Edmond Henri Adolphe Scherer.

Essays on English literature; online

. (page 6 of 21)
Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 6 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


is shown by stories where the unexpectedness of
the situation is not obtained at any sacrifice of



64 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITERATURE

probability, and where the development of events
always proceeds from that of the characters. Be-
sides, George Eliot does not merely imagine sit-
uations ; she works them out, and the reader's
greatest surprise is to see the writer constantly ris-
ing to the height of the catastrophe which she has
brought about. She throws her characters into
tragic or delicate adventures, she makes explana-
tions imperative, she provokes a supreme crisis,
and she gets herself out of the difficulty with so
much ease, so much power, and so much nature,
that the reader is divided between the emotion pro-
duced by the story and the admiration challenged
by the writer's success. But this is not her only
superiority. In George Eliot description is never
there for its own sake, as happens in the produce
of inferior art. It is subordinate to the action,
which it frames and surrounds, and is none the less
full of traits which show an eye as well trained to
the observation of nature as to that of the human
heart. The dialogue, which in some very great
novelists is the weak place, which in their hands
so often misses truth and precision of shade, which
they make rather an occasion of putting forth ideas
and showing wit than a means of dramatic devel-
opment, is in George Eliot's novels always in its
right place. It is fitted to the characters ; it varies
with them ; it is now witty, now pathetic, it ex-
presses the most opposite sentiments, and renders
the most diverse individualities. And it does all



DANIEL DERONDA 55

this without effort, without ever striking a false
note, and as if this lady, who has actually lived a
life of retirement and work, had felt and under-
stood and gone through everything. It is not too
much to say that there is something Shakespearian
in this. And yet we have not come to the end of
the qualities which make our author the first of
contemporary novelists ; for it is in creating her
characters that she especially shows her genius.
There is not one of her works which has not be-
stowed upon the literature of her country some of
those figures which, once seen, abide in the mem-
ory of men, more real, more living, than the actual
heroes of history. Her sketches of women, as one
might expect, are especially wonderful ; and yet do
the characters of Tito and of Grandcourt come
much short of Maggie and of Eosamond ? Is there
not the same psychological profundity in them ?
Do we not perceive throughout the glance which
divines all motives, which lays bare all feelings,
and which would be more pitiless than remorse
itself if the author's penetration were not equalled
by her tenderness for human weakness and human
suffering ? George Eliot has created a kind in
which she will have no successor, because we shall
never again see the qualities of the thinker so com-
bined with those of the artist. Hers is the novel
of moral analysis. There is her speciality, there
her triumph. Story, description, reflection, dia-
logue — all in her writings is ancillary to the



66 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITERATURE

painting of the secret movements of the mind, to
the study of the human conscience ; while the
minuteness of her observation never hurts either
the vigorous realism of her writing, the personality
of her creations, or the passionate interest of her
drama.

I have as yet said nothing of George Eliot's
fashion of writing. Indeed, it is possible to ques-
tion whether this author has what we call a style.
Her narrative manner is so simple, and her dialogue
so natural, that we hardly notice in her the writer
properly so called. Even the wit and humor which
she scatters broadcast, the acuteness of her reflec-
tions, the felicity of her comparisons, the unex-
pectedness of her remarks, the tenderness or the
strength of her sentiment, never in any case sink,
with G-eorge Eliot, into passages written for effect.
In other words, you must not look, in her writings,
for the eloquent pages, the passages finished and,
so to speak, '^ hit off," that are met in, for instance,
George Sand. Her talent is more restrained, her
art more severe. On the other hand, we here ap-
proach a fault which is obvious in George Eliot's
later writings. Possessing great qualities of dic-
tion, and with uncommon and happy phrases at
will, this writer has for some time past taken to
the habit of condensing her thought and her ex-
pression to the point of obscurity. This happens
especially at the end of her chapters, when she
speaks in her own person and sums up her own



DANIEL DERONDA 67

reflections. Her pen then falls into a mixture of
abstract ideas and minutely detailed images in which
it is hard to seize the thought. This fault of taste,
unaccountable in so great a writer, had appeared
already as a blot on "Middlemarch"; it seems to me
a little less prominent in " Daniel Deronda." But
I cannot understand how there is no adviser of
sufficient au.thority at the writer's elbow to point
out to her boldly that she is in danger of entering
on a mistaken course. One would gladly cry out
to her, " Pray, what on earth are you thinking of ?
Why so many efforts when what is wanted is just
the contrary — straightforward language ? Why
close your ranks at mere cost of labor when you
ought rather to deploy ? Break the phrases you
are linking so painfully ! Divide the periods you
are so scientifically building up ! Let yourself float,
accomplished artist ! on the limpid and copious
style which only asks permission to flow from your
pen."

However, the fault of which I have just spoken
is but a blot which is easy to avoid or to efface ;
one feels that a mere warning would be enough to
make the author correct herself of it. It is not
quite the same, I fear, with a peculiarity of George
Eliot's intellectual and moral nature, which, after
having been one of the elements of her strength and
one of the causes of her success, threatens at the
present moment to damage her art and her work.
It is a curious thing, a paradox which we reject



68 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITEEATUEB

even when it forces itself on us with resistless
proof, but the writer's own superiority here turns
against her, and she is hurt by the strength of her
individuality. In saying this I am thinking more
particularly of George Eliot's new novel ; so I must
begin by giving the reader some notion of it.

In " Middlemarch " there were three stories, some-
what laboriously, but on the whole ingeniously,
welded together. In " Daniel Deronda " there are
two — two narratives which are simply placed side
by side ; two works differing in the kind of inter-
est which they are intended to arouse ; two novels,
in short, one of which is a failure, while the other
takes rank among George Eliot's finest creations.
The second of these novels, the one we should like
to separate from the other, is the history of Gwen-
dolen and Grandcourt. Some inconsistencies have
been detected in the outlining of these characters ;
but, on the whole, the author has certainly added
two original figures to the list of her masterpieces.
If she has elsewhere drawn others more complete,
stronger, more striking from their moral unity,
she has created none of such science and of such
depth. Here are two names henceforward familiar
to all those who read ; two beings whose life is in-
extricably mingled with ours ; two types to which
we shall involuntarily refer this personage and that
with whom we rub shoulders on the world's stage.

I can see Grandcourt before me as I write. I
recognize his pale face, his placid and disdainful



DANIEL DEEONDA 59

demeanor. Between his fingers is the eternal cigar, on
his lips the oath of ill-temper or the yawn of ennui.
A stranger to all moral life, he knows nothing of
men but their foibles and their follies ; and if he is
at any time in danger of being deceived, it will be
merely for want of understanding disinterested feel-
ings. A thorough blase, he has no pleasure left but
oppressing others ; the last enjoyment left to this
connoisseur is in ill-treating his dogs, giving pain
to his inferiors, tyrannizing over his wife, provoking
rebellion in order to crush it. There is meanness
under the elegant manners that are never "out,"
cruelty beneath this well-bred coldness, a monster
inside the correct and polished gentleman. Hatred
never was so self-restrained, ill-nature so well-
mannered. His impassibility as a tormentor, the
indifference of his persecution, the phlegm with
which he crushes a victim, give an impression of
power for evil such as literature did not before con-
tain. It is scarcely possible to lose our temper
with a man who never loses his own ; we feel that
it would give him an advantage ; his calm drives
one frantic, he is above the very horror which he
inspires. A terrible and an astonishing creation !

The portrait of G-wendolen is still more carefully
studied, and if it does not strike the reader so much,
it is because this character, as George Eliot con-
ceived it, involves a transformation so thorough as
to seem like an inconsistcDcy. Gwendolen possesses
the formidable power of beauty : she knows it : and



60 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITERATURE

she has early acquired the egotism which often accom-
panies the consciousness of recognized superiority.
Accustomed from her infancy to see her mother and
sisters the slaves of her caprices, she will carry
with her into society the assurance of victory, which
is one of its guarantees, the haughty grace which
is made more piquant by her spoilt-child's fancies,
her impatience, her very imprudence itself. She is
wilful, but purposelessly so ; ambitious, but with
no passionate desires : she asks nothing of life but
excitement, brilliant success, the intoxication of
flattery, the exercise of despotic power. And yet
Gwendolen's nature is not corrupt. Ignorant, frivo-
lous, worldly as she is, living and breathing as she
does for nothing but pleasure, she still possesses -a
kind of innocence. There is in her the germ of a
higher life which only waits for the contact of some
influence to shoot. It is this germination of the
ideal in the heart of a woman given up to society
that George Eliot has tried to paint. With a thor-
oughly feminine intuition, she has represented her
heroine as needing some attachment to quit com-
monplace life, and needing a man to serve her as
a conscience. She only begins to be dissatisfied
with herself wKlcu she recognizes the arbiter of her
existence in a strong and pure being. Alas ! this
moral revelation is not enough for our poor Gwen=
dolen; she needs, in addition, the hard school of
suffering. She marries Grandcourt to escape the
mediocrity of her fortune, and becomes the victim



DANIEL DEEOITOA 61

of a hateful tyrant. The picture of this hidden
agony is terrible. How powerfully does the author
show us the beauty, lately envied and worshipped, as
she is tamed, little by little, by the cold-blooded
ferocity of her husband ! She swallows her humil-
iations, she hates the wealth for which she has bar-
tered her soul ; she soon gives up a resistance
which she knows to be vain. Overcome by the
resentment which springs from forced hypocrisy
and by the hatred which springs from habitual
fear, aghast at this very hatred against whose
promptings she feels herself powerless, urged to
despair, and taking temporary refuge in the hope of
accidents that my free her, and so open a door of
escape from the promptings of revenge, she thus
in thought draws near to crime. Then, at last,
when Grandcourt one day falls overboard, she hesi-
tates to give him her hand or the rope that might
have saved him — hesitates for a second only, but
long enough for it to be too late, and then flings
herself after him in an agony of despair, remorse,
and horror. Even in the work of George Eliot
there are few things so powerful as this moral
tragedy. A little further, we shall find the author
trying (very much in vain to my thinking) to show
us a Gwendolen consoled, raised from tlae dust,
ready to seek the expiation of her faults and the
business of her life in good works. The Gwendolen
who is a sister of charity and the Lady Bountiful
o.f the neighboring schools is not the Gwendolen



62 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITERATURE

we have known. Her conversion almost necessa-
rily strikes a false note in the story, inasmuch as
it violates the logical consistency of human char,
acter. Conversion means the introduction of the
supernatural and the ascetic : elements which have
their place in moral therapeutics, but which are
rebellious towards art.

I repeat that the story of Gwendolen and Grand-
court takes its place beside the author's best work :
and that, if the character-drawing is not stronger, it
is at any rate subtler and more scientific. Gwendo-
len's conversation with Klesmer on her vocation as
an actress, her interview with Mirah when she
wishes to ascertain the truth of the rumors she has
heard about Deronda, the tragedy on board the
boat in the Gulf of Genoa, the good-byes and the
confessions at the moment of final separation, are
among the scenes, hard to manage, or even unman-
ageable, where the genius of George Eliot, compact
at once of tact and power, breaks out in all its
supremacy. There is, I am sorry to say, a lack
(save in some secondary characters, such as little
Jacob, Hans Meyrick, and Sir Hugo Mallinger) of
humor. We are in this respect far from the inimita-
ble creations of the early novels — Mrs. Poyser,poor
Mr. Tulliver, the Dodson sisters. We do not feel
in " Daniel Deronda " what the author herself has so
happily called " the pure enjoyment of comicality,"
the amusement which is produced by the sight of
innocent foibles, of candid vanity, of things absurd



DANIEL DERONDA 63

but not evil. The morbid anatomy of conscience,
in which the author seems to take more and more
pleasure, has in this instance saddened her pencil.
But once more, after allowing for all this, and after
reducing it to the persons and the things which I have
just mentioned, George Eliot's new novel remains
a very great and very strong thing. Unluckily, it
is mixed up with a secondary story, which is,
indeed, clearly distinguished and easily separable
from it, but which is its inferior in every way, and
the dead weight of which has dragged both itself and
its fellow to shipwreck. For a shipwreck I fear
there has been. The admiring partiality of the
English for their great novelist indeed refuses
to recognize any lessening of talent in "Daniel
Deronda " ; but it cannot help confessing that the
author has not succeeded in interesting the public
in "her Jews," that all the Israelitish part of the
book is wearisome — in short, that there is in it an
inexplicable error of taste and of judgment.

The Jewish romance which George Eliot has
cobbled on to the history of Gwendolen is composed
of certain historical and philosophical theories
personified in some half-dozen Hebrews ; but the
theories are vague, and the personages have no
individuality. I cannot recall in the preceding
works of George Eliot anything like the feature-
lessness of the characters she has drawn here. It
is evident that the author has taken every care,
has used every exertion, to interest us in Daniel



64 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITERATURE

Deronda, in Mirah, and in Mordecai, and it is pain-
ful to see that her pains have been so entirely-
wasted. Mordecai is a mere visionary, who fails
to win us over to his schemes, because he never
explains them, and because the little we can divine
is childish. Mirah may be charming ; but we have
to take the author's word for it, inasmuch as,
though she tells us so, she never gives proof of the
fact, and has not been able to make anything of
the character but a kind of wax doll which will say
" papa " and " mamma " if bidden. As for Deronda,
who gives his name to the book, and clearly ought
to be its hero, he is an intolerable kind of Grandison,
with a moral always on his lips, a humanitarian
crotchet always in his head, one of those beings
who are doubtless required for the accomplishment
of all sorts of useful tasks, but whom we should be
very sorry to meet in the world — beings as tedious
as they are estimable, as teasing as they are blame-
less. Besides, how describe the mental state of a
man who cannot hide his delight when he learns
that, instead of being an Englishman, as he has
hitherto believed, he is of Jewish birth ! As lief a
Jew as anything else, if you like. The wise man
attaches but relative importance to matters which
do not depend on ourselves. But why this par-
ticular rapture at finding oneself a member of a
scattered natioii, a descendant of a race doomed to
be merged in others, as many nobler nations have
been doomed also ? One thing ought to have



DANIEL DEEONDA 65

warned the author that her ideas on Judaism were
false — to wit, that she herself has not managed or
has not dared to give clear expression to them any-
where. She has left them in the hopeless vague-
ness of Mordecai's rhapsodies. The only clue to be
found on this point is in a passage where it is said
that every Jewish family ought to regard itself as
fated to give birth to the Liberator ; and in another,
according to which the people of G-od are to be
reassembled and reconstituted in the ancient Prom-
ised Land. But what ground has an author for
risking views or nourishing hopes like these ? Can
it be the Old Testament prophecies ? Does George
Eliot share the belief of those fanatical and narrow-
minded millenarians to be met with now and then
among Protestants, who, on the strength of certain
texts, imagine that Jerusalem will become the
queen of all nations and the centre of the world ?
Nothing of the kind, for George Eliot is one of the
freest thinkers of our time, one of those most dis-
embarrassed of all theological hypothesis. So that
we have here before us the interesting contradic-
tion of a writer who rejects the supernatural ele-
ment in the belief of the Jews, and yet pleads for
the re-establishment of a people whose nationality
consists precisely in this belief. We cannot help
asking one another what she means — whether
Judaism Eestored will re-establish the temple of
Jehovah and renew the sacrifice of bulls and sheep,
or whether it is to be a rationalized Judaism, the



66 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITERATURE

Chosen People without its sacred books, without
its institution, witliout its faith — in short, without
everything which has given it existence and char-
acter. These reflections supply at the same time
an answer to an argument by which George Eliot's
mind has evidently been haunted. Struck by cer-
tain great facts of recent history, astonished at
the force which the sentiment of nationality has
suddenly exerted as an historical influence, brood-
ing over the instances of Germany and of Italy, she
asked herself why the principle in question should
not avail the scattered children of Israel, and failed
to perceive that the case of the Jews is altogether
peculiar. Of the four elements of nationality —
community of race, community of religion, com-
munity of language, and community of territory —
they lack the two last wholly, and the second itseK
is at this moment much more a memory than an
effectual and living belief.

It is well said by Sir Hugh Mallinger, one of the
characters of the novel, when he cries out as De-
ronda begins to set forth his views on Judaism,
"For heaven's sake, don't be eccentric! I can put
up with differences of opinion : all I ask is that peo-
ple will inform me of them without giving them-
selves lunatic airs." But this is the exact charge
I bring against Deronda. This young fellow, who
is set before us as at once a model of self-devotion
and of good sense, is the slave of a chimera, and
of the most uninteresting chimera that imagination



DANIEL DEHONDA 67

ever created. I must dwell on this absence of in-
terest ; for, in fact, it is the root of the matter. If
these visons on the destinies of the Jewish people
are to interest tis, they must present either lively
strokes of manners, or else some genial conception.
The writer would have been entitled to give them
a place in her story if the beliefs in question were
deeply and distinctively characteristic of Jewish
life in the nineteenth century ; but we all know
that they are nothing of the kind. That being so,
she should have confined herself to giving her
views on the subject in the piquant shape of a per-
sonal paradox. In its actual form, the Jewish
episode of "Daniel Deronda " remains one of the
most inexplicable mistakes into which a great
writer has ever fallen.

In consequence, no admirer of George Eliot has
failed, as he read her new novel, to ask himself the
question, " Must we note here a beginning of deca-
dence ? Can it be that the vein, hitherto so abun-
dant and well-sustained, is beginning to dry up ?
Can the talent of this incomparable lady be in its
decline ? " For my part, I do not formulate the
problem quite thus : for there might be a failure
here, and yet it need not be a proof of lessened
strength. Besides, as I have said, there are to be
found in "Daniel Deronda" characters, scenes,
strokes, which yield in no respect to those which
made the reputation of the earlier work. But one
thing: seems to me undeniable : that certain distinc-



68 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITERATURE

tive elements in George Eliot's genius have at last
got the upper hand, and have disturbed the balance
of her faculties. She has, as constantly happens,
qualities which have become defects. The charm
of her work springs in great part from a certain
depth of thought ; a resigned and paticDt sense of
the conditions of human life ; a morality which is at
once lofty and kindly, at once implacable in analy-
sis and pardoning much because it comprehends all.
George Eliot is an idealist enamoured of good, a
philosopher interested in ideas, and a consummate
artist all in one — an artist unequalled in creative
genius and in plastic force. This co-existence, in
the same writer, of the artist and the savant is not
so rare as may be thought. The work and life of
Goethe exhibit the two forces engaged in a singu-
larly interesting conflict, and our own literature
gives us at this very moment more than one similar
example. The misfortune is that one of the two
tendencies almost always ends by dominating and
stifling the other. The writer leans more and more
to the side to which his inclination tends. Here is
an historian and a philologer, devoted, as it seemed,
to bare learning, who, nevertheless, breaks, when no
one expects it, the bonds of his business and his
appointed task, and lets us hear the marvellous
accents of fantasy which were thought to be dead
within him. There is another who, on the other
hand, had early gained the public ear by the bold-
ness of his paradoxes and the vigor of his style,



DANIEL DERONDA 69

but in whom a taste for formulas has little by little
destroyed all attraction of form.^ Such is also, I
fear, the explanation of "Daniel Deronda." The
author's taste for ideas carries her into theorizing ;
her attention to morality turns into purposed didac-
ticism ; she introduces political and social views
into her novels without restraint, and, finally, the
desire of exactitude in her mind produces in her
style an intensity of expression which passes into
obscurity. And all this turns to the great injury
of her art. For art lives not by ideas, but by sen-
timents, I had almost said by sensations : it is
instinctive, it is naif, and it is by direct and uncon-
sidered expression that it communicates with real-
ity. Among all the contradictions of which life is
made up, there is none more constant than this — -
that there is no great art without philosophy, and
that yet there is no more dangerous enemy of art
than reflection.
January 1877.

1 [I think, but am not certain, that M. Scherer is here refer-
ring to MM. Renan and Taine. — Trans-I



V
TAINE'S HISTORY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE i

This is a book the like of wMch is not often seen
nowadays : a book boldly conceived, slowly ripened,
patiently worked out — a mighty work in which
there are to be at once recognized the thought
which dominates facts, the inspiration which ani-
mates style, the will which accomplishes great
undertakings. I could not feel that I had set my-
self right with M. Taine if, before all discussion, I


1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 6 of 21)