George Eliot.

Essays and reviews of George Eliot not hitherto reprinted; together with an introductory essay on the genius of George Eliot by Mrs. S. B. Herrick online

. (page 1 of 19)
Online LibraryGeorge EliotEssays and reviews of George Eliot not hitherto reprinted; together with an introductory essay on the genius of George Eliot by Mrs. S. B. Herrick → online text (page 1 of 19)
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IT is said that George Eliot spent years of her literary life
in translating, and in writing review articles, before she
ventured upon a creation of her own. Her first appearance as
an author was made in " Blackwood's Magazine." She there
published three stories of English rural life, called " Scenes
in Clerical Life." Their literary merit was at once acknowl-
edged ; but they did not attract the attention which they
merited until she had made herself famous in her second
work, " Adam Bede."

Perhaps no book of fiction, since the days of the Great
Unknown, has attracted so much attention, and been the
subject of such universal discussion, as this first novel by
George Eliot. Before the nom de plume had vanished in the
light of eager inquiry, she was claimed as a man by men,
and as a woman by women. She seems to us to be the only
woman, in all the wide range of fictitious literature, who has
drawn a genuine, manly man one who is manly in his faults
as well as in his virtues.

It seems given to the noblest and most gifted of each sex
to possess so large and inclusive a humanity, as to be a repre-
sentative of both man and woman. Where do we find a
more exquisite tenderness, tact, and refinement, than in the
highest type of man; and where a more noble courage, a
deeper sense of truth and honor, than in the noblest of
women ? George Eliot truly possesses an intellect which is


so far above ordinary womanhood as to include the strength
and grasp, the critical acumen and large outlook of a man,
with the tenderness and purity of a woman.

We are told that God said, "Let us make man in our
image, after our likeness .... So God created man in his
own image, in the image of God created he him ; male and
female created he them." The divine nature, then, must
include within itself both the masculine and feminine attri-
butes. The higher nature is, and the more fully it is devel-
oped, if the moral growth be co-ordinate with the intellectual,
the more godlike will it be, and the more certainly will it
escape from the limitations of ignorance, of conventionality
and finally of sex itself.

Naturalists tell us that every organ and every member
which is fully developed in the higher animal is possessed in
a rudimentary condition by the lower. The organism of man
shows the same members, in a high state of development,
which we find in the lower vertebrates. The hand of man,
with its wonderful capabilities and exquisite adaptability to
an infinite variety of labor and uses, is but a full expression
of the idea suggested in the fin of the fish, the hoof of the
horse, the wing of the bat, and the paddle of the mole.
Every bone which gives the power of grasp and flexibility,
so necessary in supplying the needs of his higher existence,
is found in the lower in a modified form. The whole natural
world is pointing, by successive and increasingly perfect or-
ganisms, to man, the crowning glory of the animal kingdom.
He possesses powers which, in their just proportion and har-
monious co-ordination, are far beyond the physical powers of
the brute. Though he is less strong than the lion, less agile
than the monkey ; though his hearing is less acute, and his
vision less sensitive than those of the insect and the bird,
yet he is far beyond them all in his powers of self-protection,
self-development, and progress. This is because his powers
are so adjusted to each other, and so co-ordinated with that
higher spiritual being which constitutes him man, as to pro-
duce the most perfect result. The soul and mind of man are


made in the image of God. In the more wretched and de-
graded members of the human family, we see the germs
folded, the power and faculties latent ; but who will say, in
the light of missionary enterprise, that the soul is wanting in
any race of men ? It only lies dormant, waiting the awaken-
ing touch of divine truth. As we go from the lower to the
higher forms of human life, we see, as we do in the analogous
forms of animal existence, a life which approaches nearer
and nearer to the divine type. The spiritual world points no
less unerringly to the perfect and divine prototype.

In the true artist, whether his creations be by the aid of
pen or pencil, by the chisel of the sculptor, or the fingers of
the musician, the work is creative, the attitude is godlike.
The divine power of imagination is at work ; and the world is
receiving beauty, wrought from the very life of the artist.
There are a few, a very few, who deserve the title of artist in
this high sense. The man who may rightfully lay claim to
such a title must possess the gift, not only of seeing the
truth and rendering it, but he must also have that all-com-
prehensive glance, and that vitalizing power, which is rather
a spiritual than an intellectual faculty. He must lay under
contribution all the physical beauty of earth and sea and sky,
besides all the subtler moral beauty of tenderness and hero-
ism and devotion. When such men do bless the earth, they
are cosmopolitan, and can be claimed exclusively by no age
and no country. They are heaven-born souls, who have only
made some unworthy spot of earth their abiding-place for a
little time. The birthplace of a genius like this may well
be proud that it was chosen for such a manifestation ; but it
cannot claim him as its own. The world is his home, and
mankind his compatriots.

Into this noble army, how many women have ever been
admitted, or how few ! It is strange that the world has seen
almost no creative mind among women. The apology which
is always offered for the inferiority of women, in every branch
of severe intellectual labor, cannot be offered here. The cul-
tivation of art has always been considered eminejitly proper


for her sex. The most stringent conservative does not imag-
ine that a woman must overstep her allotted sphere in order
to excel in art. The facilities for artistic training, which
have been open to women during the last two centuries, are
certainly greater than those possessed by the men of earlier
times. We confess to a deeply rooted scepticism in regard to
"mute inglorious Miltons" of either sex. There is some-
thing in the essence of genius which compels it to express
itself, even if it perish in the expression. But when we do
see this high order of creative talent among women, we hail
it with delight. George Eliot has vindicated the divine
right of her sex, if it needed vindication. In the estimation
of the best critics of England and America, she has no supe-
rior, we had almost said no peer, in her own province,
among living artists.

It would be worth our while to examine carefully the char-
acter of her mind and the method of her working. She is,
perhaps, the truest and highest exponent of the age in which
we live. She is essentially modern in her mode of thought ;
and yet, in spite of this quality, she has given us one of the
most vivid pictures of past days which can be found in liter-
ature. She is intensely modern ; but, more than that, deep
down in the recesses of her nature, she is still more intensely
human. The loves and joys, the disappointment and anguish,
of antique Florentine life, are made to glow with vitality and
beauty by the magic of her pen. The human heart, which
throbs in all the ages, and under the garbs of those old times,
appeals to, and finds a response in, the common humanity of
the present. There is a charm about old times, old customs,
old habits of thought and mode of life, which appeals to the
aesthetic in all of us. The great trouble with most writers
is that they make all which is old partake of the nature of a
fossil, and that is not interesting. Fossils are very excellent
things in their way, but they must be genuine bits of ancient
existence, not the result of a modern fossil manufactory.
Pictures of a life which has passed away with the rolling
centuries can never be painted from nature ; and it is only the


most vivid and powerful imagination which should attempt
to cope with the difficulties in the way of their reproduction.
When such an imagination does give us a picture of the olden
time, it possesses an indescribable charm. We look back
upon the strange, fantastic garbs, the curious inexplica-
ble customs of past times, with a sense of being alien and
astray, until we are made to feel that the same joys and
sorrows stir the hearts, beating under those odd vestments,
which move our own ; and that the same human eyes, shining
with joy or shaded with sorrow, are looking at us from under
the quaint head-dresses, which we see in the faces of our
friends and of our children. We give our recognition with
something of the heart-leap with which we greet an old ac-
quaintance in a foreign land, and which proclaims, in silent
but eloquent language, that we are all of one kin.

Look at Kingsley's "Hypatia" and " Amyas Leigh." One
is never tired of returning again and again to them, and is
rewarded each time by discovering new beauties. Beauty
true, noble beauty never palls, but rather becomes more
lovely in our eyes, as it is softened and hallowed by the clus-
tering of tender associations around it. Shall we look but
once at a beautiful picture, and never feel the desire to see it
again ? Shall we hear only once exquisite music, and be for-
ever satisfied because, forsooth, we know what is coming?
Shall we look once on a glorious landscape, and the eye never
again be thirsty to drink in delight from the same source ?
Can our souls vibrate but once to any beauty, which reaches
it through any channel, and then be forever afterward
mute ?

It must be that the motive which impels the public to the
enjoyment of any work of art, is generally a restless desire
to be amused ; not any deep love of truth or beauty, or it
would not go away so soon filled. It is the highest order
of creations alone which can bear the test of time, of differ-
ent nationalities, and different creeds. There is only a giant
here and there, who has infused into his work the exhaustless
vitality which keeps it alive, though, in the mean time, em-


pires have risen, flourished, and sunk into decay ; though
generation after generation has been born, lived out its little
day of joy and anguish, and then passed away forgotten,
while it goes forward rejoicing in its eternal youth, and find-
ing a home wherever beats a human heart. Into such works
a man must have cast his very soul. There is nothing but
life, freed from its shackles and its human limitations, which
causes a work of art to live such a life as this, adapting itself
to the requirements and needs of every new phase of ex-
istence, and amid all changes reappears

" Forever lovely and forever young."

George Eliot possesses this creative power of imagination.
Her characters are never imaginative beings to our minds,
they are people. We are no more afraid of confounding them,
one with another, than we are of forgetting which is which
in the circle of our friends. Each character preserves its
individuality in our memories. She does not find it neces-
sary to resort to the cheap expedient of putting an invariable
form of words or mode of expression into the mouths of
her dramatis persona;, as a sort of mechanical make-shift,
which shall do duty for a higher kind of individuality. This
expedient, which is not entirely unknown among good writ-
ers, is painfully suggestive to us of our juvenile attempts at
sketching, with the essential addition of a label below to
prevent mistakes, and does not indicate high art.

Her earlier works were almost too dazzling to be effective.
It is not the best and truest art which forever stimulates the
imagination, and keeps the wits constantly on the qui vive.
There is sometimes a sense of pain at the profusion of good
things she spreads before us. We feel that such prodigality
is the prophet of coming want. It is not possible to enjoy
everything at once; the mind requires quiet intervals, in
which it may assimilate what has been given it. Without
these intervals of rest, neither body nor mind, nor our aes-
thetic faculties, can attain their most perfect development.
The grossest form of the error into which an exuberant im-


agination, and a memory teeming with rich material are hur-
ried, is the sensational novel. George Eliot has a mind too
full of high thoughts and a heart too full of noble purposes
to prostitute her art. These qualities have expressed them-
selves in her maiden efforts by a tracery which occasionally
is too rich to allow the design to show itself to full advan-
tage, by an ornamentation which a little obscures the general
design. There is never anything turgid in language, or high-
flown in illustration, or exaggerated in sentiment, only many
touches of color here and there, which, though admirable in
themselves, mar the purity of the design. We are bewil-
dered at the brilliancy of the display. It is a fault if it
may be called a fault at all of a too exuberant fancy, of
an imagination which cannot contain itself, but must over-
flow and enrich everything around it.

Have we not all felt, in the presence of some great beauty,
a sense of pain at the limitations in ourselves ? Have we not
all sighed to see the great ocean of delight stretching out be-
fore us, at the consciousness that we had only one little pint-
cup of capacity to fill ? Not that we want more from any
greedy desire of appropriation, but that it is a pain to think
of the dreary stretches of life, barren of all the loveliness
which is so lavishly spread before us. Each one of us has,
at times, as the journey of life lay over the desert, felt the
very soul parching with thirst ; and then the consciousness
that one drop of all this wasted delight would cool the tongue,
has become a pang amid the pleasures of memory. The es-
sence of every bygone pain is, indeed, not so much memory,
as it is the prophecy which it holds within itself of a possible
future like it. What is the minor tone, which softens and
sobers the most exquisite delight of earth, but this memory
of past sorrow, which casts its vague but lengthening shadow
across the future ?

Our author is learning a truer economy as she is gaining a
riper and fuller development. It is a noble thrift, after all,
where all go away filled, and yet care is taken that nothing
be wasted. A comparison of " Scenes in Clerical Life," or


"Adam Bede," with " Middlemarch," will show what we are
aiming to illustrate. In " Adam Bede," for instance, there is
more incident, more description of external life, more charac-
ters, more pointed sayings, detachable from the main current
of the story, than there is in " Middlemarch ; " and yet there
is just half as much writing. " Adam Bede " is sparkling and
scintillating from beginning to end with bits of pathos and
humor, with occasions for laughter and tears. But in " Mid-
dlemarch " there is a more perfect development of character,
a closer analysis of feeling, and a more noble repose than
we find in her earlier works. It is hard to say which is the
finer book. Each has its own peculiar merits and its own
individual blemishes.

We lay down this great work from the pen of George Eliot
in anything but a critical mood. It invites criticism more
decidedly as we read it in detached portions, and disarms it
more completely when we consider it as a finished whole,
than do any of her previous productions. Without repeat-
ing herself in plot or character, we feel that her mind is be-
coming every year more deeply set in its original mould.
She has lived a real, earnest, intense life, such a life as
leaves deep traces behind it. The sufferings of the very least
and meanest of God's creatures find a response in the great
human heart, that beats under the keen analytic power of
the mental philosopher and the quick-sighted discrimination
of the critic.

" Adam Bede " is in no sense crude ; it is from the pen of
a trained writer, from one who was skilled in analysis, and
trained in style, by her earlier literary efforts. It has, in this
way, missed the faults of " first novels ; " but it is a younger
book than " Middlemarch ; " it shows a fuller appreciation of
outward life, a keener enjoyment of its external conditions,
but not the same chastened and purified soul. We see the
same clear-sighted vision and even-handed justice, but not
the large-hearted sympathy, that comes from a bitter struggle
with self which has ended in victory. She possessed the
same object, first as last ; but she had not estimated the pub-


lie, with which she had to deal, quite correctly. The same
deep, significant lesson is taught in "Adam Bede," which
rang out in such unmistakable tones in " Romola." It is the
lesson which is generally taught, not by books, but by the
noble and lovely lives which are lived around us, the les-
son that there is just one thing on earth which is worth the
seeking, and that is, the Right.

The lesson taught in the character of Arthur Donnithorne
is, that there is one, and only one, safeguard against baseness
and dishonor, and that this safeguard is a supreme love of
virtue, a high moral principle, which cannot be tampered
with. No magnanimity, no natural generosity, no sweetness
of temper or desire to please, is of a texture strong enough to
bear the stress of temptation. The whole fabric of the story
is so inwoven with the moral purpose that it is entirely
inseparable ; and so the moral purpose is, to some extent,
missed by some readers. It is not the first time that the
moral of a fable has been missed by the public, because the
judicious precaution was omitted of stating it in succinct form
as an addendum. But her purpose lay too deep in her heart
to admit of any uncertainty as to its results ; her message
must be given to the world, and it was delivered with an
accent that no one could miss, in the delineation of the beau-
tiful Greek in " Komola." We consider that her power cul-
minated in "Eomola;" the exuberance of life is present,
but the slower measure is reached.

Her novels are not the favorites of young, ardent souls,
untouched by the troubles of life and unchastened by its disci-
pline. It is only suffering, and suffering which has been a
discipline, that can attune a soul to respond to the vibrations
of her music. The story in her books is like the narration of
a real life, the incidents are always subordinate to the results.
The progress which we follow, with ever-increasing interest,
is the progress of a soul toward perfection, not the progress
of a plot toward completion. The issues are moral issues;
the crises, spiritual crises ; and the culmination of interest
consists, not in some well-laid scheme crowned with success,


or some happy marriage consummated, but in the victory of a
noble soul over the powers of darkness. The happiness
which is reached is of that deep, sure nature which can be
ruffled only on the surface by any of earth's disappointments,
trials, or sufferings.

There is manifested all through her works a passionate
sympathy with joy and sorrow, with struggle, and even with
failure. There is never a touch of the Pharisee in her. She
has felt that there are moments in every battle when the
result hangs trembling in the balance, even though it may
turn on the side of victory. Though she recognizes, with the
utmost clearness, the truth that victory is not the result of
chance, yet those moments have taught her to look upon de-
feat with a large indulgence. She looks at things as they
are in their own just proportions, not as they seem in rela-
tion to her own thoughts and prejudices. There is a curi-
ously impersonal character in her writings, because she
stands only as the interpreter of her own creations ; and yet
there is the deep personality pervading them which must
characterize the fruit of every living soul. They are her
children, bone of her bone, and flesh of her flesh ; and yet
they maintain, each and every one, an individuality, intact
and impregnable.

There is no peculiarity which more truly characterizes our
great novelists than the presence or absence of this conscious
personality in their writings. For instance, Dickens threw
himself into his work with a self-forgetful ardor, which has
made the least prominent of his dramatis personce men and
women to us. It is said that when he wrote he shut himself
in alone, and yielded himself up utterly to the spell of en-
chantment which he was weaving for the world. He forgot
to eat and to sleep. He laughed and wept over the humor-
ous and pathetic scenes he was delineating. The life he
depicts passes before him like a panoramic view. He is
conscious of himself only as a passive spectator, and feels
that his work is to translate for the world what already
exists in his own imagination. How often we feel inclined


to say, when we meet an odd, or grotesque, or genial-
looking figure, "That man has just stepped out of Dick-
ens." As if Dickens had created a little world of his
own, whose inhabitants interchanged occasional civilities
with ourselves. His writings are sparkling and rippling
over with an exuberance of life ; and yet, where is Charles
Dickens ?

Then we turn to Charles Eeade, a writer who stands de-
servedly high in fictitious literature, and who has never been
surpassed in a certain dramatic power. He shows us a won-
derful picture : but he is always there himself, pointing out
a beauty here and a deformity there ; joining in the derisive
scorn, which he bespeaks from his audience, for every ignoble
and vicious quality ; not forgetting to add his applause at
every touch of tenderness or nobleness. He is always sure
to be there, standing with his discriminating pointer between
us and his own creations.

Again, Anthony Trollope, who is undoubtedly a man of
great talent, close in his analysis of motives, true in his in-
sight, discriminating in his praise or blame, is only a photog-
rapher of a very high order. He possesses the artistic sense
which makes him choose his subjects well; which directs
him in his arrangement of color and selection of pose ; but,
after all, it wants the divine spark of imagination to make it
true art. He seems to recognize this, for he keeps himself
modestly in the background, as a photographer should.

George Eliot is utterly unlike Dickens, and yet they are
nearly enough on the same plane to admit of comparison.
She possesses the same wonderfully acute observation, which
enables her to enrich her writings with touches of nature,
bits of description, and hints of exquisite sentiment, which
we find in Dickens. She is far more analytic and intro-
verted, and less genial and laughter-loving than Dickens.
Under the pathos of Dickens is the ripple of laughter. Un-
der her wit or humor, or that which partakes of the nature
of both, and yet is neither, is the recognition of all the
misery and sin in the world. She is the exponent, in the


world of fiction, of that spirit of the nineteenth century
which has been so well described by another. " Christianity
ended," says the writer referred to, "by producing that
peculiar passion for self-analysis, that rage for the anat-
omy of emotion, and that reverence for the individual
soul, which was almost entirely unknown to the ancient
world. ... If we were now asked roughly to define what we
mean by the Spirit of the Age, we should say the genius of
the nineteenth century is analytic. There is hardly any-
thing on earth which Goethe the very incarnation of mod-
ern culture has not done something toward analyzing.
Scientific research has taken complete possession of the
unexplored regions of the physical world. Kant and Hegel
have endeavored to define the limits of pure reason. Swe-

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Online LibraryGeorge EliotEssays and reviews of George Eliot not hitherto reprinted; together with an introductory essay on the genius of George Eliot by Mrs. S. B. Herrick → online text (page 1 of 19)