Edmond Henri Adolphe Scherer.

Essays on English literature; online

. (page 21 of 21)
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state to expect much of institutions ; and improve-
ment seems to her likely to be less the necessary
effect of intellectual culture than the fruit of a slow
contagion of good.

If I insist on the kind of pitifulness with which
George Eliot considers our earthly state, it is be-
cause this disposition is what in reality constitutes
the main principle of her art. All great wit draws
inspiration from some philosophy or other, and the
philosophy of George Eliot is a gently sad one.
There reigns in it what Wordsworth, in a beautiful
line, calls

The still, sad music of humanity,

the melancholy note which human destiny gives out.
She does not aspire to paint irreproachable char-
acters, but characters in which good and evil are
mixed, which call for indulgence, for which we
feel attachment even while we condemn them. To
speak more correctly, she does not aspire to any-


thing; she does not pursue any end ; she is too great
an artist for that. With her serious and moral
nature she ran the risk of becoming a moralizer;
with her sympathy for the faults and the foibles of
her kind, inclination must have carried her towards
the didactic. But she knows the danger, and re-
mains on her guard against it. If art, she thinks,
has its lessons, they are the lessons of life itself,
which art reproduces in its truth and its complexity.
" When it ceases to be purely aesthetic, when it tries
to prove instead of painting, it becomes the most
disgusting of all teachings." And in a remarkable
letter written to the painter Burne- Jones : —

Don't you agree with me that much superfluous stuff is
written on all sides about purpose in art ? A nasty mind
makes nasty art, whether for art or any other sake ; and a
meagre mind will bring forth what is meagre. And some
effect in determining other minds there must be, according
to the degree of nobleness or meanness in the selection
made by the artist's soul.

It was not with her ethics that George Eliot wrote
her novels, it was with her psychology ; and in this
lies the secret of her power. This woman, who
lived an exemplary life in a narrow world, had en-
tered into all things, had felt all things. ISTothing
astonished her, accustomed as she was to read her
own heart, and gifted with the faculty of observa-
tion, which helps one to read the hearts of others.
She is at home with the most secret and the subtlest
entanglements of motives. She knows that '' a na-


ture incapable by virtue of its wliole moral consti-
tution of committing a crime may yet experience
criminal motives." I find this striking expression
from her pen : " In the most absolute confidence of
man and wife there is always a residue of secrecy,
an unsuspected lower depth : it may be of the worst,
it may be, on the other hand, of the loftiest and
most disinterested." George Eliot possesses the
clairvoyance which divines the interior play of pas-
sion, the experience which knows that the human
being is capable of all contradictions, the indul-
gence which tolerates because it understands ; and
lastly, the gift of measure and the taste for truth
which prevent an author from rushing into ex-
tremes, from idealizing either the beautiful or the
ugly, from making figures which are heroes or mon-
sters in block. If we add to psychological divina-
tion the faculty of creating living characters, we
shall have George Eliot's novel. When she was
still very young — in 1848 — she defined the talent
of which she was later to give such memorable
examples. "Artistic power," she said, "seems to
me to resemble dramatic power ; it is the intuition
of the different states of which the human mind
is capable of taking, accompanied by the faculty
of reproducing them with a certain intensity of

The dramatic art in George Eliot's works comes
from her living conception of personages. The
strength with which the moral coherence of the


beings she has called into existence and the conduct
of a story determined by the development of these
characters impose themselves on her is so great that
she forfeits the freedom with which authors usually
control their work. She was unable to make any
change in it. The intuition to which she sought to
give body and life took such complete possession of
her that she seemed to become a mere instrument
and to obey a superior force. There is in " Mid-
dlemarch " a famous scene — an explanation between
two women — which forms one of the turning points
of the novel. G-eorge Eliot used to tell how the
scene was done. She knew that the two characters
must meet sooner or later, and that there would then
be an explosion; but she had avoided thinking of
it up to the moment when she had to bring them
face to face. And then, giving herself up to the
inspiration of the moment, she wrote the narrative
as we have it now, without a change, without a
cancel, in an extraordinary state of agitation, and,
as it were, entirely dominated by the sentiments
which she had to express. Her pen galloped, not as
a result of haste or desire to have done, but because
the hand which held it obeyed an emotion. " Writ-
ing," said George Eliot, " is to me a kind of religion,
and I cannot trace a word unless it comes from
within. " Yet she did not wish to hold herself out
as a pattern, for she added, ''But I think that the
best books in existence have all been written simply
to make money."


The truth is that the inspiration under the sway
of which George Eliot worked must not be confused
with the purely subjective and personal ardor of
the novelist who lends to his characters the passions
which he himself feels. She was rather of the
opinion of Diderot, who asserted that the great actor
remains master of himself, and calculates by reflec-
tion the manner in which he ought to read a char-
acter or a situation.^ The emotion which she felt
when writing was that of the very personages whom
she put on the stage, and into whom she transformed
herself. Her soul was engaged in the game ; she
palpitated, yet not on her own account, if I may say
so ; she palpitated in harmony with the diverse sen-
timents which the situation brought about. The
author, by dint of her psychological penetration and
her power of sympathy, identified herself by turns
with the most diverse situations, with the most
contrary passions. And it is in this sense only — it
is because she thus blended herself with her crea-
tions, and devoted all the warmth of her nature to
their complete realization, that she may be said to
have written with her soul.

It seems to me that we have now before us
almost all the elements of George Eliot's talent —
conscientious research and mature reflection in the
preparation of work; the depth of moral intuition
which creates true and coherent character; the
interest of an action which starts from these pri-
1 [In his famous Paradoxe siir le Comddien.— Trans.]


mary conceptions; the dramatic force which re-
sults from the combined suppleness and vivacity
of sentiment with which the author takes up the
part of her different characters; and, lastly, the
sincerity of an artist passionately in love with
truth. But I am wrong, for, indeed, to make this
analysis complete, we must add dramatic incident,
picturesque description, and those two great facul-
ties which seem mutually exclusive, and which are
here at once combined and carried to an extraordi-
nary pitch of power — the pathos which draws
tears from the driest eyes, and the most abundant,
the most amusing, the most original comedy.

It is a union of these tv/o conditions of art, the
fusion of the elements in the flame of the sacred
fire, which assures to George Eliot so high a place
as a novelist, and among the highest class of novel-
ists. There are illustrious types in the telling of
tales, such as Defoe, Alexandre Dumas, and Dick-
ens; in the painting of manners, such as Balzac
and Thackeray ; in the eloquent delineation of pas-
sions, such as Eousseau and George Sand; while
there has been founded in our days, not without
some success, a new school, which subordinates
everything else to elaborate skill of description.
But is it not true that the highest power in any art
is that which creates personages so lively, true,
and individual that we carry away with us an indel-
ible memory of them just as if we had met them
in the paths of daily life? Is it not true that here


lies the chief gift of superior genius, the most sub-
stantial enrichment of a literature? I only know
one of the novelist's gifts which is wanting to
George Eliot. You must not look in her pages
for the troubles, the excitements, the disorders of
love. She could neither have written the "Nou-
velle H61oise " nor "Dominique." A woman can-
not sketch a man's passions, because she cannot
feel them; and as for painting those of her own
sex, she would have to begin by unsexing herself
to dare to take the public into confidence as to the
last secrets of the feminine heart. Women may
write novels — novels better than those of men,
but not the same. Genius in their hands meets
with, " Thus far and no farther. "

A good deal has been said about realism in con-
nection with George Eliot's novels. Indeed, M.
Montegut's article, which has been referred to
above, bore as its general title "On the Eealist
Novel in England." And it is true enough that
our author's talent is distinguished by a certain
fancy for painting common life, even commonplace
life, and by the truth with which the details of
this painting are followed out. " The Mill on the
Eloss" could, in this respect, but strengthen the
impressions which " Adam Bede " had left. " Eom-
ola," on the other hand, and " Middlemarch " are
there to show that the author was not absolutely
condemned to the minutiae of Dutch painting.
Besides it is but an awkward word, this term of


realism, whicli gives those who use it the air of
setting against each other things which are differ-
ent, but not contrary — the admiration inspired by
the beautiful and the interest aroused by the true.
The beautiful is nature selected, magnified, gener-
alized; the true is the same nature seen as close as
possible, with every feature of its physiognomy,
every detail of character, revealed by an observa-
tion which has set its heart on being exact. Hence
the human mind has two simultaneous and legiti-
mate enjoyments — the delight which the soul feels
in suppressing time, extending space, opening
glimpses of the infinite, and the kind of fascina-
tion which is exercised on us by nature, thanks
to her unexpectedness, her sovereignty, her very
unreason, the impossibility which we feel in the
attempt to bring her all under the law of our
thoughts. There is nothing here that is great or
small, beautiful or ugly. It is the fact qua fact
which disturbs or attracts us, and we are grateful
to the artist who, by dint of his truthfulness,
acquaints us with new aspects of things.

George Eliot's style is not irreproachable. It
becomes, as has been observed, artificial by dint
of wisli to avoid the commonplace, and stiff by
dint of condensation of thought. Happily she has
divided herself in her novels, keeping clearness in
her narrative and naturalness in her dialogue, and
reserving loaded phrase and abstract terminology
for her reflections. The fan.lts of her didactic style


are, as it were, aggravated and crowded together in
the last work she published, certain "Characters,"
after the fashion of Theophrastus and La Brnyere,
a volume without grace and without taste, abso-
lutely out of place in the total of her work. The
finest and most perfect genius not only has its
limits, but its hidden vices ; the x^urest metal has
its alloy. "Felix Holt" is weak, the Jewish s,tory
in "Daniel Deronda" spoilt a novel which gave
promise of yielding to none of its forerunners,
and "Theophrastus Such" is simply unreadable.
Everything else, novel or short story, is a pure mas-
terpiece, and, as is proper to masterpieces, leaves
nothing to desire, and nothing to regret. The
name of Shakespeare has sometimes been uttered in
speaking of George Eliot, an hyperbole which
ceases to be shocking if we limit the terms of com-
parison to the creation of characters. But I had
rather indorse, though here also with the necessary
distinctions, the judgment of Lord Acton, that
George Eliot is the most considerable literary per-
sonality that has appeared since the death of

March 1885.

Typography by J. S. Gushing & Co., Boston.
Presswork by Berwick & Smith, Boston.

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