other as if a bet were depending on the first man who winked; while the beer drinkers, chiefly men in fustian jackets and smock-frocks, kept their eyelids down and rubbed their hands across their mouths, as if their draughts of beer were a funereal duty attended with embarrassing sadness" — these, as well as Mr. Snell, the landlord, "a man of a neutral disposition, accustomed to stand aloof from human differences, as those of beings who were all alike in need of liquor" — do their fooling admirably. From the cautious discussion on the red Durham with a star on her forehead, to the authoritative dictum of Mr. Macey, tailor and parish clerk (were men of his social stamp called Mr. in those days?) when he asserts that "there's allays two 'pinions; there's the 'pinion a man has of himsen, and there's the 'pinion other folks have on him. There'd be two 'pinions about a cracked bell, if the bell could hear itself" — from the gossip about the Lammeter land to the ghos'es in the Lammeter stables, it is all excellent — rich, racy and to the manner born. And the sudden appearance of poor, scared, weazen-faced Silas in the midst of the discussion on ghos'es, gives occasion for [81/82] another fytte of humour quite as good as what has gone before.
Worthy of Mrs. Poyser, too, was sweet and patient Dolly Winthrop's estimate of men. "It seemed surprising that Ben Winthrop, who loved his quart-pot and his joke, got along so well with Dolly; but she took her husband's jokes and joviality as patiently as everything else, considering that 'men would be so' and viewing the stronger sex in the light of animals whom it had pleased Heaven to make naturally troublesome, like bulls and turkey-cocks." Good, too, when speaking of his wife, is Mr. Macey's version of the "mum" and "budget" of the fairies' dance. "Before I said 'sniff' I took care to know as she'd say 'snaff,' and pretty quick too. I wasn't a-going to open my mouth like a dog at a fly, and snap it to again, wi' nothing to swaller."
But in spite of all this literary value of Silas Marner we come back to our first opinion of its being unreal and almost impossible in plot. The marriage of Godfrey to an opium-eating(?) drab, and the robbery of Silas Marner's hoard by the squire's son were pretty hard nuts to crack in the way of probability; but the timely death of the wife just at the right moment and in the right place — the adoption of a little girl of two by an old man as nearly "nesh" as was consistent with his power of living free [82/83] from the restraint of care — the discovery of Dunsay's body and the restoration to the weaver of his long-lost gold — the impasse of Eppie, the squire's lawfully born daughter and his only legal inheritor, married to a peasant and living as a peasant at her father's gates: all these things make Silas Marner a beautiful unreality, taking it out of the ranks of human history and placing it in those of fairy tale and romance.
In Felix Holt we come back to a more actual kind of life, such as it was in the early thirties when the "democratic wave," which has swept away so much of the old parcelling out of things social and political, was first beginning to make itself felt. But here again George Eliot gives us the sense of anachronism in dealing too familiarly with those new conditions of the Reform Bill which gave Treby Magna for the first time a member, and which also for the first time created the Revising Barrister — while Trades Unions were still unrecognised by the law, and did their work mainly by rattening and violence. Any one who was an intelligent and wide-awake child at that time, and who can remember the talk of the excited elders, must remember things somewhat differently from what George Eliot has set down. Radical was in those days a term of reproach, carrying [83/84] with it moral obloquy and condemnation. The Tories might call the Whigs Radicals when they wanted to overwhelm them with shame, as we might now say Anarchists and Dynamiters. But the most advanced Gentleman would never have stood for Parliament as a Radical. Felix Holt himself, and the upper fringe of the working class, as also the lower sediment, might be Radicals, but scarcely such a man as Harold Transome, who would have been a Whig of a broad pattern. And as for the Revising Barrister, he was looked on as something akin to Frankenstein's Monster. No one knew where his power began nor where it ended; and on each side alike he was dreaded as an unknown piece of machinery which, once set a-going, no one could say what it would do or where it would stop.
In its construction Felix Holt is perhaps the most unsatisfactory of all George Eliot's books. The ins and outs of Transome and Durfey and Scaddon and Bycliffe were all too intricate in the weaving and too confused in the telling to be either intelligible or interesting. In trying on the garment of Miss Braddon the author of Felix Holt showed both want of perception and a deplorable misfit. Also she repeats the situation of Eppie and her adopted father Silas in that of Esther and Rufus Lyon. But where it was natural enough for the contentedly [84/85] rustic Eppie to refuse to leave her beloved old father for one new and unknown — her old habits of cottage simplicity, including a suitable lover, for the unwelcome luxuries of an unfamiliar state — natural in her though eminently unnatural in the drama of life — it was altogether inharmonious with Esther's character and tastes to prefer poverty to luxury, Felix to Harold, Malhouse Yard to Transome Court. George Eliot's usually firm grip on character wavers into strange self-contradiction in her delineations of Esther Lyon. Even the situation of which she is so fond — the evolution of a soul from spiritual deadness to keen spiritual intensity, and the conversion of a mind from folly to seriousness — even in this we miss the masterly drawing of her better manner. The humour too is thinner. Mrs. Holt is a bad Mrs. Nickleby; and the comic chorus of rustic clowns, which George Eliot always introduces where she can, is comparatively poor. She is guilty of one distinct coarseness, in her own character as the author, when she speaks of the cook at Treby Manor — "a much grander person than her ladyship" — "as wearing gold and jewelry to a vast amount of suet."
When Esther has been taken up by the Transomes, George Eliot misses what would have been absolutely certain — these fine little points of difference between [85/86] the high-bred lady of Transome Court and the half-bred Esther of Malhouse Yard; and yet, quite unintentionally, she makes Esther as vulgar as a barmaid in her conversations and flirtatious coquetries with Harold Transome. Nor, we venture to think, as going too far on the other side, would a girl of Esther's upbringing and surroundings have used such a delightfully literary phrase as "importunate scents." On the whole we do not think it can be denied that, so far as she had gone in her literary career when she wrote Felix Holt, it is undeniably her least successful work.
And yet, how many and how beautiful are the good things in it! If Homer nods at times, when he is awake who can come near him? The opening of the book is beyond measure fine, and abounds in felicitous phrases. "His sheep-dog following with heedless unofficial air as of a beadle in undress:" — "The higher pains of a dim political consciousness:" — "The younger farmers who had almost a sense of dissipation in talking to a man of his questionable station and unknown experience:" — "Her life would be exalted into something quite new — into a sort of difficult blessedness such as one may imagine in beings who are conscious of painfully growing into the possession of higher powers" (true for George Eliot herself but not for such a girl as Esther Lyon): — These are [86/87] instances of literary supremacy taken at random, with many more behind.
Then how exquisite is that first love-scene between Felix and Esther! It is in these grave and tender indications of love that George Eliot is at her best. Gentle as "sleeping flowers" — delicately wrought, like the most perfect cameos — graceful and suggestive, subtle and yet strong — they are always the very gems of her work. And in Felix Holt especially they stand out with more perfectness because of the inferior quality of so much that surrounds them.
Felix himself is one of George Eliot's masterpieces in the way of nobleness of ideal and firmness of drawing. Whether he would have won such a girl as Esther, or have allowed himself to be won by her, may be doubtful; but for all the rugged and disagreeable honesty of his nature — for all his high ideals of life and hideous taste in costume — for all his intrinsic tendency and external bearishness, he is supreme. And with one of George Eliot's best aphorisms, made in his intention, we close the book with that kind of mingled disappointment and delight which must needs be produced by the inferior work of a great master. "Blows are sarcasms turned stupid; wit is a form of force that leaves the limbs at rest." [87/88]
The last three books of the series are the most ponderous. Still beautiful and ever noble, they are like over-cultivated fruits and flowers of which the girth is inconvenient; and in one, at least, certain defects already discernible in the earlier issues attain a prominence fatal to perfect work.
Never spontaneous, as time went on George Eliot became painfully laboured. Her scholarship degenerated into pedantry, and what had been stately and dignified accuracy in her terms grew to be harsh and inartistic technicality. The artificial pose she had adopted in her life and bearing reacted on her work; and the contradiction between her social circumstances and literary position coloured more than her manners. All her teaching went to the side of self-sacrifice for the general good, of conformity with established moral standards, while her life was in direct opposition to her words; for though she did no other woman personal injustice, she did set an example of disobedience to the public law which wrought more mischief than was counteracted by even the noblest of her exhortations to submit to the restraints of righteousness, however irksome they might be. And it was this endeavour to co-ordinate insurgency and conformity, self-will and self-sacrifice, that made the discord of which every candid student of her work, who knew her history, [88/89] was conscious from the beginning. Nowhere do we find this contradiction more markedly shown than in "Romola," the first of the ponderous last three.
Her noblest work, Romola is yet one of George Eliot's most defective in what we may call the scaffolding of the building. The loftiness of sentiment, the masterly delineation of character, the grand grasp of the political and religious movement of the time, the evidences of deep study and conscientious painstaking visible on every page, are combined with what seems to us to be the most extraordinary indifference to — for it cannot be ignorance of — the social and domestic conditions of the time. The whole story is surely impossible in view of the long arm of the Church — the personal restraints necessarily imposed on women during the turbulent unrest of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries — the proud exclusiveness of the well-born citizens of any state.
Take the last first. Grant all the honour paid by Cosmo and Lorenzo to the learned men of all nations, especially to Greek scholars who, in the first fervour of the Renaissance, were as sons of the gods to those thirsting for the waters of the divine spring. Grant, too, the example set by Bartolommeo Scala, who had given his beautiful daughter Alessandra in marriage to the "soldier-poet" Marullo; was it likely that even an [89/90"] eccentric old scholar like the blind Bardo de' Bardi should have so unreservedly adopted a nameless Greek adventurer, flung up like a second Ulysses from the waves, unvouched for by any sponsor and unidentified by any document? We allow that Bardo might have taken Tito as his scribe and secretary, seeing that the Cennini had already employed him, waif and stray as he was; but that he should have consented to his daughter's marriage with this stranger, and that her more conservative and more suspicious godfather, Bernado del Nero, should have consented, even if reluctantly, was just about as likely as that an English country gentleman should allow his daughter to marry a handsome gipsy.
If we think for a moment of what citizenship meant in olden times, the improbability of the whole of Tito's career becomes still more striking. As, in Athens, the Sojourner never stood on the same plane with the autochthon, so in Rome the Peregrinus was ineligible for public office or the higher kind of marriage; and though the stricter part of the law was subsequently relaxed in favour of a wider civic hospitality, the sentiment of exclusiveness remained, and indeed does yet remain in Italy. It seems more than improbable that Tito, a Greek adventurer, should have been employed in any political service, save perhaps as a base kind of scout and unhonoured spy. [90/91] That he should ever have taken the position of an accredited public orator was so contrary to all the old traditions and habits of thought as to be of the same substance as a fairy tale.
The character of Bardo, too, is non-Italian; and his modes of life and thought were as impossible as are some other things to be hereafter spoken of. The Church had a long arm, as we said, and a firm grip; and while it blinked indulgently enough at certain aberrations, it demanded the show of conformity in essentials. Lorenzo was a pagan, but he died receiving the Sacraments. The Borgias were criminals, but their professions of faith were loud-voiced and in true earnest. Men might inveigh against the evil lives of the clergy and the excesses of monks and nuns, but they had to confess God and the Church; and their diatribes had to be carefully worded — as witness Rabelais — or a plea would certainly be found for the fire and faggot — as with Fra Dolcino and Savonarola. So with conformity to the usages of life which, then and now, are considered integral to morality. It could not have been possible for Bardo to bring up his daughter "aloof from the debasing influence" of her own sex, and in a household with only one old man for a servant. The times did not allow it; no more than we should allow it now in this freer day. This womanless home for an [91/92] Italian girl at any time, more especially in the Middle Ages, when even young wives were bound to have their companions and duennas, is a serious blot in workmanship. So, indeed, is the whole of Romola's life, being anachronism and simply nineteenth-century English from start to finish.
The things which both she and Tessa did, and were allowed to do, are on a par with Gulliver's Travels and "Peter Wilkins." It was as impossible for Tessa, a pretty young unmarried girl, contadina as she was, to come into Florence alone, as for a peasant child of three years old to be sent with a message on business into the City of London alone. To this day well-conducted women of any class do not wander about the streets of Italian cities unaccompanied; and maidenhood is, as it always was, sacredly and jealously guarded. Nor could Romola have gone out and come in at her desire, as she is allowed by the author. With streets filled by the turbulent factions of the Bianchi and Neri, always ready for a fight or for a love-adventure, what would have happened to, and been thought of, a beautiful young woman slipping about within the city and outside the gates at all hours of the day and night? She is said to be either quite alone (!), as when she goes to Tessa's house, or merely accompanied by Monna Brigida, as when she goes to the convent to see [92/93] her dying brother — which also, by the way, was impossible — or attended, at a distance, by old Maso when she attempts her flight as a solitary nun. She would have lost name and state had she committed these eccentricities; and had she persisted in them, she would have been sent to a convent — that refuge for sorrow, that shelter from danger, that prison for contumacy — and her godfather would have been the first to consign her to what was then the only safe asylum for women. The scene she has with Tito before Nello's shop is ludicrously impossible — as is their English-like return home together, without retinue or lights, just like a man and wife of to-day when she has been to fetch him from the public-house, or, if she be of the better class, from his club. English, too, is Romola's sitting up for her husband in her queer womanless establishment, and opening the door to him when he comes home late at night. For the matter of that, indeed, Tito's solitary rambles are as much out of line with the time, and the circumstances of that time, as is Romola's strange daring. No man of any note whatever appeared alone in the streets when out on a midnight expedition, either to commit murder or break the seventh commandment. He took some one with him, friend or servant, armed; and to this day you will not find Italians willingly walk alone at night. The whole of [93/94] this kind of life, if necessary for the story, is dead against truth and probability. So is Romola's flight, disguised as a nun. Splendid as is the scene between her and Savonarola, the vraisemblance is spoilt by this impossibility of condition. Nor could any woman of that time, brought up in a city, have felt a sense of freedom when fairly outside the walls by herself on a strange road, going to meet an unknown fate and bound to an unknown bourne. She would have felt as a purdah woman of India suddenly turned loose in the streets and environs of Delhi — as felt all those women whose evidence we read of in matters of crime and murder, when they came face to face with the desolation of unprotectedness. Modern women call it freedom, but in the Middle Ages such a feeling did not exist. All these things are anachronisms; as much so as if a novelist of the twentieth century, writing of English life in the eighteenth, should clothe his women in knickerbockers, mount them on bicycles, and turn them into the football field and cricket-ground.
These exceptions taken to the scaffolding of the book, we are free to admire its glorious nobility of sentiment, its lofty purpose, its perfection of character-drawing, and the dramatic power of its various scenes. Nothing can excel the power with which Tito's character is shown in its gradual slipping from simple selfishness to positive criminality [94/95]. The whole action may be summed up in George Eliot's own words.
When, the next morning, Tito put this determination into act, he had chosen his colour in the game, and had given an inevitable bent to his wishes. He had made it impossible that he should not from henceforth desire it to be the truth that his father was dead; impossible that he should not be tempted to baseness rather than that the precise facts of his conduct should not remain for ever concealed. Under every guilty secret there is hidden a brood of guilty wishes, whose unwholesome infecting life is cherished by the darkness. The contaminating effect of deeds often lies less in the commission than in the consequent adjustment of our desires — the enlistment of our self-interest on the side of falsity; as, on the other hand, the purifying influence of public confession springs from the fact that by it the hope in lies is for ever swept away, and the soul recovers its noble attitude of sincerity.
But, giving every weight to the natural weakness, sweetness and affectionateness, as well as to the latent falsity of Tito's character, we cannot accept the Tessa episode as true to life in general, while it is eminently untrue to Italian life, especially of those times. Tessa herself, too, is wearisome with her tears and her kisses, her blue eyes and baby face, so incessantly repeated and [95/96] harped on. She is as nauseating as she is impossible; and the whole story from first to last is an ugly blot on the book.
In Romola and in Savonarola we touch the heights. The "tall lily" is an exquisite conception and is supreme in human loveliness. Her two interviews with Savonarola are superbly done, and the gradual crushing down of her proud self-will under the passionate fervour of the priest is beyond praise both for style and psychology. So, too, are the changes in the great preacher himself — the first, when his simple earnestness of belief in his mission degenerates into self-consciousness and personal assumption, as is the way with all reformers — the second, when he abandons his later attitude, and the dross is burnt away as the hour of trial comes on him, and the World no longer stands between God and his soul. The final scenes of the Frate's public life are powerfully wrought, with all George Eliot's mastery and eloquence and deep religious fervour; but it is in scenes and circumstances of this kind that she is ever at her best. In humour and psychologic insight she is greater than any English woman writer we have had; in aphorisms she is unrivalled; but in playfulness she is clumsy, and in catching the moral, intellectual and social tone of the times of which she writes, she is nowhere. [96/97]
Contrast Romola's character and manner of life — above all those two thoroughly English letters of hers — with all that we know of Vittoria Colonna, the purest and noblest woman of her day — which was Romola's — and at once we see the difference between them — the difference wrought by four centuries — Vittoria being essentially a woman of the time, though a head and shoulders above the ruck; while Romola is as essentially a product of the nineteenth century. In spite of the local colour — which, after all, is only a wash — given by the descriptions of pageants and processions, and by the history of which George Eliot so ably mastered the details, the whole book is nineteenth century, from Monna Brigida's characteristically English speech about Tessa's place in the house and the children's sweets, to Romola's as characteristically English attitude and hygienic objections — from a little maiden, without a caretaker, carrying eggs to Piero, to Romola's solitary visit to the studio and night perambulations about the city.
All these shortcomings notwithstanding, Romola will ever remain one of the noblest works of our noblest author; and, after all, did not Shakspere make Hector quote Aristotle, and show all his Greeks and Romans and outlandish nondescripts from countries unknown to himself, as nothing but sturdy Englishmen, such as lived [97/98] and loved in the times of the great Eliza? Where we have so much to admire — nay, to venerate — we may let the smaller mistakes pass. Yet they must be spoken of by those who would be candid and not fulsome — just and not flattering. By the way, did George Eliot know that "Baldassare" is the name of one of the devils invoked to this day by Sicilian witches?
The longest of all the novels, Middlemarch, is the most interesting in its characters, its isolated scenes, its moral meaning and philosophic extension; but it is also the most inartistic and the most encumbered with subordinate interests and personages. The canvas is as crowded as one of George Cruikshank's etchings; and the work would have gained by what George Eliot would have called fission — a division into two. The stories of Dorothea and Casaubon and of Rosamond and Lydgate are essentially separate entities; and though they are brought together at the last by an intermingled interest, the result is no more true unification than the Siamese twins or the Double-headed Nightingale represented one true human being. The contrast between the two beautiful young wives is well preserved, and the nicer shades of difference are as clearly marked as are the more essential; for George Eliot was far too good a workman to scamp [98/99] in any direction, and the backs of her stories are as well wrought as the fronts. But if one-third of the book had been cut out — failing that fission, which would have been still better — the work would have gained in proportion to its compression.
The character of Dorothea marks the last stage in the development of the personality which begins with Maggie Tulliver, and is in reality Marian Evans's own self. Maggie, Romola and Dorothea are the same person in progressive stages of moral evolution. All are at cross corners with life and fate — all are rebellious against things as they find them. Maggie's state of insurgency is the crudest and simplest; Romola's is the most passionate in its moral reprobation of accepted unworthiness; Dorothea's is the widest in its mental horizon, and the most womanly in the whole-hearted indifference to aught but love, which ends the story and gives the conclusive echo. In its own way, her action in taking Will Ladislaw is like Esther's in marrying Felix Holt; but it has not the unlikelihood of Esther's choice. It is all for love, if one will, but it runs more harmoniously with the broad lines of her character, and gives us no sense of that dislocation which we get from Esther's decision. And in its own way it is at once a parallel and an apology.
The most masterly bits of work in Middlemarch are [99/100] the characters of Rosamond and Casaubon. Rosamond's unconscious selfishness, her moral thinness, and the superficial quality of her love are all portrayed without a flaw in the drawing; while Casaubon's dryness, his literary indecision following on his indefatigable research, and his total inability to adjust himself to his new conditions, together with his scrupulous formality of politeness combined with real cruelty of temper, make a picture of supreme psychologic merit. They who think that Casaubon was meant for the late Rector of Lincoln know nothing about George Eliot's early life. They who do know some of those obscurer details, are well aware of the origin whence she drew her masterly portrait, as they know who was Mrs. Poyser, who Tom Tulliver, and who Hetty Sorrel. Hetty, indeed, is somewhat repeated in that amazingly idiotic Tessa, who is neither English nor Italian, nor, indeed, quite human in her molluscous silliness; but there are lines of relation which show themselves to experts, and the absence of the "cherry stone" does not count for more than the dissimilarity always to be found between two copies.
No finer bit of work was ever done than the deep and subtle but true and most pathetic tragedy of Lydgate's married life. The character of Rosamond was a difficult one to paint, and one false touch could have been fatal. [100/101] To show her intense selfishness and shallowness and yet not to make her revolting, was what only such a consummate psychologist as George Eliot could have done. And to show how Lydgate, strong man as he was and full of noble ambition and splendid aims, was necessarily subdued, mastered and ruined by the tenacious weakness and moral unworthiness of such a wife, yet not to make him contemptible, was also a task beyond the power of any but the few Masters of our literature. All the scenes between this ill-assorted pair are in George Eliot's best manner and up to her highest mark; and the gradual declination of Rosamond's love, together with Lydgate's gradual awakening to the truth of things as they were, are portrayed with a touch as firm as it is tender.
That scene on the receipt of Sir Godwin's letter is as tragic in its own way as Othello or a Greek drama. It has in it the same sense of human helplessness in the presence of an overmastering fate. Rosamond was Lydgate's Fate. Her weakness, tenacity and duplicity — his stronger manhood, which could not crush the weaker woman — his love, which could not coerce, nor punish, nor yet control the thing he loved — all made the threads of that terrible net in which he was entangled, and by which the whole worth of his life was destroyed. It is a story that [101/102] goes home to the consciousness of many men, who know, as Lydgate knew, that they have been mastered by the one who to them is "as an animal of another and feebler species" — who know, as Lydgate knew, that their energies have been stunted, their ambition has been frustrated, and their horizon narrowed and darkened because of that tyranny which the weaker woman so well knows how to exercise over the stronger man.
Casaubon is as masterly in drawing as is Rosamond or Lydgate. We confess to a sadly imperfect sympathy with Dorothea in her queer enthusiasm for this dry stick of a man. Learned or not, he was scarcely one to whom a young woman, full of life's strong and sweet emotions, would care to give herself as a wife. One can understand the more impersonal impulse which threw Marian Evans into an attitude of adoration before the original of her dry stick; but when it comes to the question of marriage, the thing is simply revolting as done by the girl, not only of her own free-will but against the advice and prayers of her friends. Tom was to be excused for his harshness and irritation against Maggie; and Celia's commonplaces of wisdom for the benefit of that self-willed and recalcitrant Dodo, if not very profound nor very stimulating, nor yet sympathetic, were worth more in the daily life and ordering of sane folk than Dorothea's blind and obstinate determination [102/103]. Beautiful and high-minded as she is, she is also one of those irritating saints whose virtues one cannot but revere, whose personal charms one loves and acknowledges, and whose wrongheadedness makes one long to punish them — or at least restrain them by main force from social suicide. And to think that to her first mistake she adds that second of marrying Will Ladislaw — the utter snob that he is! Where were George Eliot's perceptions? Or was it that in Ladislaw she had a model near at hand, whom she saw through coloured glasses, which also shed their rosy light on her reproduction, so that her copy was to her as idealised as the original, and she was ignorant of the effect produced on the clear-sighted? Yet over all the mistakes made by her through defective taste and obstinate unwisdom, the beauty of Dorothea's character stands out as did Romola's — like a "white lily" in the garden. She is a superb creature in her own way, and her disillusionment is of the nature of a tragedy. But what could any woman expect from a man who could write such a love-letter as that of Mr. Casaubon's?
The canvas of Middlemarch is overcrowded, as we said; yet how good some of the characters are! The sturdy uprightness, tempered with such loving sweetness, of Cabel Garth; the commonplace negation of all great and all [103/104] unworthy qualities of the Vincys — Celia and Sir James — Mr. Farebrother and Mr. and Mrs. Cadwallader — all are supreme. We confess we do not care much for the portraiture of Mr. Bulstrode and his spiteful delator Raffles — George Eliot is not good at melodrama; also the whole episode of Mr. Featherstone's illness, with his watching family and Mary Garth, too vividly recalls old Anthony Chuzzlewit and all that took place round his death-bed and about his will, to give a sense of truth or novelty. George Eliot's power did not lie in the same direction as that of Charles Dickens, and the contrast is not to her advantage. Great humorists as both were, their humour was essentially different, and will not bear comparison.
No book that George Eliot ever wrote is without its wise and pithy aphorisms, its brilliant flashes of wit, its innumerable good things. Space will not permit our quoting one-tenth part of the good things scattered about these fascinating pages. Celia's feeling, which she stifled in the depths of her heart, that "her sister was too religious for family comfort. Notions and scruples were like spilt needles, making one afraid of treading or sitting down, or even eating:" — (But, farther on, what an unnecessary bit of pedantry! — "In short, woman was a problem which, since Mr. Brooke's mind [104/1055] felt blank before it, could be hardly less complicated than the revolutions of an irregular solid.") — Mrs. Cadwallader's sense of birth, so that a "De Bracy reduced to take his dinner in a basin would have seemed to her an example of pathos worth exaggerating; and I fear his aristocratic vices would not have horrified her. But her feeling towards the vulgar rich was a sort of religious hatred:" — "Indeed, she (Mrs. Waule) herself was accustomed to think that entire freedom from the necessity of behaving agreeably was included in the Almighty's intentions about families:" — "Strangers, whether wrecked and clinging to a raft, or duly escorted and accompanied by portmanteaus, have always had a circumstantial fascination for the virgin mind, against which native merit has urged itself in vain:" — "Ladislaw, a sort of Burke with a leaven of Shelley:" — "But it is one thing to like defiance, and another thing to like its consequences" — an observation wrung out of her own disturbed and inharmonious experience: — "That controlled self-consciousness of manner which is the expensive substitute for simplicity:" — These are a few picked out at random, but the wealth that remains behind is but inadequately represented by stray nuggets.
Before we close the volume we would like to note the one redeeming little flash of human tenderness [105/106] in Mr. Casaubon when he had received his death-warrant from Lydgate, and Dorothea waits for him to come up to bed. It is the only tender and spontaneous moment in his life as George Eliot has painted it, and its strangeness makes its pathos as well as its truth.
The last of the lengthy three, and the last novel she wrote, Daniel Deronda is the most wearisome, the least artistic, and the most unnatural of all George Eliot's books. Of course it has the masterly touch, and, for all its comparative inferiority, has also its supreme excellence. But in plot, treatment and character it is far below its predecessors. Some of the characters are strangely unnatural. Grandcourt, for instance, is more like the French caricature of an English milord than like a possible English gentleman depicted by a compatriot. Deronda himself is a prig of the first water; while Gwendolen is self-contradictory all through — like a tangled skein of which you cannot find the end, and therefore cannot bring it into order and intelligibility. Begun on apparently clear lines of self-will, pride, worldly ambition and personal self-indulgence — without either conscience or deep affections — self-contained and self-controlled — she wavers off into a condition of moral weakness, of vagrant impulses and [106/107] humiliating self-abandonment for which nothing that went before has prepared us.
That she should ever have loved, or even fancied she loved, such a frozen fish as Grandcourt was impossible to a girl so full of energy as Gwendolen is shown to be. Clear in her desires of what she wanted, she would have accepted him, as she did, to escape from the hateful life to which else she would have been condemned. But she would have accepted him without even that amount of self-deception which is portrayed in the decisive interview. She knew his cruel secret, and she deliberately chose to ignore it. So far good. It is what she would have done. But where is the logic of making her "carry on" as she did when she received the diamonds on her wedding-day? It was a painful thing, sure enough, and the mad letter that came with them was disagreeable enough; but it could not have been the shock it is described, nor could it have made Gwendolen turn against her husband in such sudden hatred, seeing that she already knew the whole shameful story. These are faults in psychology; and the conduct of the plot is also imperfect. George Eliot's plots are always bad when she attempts intricacy, attaining instead confusion and unintelligibility; but surely nothing can be much sillier than the whole story of Deronda's birth and upbringing, nor can anything be more unnatural than the [107/108] character and conduct of his mother. What English gentleman would have brought up a legitimately-born Jewish child under conditions which made the whole world believe him to be his own illegitimate son? And what young man, brought up in the belief that he was an English gentleman by birth — leaving out on which side of the blanket — would have rejoiced to find himself a Jew instead? The whole story is improbable and far-fetched; as also is Deronda's rescue of Mirah and her unquestioning adoption by the Meyricks. It is all distortion, and in no wise like real life; and some of the characters are as much twisted out of shape as is the story. Sir Hugo Mallinger and Mr. and Mrs. Gascoigne are the most natural of the whole gallery — the defect of exaggeration or caricature spoiling most of the others.
Of these others, Gwendolen herself is far and away the most unsatisfactory. Her sudden hatred of her husband is strained; so is her love for Deronda; so is her repentance for her constructive act of murder. That she should have failed to throw the rope to Grandcourt, drowning in the sea, was perhaps natural enough. That she should have felt such abject remorse and have betrayed herself in such humiliating unreserve to Deronda was not. All through the story her action with regard to Deronda is dead [108/109] against the base lines of her character, and is compatible only with such an overwhelming amount of physical passion as does sometimes make women mad. We have no hint of this. On the contrary, all that Gwendolen says is founded on spiritual longing for spiritual improvement — spiritual direction with no hint of sexual impulse. Yet she acts as one overpowered by that impulse — throwing to the winds pride, reserve, womanly dignity and common sense. Esther was not harmonious with herself in her choice of Felix Holt over Harold Transome, but Esther was naturalness incarnate compared with Gwendolen as towards Daniel Deronda. And the evolution of Esther's soul, and the glimpse given of Rosamond's tardy sense of some kind of morality, difficult to be believed as each was, were easy sums in moral arithmetic contrasted with the birth and sudden growth of what had been Gwendolen's very rudimentary soul — springing into maturity in a moment, like a fully-armed Athene, without the need of the more gradual process. Add to all these defects, an amount of disquisition and mental dissection which impedes the story till it drags on as slowly as a heavily laden wain — add the fatal blunder of making long scenes which do not help on the action nor elucidate the plot, and the yet more fatal blunder of causeless pedantry, and we have to confess that our great master's last novel is also her [109/110] worst. But then the one immediately preceding was incomparably her best.
We come now to the beauties of the work — to the inimitable force of some phrases — to the noble aim and meaning of the story — to the lofty spirit informing all those interrupting disquisitions, which are really interpolated moral essays, and must not be confounded with padding. Take this little shaft aimed at that Græculus esuriens Lush, that "half-caste among gentlemen" and the âme damnée of Grandcourt. "Lush's love of ease was well satisfied at present, and if his puddings were rolled towards him in the dust he took the inside bits and found them relishing." Again: "We sit up at night to read about Cakya-Mouni, Saint Francis and Oliver Cromwell, but whether we should be glad for any one at all like them to call on us the next morning, still more to reveal himself as a new relation, is quite another matter:" — "A man of refined pride shrinks from making a lover's approaches to a woman whose wealth or rank might make them appear presumptuous or low-motived; but Deronda was finding a more delicate difficulty in a position which, superficially taken, was the reverse of that — though, to an ardent reverential love, the loved woman has always a kind of wealth which makes a man keenly susceptible about the aspect of his addresses." (We [100/111] extract this sentence as an instance of George Eliot's fine feeling and delicate perception expressed in her worst and clumsiest manner.) "A blush is no language, only a dubious flag-signal, which may mean either of two contradictions."
"Grandcourt held that the Jamaican negro was a beastly sort of baptist Caliban; Deronda said he had always felt a little with Caliban, who naturally had his own point of view and could sing a good song;" "Mrs. Davilow observed that her father had an estate in Barbadoes, but that she herself had never been in the West Indies; Mrs. Torrington was sure she should never sleep in her bed if she lived among blacks; her husband corrected her by saying that the blacks would be manageable enough if it were not for the half-breeds; and Deronda remarked that the whites had to thank themselves for the half-breeds."
It is in such "polite pea-shooting" as this that George Eliot shows her inimitable humour — the quick give-and-take of her conversations being always in harmony with her characters. But, indeed, unsatisfactory as a novel though "Daniel Deronda" is, it is full of beauties of all kinds, from verbal wit to the grandly colossal sublimity of Mordecai, and Deronda's outburst of passionate desire to weld the scattered Jews [111/112] into one nation of which he should be the heart and brain.
Whatever George Eliot did bears this impress of massive sincerity — of deep and earnest feeling — of lofty purpose and noble teaching. She was not a fine artist, and she spoilt her later work by pedantry and overlay, but she stands out as the finest woman writer we have had or probably shall have — stands a head and shoulders above the best of the rest. She touched the darker parts of life and passion, but she touched them with clean hands and a pure mind, and with that spirit of philosophic truth which can touch pitch and not be defiled. Yet prolific as she was, and the creator of more than one living character, she was not a flexible writer and her range was limited. She repeated situations and motives with a curious narrowness of scope, and in almost all her heroines, save Dinah and Dorothea, who are evoluted from the beginning, paints the gradual evolution of a soul by the ennobling influence of a higher mind and a religious love.
We come now to a curious little crop of errors. Though so profound a scholar — being indeed too learned for perfect artistry — she makes strange mistakes for a master of the language such as she was. She spells "insistence" with an "a," and she gives a superfluous "c" to "Machiavelli." [112/113] She sometimes permits herself to slip into the literary misdemeanour of no nominative to her sentence, and into the graver sin of making a singular verb govern the plural noun of a series. She says "frightened at" and "under circumstances"; "by the sly" and "down upon"; and she follows "neither" with "or," as also "never" and "not." She is "averse to"; she has even been known to split her infinitive, and to say "and which" without remorse. Once she condescends to the iniquity of "proceeding to take," than which "commencing" is only one stage lower in literary vulgarity; and many of her sentences are as clumsy as a clown's dancing-steps. As no one can accuse her of either ignorance or indifference, still less of haste and slap-dash, these small flaws in the great jewel of her genius are instructive instances of the clinging effect of our carelessness in daily speech; so that grammatical inaccuracy becomes as a second nature to us, and has to be unlearned by all who write.
Nevertheless, with all her faults fully acknowledged and honestly shown, we ever return as to an inexhaustible fountain, to her greatness of thought, her supreme power, her nobility of aim, her matchless humour, her magnificent drawing, her wise philosophy, her accurate learning — as profound as it was accurate. Though we do not bracket her with Plato and Kant, as did one of her [113/114] panegyrists, nor hold her equal to Fielding for naturalness, nor to Scott for picturesqueness, nor as able as was Thackeray to project herself into the conditions of thought and society of times other than her own, we do hold her as the sceptred queen of our English Victorian authoresses — superior even to Charlotte Brontë, to Mrs. Gaskell, to Harriet Martineau — formidable rivals as these are to all others, living or dead.
If she had not crossed that Rubicon, or, having crossed it, had been content with more complete insurgency than she was, she would have been a happier woman and a yet more finished novelist. As things were, her life and principles were at cross-corners; and when her literary success had roused up her social ambition, and fame had lifted her far above the place where her birth had set her, she realised the mistake she had made. Then the sense of inharmoniousness between what she was and what she would have been did, to some degree, react on her work, to the extent at least of killing in it all passion and spontaneity. Her whole life and being were moulded to an artificial pose, and the "made" woman could not possibly be the spontaneous artist. Her yet more fatal blunder of marrying an obscure individual many years younger than herself, and so destroying the poetry of her first union by destroying its sense of continuity and constancy, would have [114/115] still more disastrously reacted on her work had she lived. She died in time, for anything below "Theophrastus Such" would have seriously endangered her fame and lessened her greatness — culminating as this did in Middlemarch, the best and grandest of her novels, from the zenith of which Daniel Deronda, her last, is a sensible decline.
Linton, Eliza Lynn. “George Eliot” in Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign: A Book of Appreciations. London: Hurst & Blackett, 1897. 61-116. Project Gutenberg web version produced by Delphine Lettau, Pat McCoy, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
Last modified 5 July 2014