GEORGE ELIOT: A CRITICAL STUDY OF HER LIFE, WRITINGS AND PHILOSOPHY.
GEORGE WILLIS COOKE
AUTHOR OF "RALPH WALDO EMERSON: HIS LIFE, WRITINGS AND PHILOSOPHY."
PREFACE TO SECOND EDITION.
The publication of a new edition of this work permits me to say that the essay on "The Lady Novelists," quoted in the seventh chapter, was written by George Henry Lewes. Its opinions, however, are substantially those of George Eliot, and they will be found in harmony with her own words. Confessing to the error, I yet venture to let the quotations, and the comments on them, stand as at first made. The three poems mentioned on page 75, were among the latest of the productions of George Eliot's pen.
It has been suggested to me that I have not done perfect justice to George Henry Lewes, especially in what I say of his books on the Spanish drama and the life of Goethe. I have carefully reconsidered what I wrote of him, and find no occasion for any change of judgment, though two or three words might properly give place to others of a more appreciative meaning.
My book has met with much greater praise than I could have expected. Its errors, I have no doubt, are quite numerous enough; and yet I venture to think the main thought of the book is correct.
I. EARLY LIFE
II. TRANSLATOR AND EDITOR
IV. CAREER AS AN AUTHOR
V. PERSONAL CHARACTERISTICS
VI. LITERARY TRAITS AND TENDENCIES
VII. THEORY OF THE NOVEL
VIII. POETIC METHODS
IX. PHILOSOPHIC ATTITUDE
X. DISTINCTIVE TEACHINGS
XI. RELIGIOUS TENDENCIES
XII. ETHICAL SPIRIT
XIII. EARLIER NOVELS
XV. FELIX HOLT AND MIDDLEMARCH
XVI. DANIEL DERONDA
XVII. THE SPANISH GYPSY AND OTHER POEMS
XVIII. LATER ESSAYS
XIX. THE ANALYTIC METHOD
XX. THE LIMITATIONS OF HER THOUGHT
The poet and the novelist write largely out of personal experience, and must give expression to the effects of their own history. What they have seen and felt, gives shape and tone to what they write; that which is nearest their own hearts is poured forth in their books. To ignore these influences is to overlook a better part of what they write, and is often to lose the explanation of many features of their work. Shakspere is one of those who are of no time or place, whose words gain no added meaning in view of what he was and how he lived; but it is not so with a great number of the best and most inspiring writers. The era in which they lived, the intellectual surroundings afforded them by their country and generation, the subtle phases of sentiment and aspiration of their immediate time and place, are all essential to a true appreciation of their books. It is so of Goethe, Byron, Shelley, Hugo, Wordsworth, Emerson, and how many more!
As we must know the eighteenth century in its social spirit, literary tendencies, revolutionary aims, romantic aspirations, philosophy and science, to know Goethe, so must we know the nineteenth century in its scientific attainments, agnostic philosophy, realistic spirit and humanitarian aims, in order to know George Eliot. She is a product of her time, as Lessing, Goethe, Wordsworth and Byron were of theirs; a voice to utter its purpose and meaning, as well as a trumpet-call to lead it on. As Goethe came after Lessing, Herder and Kant, so George Eliot came after Comte, Mill and Spencer. Her books are to be read in the light of their speculations, and she embodied in literary forms what they uttered as science or philosophy.
Not only is a poet's mind affected by the tone of thought about him, but his personal experiences and surroundings are likely to have a large influence on what he writes. Scott was deeply affected by the romantic atmosphere of his native land. Her birthplace and youthful surroundings had a like effect on George Eliot. The Midland home, the plain village life, the humble, toiling country folk, shaped for her the scenes and characters about which she was to write. Some knowledge of her early home and the influences amidst which her mind was formed, help largely to an appreciation of her books and the views of life which she presents in them.
The Midland region of England she has pictured with something of that accuracy with which Scott described the Border. It is a country of historic memories. Near by her childhood home was the forest of Arden and Astly Castle, the home of Sir John Grey, whose widow, Elizabeth Woodville, became the queen of Edward IV. This was also one of the homes of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, who was found in a hollow tree near by after his rebellion; and the home, likewise, of his daughter, Lady Jane Grey. In another direction was Bosworth Field; and within twenty miles was Stratford-upon-Avon. The ancient city of Coventry was not far distant. It was not these historic regions which attracted her, however, so much as the pleasant country, the common people, the quiet villages. With observant eyes she saw the world about her as it was and she entered into the heart of its life, and has painted it for us in a most sympathetic, appreciative spirit. The simple, homely, unromantic life of middle England she has made immortal with her wit, her satire, her fine description, and her keen love of all that is human. She herself recognized the importance of her early surroundings. In one of her letters she used these words:
It is interesting, I think, to know whether a writer was born in a central or border district—a condition which always has a strongly determining influence. I was born in Warwickshire, but certain family traditions connected with more northerly districts made these districts a region of poetry to me in my early childhood. I was brought up in the Church of England, and have never joined any other religious society, but I have had close acquaintance with many Dissenters of various sects, from Calvinistic Anabaptists to Unitarians.
The influence of the surroundings of childhood upon character she has more than once touched upon in her books. In the second chapter of Theophrastus Such, she says,—
I cherish my childish loves—the memory of that warm little nest where my affections were fledged.
In the same essay she says,—
Our Midland plains have never lost their familiar expression and conservative spirit for me.
In Daniel Deronda she most tenderly expresses the same deep conviction concerning the soul's need of anchorage in some familiar and inspiring scene, with which the memories of childhood may be delightfully associated. Her own fond recollections lent force to whatever philosophical significance such a theory may have had for her.
A human life should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that home a familiar, unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge; a spot where the definiteness of early knowledge may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbors, even to the dogs and monkeys, may spread, not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood.
Mary Ann Evans was born at South Farm, a mile from Griff, in the parish of Colton, Warwickshire, England, November 22, 1819. In after years she adopted the abbreviated form of her name, and was known by her friends as Marian. When she was six months old the family moved to Griff House, which was situated half-way between Bedworth, a mining village, and the manufacturing town of Nuneaton. In approaching Griff from Nuneaton, a little valley, known as Griff Hollows, is passed, much resembling the "Red Deeps" of The Mill on the Floss. On the right, a little beyond, is Griff House, a comfortable and substantial dwelling surrounded by pleasant gardens and lawns.
Robert Evans, her father, was born at Ellaston, Staffordshire, of a substantial family of mechanics and craftsmen. He was of massive build, tall, wide-shouldered and strong, and his features were of a marked, emphatic cast. He began life as a master carpenter, then became a forester, and finally a land agent. He was induced to settle in Warwickshire by Sir Roger Newdigate, his principal employer, and for the remainder of his life he had charge of five large estates in the neighborhood. In this employment he was successful, being respected and trusted to the fullest extent by his employers, his name becoming a synonym for trustworthiness. Marian many times sketched the main traits of her father's character, as in the love of perfect work in "Stradivarius." He had Adam Bede's stalwart figure and robust manhood. Caleb Garth, in Middlemarch, is in many ways a fine portrait of him as to the nature of his employment, his delight in the soil, and his honest, rugged character.
Caleb was wont to say that "it's a fine thing to have the chance of getting a bit of the country into good fettle, and putting men into the right way with their farming, and getting a bit of good contriving and solid building done—that those who are living and those who come after will be the better for. I'd sooner have it than a fortune. I hold it the most honorable work that is." Robert Evans, like Caleb Garth, "while faithfully serving his employers enjoyed great popularity among their tenants. He was gentle but of indomitable firmness; and while stern to the idle and unthrifty, he did not press heavily on those who might be behindhand with their rent, owing to ill luck or misfortune, on quarter days."
While still living in Staffordshire, Robert Evans lost his first wife, by whom he had a son and a daughter. His second wife, the mother of Marian, was a Miss Pearson, a gentle, loving woman, and a notable housewife. She is described in the Mrs. Hackit of "Amos Barton," whose industry, sharp tongue, epigrammatic speech and marked character were taken from life. Something of Mrs. Poyser also entered into her nature. She had three children, Christiana, Isaac and Mary Ann. The house at Griff was situated in a rich landscape, and was a large, commodious farm-house of red brick, ivy-covered, and of two stories' height. At the back was a large garden, and a farm-yard with barns and sheds.
In the series of sonnets entitled "Brother and Sister," Marian has given some account of her early life. She had the attachment there described for her brother Isaac, and followed him about with the same persistence and affection. The whole of that poem is autobiographical. The account of the mother gives a delightful glimpse into Marian's child-life:
Our mother bade us keep the trodden ways, Stroked down my tippet, set my brother's frill, Then with the benediction of her gaze Clung to us lessening, and pursued us still Across the homestead to the rookery elms, Whose tall old trunks had each a grassy mound, So rich for us, we counted them as realms With varied products.
The early life of Marian Evans has, in many features of it, been very fully described in the story of Maggie Tulliver. How far her own life is that of Maggie may be seen by comparing the earlier chapters in The Mill on the Floss with the "Brother and Sister." The incident described in the poem, of her brother leaving her in charge of the fishing-rod, is repeated in all its main features in the experiences of Maggie. In the poem she describes an encounter with a gipsy, which again recalls Maggie's encounter with some persons of that race. The whole account of her childhood life with her brother, her trust in him, their delight in the common pleasures of childhood, and the impression made on her by the beauties of nature, reappears in striking similarity in the description of the child-life of Maggie and Tom. These elements of her early experience and observation of life have been well described by one who knew her personally. This person says that "Maggie Tulliver's childhood is clearly full of the most accurate personal recollections."
Marian Evans very early became an enthusiastic reader of the best books. In an almanac she found a portion of one of the essays of Charles Lamb, and remembered reading it with great delight. In her seventh year a copy of Waverley was loaned to her older sister. She became herself intensely fascinated by it, and when it was returned before she had completed it she was thrown into much distress. The story so possessed her that she began to complete it in writing, according to her own conception. When this was discovered, the book was again secured for her perusal. This incident she has described in a sonnet, which appears as the motto to the fifty-seventh chapter of Middlemarch.
They numbered scarce eight summers when a name Rose on their souls and stirred such motions there As thrill the buds and shape their hidden frame At penetration of the quickening air: His name who told of loyal Evan Dhu, Of quaint Bradwardine, and Vich Ian Vor, Making the little world their childhood knew Large with a land of mountain, lake and scaur,
And larger yet with wonder, love, belief, Toward Walter Scott, who living far away Sent them this wealth of joy and noble grief. The book and they must part, but day by day, In lines that thwart like portly spiders ran, They wrote the tale, from Tully Veolan.
Not only was she a great reader, but she was also a diligent and even a precocious student, learning easily and rapidly whatever she undertook to acquire in the way of knowledge.
She was first sent, with her brother Isaac, to a free school in the village of Griff. Among her mates was William Jacques, the original of Bob Jakins in The Mill on the Floss. When seven years old she went to a girls' school at Nuneaton. Her schoolmates describe her as being then a "quiet, reserved girl, with strongly lined, almost masculine features, and a profusion of light hair worn in curls round her head." The abundance of her curling hair caused her much trouble, and she once cut it off, as Maggie Tulliver did, because it would not "lie straight." "One of her school-fellows," we are told, "recalls that the first time she sat down to the piano she astonished her companions by the knowledge of music she had already acquired. She mastered her lessons with an ease which excited wonder. She read with avidity. She joined very rarely in the sports of her companions, and her diffidence and shrinking sensibility prevented her from forming any close friendship among her school-fellows. When she stood up in the class, her features, heavy in repose, were lighted by eager excitement, which found further vent in nervous movements of her hands. At this school Marian was well taught in English, with drawing, music, and some little French."
Leaving this school at the age of twelve, she went to that of the Misses Franklin in Coventry, a large town a few miles distant. To the careful training received there she was much indebted, and in after years often spoke of it with the heartiest appreciation. One of her friends, Edith Simcox, has given an account of this school and of Marian's studies there. "Almost on the outskirts of the old town of Coventry, towards the railway station, the house may still be seen, itself an old-fashioned five-windowed, Queen Anne sort of dwelling, with a shell-shaped cornice over the door, with an old timbered cottage facing it, and near adjoining a quaint brick and timber building, with an oriel window thrown out upon oak pillars. Between forty and fifty years ago, Methodist ladies kept the school, and the name of 'little mamma,' given by her school-fellows, is a proof that already something was to be seen of the maternal air which characterized her in later years, and perhaps more especially in intercourse with her own sex. Prayer meetings were in vogue among the girls, following the example of their elders; and while taking, no doubt, a leading part in them, she used to suffer much self-reproach about her coldness and inability to be carried away with the same enthusiasm as others. At the same time, nothing was farther from her nature than any sceptical inclination, and she used to pounce with avidity upon any approach to argumentative theology within her reach, carrying Paley's Evidences up to her bedroom, and devouring it as she lay upon the floor alone."
During the three years Marian attended this school she held aloof from the other pupils, was grave and womanly in her deportment. She acquired Miss Rebecca Franklin's slow and precise method of speaking, and to her diligent training owed her life-long habit of giving a finished completeness to all her sentences. It seems that her imagination was alive at this time, and being slowly cultivated. She was in the habit of scribbling verses in her books and elsewhere.
A fellow-pupil during the time she was a member of this boarding-school has given these reminiscences of Marian's life there: "She learned everything with ease," says this person, "but was passionately devoted to music, and became thoroughly accomplished as a pianist. Her masters always brought the most difficult solos for her to play in public, and everywhere said she might make a performer equal to any then upon the concert stage. She was keenly susceptible to what she thought her lack of personal beauty, frequently saying that she was not pleased with a single feature of her face or figure. She was not especially noted as a writer, but so uncommon was her intellectual power that we all thought her capable of any effort; and so great was the charm of her conversation, that there was continual strife among the girls as to which of them should walk with her. The teachers had to settle it by making it depend upon alphabetical succession."
Leaving the school in Coventry at the age of fifteen, Marian continued her studies at home. The year following, her mother died; and this event, as she afterwards said, first made her acquainted with "the unspeakable grief of a last parting." Soon after, her older sister and her brother were married and left home. She alone remained with her father, and was for several years his housekeeper. "He offered to get a housekeeper," says Miss Blind, "as not the house only, but farm matters had to be looked after, and he was always tenderly considerate of 'the little wench,' as he called her. But his daughter preferred taking the whole management of the place into her own hands, and she was as conscientious and diligent in the discharge of her domestic duties as in the prosecution of the studies she carried on at the same time." Her experiences at this period have been made use of in more than one of her characters. The dairy scenes in Adam Bede are so perfectly realistic because she was familiar with all the processes of butter and cheese making.
In 1841 her father gave up his business to his son and moved to Foleshill, one mile from Coventry. A pleasant house and surroundings made the new home, and her habits of thought and life became more exact and fastidious. The frequent absence of her father gave her much time for reading, which she eagerly improved. Books were more accessible, though her own library was a good one.
She zealously began and carried on a systematic course of studies, such as gave her the most thorough results of culture. She took up Latin and Greek with the head master of the Coventry grammar-school, and became familiar with the classic literatures. French, German and Italian were read in all the master-pieces of those languages. The Old Testament was also studied in the original; at the same time she became a proficient player on the piano, and obtained a thorough knowledge of music. During several years of quiet and continuous study she laid the foundations of that accurate and wide-reaching knowledge which was so notable a feature of her life and work. It was a careful, systematic knowledge she acquired, such as entitled her to rank as an educated person in the fullest sense. Her painstaking thoroughness, and her energetic application, were as remarkable at this time as in later years. Her knowledge was mainly self-acquired, but it was in no sense superficial. It is difficult to see in what way it could have been improved, even if the universities had been open to her.
Her life and her studies at Coventry have been well described by one who knew her. We are told that "in this somewhat more populous neighborhood she soon became known as a person of more than common interest, and, moreover, as a most devoted daughter and the excellent manager of her father's household. There was perhaps little at first sight which betokened genius in that quiet gentle-mannered girl, with pale grave face, naturally pensive in expression: and ordinary acquaintances regarded her chiefly for the kindness and sympathy that were never wanting to any. But to those with whom, by some unspoken affinity, her soul could expand, her expressive gray eyes would light up with intense meaning and humor, and the low, sweet voice, with its peculiar mannerism of speaking—which by the way wore off in after years—would give utterance to thoughts so rich and singular that converse with Miss Evans, even in those days, made speech with other people seem flat and common. Miss Evans was an exemplification of the fact that a great genius is not an exceptional, capricious product of nature, but a thing of slow, laborious growth, the fruit of industry and the general culture of the faculties. At Foleshill, with ample means and leisure, her real education began. She acquired French, German and Italian from Signor Brezzi. An acquaintance with Hebrew was the result of her own unaided efforts. From Mr. Simms, the veteran organist of St. Michaels, Coventry, she received lessons in music, although it was her own fine musical sense which made her in after years an admirable pianoforte player. Nothing once learned escaped her marvellous memory; and her keen sympathy with all human feelings, in which lay the secret of her power of discriminating character, caused a constant fund of knowledge to flow into her treasure-house from the social world about her."
Marian Evans early showed an unusual interest in religious subjects. Her parents belonged to the Established Church, while other members of the family were zealous Methodists. Religion was a subject which occupied much of their attention, and several of them were engaged in one way and another in its inculcation. Marian was an attentive listener to the sermons preached in the parish church, and at the age of twelve was teaching in a Sunday school held in a cottage near her father's house. Up to the age of eighteen she was a most devoted believer in Christianity, and her zeal was so great that Evangelicalism came to represent her mode of thought and feeling. She was a somewhat rigid Calvinist and full of pious enthusiasm. After her removal to Coventry, where her reading was of a wider range and her circle of friends increased, doubts gradually sprang up in her mind. In a letter written to Miss Sara Hennell she gave a brief account of her religious experiences at this period. In it she described an aunt, Mrs. Elizabeth Evans, who was a Methodist preacher, and the original of Dinah Morris in Adam Bede.
There was hardly any intercourse between my father's family, resident in Derbyshire and Staffordshire, and our family—few and far-between visits of (to my childish feeling) strange uncles and aunts and cousins from my father's far-off native country, and once a journey of my own, as a little child, with my father and mother, to see my uncle William (a rich builder) in Staffordshire—but not my uncle and aunt Samuel, so far as I can recall the dim outline of things—are what I remember of northerly relatives in my childhood.
But when I was seventeen or more—after my sister was married and I was mistress of the house—my father took a journey into Derbyshire, in which, visiting my uncle and aunt Samuel, who were very poor, and lived in a humble cottage at Wirksworth, he found my aunt in a very delicate state of health after a serious illness, and, to do her bodily good, he persuaded her to return with him, telling her that I should be very, very happy to have her with me for a few weeks. I was then strongly under the influence of Evangelical belief, and earnestly endeavoring to shape this anomalous English-Christian life of ours into some consistency with the spirit and simple verbal tenor of the New Testament. I was delighted to see my aunt. Although I had only heard her spoken of as a strange person, given to a fanatical vehemence of exhortation in private as well as public, I believed that I should find sympathy between us. She was then an old woman—about sixty—and, I believe, had for a good many years given up preaching. A tiny little woman, with bright, small, dark eyes, and hair that had been black, I imagine, but was now gray—a pretty woman in her youth, but of a totally different physical type from Dinah. The difference—as you will believe—was not simply physical; no difference is. She was a woman of strong natural excitability, which I know, from the description I have heard my father and half-sister give, prevented her from the exercise of discretion under the promptings of her zeal. But this vehemence was now subdued by age and sickness; she was very gentle and quiet in her manners—very loving—and (what she must have been from the very first) a truly religious soul, in whom the love of God and the love of man were fused together. There was nothing highly distinctive in her religious conversation. I had had much intercourse with pious Dissenters before; the only freshness I found, in our talk, came from the fact that she had been the greater part of her life a Wesleyan, and though she left the society when women were no longer allowed to preach, and joined the New Wesleyans, she retained the character of thought that belongs to the genuine old Wesleyan. I had never talked with a Wesleyan before, and we used to have little debates about predestination, for I was then a strong Calvinist. Here her superiority came out, and I remember now, with loving admiration, one thing which at the time I disapproved; it was not strictly a consequence of her Arminian belief, and at first sight might seem opposed to it, yet it came from the spirit of love which clings to the bad logic of Arminianism. When my uncle came to fetch her, after she had been with us a fortnight or three weeks, he was speaking of a deceased minister, once greatly respected, who from the action of trouble upon him had taken to small tippling, though otherwise not culpable. "But I hope the good man's in heaven, for all that," said my uncle. "Oh, yes," said my aunt, with a deep inward groan of joyful conviction, "Mr. A's in heaven—that's sure." This was at the time an offence to my stern, ascetic, hard views—how beautiful it is to me now!
One who has been permitted to read the letters of Marian Evans written to this aunt, has given the following account of them, which throws much light on her religious attitude at this period: "Most of the epistles are addressed to my 'dear uncle and aunt,' and all reveal George Eliot's great talents. The style is elegant and graceful, and the letters abound in beautiful metaphor; but their most striking characteristic is the religious tinge that pervades them all. Nearly every line denotes that George Eliot was an earnest biblical student, and that she was, especially in the years 1839 and 1840, very anxious about her spiritual condition. In one of these letters, written from Griff to Elizabeth Evans, in 1839, she says she is living in a dry and thirsty land, and that she is looking forward with pleasure to a visit to Wirksworth, and likens her aunt's companionship and counsel to a spring of pure water, acceptable to her as is the well dug for the traveller in the desert. That the most affectionate and loving relationship existed between the eminent author and Mrs. Elizabeth Evans, is apparent from this correspondence. The inmost secrets of George Eliot's heart are laid bare in these letters to the famous Methodist preacher, who was at that time her dearest friend. She is ever asking for advice and spiritual guidance, and confesses her faults with a candor that is rendered additionally attractive by reason of the polished language in which it is clothed. When quite a girl, George Eliot was known as pious and clever; and in the letters she wrote in 1839, when she was twenty years old, the cleverness has grown and expanded, although she is not so sure about her piety. She says that 'unstable as water thou shalt not excel,' seems to be a description of her character, instead of the progress from strength to strength that should be experienced by those who wish to stand in the presence of God. In another letter she admits that she cannot give a good account of her spiritual state, says that she has been surrounded by worldly persons, and that love of human praise is one of her great stumbling-blocks. But in a letter written in 1840 the uncertainty has gone from her mind, and she writes that she has resolved in the strength of the Lord to serve him evermore. In a later communication, however, she does not appear so confident, and admits that she is obliged to strive against the ambition that fills her heart, and that her fondness of worldly praise is a great bar and hindrance to spiritual advancement. Still she thinks it is no use sitting inactive with folded hands; and believing that the love of God is the only thing to give real satisfaction to human beings, she hopes, with his help, to obtain it. One of the letters is chiefly devoted to the concern felt by Marian Evans at Elizabeth Evans' illness; and another, written at Foleshill, betrays some humor amid the trouble that afflicts her about her own future. Their outward circumstances, she writes, are all she can desire; but she is not so certain about her spiritual state, although she feels that it is the grace of God alone that can give the greatest satisfaction. Then she goes on to speak of the preacher at Foleshill, with whom she is not greatly pleased: 'We get the truth, but it is not recommended by the mode of its delivery,' is how she writes of this divine; yet she is charitable withal, and removes the sting by adding that more good may sometimes be obtained from humble instruments than from the highest privileges, and that she must examine her own heart rather than speak unkindly of the preacher. Up to this period it is evident that Marian Evans' views upon religion were orthodox, and that her life was passed in ceaseless striving for the 'peace that passeth understanding;' but in 1843 a letter was written to Elizabeth Evans by a relative in Griff, in which Marian Evans is spoken of, and the change in her religious opinions indicated. She writes that they are in great pain about Mary Ann; but the last portion of the letter, dealing more fully with the subject, has unfortunately got lost or destroyed. The close association of George Eliot with Derbyshire, as well as her love for the quaint village of Wirksworth, and its upright, honest, God-fearing people, breaks forth in more than one of these communications."
Partly as the result of her studies and partly as the result of contact with other minds, Marian began to grow sceptical about the religious beliefs she had entertained. This took place probably during her twenty-third year, but the growth of the new ideas was slow at first. As one of her friends has suggested, it was her eagerness for positive knowledge which made her an unbeliever. She had no love of mere doubt, no desire to disagree with accepted doctrines, but she was not content unless she could get at the facts and reach what was just and reasonable. "It is seldom," says this person, "that a mind of so much power is so free from the impulse to dissent, and that not from too ready credulousness, but rather because the consideration of doubtful points was habitually crowded out, one may say, by the more ready and delighted acceptance of whatever accredited facts and doctrines might be received unquestioningly. We can imagine George Eliot in youth, burning to master all the wisdom and learning of the world; we cannot imagine her failing to acquire any kind of knowledge on the pretext that her teacher was in error about something else than the matter in hand; and it is undoubtedly to this natural preference for the positive side of things that we are indebted for the singular breadth and completeness of her knowledge and culture. A mind like hers must have preyed disastrously upon itself during the years of comparative solitude in which she lived at Foleshill, had it not been for that inexhaustible source of delight in every kind of intellectual acquisition. Languages, music, literature, science and philosophy interested her alike; it was early in this period that in the course of a walk with a friend she paused and clasped her hands with a wild aspiration that she might live 'to reconcile the philosophy of Locke and Kant!' Years afterward she remembered the very turn of the road where she had spoken it."
The spiritual struggles of Maggie Tulliver give a good picture of Marian Evans' mental and spiritual experiences at this time. Her friends and relatives were scandalized by her scepticism. Her father could not at all sympathize with her changed religious attitude, and treated her harshly. She refused to attend church, and this made the separation so wide that it was proposed to break up the home. By the advice of friends she at last consented to outwardly conform to her father's wishes, and a partial reconciliation was effected. This alienation, however, had a profound effect upon her mind. She slowly grew away from the intellectual basis of her old beliefs, but, with Maggie, she found peace and strength in self-renunciation, and in the cultivation of that inward trust which makes the chief anchorage of strong natures. She bore this experience patiently, and without any diminution of her affection; but she also found various friends among the more cultivated people of Coventry, who could sympathize with her in her studies and with her radical views in religion. These persons gave her the encouragement she needed, the contact with other and more matured minds which was so necessary to her mental development, and that social contact with life which was so conducive to her health of mind. In one family especially, that of Mr. Charles Bray, did she find the true, and cordial, and appreciative friendship she desired. These friends softened the growing discord with her own family, and gave her that devoted regard and aid that would be of most service to her. "In Mr. Bray's family," we are told by one who has written of this trying period of her career, "she found sympathy with her ardent love of knowledge and with the more enlightened views that had begun to supplant those under which (as she described it) her spirit had been grievously burdened. Emerson, Froude, George Combe, Robert Mackay, and many other men of mark, were at various times guests at Mr. Bray's house at Rosehill while Miss Evans was there either as inmate or occasional visitor; and many a time might have been seen, pacing up and down the lawn or grouped under an old acacia, men of thought and research, discussing all things in heaven and earth, and listening with marked attention when one gentle woman's voice was heard to utter what they were quite sure had been well matured before the lips opened. Few, if any, could feel themselves her superior in general intelligence; and it was amusing one day to see the amazement of a certain doctor, who, venturing on a quotation from Epictetus to an unassuming young lady, was, with modest politeness, corrected in his Greek by his feminine auditor. One rare characteristic belonged to her which gave a peculiar charm to her conversation. She had no petty egotism, no spirit of contradiction; she never talked for effect. A happy thought well expressed filled her with delight; in a moment she would seize the thought and improve upon it—so that common people began to feel themselves wise in her presence; and perhaps years after she would remind them, to their pride and surprise, of the good things they had said."
She was an ardent reader of Emerson and other thinkers of his cast of thought, and some traces of this early sympathy are to be seen in her books. On his second visit to England Emerson spent a day or two at the house of Charles Bray, with whose writings he had previously become acquainted. Emerson was much impressed with the personality of Marian Evans, and more than once said to Bray, "That young lady has a calm, serious soul." When Emerson asked her somewhat suddenly, "What one book do you like best?" she at once replied, "Rousseau's Confessions." She cherished this acquaintance with Emerson, and held him in grateful remembrance through life.
The painful experiences of this period are undoubtedly reflected in another of her autobiographic poems, that entitled "Self and Life." She speaks of the profound influence the past had over her mind, and that her hands and feet were still tiny when she began to know the historic thrill of contact with other ages. She also makes Life say to Self, in regard to her pain and sorrow:
But all thy anguish and thy discontent Was growth of mine, the elemental strife Towards feeling manifold with vision blent To wider thought: I was no vulgar life That like the water-mirrored ape, Not discerns the thing it sees, Nor knows its own in others' shape, Railing, scorning, at its ease. Half man's truth must hidden lie If unlit by sorrow's eye. I by sorrow wrought in thee Willing pain of ministry.
The intellectual surroundings of Marian Evans at this time gave shape to her whole after-life. There were now laid the foundations of her mode of thinking, and her philosophic theories began to be formed. It was in the home of one of her friends she learned to think for herself, and it was there her positivist doctrines first appeared. Charles Bray was affected by the transcendental movement, and was an ardent admirer of Newman, Emerson and others among its leaders. This interest prepared him, as it has so many other minds, for the acceptance of those speculative views which were built up on the foundation of science when the transcendental movement began to wane. The transcendental doctrines of unity, the oneness of mind and matter, the evolution of all forms of life and being from the lowest, the universal dominion of law and necessity, and the profound significance of nature in its influence on man, as they were developed by Goethe, Schelling, Carlyle and Emerson, gave direction to a new order of speculation, which had its foundations in modern science.
Bray was an ardent phrenologist, and in 1832 published a work on The Education of the Feelings, based on phrenological principles. In 1841 appeared his main work, The Philosophy of Necessity; this was followed several years later by a somewhat similar work, On Force, its Mental and Moral Correlates. His philosophy was summarized in a volume published in 1871, which was entitled A Manual of Anthropology. He also wrote pamphlets on "Illusion and Delusion," "The Reign of Law," "Toleration," and "Christianity." In his work on necessity he promulgated very many of those ideas which have formed so prominent a part of the philosophy of George Eliot. The dominion of law, the reign of necessity, experience as the foundation of knowledge, humanity as an organism that develops a larger life for man by the aid of experience and tradition,—these are among the doctrines of the book. There is every reason for believing that in the teachings of Charles Bray, Marian Evans found many of the main elements of her philosophy, and with his aid her opinions were largely shaped.
Mrs. Bray was also a woman of large intelligence, and of a mind freely open to new theories. She wrote a Physiology for Schools and a school-book on Duties to Animals, which have been well received by the public and used as text books in the schools of the Midland counties. In 1882 she published a little book on the Elements of Morality, consisting of a series of easy lessons for Unitarian Sunday schools and for home teaching. To the Brays, Marian Evans owed much in the way of sympathy, culture and direct influence. Perhaps more than any other persons they gave tone and direction to her mind. One who knew them has said, "Besides being a practical as well as theoretical philanthropist, Mr. Bray was also a courageous impugner of the dogmas which form the basis of the popular theology. Mrs. Bray shared in this general largeness of thought, while perhaps more in sympathy with the fairer aspects of Christianity."
A brother and a sister of Mrs. Bray's, Charles C. Hennell and Sara S. Hennell, also had a large influence on Marian Evans during this period. It was Charles Hennell who induced her to translate Strauss, and it was Sara Hennell to whom she wrote about her aunt after the publication of Adam Bede. Hennell's Inquiry concerning the origin of Christianity was published in 1838, and appeared in a second edition in 1841. In the latter year the book was read by Marian Evans, after a faithful perusal of the Bible as a preparation for it, and quickly re-read, and with great interest and delight. She then pronounced it "the most interesting book she had ever read," dating from it a new birth to her mind. The book was translated into German, Strauss writing a preface for it, and that interpreter of Christianity praised it highly. Hennell rejected all supernaturalism and the miraculous, regarding Christianity as a slow and natural development out of Judaism, aided by Platonism and other outside influences. He finds the sources of Jesus' teachings in the Jewish tendencies of the time, while the cause of the supremacy of the man Jesus was laid in a long course of events which had swelled to a crisis at the time of his appearance, and bore him aloft to a height whence his personal qualities told with a power derived from the accumulated force of many generations. Jesus was an enthusiast who believed himself the predicted king of the Jews, and he was a revolutionist expecting to establish an earthly kingdom for the supremacy of Judaism. Jesus was largely influenced by the Essenes, but he rejected their austerity. Hennell found a mixture of truth and error in the Gospels, and believed that many mythical elements entered into the accounts given of Jesus. A thorough rationalist, he claimed to accept the spiritual essence of Christianity, and to value highly the moral teachings of Jesus. In a later work on Christian Theism he finds an argument for belief in God mainly in nature. In his conclusions he is not far from F.W. Newman and Theodore Parker; but he does not give the credit to intuition and the religious faculty they do, though he is an earnest believer in God, and inclined to accept Christianity as the highest expression of religion.
Sara S. Hennell early published An Essay on the Skeptical Tendency of Butler's Analogy, and a Baillie prize essay on Christianity and Infidelity: An Exposition of the Arguments on Both Sides. A work of much merit and thought appeared from her pen in 1860, under the title of Thoughts in Aid of Faith. In this work she follows her brother, Strauss, Feuerbach and Spencer in an interpretation of religion, which constantly recalls the theories of George Eliot. In a series of more recent books she has continued the same line of thought. The early and intimate friendship of Marian Evans and Miss Hennell may explain this similarity of opinion, and the beliefs they held in common were doubtless developed to a greater or less extent even when the former lived in Coventry.
Another friend of this period was a German scholar by the name of Brabant, resident in England, a friend of Strauss, Paulus, Coleridge and Grote. Grote described him as "a vigorous self-thinking intellect." A daughter of Dr. Brabant first undertook the translation of Strauss, and she it was who married Charles Hennell. After this marriage Miss Evans offered to take to Dr. Brabant the place of his daughter, and did act as his housekeeper for some months.
Marian Evans was surrounded at the most impressible period of her life by this group of intellectual, free-thinking people, who seem to have fully indoctrinated her with their own opinions. None of them had rejected Christianity or theism, but they were rationalists in spirit, and eager students of philosophy and science. Here were laid the foundations of the doctrines she afterwards held so strongly, and even during this period very many of the theories presented in her books were fully developed. Here her mind was thoroughly prepared for the teachings of Comte, Spencer and Lewes; and her early instructors had gone so far in their lessons that the later teachers had little to do more than to give system to her thoughts.
It was essential to George Eliot's novel-writing that she was educated amidst religious influences, and that she earnestly accepted the religious teaching of her childhood. Not less important was her humble home and her association with the common life of the people. Through all her work these influences appear, coloring her thought, shaping her views of life, and increasing her sympathies and affections. Her tender, enthusiastic love of humble life never lost any of its quickening power. The faith of childhood was lost, but its memory was left in a warm appreciation of all phases of religious life and a heartfelt sympathy with all the sorrows and aspirations of men.
Her father's health becoming very poor, Marian spent the next two or three years in the care of him. She read to him most of Scott's novels, devoting several hours each day to this task. During this period she made a visit to the Isle of Wight, and there read the novels of Richardson. Her father died in 1849, and she was very much affected by this event. She grieved for him overmuch, and could find no consolation. Her friends, the Brays, to divert and relieve her mind, invited her to take a continental tour with them. They travelled extensively in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. Her grief, however, was so excessive as to receive little relief, and her friends began to fear the results. On their return to England they left her at Geneva, where she remained for nearly a year. After some months in a boarding-house near Geneva she became an inmate of the family of M. d'Albert Durade, a Swiss water-color painter of some reputation, who afterwards became the translator of her works into French. She devoted the winter of 1849-50 to the study of French and its literature, to mathematics and to reading. Her teacher in mathematics soon told her that she was able to proceed without his aid. She read Rousseau and studied the French socialists. M. Durade painted her portrait, making a remarkable picture. The softness of the clear blue eyes, in which is expressed a profound depth of thought, is one of its characteristics. M. Durade accompanied her to England in the spring of 1850, and she went to live with her brother, where she remained for a few months. The old family differences about religion had alienated the brother and sister so far intellectually that she accepted an invitation from the Brays to find a home with them. Her sadness and grief continued, and her health was not good. Her fits of nervousness and of tears were frequent, but her studies continued to occupy her mind. She delighted to converse with Mr. Bray, and other persons of earnest thought had their influence on her mind. Among these was George Dawson, the famous preacher who cut himself loose from all denominations.
TRANSLATOR AND EDITOR.
It was while living at Foleshill, and amidst the intellectual influences of awakening radicalism, that Marian Evans undertook her first literary labor. This was the translation of the Leben Jesu of David Strauss. A book so daring in its interpretations of the origin of Christianity excited much attention, and especially among those who had broken away from the old religious beliefs. The work of translation was at first undertaken by Miss Brabant, who soon married Charles Hennell. Then the task was taken up by Marian Evans, who gave three years to it, renewing her Hebrew studies for the purpose, and the book was published in 1846. The work was thoroughly done, so much so that Strauss complimented the translator on its accuracy and correctness of spirit. Concerning the translation the Westminster Review had this word of praise to offer: "We can testify that the translator has achieved a very tough work with remarkable spirit and fidelity. The author, though indeed a good writer, could hardly have spoken better had his country and language been English. The work has evidently fallen into the hands of one who has not only effective command of both languages, but a familiarity with the subject-matter of theological criticism, and an initiation into its technical phraseology." Another critic said that "whoever reads these volumes without any reference to the German, must be pleased with the easy, perspicuous, idiomatic force of the English style. But he will be still more satisfied when, on turning to the original, he finds that the rendering is word for word, thought for thought and sentence for sentence. In preparing so beautiful a rendering as the present, the difficulties can have been neither few nor small in the way of preserving, in various parts of the work, the exactness of the translation, combined with that uniform harmony and clearness of style which impart to the volumes before us the air and the spirit of an original. A modest and kindly care for his reader's convenience has induced the translator often to supply the rendering into English of a Greek quotation when there was no corresponding rendering into German in the original. Indeed, Strauss may well say, as he does in the notice which he writes for this English edition, that, as far as he has examined it, the translation is et accurata et perspicua."
The book had a successful sale, but Marian Evans received only twenty pounds, and twenty-five copies of the book, for her share of the translation. A little later she translated Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity, receiving fifty pounds for this labor. It was published in 1854, but the sale was small, and it proved a heavy loss to the publisher. While translating Strauss she aided a friend interested in philosophical studies (probably Charles Bray) by the translation, for his reading, of the De Deo of Spinoza. Some years later she completed a translation of the more famous Ethica of the same thinker. It was not published, probably because there was at that time so little interest in Spinoza.
The execution of such work as this, and all of it done in the most creditable and accurate manner, indicates the thoroughness of Marian Evans' scholarship. Though she doubtless was somewhat inclined to accept the opinions she thus helped to diffuse, yet Miss Simcox tells us that "the translation of Strauss and the translation of Spinoza were undertaken, not by her own choice but at the call of friendship; in the first place to complete what some one else was unable to continue, and in the second to make the philosopher she admired accessible to a friendly phrenologist who did not read Latin. At all times she regarded translation as a work that should be undertaken as a duty, to make accessible any book that required to be read; and though undoubtedly she was satisfied that the Leben Jesu required to be read in England, it would be difficult to imagine a temper more naturally antipathetic to her than that of its author; and critics who talk about the 'Strauss and Feuerbach period' should be careful to explain that the phrase covers no implication that she was at anytime an admirer or a disciple of Strauss. There are extremes not only too remote but too disparate to be included in the same life."
Marian Evans did not become an admirer or disciple of Strauss, probably because she preferred Charles Hennell's interpretation of Christianity, It is certain, however, that she was greatly affected by Feuerbach, and that his influence was ever after strongly marked in her thinking. The teachings of Charles Bray and Charles Hennell had prepared her for the reception of those of Feuerbach, and he in turn made her mind responsive to the more systematic philosophy of Comte. Bray had taught her, along with Kant, to regard all knowledge as subjective, while Hennell and her other friends had shown her the objective falsity of Christianity. Thus her mind was made ready for Feuerbach's leading principle, that all religion is a product of the mind and has no outward reality corresponding to its doctrines. According to Feuerbach, the mind creates for itself objective images corresponding to its subjective states, reproduces its feelings in the outward world. In reality there is no objective fact corresponding to these subjective ideas, but what the mind conceives to exist is a necessary product of its own activity. The mind necessarily believes in God, which is man's way of conceiving his species and realizing to himself the perfect type of his own nature. God does not exist, and yet he is a true picture of man's soul, a necessary product of his feeling and consciousness. All religious ideas are true subjectively, and Christianity especially corresponds to the inward wants and aspirations of the soul. To Feuerbach it is true as a poetic interpretation of feeling and sentiment, and to him it gives the noblest and truest conception of what the soul needs for its inward satisfaction.
The influence of Feuerbach is to be seen in the profound interest which Marian Evans ever took in the subject of religion. That influence alone explains how it was possible for one who did not accept any religious doctrines as true, who did not believe in God or immortality, and who rejected Christianity as a historic or dogmatic faith, to accept so much as she did of the better spirit of religion and to be so keenly in sympathy with it. It was from the general scepticism and rationalism of the times she learned to reject all religion as false to truth and as not giving a just interpretation of life and its facts. It was from Feuerbach she learned how great is the influence of religion, how necessary it is to man's welfare, and how profoundly it answers to the wants of the soul. Like so many keen minds of the century, she rejected, with a sweeping scepticism, all on which a spiritual religion rests, all its facts, arguments and reasons. She knew only nature and man; inspiration, revelation, a spiritual world, had no existence for her. Yet she believed most thoroughly in religion, accepted its phenomena, was deeply moved by its spiritual aims, yearned after its perfect self-renunciation. Religion was to her, however, a purely subjective experience; it gave her a larger realization of the wants of humanity, it revealed to her the true nature of feeling. To Feuerbach she owed this capacity to appreciate Christianity, to rejoice in its spiritual aims, and even to accept it as a true interpretation of the soul's wants, at the same time that she totally rejected it as fact and dogma.
In the spring of 1851 she was invited to London by John Chapman, to assist him in the editorship of the Westminster Review, Chapman had been the publisher of her translations, and she had met him in London when on the way to the continent the year before. He was the publisher of a large number of idealistic and positivist works, representing the outspoken and radical sentiment of the time. The names of Fichte, Emerson, Parker, Francis Newnian, Cousin, Ewald, H. Martineau, and others of equal note, appeared on his list. The Westminster Review was devoted to scientific and positivist views, and was the organ of such writers as Mill, Spencer, Lewes and Miss Martineau. It was carefully edited, had an able list of contributors, but its advanced philosophical position did not give it a wide circle of readers. It gave careful reviews of books, and had able departments devoted to the literature of each of the leading countries. Marian Evans did much of the labor in preparing these departments and in writing special book reviews. Her work was thoroughly done, and shows wide reading and patient effort. Her position brought her the acquaintance of a distinguished and brilliant company of men and women. Under this influence her powers widened, and she quickly showed herself the peer of the ablest among them. Herbert Spencer has said that at this time she was "distinguished by that breadth of culture and universality of power which have since made her known to all the world." We are told by another that "her strength of intellect, her scholarship and varied accomplishments, and the personal charm of her manner and conversation, made a deep impression on all who wore thrown into her society."
Dr. Chapman then lived in the Strand, and Marian Evans became a member of his family, sharing in its interests as well as in its labors. She was extremely simple in her habits, went but very little into society, and gave herself almost exclusively to her duties and to metaphysical studies. A fortnightly gathering of the contributors to the Review was held in Mr. Chapman's house, and on these occasions she came to know most of the scientific and positivist thinkers of England at that time. Harriet Martineau invited her to Ambleside, and she was a frequent guest at the London residence of Sir James and Lady Clarke. She visited George Combe and his wife at Edinburgh in October, 1852, going to Ambleside on her return.
While assisting Mr. Chapman, Marian Evans contributed only one article, beyond her editorial work, to the pages of the Westminster Review. The work she did, almost wholly that of digesting and reviewing new books, could have been little to her taste. It must have been a drudgery, except in so far as it aided her in the pursuit of her studies. Occasionally, however, she must have found a task to her mind, as when, in the summary of current English literature for January, 1852. she had Carlyle's Life of Sterling in hand. Her notice of the book is highly appreciative of Carlyle's genius, and full of cordial praise. This passage gives her idea of a true biography:
We have often wished that genius would incline itself more frequently to the task of the biographer,—that when some great or good personage dies, instead of the dreary three or five volumed compilations of letter, and diary, and detail, little to the purpose, which two-thirds of the reading public have not the chance, nor the other third the inclination, to read, we could have a real "Life," setting forth briefly and vividly the man's inward and outward struggles, aims and achievements, so as to make clear the meaning which his experience has for his fellows. A few such lives (chiefly, indeed, autobiographies) the world possesses, and they have, perhaps, been more influential on the formation of character than any other kind of reading. But the conditions required for the perfection of life writing,—personal intimacy, a loving and poetic nature which sees the beauty and the depth of familiar things, and the artistic power which seizes characteristic points and renders them with life-like effect,—are seldom found in combination. The Life of Sterling is an instance of this rare conjunction. Its comparatively tame scenes and incidents gather picturesqueness and interest under the rich lights of Carlyle's mind. We are told neither too little nor too much; the facts noted, the letters selected, are all such as serve to give the liveliest conception of what Sterling was and what he did; and though the book speaks much of other persons, this collateral matter is all a kind of scene-painting, and is accessory to the main purpose.
The earliest of the regular articles, and the only one printed while she was the associate editor of the Review, is on "The Lady Novelists." It appeared in the number for July, 1852, and contained a striking discussion of woman's place in literature, a defence of woman's right to occupy that field she can best cultivate, with a clear and just criticism of several of the most prominent among lady novelists. She was quite full in her treatment of Jane Austen and George Sand, praising as well as criticising with insight and fine discrimination. At the outset she defines literature as an expression of the emotions, and gives a remarkably clear and original description of its functions.
Her editorial connection with the Westminster Review continued for about two years, until the end of 1853. For the next three years she was a contributor to its pages, where there appeared "Woman in France: Madame de Sable," in October, 1854; "Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming," October, 1855; "German Wit: Heinrich Heine," January, 1856; "The Natural History of German Life," July, 1856; "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," October, 1856; and "Worldliness and other-Worldliness: the Poet Young," January, 1857. Two other articles have been attributed to her pen, but they are of little value. These are "George Forster," October, 1856, and "Weimar and its Celebrities," April, 1859. The interest and value of nearly all these articles are still as great as when they were first published. This will justify the publication here of numerous extracts from their most salient and important paragraphs. As indicating her literary judgment, and her capacity for incisive characterization and clear, trenchant criticism, reference may be made to the essay on Heine, which is one of the finest pieces of critical writing the century has produced.
Heine is one of the most remarkable men of this age; no echo, but a real voice, and therefore, like all genuine things in this world, worth studying; a surpassing lyric poet, who has uttered our feelings for us in delicious song; a humorist, who touches leaden folly with the magic wand of his fancy, and transmutes it into the fine gold of art—who sheds his sunny smile on human tears, and makes them a beauteous rainbow on the cloudy background of life; a wit, who holds in his mighty hand the most scorching lightnings of satire; an artist in prose literature, who has shown even more completely than Goethe the possibilities of German prose; and—in spite of all charges against him, true as well as false—a lover of freedom, who has spoken wise and brave words on behalf of his fellow-men. He is, moreover, a suffering man, who, with all the highly wrought sensibility of genius, has to endure terrible physical ills; and as such he calls forth more than an intellectual interest. It is true, alas! that there is a heavy weight in the other scale—that Heine's magnificent powers have often served only to give electric force to the expression of debased feeling, so that his works are no Phidian statue of gold, and ivory, and gems, but have not a little brass, and iron, and miry clay mingled with the precious metal. The audacity of his occasional coarseness and personality is unparalleled in contemporary literature, and has hardly been exceeded by the license of former days. Yet, when all coarseness, all scurrility, all Mephistophelean contempt for the reverent feelings of other men, is removed, there will be a plenteous remainder of exquisite poetry, of wit, humor and just thought. It is apparently too often a congenial task to write severe words about the transgressions committed by men of genius, especially when the censor has the advantage of being himself a man of no genius, so that those transgressions seem to him quite gratuitous; he, forsooth, never lacerated any one by his wit, or gave irresistible piquancy to a coarse allusion, and his indignation is not mitigated by any knowledge of the temptation that lies in transcendent power....
In Heine's hands German prose, usually so heavy, so clumsy, so dull, becomes, like clay in the hands of the chemist, compact, metallic, brilliant; it is German in an allotropic condition. No dreary, labyrinthine sentences in which you find "no end in wandering mazes lost;" no chains of adjectives in linked harshness long drawn out; no digressions thrown in as parentheses; but crystalline definiteness and clearness, fine and varied rhythm, and all that delicate precision, all those felicities of word and cadence, which belong to the highest order of prose. And Heine has proved that it is possible to be witty in German; indeed, in reading him, you might imagine that German was pre-eminently the language of wit, so flexible, so subtle, so piquant does it become under his management. He is far more an artist in prose than Goethe. He has not the breadth and repose, and the calm development which belongs to Goethe's style, for they are foreign to his mental character; but he excels Goethe in susceptibility to the manifold qualities of prose, and in mastery over its effects. Heine is full of variety, of light and shadow: he alternates between epigrammatic pith, imaginative grace, sly allusion, and daring piquancy; and athwart all those there runs a vein of sadness, tenderness and grandeur which reveals the poet.
The introduction to this article contains a wise comparison of wit and humor, and makes a subtle discrimination between them. German wit she finds is heavy and lacking in nicety of perception; and the German is the only nation that "had contributed nothing classic to the common stock of European wit and humor" previous to the present century. In Heine she found both in a marked degree, so that he is unlike the other writers of Germany, having a flavor and a spirit quite his own.
Her essays on Dr. Cumming and the poet Young were largely of a theological character. They are keen in their thrusts at dogmatic religion, sparkling with witty hits at a make-believe piety, and full of biting sarcasm. Her entire want of sympathy with the men she dissects, makes her sometimes unjust to them, and she makes them worse than they really were. The terrible vigor of her criticism may be seen in her description of Dr. Cumming and his teaching. She brings three charges against him, and defends each with ample quotation, wit, sarcasm, argument and eloquence. She finds in his books unscrupulosity of statement, absence of genuine charity, and a perverted moral judgment. These essays much resemble Thackeray's dissection of Swift for their terrible sarcasm, their unmerciful criticism, and their minute unveiling of human weakness and hypocrisy. It is possible that Thackeray was her model, as his lecture was first delivered in 1851 or 1852; but, at least, she is not at all his inferior in power to lay bare the character and tendencies of the men she selected for analysis. Her keen psychological insight was shown here in a manner as brilliant and as accurate as in any of her novels. She may have done injustice to the circumstances under which these men were placed, their religious education, the social conditions which aided them in the pursuit of the lives they lived; and she may not have been quite ready enough to deal charitably with those who were blinded, as these men were, by all their surroundings and by whatever of culture they received; but she did see into the secret places of their lives, and laid bare the inner motives of their conduct. It was because these men came before the world as its teachers, holding up before it a special ideal and motive for its guidance, that she criticised them. In reality they were selfish, narrow, worldly; their teaching came from no deep convictions, nor from a high moral purpose; and hence her criticism. She laid bare the shallowness of their thoughts, the selfishness of their purposes, and the spiritual unfruitfulness of their teachings. Criticism so unsparing and so just, because based on the most searching insight into character and conduct, it would be difficult to find elsewhere.
Dr. Cumming's mind is evidently not of the pietistic order. There is not the slightest leaning towards mysticism in his Christianity—no indication of religious raptures, of delight in God, of spiritual communion with the Father. He is most at home in the forensic view of justification, and dwells on salvation as a scheme rather than as an experience. He insists on good works as the sign of justifying faith, as labors to be achieved to the glory of God, but he rarely represents them as the spontaneous, necessary outflow of a soul filled with divine love. He is at home in the external, the polemical, the historical, the circumstantial, and is only episodically devout and practical. The great majority of his published sermons are occupied with argument or philippic against Romanists and unbelievers, with vindications of the Bible, with the political interpretation of prophecy, or the criticism of public events; and the devout aspiration, or the spiritual and practical exhortation, is tacked to them as a sort of fringe in a hurried sentence or two at the end. He revels in the demonstration that the Pope is the Man of Sin; he is copious on the downfall of the Ottoman empire; he appears to glow with satisfaction in turning a story which tends to show how he abashed an "infidel;" it is a favorite exercise with him to form conjectures of the process by which the earth is to be burned up, and to picture Dr. Chalmers and Mr. Wilberforce being caught up to meet Christ in the air, while Romanists, Puseyites and infidels are given over to gnashing of teeth. But of really spiritual joys and sorrows, of the life and death of Christ as a manifestation of love that constrains the soul, of sympathy with that yearning over the lost and erring which made Jesus weep over Jerusalem, and prompted the sublime prayer, "Father, forgive them," of the gentler fruits of the Spirit, and the peace of God which passeth understanding—of all this, we find little trace in Dr. Cumming's discourses.
Even more severe is her account of the poet Young. She speaks of him as "a remarkable individual of the species divine." This is her account of his life:
He is on the verge of fifty, and has recently undergone his metamorphosis into the clerical form. Rather a paradoxical specimen, if you observe him narrowly: a sort of cross between a sycophant and a psalmist, a poet whose imagination is alternately fired by the "Last Day" and by a creation of peers, who fluctuate between rhapsodic applause of King George and rhapsodic applause of Jehovah. After spending "a foolish youth, the sport of peers and poets," after being a hanger-on of the profligate Duke of Wharton, after aiming in vain at a parliamentary career, and angling for pensions and preferment with fulsome dedications and fustian odes, he is a little disgusted with his imperfect success, and has determined to retire from the general mendicancy business to a particular branch; in other words, he has determined on that renunciation of the world implied in "taking orders," with the prospect of a good living and an advantageous matrimonial connection. And no man can be better fitted for an Established Church. He personifies completely her nice balance of temporalities and spiritualities. He is equally impressed with the momentousness of death and of burial fees; he languishes at once for immortal life and for "livings;" he has a vivid attachment to patrons in general, but on the whole prefers the Almighty. He will teach, with something more than official conviction, the nothingness of earthly things; and he will feel something more than private disgust if his meritorious efforts in directing man's attention to another world are not rewarded by substantial preferment in this. His secular man believes in cambric bands and silk stockings as characteristic attire for "an ornament of religion and virtue;" hopes courtiers will never forgot to copy Sir Robert Walpole; and writes begging letters to the King's mistress. His spiritual man recognizes no motives more familiar than Golgotha and the skies; it walks in graveyards, or it soars among the stars. His religion exhausts itself in ejaculations and rebukes, and knows no medium between the ecstatic and the sententious. If it were not for the prospect of immortality, he considers it would be wise and agreeable to be indecent or to murder one's father; and, heaven apart, it would be extremely irrational in any man not to be a knave. Man, he thinks, is a compound of the angel and the brute; the brute is to be humbled by being reminded of its "relation to the stalls," and frightened into moderation by the contemplation of death-beds and skulls; the angel is to be developed by vituperating this world and exalting the next; and by this double process you get the Christian—"the highest style of man." With all this, our new-made divine is an unmistakable poet. To a clay compounded chiefly of the worldling and the rhetorician, there is added a real spark of Promethean fire. He will one day clothe his apostrophes and objurgations, his astronomical religion and his charnel-house morality, in lasting verse, which will stand, like a Juggernaut made of gold and jewels, at once magnificent and repulsive; for this divine is Edward Young, the future author of Night Thoughts.
She says, "One of the most striking characteristics of Young is his radical insincerity as a poetic artist."
Indeed, we remember no mind in poetic literature that seems to have absorbed less of the beauty and the healthy breath of the common landscape than Young's. His images, often grand and finely presented, lie almost entirely within that circle of observation which would be familiar to a man who lived in town, hung about the theatres, read the newspaper, and went home often by moon and star light. There is no natural object nearer than the moon that seems to have any strong attraction for him, and even to the moon he chiefly appeals for patronage, and "pays his court" to her.... He describes nothing so well as a comet, and is tempted to linger with fond detail over nothing more familiar than the day of judgment and an imaginary journey among the stars.... The adherence to abstractions, or to the personification of abstractions, is closely allied in Young to the want of genuine emotion. He sees Virtue sitting on a mount serene, far above the mists and storms of earth: he sees Religion coming down from the skies, with this world in her left hand and the other world in her right; but we never find him dwelling on virtue or religion as it really exists—in the emotions of a man dressed in an ordinary coat, and seated by his fireside of an evening, with his hand resting on the head of his little daughter, in courageous effort for unselfish ends, in the internal triumph of justice and pity over personal resentment, in all the sublime self-renunciation and sweet charities which are found in the details of ordinary life.
In these essays there are various indications of her religious opinions, and those of a decided character. In that on Dr. Cumming, she has this word to say of the rationalistic conception of the Bible:
He seems to be ignorant, or he chooses to ignore the fact, that there is a large body of eminently instructed and earnest men who regard the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as a series of historical documents, to be dealt with according to the rules of historical criticism, and that an equally large number of men, who are not historical critics, find the dogmatic scheme built on the letter of the scriptures, opposed to their profoundest moral convictions.
This statement is suggestive of her position on religious subjects:
The best minds that accept Christianity as a divinely inspired system, believe that the great end of the Gospel is not merely the saving but the educating of men's souls, the creating within them of holy dispositions, the subduing of egoistical pretensions, and the perpetual enhancing of the desire that the will of God—a will synonymous with goodness and truth—may be done on earth. But what relation to all this has a system of interpretation which keeps the mind of the Christian in the position of a spectator at a gladiatorial show, of which Satan is the wild beast in the shape of a great red dragon, and two thirds of mankind the victims—the whole provided and got up by God for the edification of the saints?
She calls Dr. Cumming's teachings "the natural crop of a human mind where the soil is chiefly made up of egoistic passions and dogmatic beliefs." Then she deals with that belief in this trenchant fashion:
Happily, the constitution of human nature forbids the complete prevalence of such a theory. Fatally powerful as religious systems have been, human nature is stronger and wider than religious systems, and though dogmas may hamper, they cannot absolutely repress its growth: build walls around the living tree as you will, the bricks and mortar have by and by to give way before the slow and sure operation of the sap. But next to the hatred of the enemies of God which is the principle of persecution, there perhaps has been no perversion more obstructive of true moral development than this substitution of a reference to the glory of God for the direct promptings of the sympathetic feelings. Benevolence and justice are strong only in proportion as they are directly and inevitably called into activity by their proper objects; pity is strong only because we are strongly impressed by suffering; and only in proportion as it is compassion that speaks through the eyes when we soothe, and moves the arm when we succor, is a deed strictly benevolent. If the soothing or the succor be given because another being wishes or approves it, the deed ceases to be one of benevolence, and becomes one of deference, of obedience, of self-interest, or vanity. Accessory motives may aid in producing an action, but they presuppose the weakness of the direct motive; and conversely, when the direct motive is strong, the actions of accessory motives will be excluded.
In writing of Young she says,—
The God of the Night Thoughts is simply Young himself "writ large"—a didactic poet, who "lectures" mankind in the antithetic hyperbole of mortal and immortal joys, earth and the stars, hell and heaven, and expects the tribute of inexhaustible applause. Young has no conception of religion as anything else than egoism turned heavenward; and he does not merely imply this, he insists on it.
She contrasts Young with Cowper, preferring the latter because he dwells more on the things of a common and simple life.
In Young we have the type of that deficient human sympathy, that impiety toward the present and the visible, which flies for its motives, its sanctities, and its religion, to the remote, the vague and unknown: in Cowper we have the type of that genuine love which cherishes things in proportion to their nearness, and feels its reverence grow in proportion to the intimacy of its knowledge.
This warm human sympathy is all she cares for in religion.
See how a lovely, sympathetic nature manifests itself in spite of creed and circumstance! Where is the poem that surpasses the Task in the genuine love it breathes, at once toward inanimate and animate existence—in truthfulness of perception and sincerity of presentation—in the calm gladness that springs from a delight in objects for their own sake, without self-reference—in divine sympathy with the lowliest pleasures, with the most shortlived capacity for pain? Here is no railing at the earth's "melancholy map," but the happiest lingering over her simplest scenes with all the fond minuteness that belongs to love; no pompous rhetoric about the inferiority of the brutes, but a warm plea on their behalf against man's inconsiderateness and cruelty, and a sense of enlarged happiness from their companionship in enjoyment; no vague rant about human misery and human virtue, but that close and vivid presentation of particular deeds and misdeeds, which is the direct road to the emotions. How Cowper's exquisite mind falls with the mild warmth of morning sunlight on the commonest objects, at once disclosing every detail and investing every detail with beauty! No object is too small to prompt his song— not the sooty film on the bars, or the spoutless teapot holding a bit of mignonette that serves to cheer the dingy town lodging with a "hint that nature lives;" and yet his song is never trivial, for he is alive to small objects, not because his mind is narrow, but because his glance is clear and his heart is large.
Her contributions to the Westminster Review indicate that Marian Evans had read much and well, and that she was possessed of a thoroughly cultivated mind and much learning. To their preparation she gave herself diligently, writing slowly, after a careful study of her subject and much thought devoted to a faithful thinking out of all its parts. It has been many times suggested that these articles gave indication only of learning and studious effort. They certainly give strong hint of these, but also of much more. That on human life shows how much she had thought, and how thoroughly and philosophically, on one of the largest problems; while the one on Heine indicates her penetrating literary judgment and her capacity for analysis and interpretation. These essays are not mere compilations, mere digests of learned information; they are studies of large subjects done in a large and inspiring manner. Her essays on the poet Young and Dr. Cumming, and the two on lady novelists, as well as that on Heine, show many indications of that subtle power and that true genius which were displayed in her later work. There was genius displayed in these articles, without doubt, and genius of a high order. It was genius not as yet aware of itself, and not yet at the height of its power and capable of its truest expression, but genius nevertheless. Many of the most striking characteristics of her novel-writing were shown in these essays. Here was the same love of common human life; the same interest in its humbler forms and expressions; the like penetrating analysis and subtle portrayal of character; a psychological method of the same probing and comprehensive nature. Her main philosophical ideas were indicated here, though not given that clear and incisive expression they afterwards received. When she wrote of the natural history of German life she indicated in the very title of her essay one of her main theories, and her conception of man as a social being was brought out in it. These essays fully indicate that her opinions were already formed, that the leading ideas she was to give expression to in her novels had been arrived at by diligent study and thought, and that she had equipped herself with ample reasons for the acceptance of the opinions she held. Their chief defect is in their occasional arrogance of expression, as if the writer had not yet wholly escaped the superior airs of the young woman elated with the greatness of her knowledge, and a certain rudeness and vehemence of statement not seen later. It is a defect that is not very prominent, but one that is apparent enough to mar some of the best of these pages. It was one she never wholly outgrew, though in her novels her large information was usually so managed and subordinated as to give little annoyance to the intelligent reader.