Edmond Henri Adolphe Scherer.

Essays on English literature; online

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Erom the day when Isaac had a horse, his sister
could no longer follow him across country; be-
sides, the time had come to send her to school.


She carried tliither delicate health, a timid dispo-
sition, a vivacious intelligence, a passion for read-
ing, a taste for taking trouble, and the gift of
making herself beloved. She found in return cer-
tain religious influences to which she abandoned
herself with the eagerness of a nature at once affec-
tionate and idealist. Mary Ann became a model
of piety, and later when she had left school a
model of good works — starting prayer-meetings,
working for the poor, visiting the sick. Her biog-
rapher has preserved for us a certain number of
letters of this period of faith and fervor, and he
has done well precisely because of their insignifi-
cance — I had all but said of their platitudinous-
ness. It is not more interesting to see the girl
occupied in the spiritual combats wherein the soul
forms itself, pushing her conscientiousness to the
point of scruple and her sense of duty to the point
of asceticism, than it is curious to hear her talking
that conventional language of Protestant piety
which a witty lady once called "the patois of
Canaan." There is not a touch of genius to be met
with in these pages of devout exhortations — not
even, I am bound to say, an accent of personal
emotion. Here and there, on the other hand, are
symptoms which, in the eyes of an enlightened
spiritual director, would probably have justified
fears as to the lasting of this fine devotional ardor.
Mary Ann reads too much and too many kinds
of things. She has already learnt French, Ger-


man, and Italian, and she reads in all these lan-
guages — prose and verse, books of science and
books of fiction. She is ambitious and pained at
the thought that she will never do anything of
moment. Her mother is dead, and she has suc-
ceeded her in the cares of housekeeping; she
acquits herself brilliantly therein, but her thoughts
are at work while she is cooking or sewing, and
many questions begin to present themselves to her
mind. Worst of all, she brings to the considera-
tion of these questions a perfect sincerity and a
craving for complete satisfaction; whence it hap-
pens that doubts often occur to her. Let us add
that her nature is a rich, a mobile, and a complex
one, and that by lending itself in turn to every
aspect of things it is preparing her for the vexa-
tious discovery that our knowledge is relative.
Let her meet on her way some outspoken passage,
and in such dispositions it is impossible to foresee
how far her straightforwardness will lead her.
What is certain, on the other hand, is that this
beautiful soul will never rise up in offensive rebel-
lion against the beliefs of her youth; that while
not affecting, as some do, to regret the faith she
no longer possesses, and while feeling the happiness
of being henceforward at unity with herself, she
will preserve a certain tenderness for the mem-
ory of old struggles, of simple enthusiasm.
George Eliot is an example of the religious senti-
ment as well of a tender conscience surviving a


theological shipwreck as complete as it is possible
to imagine.

" All creatures about to moult, or to cast off an
old skin, or enter on any new metamorphosis, have
sickly feelings. It was so with me. But now I
am set free from the irritating worn-out integu-
ment. I am entering on a new period of my life,
which makes me look back on the past as something
incredibly poor and contemptible. I am enjoying
repose, strength, and ardor in a greater degree than
I have ever known, and yet I never felt my own
insignificance and imperfection so completely."
Here there is nothing but the joy of the deliver-
ance ; soon, I repeat, she will show herself more
tender towards her past.

Mary Ann had been helped in " casting her
skin " not only by the books which had fallen into
her hands, but by the acquaintance she had made
with some freethinkers of both sexes in the town of
Coventry, near which her father had retired. These
consisted of a Mr. Bray, a ribbon manufacturer and
a phrenologist, of his brother-in-law, Charles Hen-
nell, the author of "Enquiries into the Origin of
Christianity," and of the wives and sisters of these
gentlemen, who all united honorable sentiments to
a boldness of view then pretty rare in England.
Miss Evans spent eight years of happiness in the
society of these friends. She found in it what she
so ardently desired — study in common, discussions
which clear up and whet thought, and the satisfac-


tion of that feminine craving for intimate in-
tercourse which characterized a nature in other
respects so virile, and which she recognized by
comparing herself to the ivy. To balance this
there was friction at home. Her old father — Tory
in politics and orthodox in religion — was horrified
to see his favorite daughter going astray. He be-
came seriously angry when, in a first fit of heretical
fervor, she left off going to church. There was a
temporary rupture which Mary Ann contrived to
heal by force of affectionate assiduity, yet without
surrendering her liberty. I cannot help asking
myself what the excellent old man must have
thought when he learnt that his daughter was
translating Strauss's " Life of Jesus." This was
her literary debut. She took two years over it,
and acquitted herself of the task to the satisfaction
of the author; but, though in undertaking the
work she had obeyed her conviction that no kind
of test ought to be shirked, she was still far from
accepting all the critic's judgments. " It is all
very well," says she, " when I think Strauss right ;
but I think he is often wrong — which is indeed
inevitable when a man insists on following up a
general idea in detail and making a complete the-
ory of what is only one element of truth." To the
very end of the task the translator remained thus
divided between the attraction of an author whom
she found " so clear and so full of ideas " and her
dislike of the pitiless dissection which attacked the


most beautiful legends, the most sacred memories.
One of her friends tells how, when she came to the
history of the Crucifixion, the young woman could
only console herself for the want of sympathy in
the treatment by looking at an ivory crucifix which
hung over her desk. The story is slightly doubt-
ful, but may be regarded as symbolizing a life in
which intellectual honesty of the strictest kind
never shut out religious sensibility.

The following passages will show at once the
depth of the impression which certain readings
made on Mary Ann's mind and the freedom of
spirit with which she judged the writers who had
moved her most. One of them appears to confirm
an anecdote which I read two or three years ago in
a volume of reminiscences on Emerson. He, dur-
ing his visit to England in 1848, had met Miss
Evans at Coventry, and had been struck by her
conversation. "She has," he said, "a calm and
serious mind." When he one day asked her sud-
denly what was the book she liked best, Mary Ann
replied, without hesitation, Eousseau's ''Confes-
sions." Emerson could not hide his surprise, for
it was the same with him. In his case we can
understand it, but a woman — almost a girl ? Mr.
Cross's volumes supply the explanation which I
confess I had thought was wanted.

I wish you thoroughly to understand that the writers who
have most profoundly influenced me — who have rolled away
the waters from their bed, raised new mountains and spread


delicious valleys for me — are not in the least oracles to me.
It is just possible that I may not embrace one of their opin-
ions, — that I may wish my life to be shaped quite differ-
ently from theirs. For instance, it would signify nothing to
me if a very wise person were to stun me with proofs that
Rousseau's views of life, religion, and government are mis-
erably erroneous, — that he was guilty of some of the worst
bassesses that have degi-aded civilized man. I might admit
all this : and it would be not the less true that Rousseau's
genius has sent that electric thrill through my intellectual
and moral frame which has awakened me to new percep-
tions, — which has made man and nature a fresh world of
thought and feeling to me ; and this not by teaching me any
new belief. It is simply that the rushing mighty wind of
his inspiration has so quickened my faculties, that I have
been able to shape more definitely for myself ideas which
had previously dwelt as dim Ahnungen in my soul ; the fire
of his genius has so fused together old thoughts and preju-
dices, that I have been ready to make new combinations.

Miss Evans's judgment of the author of the " Let-
tres d'un Voyageur," of "Lelia," and of "Jacques"
is not less remarkable. She had just read the last-
named novel.

I should never dream of going to her writings as a moral
code or text-book. I don't care whether I agree with her
about marriage or not — whether I think the design of her
plot correct, or that she had no precise design at all, but
began to write as the spirit moved her, and trusted to Provi-
dence for the catastrophe, which I think the more probable
case. It is sufficient for me, as a reason for bowing before
her in eternal gratitude to that "great power of God mani-
fested in her," that I cannot read six pages of hers without
feeling that it is given to her to delineate human passion


and its results and (I must say, in spite of your judgment)
some of the moral instincts and their tendencies, with such
truthfulness, such nicety of discrimination, such tragic
power, and withal, such loving, gentle humor, that one
might live a century with nothing but one's own dull facul-
ties, and not know so much as those six pages will suggest.

The same letter in which we read the apology of
" Jacques " and of the " Confessions " ends by an
expression of the happiness Mary Ann feels in pos-
sessing the ''Imitation." She has just bought it
in Latin, with old and characteristic woodcuts.
" One breathes," she says, " a cool air as of cloisters
in the book ; it makes one long to be a saint for a
few months. Verily its piety has its foundations
in the depths of the divine human soul."

We should not have a complete idea of the work-
ings of Miss Evans's mind — a mind at once virile
and feminine — about this age of twenty -eight,
when she was translating " Strauss," reading "Lelia,"
and being charmed with the "Imitation," if we did
not take account of her enthusiasm for the French
Revolution of 1848. She is very amusing about it.
We are "the great nation." Away with those who
cannot recognize what is noble and splendid with-
out making reserves and insinuating doubts ! She
would willingly have given a year of her life to see
the men of the barricades uncovering before the im-
age of the Christ who first taught the world frater-
nity. The actions of Lamartine are worthy of a poet.
In Louis Blanc Miss Evans reveres the man who


wrote that sublime phrase, " the inequality of tal-
ents should result, not in the inequality of rewards,
but in the inequality of duties." And Albert " the
workman." What a pity one cannot procure his
portrait ! As for Louis Philippe, it will be time to
pity him when there are no longer famished and
ignorant millions on the earth. As for England,
there is no hope of her having her revolution in
her turn ; troops in that country do not fraternize
with citizens.

Three months pass ; the days of June have
come; and the sweet enthusiast can only sigh,
" Paris ! poor Paris ! Alas ! alas ! " We are not
likely to be wrong in thinking that the lesson was
not lost on a nature in which reason trod very hard
on the heels of impulse. Politics, indeed, have
hardly any place in Mary Ann's letters. She took
no interest in the play of the parliamentary ma-
chine, none in the strife of parties. Charlatanism
and violence, the weapons of this strife, were
repugnant to her. Her thoughts shot beyond them
to the great social revolutions which her optimism
could not help expecting. But even in this respect
she had learnt to count less on the disorderly move-
ments of the multitude than on slow moral reforms,
on the advance of characters in seriousness and of
souls in sympathy.

Miss Evans lost her father in the month of May
1849, after an illness in which she had nursed him
with the most entire devotion. She found herself,


at the age of thirty, her own mistress, but home-
less and obliged to work for her living, for a small
annuity of about a hundred a year which came to
her could hardly have sufficed her wants. She did
not, however, at once make up her mind to any-
thing; and either to give herself time for reflec-
tion, or to re-establish her health which had been
much shaken and always remained delicate, or per-
haps from the necessity of economizing, she went to
pass the following summer and winter at Geneva.
There she boarded with a family of simple manners
and cultivated minds, where she found the calm of
which she had need. " I have become," she wrote,
"passionately attached to the mountains, to the
lake, to the streets of the town, even to my room,
and above all to my dear hosts. . . » Everything
here is so thoroughly in harmony with my moral
state that I might almost say I have never felt
more completely at home." She wants nothing
except a little more money, so as not to need to be
niggardly in fires, for the winter this year is unusu-
ally cold. And she adds : " I cannot think with-
out trembling of returning to England. It is to
me the country of sadness, of boredom, of common-
place. It is true that it is also the country of my
duty and of my affections. The only ardent desire
I feel about the future is to find some feminine
task to discharge, some possibility of devoting my-
self to some one, and making them purely and
calmly happy." Observe this craving for an exist-


ence to share and to make happy. Still no project
is as yet formed. Miss Evans rests ; that is to
say, she rests after her own fashion ; takes a dose
of mathematics every day ; " to prevent the brain
from softening," attends De la Rive's course of ex-
perimental physics, reads Voltaire. She hesitates
about resuming a translation of Spinoza which she
had begun during her father's illness, and which
she finished later : she feels clearly enough that
such books are untranslatable. '' Those who read
Spinoza in his own text find in his style the same
kind of interest which is found in the conversation
of a person of vast intelligence who has lived alone
and who expresses, drawing it from the bottom of
his heart, what others repeat by rote."

When she returned from Switzerland Miss Evans
passed several months with her friends at Eosehill,
near Coventry, staying from time to time in Lon-
don, and at last, it would seem, occupied in earnest
at finding a career for herself. It was now that
she wrote her first article for the "Westminster
Eeview," a periodical which, after having been the
representative of Bentham and of utilitarianism,
was in the way to become more especially the
organ of Positivism. Miss Evans's article, which
had for its text a book of intellectual progress, was
characteristic, for although it held up the vanity of
the efforts made to retain the beliefs and the insti-
tutions of the past, it recognized the fact that these
forms were once living, that they presented sym-


bols which were appropriate to a certain period of
development, and that they still remain fast bound
to whatsoever is best in men. At Rosehill, too, Miss
Evans made the acquaintance of the freethinking
publisher Chapman, who was just about to buy the
" Westminster Review," to renew its editorial staff,
and to endeavor to increase its influence. He
wanted an editor, or perhaps I should say a sub-
editor, for this business, and he easily convinced
himself that Mary Ann was just what he wanted.
His offers were accepted — indeed, she went to
board in his family — and for two years (1852 and
1853) she exercised the functions — unusual for a
woman — of directress of an important periodical
armed at all points of philosophy and sociology,
and possessing considerable ability, but at once
heavy and brilliant, doctrinaire and revolutionary,
aggressive and starched.

Miss Evans had a good deal to do as editress-in-
chief. She corrected the proofs, sometimes literally
from morn to eve. Her table groaned under the
weight of accumulating books. She was specially
entrusted with the notices of new books, which still
form one of the most interesting parts of the ''West-
minster," but which inflicted on our poor directress
huge and hasty reading. "I have done nothing
since Monday," she writes, " and now I must work,
work, work." She did not contribute to Mr. Chap-
man's "Review" more than some ten substantive
critical articles, and with one exception they all


date from later years, when she was freed from the
heavy work of proof revision and correspondence.
The exception I have mentioned has other and
special claims to interest, inasmuch as the article
treats of lady novelists. Naturally George Sand
holds the first place in it. " No man comes near
her for elegance and depth of sentiment." And of
her style : " The ideas shine through the diction as
light through an alabaster vase. Such is the rhyth-
mical melody of her phrase that Beethoven, one
would fain believe, would have written so if he had
expressed in words the musical passion which pos-
sessed him." We know from Mr. Cross's volumes
that Miss Evans was more struck by the faults
than by the beauties of " Jane Eyre," and the arti-
cle of which we speak confirms the impression, but
the Germans come off worst — " the palm of bad
novel writing belongs to them."

The Chapmans' house was the meeting-place, not
merely of the staff of the " Westminster," of the
disciples of the Positivist school and of freethink-
ers, but generally speaking of the new literary
generation on its way to notoriety. All sorts of
society were received there, and soirees were given.
Mary Ann sometimes regretted the country and
would have liked to go to recruit by the seaside.
"But do not think," she says, "that I do not enjoy
my stay here. I like to see new faces, and I am
afraid after this the country might seem a little
monotonous." She made many acquaintances —


Carlyle, Miss Martineau, Grote, Mill, Huxley,
Mazzini, Louis Blanc. She once received a two
hours' call from Pierre Leroux, who had come to
London with his wife and children on an errand of
lecturing to keep off starvation. The talk was
amusing. "He set before me all his ideas. He
belongs neither to the school of Proudhon, who
represents nothing but liberty ; nor to that of
Louis Blanc, who represents only equality; nor
to that of Cabot, who represents fraternity. The
system of Pierre Leroux is a synthesis of the three
principles. He has found the bridge which is to
unite self-love to the love of our neighbor. As for
the origin of Christianity, he thinks Strauss insuffi-
cient because he has not succeeded in showing the
identity of the teaching of Jesus with that of the
Essenes. This is Leroux's pet notion. Essenism
leads him to Egypt, Egypt to India, the cradle of
all religions, &c. All this was delivered with
amusing unction. He had already come to London
once, when he was twenty-five, in search of work
as a printer. Everybody was then in mourning for
the Princess Charlotte. "And I," he cried, "hap-
pened to have an apple-green coat ! "

Among the friends whom Miss Evans made in
London there were two men who exercised a pro-
found influence — the one on her thought, the other
on her life. Herbert Spencer met her at the Chap-
mans' and at once became a friend of hers. He was
about her age ; he had just published his first great


work on Social Statics. He had noticed the supe-
riority of Mary Ann's intelligence, while she on her
side delighted in intercourse with a man of so much
learning and of undoubted speculative faculty. In
the very abstract regions where they met the two
thinkers had no need of paying a too servile re-
spect to convention. " We agreed that there was
no reason why we should not see each other as
often as we liked," writes Miss Evans. " He is
kind, he is delightful, and I always feel better after
being with him." And in another letter, also of
1852 : " The bright side of my life, after my affec-
tion for my old friends, is the new and delightfully
calm friendship which I have found in Herbert
Spencer. We see each other every day, and in
everything we enjoy a delightful comradeship. If
it were not for him my life would be singularly
arid." A few months later Spencer had not be-
come less dear, but another affection had been born
of this one, and was about to take a far greater
place in Mary Ann's destiny. She had already
met George Lewes more than once in literary soci-
ety, when Spencer brought him to see her one day
in the winter of 1851. The acquaintance for a long
time went no farther ; the two met with pleasure,
with interest, but nothing more. " We had a pleas-
ant evening on Wednesday," says Mary Ann at the
end of March 1853. " Lewes was as original and
as amusing as ever." And a fortnight later :
" Everybody here is very kind to me. Mr. Lewes


in particular is amiable and attentive, and has
quite won me over, though at first I was strongly
prejudiced against him. He is one of the small
number of persons in this world who are much
better than they seem. He is a man of heart and
conscience under a mask of coxcombry and fa-
C07ide"^ (the English word "flippancy" is untrans-
latable). As from prejudice she went to esteem,
so she did from acquaintance to intimacy. Lewes
was editor of a journal called the " Leader." But
he was lazy and Miss Evans corrected his proofs
for him, or he was ill and took a holiday, when she
acted as his substitute and worked double tides.
True, her pleasures disappeared with him; and
once when he had gone to recruit in the country
"!N"o more operas and no more amusement for a
month to come," cries she. "Luckily I have no
time to regret him." Soon, other indications are
added. She cancels her engagements with Chap-
man; she speaks of travelling on the Continent.
In short the reader is only half surprised when in
July 1854 he finds her starting for Weimar with
Lewes, after announcing to her friends that she
considers herself, and wishes to be thenceforth con-
sidered, as his wife.

^ [Faconde deserves almost the same description as "flip-
pancy." But I should have thought it the equivalent, not so
much of this latter, as of " glibness," " gift of the gab.' ' — Trans.]



We are now at the critical point of George Eliot's
life, at a crisis the immediate effect of which was
to throw her into an equivocal position and almost
to make her a dedassee, but which was at the same
time not without effect on her happiness and her
literary career, inasmuch as it gave her a home life
and a judicious adviser. The astonishment into
which this step of hers threw those who had not of
late years followed her career closely was bound-
less, and this astonishment survives in a sort for us
at the present day. It would seem that few men
were less suited than Lewes to captivate such a
woman as Mary Ann. If his age was fairly
matched with hers (he was two years older) his
exterior was anything but attractive — unkempt
hair and beard, his whole person neglected, and the
air, if not exactly of a Bohemian, certainly of any-
thing but a gentleman. Gifted with great curiosity
of mind and with much facility, Lewes had learnt
everything and tried every craft ; he had written
novels, biographies, philosophical works, a play.
He had been a journalist, a lecturer, even an actor.
The only thing that he did not know how to do,
said somebody, was to paint, and it would not have
taken him more than a week to learn that. Thack-
eray asserted that he should not be surprised if he
saw Lewes in Piccadilly astride on a white elephant.
With this he had inexhaustible conversation.


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Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 18 of 21)