Edmond Henri Adolphe Scherer.

Essays on English literature; online

. (page 19 of 21)
Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 19 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


great store of fact and anecdote, a knowledge alike
how to please and how to amuse, a good stock of
gayety despite his bad health, of probity despite his
vagabond life, and to crown all good humor and
that evenness of disposition which excuses so many
faults. A singular contrast, on the whole, with a
timid and reserved woman eminently serious and
inspired with a particular aversion for that literary
species which is called the amateur !

But there was in the marriage^ of which we
speak something more surprising than the hetero-
geneousness of the characters : there was the fact
that Lewes was already married, that his wife was
still alive, that he could offer Miss Evans nothing
better than a left-handed union, and that she was
about to change her name only to usurp that which
belonged to another. Let us add, to cap the climax
of strangeness, that Miss Evans, in contracting this
union with Lewes does not seem to have yielded to
any irresistible attraction. She was, it would
seem, if not a stranger to all passion, at least too
much under the control of reason and of reasoning
to be capable of a coup de Ute; besides, she as well
as Lewes was of mature years. We must therefore
content ourselves with supposing that with her
craving for intimate affection, with the happiness
she felt at being an object of devotion and of care,
touched also by the attentions and by the misfortunes

1 [On the words "marriage," "husband," "Mrs. Lewes,"
&c. see note p. ante. — Trans.'\



GBOEGE ELIOT 271

of her friend, having recognized in him solid qualities
under a fantastic exterior, and promising herself to
complete the task of polishing and moralizing him.
Miss Evans thought she need not refuse herself
happiness, however unexpected and equivocal the
shape in which it presented itself. Besides, who
knows whether the effort which she made to con-
quer her hesitation did not help to strengthen her
to do so ? She may have said to herself that she
was going to perform an act of self-sacrifice to
the man whose life she was about to repair
by risking her own, and an act of fidelity to her
own convictions by following them in despite of
the opinions of the world.

As for scruples, properly so called, for protests
of conscience, there could hardly be any in Miss
Evans. Lewes had been deserted by his wife ; his
first marriage was virtually dissolved ; and if it
could not be so legally, there was nothing in this,
as it were, accidental circumstance which could
touch the moral sense. It is true that the legal
impediment simultaneously made any religious cel-
ebration impossible, that the connection whereof
we speak was thus condemned to dispense with any
sanction whatever, to remain, so to speak, anony-
mous,^ a mere matter of mutual consent. But after

1 [In using the word anonyme, I think M. Scherer may have
thought of its use with society, which we only partially render
by identifying it with " limited liability." Strictly, it is a part-
nership where the partners are not known to be such by the
public. — Transi]



272 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITEBATUEB

all is not this the essence of marriage — is it not
even the canonical definition of it ? The hesita-
tions which Miss Evans certainly had to surmount,
the doubts which she had to conquer, were of
another kind, and everything shows us that she
experienced these in all their force. She was going
to expose herself to unpleasant remarks, to offend
many of her friends, to put herself for life in a
false position. She was breaking social laws, the
importance of which she well knew, and she must
have felt that in breaking them she was setting a
deplorable example to others who neither had the
same excuses nor were held back on the downward
slope by the same principles. The notion that her
action might be interpreted as a whim, after the
fashion of G-eorge Sand, as an adhesion to the doc-
trine of free-love, must have been hideous to this
pure soul. If she disregarded it, it was because
she promised herself to refute by her life the criti-
cisms which her conduct was about to invite. This
promise, let us hasten to say, she kept, and with
the help of her literary glory she finally shut the
mouth of scandal. England, when she died, had
long excused or forgotten ; but how much courage
must it not have needed to hold the lists to the
end!

In a letter written a year later, in explanation of
her conduct, Miss Evans thus expresses herself : —

If there is any one action or relation of my life which is
and always has been profoundly serious, it is my relation to



GEOEGE ELIOT 273

Mr. Lewes. It is, however, natural enough that you should
mistake me in many ways, for not only are you unacquainted
with Mr. Lewes's real character and the course of his actions,
but also it is several years now since you and I were much
together, and it is possible that the modifications my mind has
undergone may be quite in the opposite direction of what you
imagine. No one can be better aware than yourself that it
is possible for two people to hold different opinions on momen-
tous subjects with equal sincerity, and an equally earnest
conviction that their respective opinions are alone the truly
moral ones. If we differ on the subject of the marriage laws,
I at least can believe of you that you cleave to what you be-
lieve to be good ; and I don't know of anything in the nature
of your views that should prevent you from believing the
same of me. How far we differ, I think we neither of us
know, for I am ignorant of your precise views ; and appar-
ently you attribute to me both feelings and opinions which
are not mine. "We cannot set each other quite right in this
matter in letters, but one thing I can tell you in few words.
Light and easily broken ties are what I neither desire theo-
retically nor could live for practically. Women who are sat-
isfied with such ties do not act as I have done. That any
unworldly, unsuperstitious person who is sufficiently ac-
quainted with the realities of life can pronounce my relation
to Mr. Lewes immoral, I can only understand by remember-
ing how subtle and complex are the influences that mould
opinion. But I do remember this : and I indulge in no arro-
gant or uncharitable thoughts about those who condemn us,
even though we might have expected a somewhat different
verdict. From the majority of persons, of course, we never
looked for anything but condemnation. We are leading no
life of self-indulgence, except indeed that, being happy in
each other, we find everything easy. We are working hard
to provide for others better than we provide for ourselves,
and to fulfil every responsibility that lies upon us. Levity
and pride would not be a sufficient basis for that.



274 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITEEATUEB

And later in 1857 : —

If I live five years longer, the positive result of my exist-
ence on the side of truth and goodness will outweigh the
small negative good that would have consisted in my not
doing anything to shock others, and I can conceive no con-
sequences that will make me repent the past.

Lord Acton, in a very remarkable article in the
" ISTineteenth Century/' thinks that George Eliot
was wrong when she thought she knew the price
she paid for her happiness with Lewes. What she
really sacrificed, according to him, was freedom of
speech, the first place among the women of her
time, and a tomb in Westminster Abbey.

I am surprised that no more attention has been
paid to the light which George Eliot's second mar-
riage throws on her first. Less than eighteen months
after Lewes's death, and at the age of sixty, she
married a man, worthy of her in sentiment, as the
" Life " before us proves, but very much younger
than herself, so that she had not, indeed, a second
time to dare public opinion, bvit to astonish it afresh.
Once more George Eliot had been unable to refuse
herself the pleasures of life with another.

Let us lastly note, before quitting the subject, the
influence which was later exercised on her novels
by the crisis through which she had gone in uniting
herself to Lewes. So far from the false position in
which she had placed herself having for consequence
the lowering of the moral tone of her works, exactly
the contrary happened. One might almost say that



GEORGE ELIOT 275

she became constantly more eager to set duty above
passion and to recall to notice the danger of enter-
ing into conflict with public order, were it only of
a conventional kind. And in the same way, as far
as she is personally concerned, there is not a situa-
tion or even a word in her writings which can be
interpreted as an apology for her own conduct.
We feel that she pays special attention to this —
that she has a punctilio about it.

Lewes and Miss Evans disappeared after an-
nouncing their connection. They set out for Ger-
many towards the end of July 1854, gave three
months to Weimar, and spent the winter in Berlin.
The choice of these two towns was not a matter of
liking nor yet one of caprice. In one Lewes hoped
to collect impressions and materials for a " Life of
Goethe," and in the other he was sure to find help
for the physiological studies to which he was begin-
ning to turn his attention. The stay at Weimar
was very agreeable — famous men, easy intimacies,
plenty of good music, and above all great literary
memories. It was not without emotion' that our
traveller visited the houses of the two famous poets.
"Among such memorials," she wrote, " one breathes
deeply and the tears rush to one's eyes." She
learned with regret that no portrait of Schiller is
like him. Kauch said that he had a wretched fore-
head, and Tieck, the sculptor, declared that his
whole person made one think of a camel. The
Leweses heard much Wagner at Weimar, but with-



276 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITERATURE

out succeeding in relishing liim. On the other
hand, they made great friends with Liszt, who con-
ducted the orchestra at the Opera, and whose talk
was as amusing as his play was extraordinary. He
told them that when he met Madame d'Agoult
after the j)ublication of ^^Nelida," he asked her,
" Why were you so unkind to that poor Lehmann ? " ^
Berlin seemed to our travellers cold and prosaic
after Weimar. They set to work again, Lewes
finishing his biography and his friend writing
articles for the '' Westminster " or continuing her
translation of Spinoza's '' Ethics," not to mention
a mass of reading, especially in German. She par-
ticularly relished Lessing — her dear Lessing, as
she calls him. Goethe does not always charm
her : she is chiefly amused at the want of point in
the " Xenien " ; the " Wanderjahre " draw from
her the cry, " a mourir d'ennui." ^ Among the
acquaintances she made in Berlin, the sculptor
Kauch seemed to her in all the respects the most
distinguished, and Gruppe the oddest. Gruppe
ought to have suited Lewes, for, if he was not a
Jack of all trades, he had tried every kind of
literature : he left lyrics, five epics, a play, works
in literary history and criticism, learned studies of

1 Lehmann, the representative of Liszt himself, who had heen
on the most intimate terms with the author. Georo-e Eliot
thought the remark "felicitous and characteristic." This was
charitahle. — Trans.']

2 [The French is George Eliot's. — Trans^



GEORGE ELIOT 277

antiquity, and books of philosophy. He was uni-
versity professor to boot, and an enthusiastic boar-
hunter. Mary Ann describes him clothed in a
dressing-gown which had once been a winter great-
coat,^ his velvet cap on his gray hair, reading
aloud his own works with enthusiasm, but simple
and kind-hearted, and (oddly enough), despite his
prodigious fertility, rather slow of apprehension
and delighting in poor plays on words. '' Apropos
of jokes," she adds, "we noticed that during the
whole seven months of our stay in Germany, we
never heard one witticism or even one felicitous
idea or expression from a German."

After German heaviness came French feather-
headedness. The travellers met, in a Berlin salon
a countryman of ours, who marvelled at the talent
with which Meyerbeer in the " Huguenots " had
grasped the spirit of the epoch of Charles the
Ninth. '' Bead the chronicles ! " cried he. "What!
Froissart's ? " slipped in a malicious voice. " Yes,
something of that kind, or else the chronicles of
Brantome, of Merimee, and you will find that Meyer-
beer has expressed all that perfectly — at least,
I think so." "But perhaps, monsieur, it is your
own genius which put these ideas into the music ? "
Whereat the agreeable rattle modestly disclaimed.
Varnhagen, to whose house the Leweses constantly
went, continually recurred to the antipathy with
which Carlyle had inspired him when, after long
1 [She only says that she " fancies " it had. — Trans.]



278 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITERATURE

correspondence, they came to meet. Varnhagen,
thougli not without admiration for some of the
English humorist's work, had been shocked by his
taste for despotism and by his rough, paradoxical
talk in general. Yet we have a neat saying of
his.^ At a dinner given to him in Berlin the talk
Avas of Goethe, and some of the guests affected to
deplore that the great poet had so little religion.^
During this talk Carlyle was visibly uneasy, fum-
bling with his dinner-napkin. At last he broke
out thus, "Gentlemen, do you know the story of
the man who railed at the sun because it would not
light his cigar ? "

Mrs, Lewes's final judgment at her departure
does honor to her impartiality. She had become
very weary of the heavy finery, the noise, the indis-
criminate smoking.^ "But, after all," she says,
" Germany is no bad place to live in, and the Ger-
mans, to counterbalance their want of taste and
politeness, are at least free from the bigotry and
exclusiveness " of the English.

On their return to England the couple set to
work seriously on the life which they had deliber-
ately foreseen and chosen. They hired at Eichmond,
near London, a modest house ^ where the drawing-

1 [Not from Varnhagen. — Trans.]

2 [In original " evangelical sentiment," which is not quite the
same. — Trans.]

3 [It is fair to say that George Eliot limits this to German
inns. — Trans.]

* [Lodgings rather. — Trans.]



GEORGE ELIOT 279

room was the only study, and this had to do for
both of them. Lewes had to provide for the needs
of his first wife, now fallen very low, as well as for
the education of his three boys at school. This
made a good many mouths for which to find meat,
and that, too, with no very profitable craft. Mary
Ann had published the translation of Feuerbacli's
" Wesen des Christenthums " before her departure
for Germany, but she could not expect much profit
from a book which was already rather out of date,
and in any case ill-adjusted to the intellectual
meridian of Great Britain. The translation of Spi-
noza which she had finished at Berlin was still less
promising, and, indeed, has never been printed. So
she went back to periodical literature. Her health,
unluckily, was weak, and caused frequent interrup-
tions, but to make up for this she enjoyed domestic
happiness and the success of the union she had
contracted. She feels, she says, her esteem and
affection for Lewes increase every day. "I am
very happy," she wrote after three years' experi-
ence, "happy with the greatest happiness that life
can give, the complete sympathy and affection of a
man whose mind stimulates mine and keeps up in
me a wholesome activity." But it was not only
activity, it was talent as well which developed
itself in our author through this beneficent contact.
Like most strong and deep natures, Mrs. Lewes
arrived but late at the consciousness and the exer-
cise of her gifts. She was thirty-six years old when



280 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITERATURE

her " Westminster " articles began to rise from the
level (high enough, to be sure) which they had
hitherto kept, and to attract attention more vividly.
Lewes used to say that it was in reading one of these
pieces, a biting satire on the apocalyptic dreams of
a popular preacher,^ that he first gained insight into
his wife's genius. Two other fine articles — one
on Young of the " Nights," the other on Heine and
German wit — must have strengthened this impres-
sion. Moreover, as it happened, Mrs. Lewes was
at this very moment entering on a path in which
she was to give rise to far different astonishment.

The history of her debut in novel-writing is
memorable enough for us to hear the telling of it
by herself : —

September 1856 made a new era in my life, for it was
then I began to write fiction. It had always been a vague
dream of mine that some time or other I might write a
novel ; and my shadowy conception of what the novel was
to be, varied, of course, from one epoch of my life to an-
other. But I never went further towards the actual writing
of the novel than an introductory chapter describing a Staf-
fordshire village and the life of the neighboring farm-houses ;
and as the years passed on I lost any hope that I should
ever be able to write a novel, just as I desponded about
everything else in my future life. I always thought I was
deficient in dramatic power, both of construction and dia-
logue, but I felt I should be at my ease in the descriptive
parts of a novel. My "introductory chapter" was pure
description, though there were good materials in it for

1 [Poor Dr. Gumming, if not witty, yet a great whetstone of
wit. ^ Tra7is.]



GEORGE ELTOT 281

dramatic presentation. It happened to be among the papers
I had with me in Germany, and one evening at Berlin
sometliing led me to read it to George. He was struck with
it as a bit of concrete description, and it suggested to him
the possibility of my being able to write a novel, though he
distrusted — indeed disbelieved in — my possession of any
dramatic power. Still, he began to think that I might as
well try some time what I could do in fiction; and by-and-by,
when we came back to England, and I had greater success
than he ever expected in other kinds of writing, his impres-
sion that it was worth while to see how far my mental power
would go, towards the production of a novel, was strengths
ened. He began to say very positively, " You must try and
write a story," and when we were at Tenby he urged me
to begin at once. I deferred it, however, after my usual
fashion, with work that does not present itself as an abso-
lute duty. But one morning as I was thinking what should
be the subject of my first story, my thoughts merged them-
selves into a dreamy doze, and I imagined myself writing a
story, of which the title was " The Sad Fortunes of the Rev-
erend Amos Barton." I was soon wide awake again and
told G. He said, "Oh, what a capital title!" and from that
time I had settled in my mind that this should- be my first
story. George used to say, " It may be a failure — it may
be that you are unable to write fiction. Or perhaps it may
be just good enough to warrant you trying again." Again,
" You may write a chef-d'ceuvre at once — there's no telling."
But his prevalent impression was, that though I could
hardly write a poor novel, my effort would want the highest
quality of fiction — dramatic presentation. He used to say,
"You have wit, description, and philosophy — those go a
good way towards the production of a novel. It is worth
while for you to try the experiment."

We determined that if my story turned out good enough,
we would send it to Blackwood.



282 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITERATURE

When she returned to Eichmond Mrs. Lewes set to
work, and at the end of a week was able to read
the first part of " Amos Barton " to her husband.
Lewes's fears were at once dispelled.

The scene at Cross Earm, he said, satisfied him that I
had the very element he had been doubtful about — it was
clear I could write good dialogue. There still remained the
question whether I could command any pathos ; and that
was to be decided by the mode in which I treated Milly's
death. One night G. went to town on purpose to leave me
a quiet evening for writing it. I wrote the chapter from the
news brought by the shepherd to Mrs. Hackit, to the mo-
ment when Amos is dragged from the bedside, and I read it
to G. when he came home. We both cried over it, and then
he came up to me and kissed me, saying, "I think your
pathos is better than your fun." i

The tale finished, the next thing was to get it
published without, of course, betraying the author's
sex and name. Anonymity was sure to add the
attraction of curiosity to the merit of the story,
and, besides, Mrs. Lewes's position made secrecy
desirable. Her husband undertook the transaction.
He sent the MS. of " Amos Barton " to Blackwood
as the work of one of his friends, and making no
secret of the admiration with which the story had

1 [According to a practice of M. Scherer's, which I have be-
fore referred to, this passage, though given in the first person
and in inverted commas, is much shortened and paraphrased,
probably because the original contains references to the actual
story, which French readers might not understand. It seemed
better to restore the actual text. — Trans.]



GEOBGE ELIOT 283

inspired him. Others were to follow under the
general title of " Scenes of Clerical Life," a phrase
which at once warns us of the difiiculty of trans-
lating into French writings such as those of George
Eliot, inasmuch as the very words "church" and
"clergy" have for us a sense quite opposite to that
which they carry with thein in a country where
ministers of religion have the right to feel and to
suffer, to love and to marry, like other men. Black-
wood at once recognized the worth of the story sent
him. " It is long," said he, " since I read anything
so novel, so amusing, and at the same time so
pathetic." The first part of " Amos " appeared in
his magazine for January 1857, and success en-
couraging the author, she produced two other sto-
ries, after which the whole was reprinted in volume
form under the name of George Eliot. For Mrs.
Lewes, wishing still to preserve her incognito,
thought she had better adopt a pseudonym. The
secret was kept to admiration, and it was many
months before Blackwood himself knew with whom
he was dealing. The author's most intimate friends
of her own sex (with the exception of one who
guessed at first sight) felt the deepest astonishment
when they learnt the truth. As for the public, con-
jecture ran riot, and still went astray when another
work, "Adam Bede," had already followed the
" Scenes." In particular, endless discussions were
held on the sex of the new author. In France M.
Montegut made a long examination of the question,



284 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITERATURE

weighed the pros and cons., and finally inclined to
the masculine. "In fact," said he, "the author
seems to have something of both sexes ; and as only
ecclesiastics, by a special favor of circumstances,
enjoy this epicene privilege, we shall take it on
ourselves to say that we think the author a minis-
ter of the Established Church." An English jour-
nal (the " Saturday Review " ^) was still minuter
in its conclusions, and decided that the name of
George Eliot must hide some scholarly clergyman,
who had taken his degree at Cambridge, who lived
or had passed the greater part of his life in the
country, who was the father of a numerous family,
of pronounced High Church tendencies, and very
fond of children, the Greek tragedians, and dogs.
The care with which George Eliot kept her secret
for two years and more had unexpected conse-
quences. An inhabitant of Nuneaton, where Mary
Ann had been at school, availing himself of the
local memories which had slipped into the tales,
gave it to be understood that he was the author,
and so interested the neighborhood in his poverty
and hidden genius that a subscription was got up
for him.

Dickens was keener-sighted than most critics.
Having received a copy of the " Scenes," he
thanked the unknown author in a letter breathing



1 [I have looked up this article with some interest. The in-
tention is pretty evidently ironical. — Trans^



GEORGE ELIOT 285

the frankest admiration, but not hiding the conclu-
sion to which his literary tact ^ had led him.

Tavistock House, London,

Monday, 17th Jan. 1858.

My Dear Sir, — I have been so strongly affected by the
two first tales in the book you have had the kindness to
send me, through Messrs. Blackwood, that I hope you will
excuse my writing to you to express my admiration of their
extraordinary merit. The exquisite truth and delicacy, both


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 19 21

Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 19 of 21)