George Willis Cooke.

George Eliot; a Critical Study of Her Life, Writings & Philosophy online

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_Rationalism in Europe_. Her criticisms in _Theophrastus Such_ were
penetrating and severe.

For the same reason, she read few works of contemporary fiction, that her
mind might not be biassed and that she might not be discouraged in her own
work. Always busy with some special subject which absorbed all her time and
strength, she could give little attention to contemporary literature. To
one correspondent she wrote, -

My constant groan is, that I must leave so much of the greatest writing
which the centuries have sifted for me, unread for want of time.

The style adopted by George Eliot is for the most part fresh, vital and
energetic. It is pure in form, rich in illustrations, strong and expressive
in manner. There are exceptions to this statement, it is true, and she is
sometimes turgid and dry, again gaudy and verbose. Sententious in her
didactic passages, she is pure and noble in her sentiment, poetical and
impressive in her descriptions of nature. Her diction is choice, her range
of expression large, and she admirably suits her words to the thought she
would present. There is a rich, teeming fulness of life in her books, the
canvas is crowded, there is movement and action. An abundance of passion,
delicate feeling and fine sensibility is expressed.

The critics have almost universally condemned the plots of George Eliot's
novels for their want of unity. They tell us that the flow of events is
often not orderly, while improbable scenes are introduced, superfluous
incidents are common, the number of characters is too great, and the
analysis of character impedes the unity of events. These objections are not
always vital, and sometimes they are mere objections rather than genuine
criticisms. Instances of failure to follow the best methods may be cited in
abundance, one of which is seen in the first two chapters in _Daniel
Deronda_ being placed out of their natural order. The opening scenes in
_The Spanish Gypsy_ seem quite unnecessary to the development of the plot,
while the last two scenes of the second book are so fragmentary and
unconnected with the remainder of the story as to help it but little. In
the middle of _Adam Bede_ are several chapters devoted to the birthday
party, which are quite unnecessary to the development of the action.
_Daniel Deronda_ contains two narratives which are in many respects almost
entirely distinct from each other, and the reader is made to alternate
between two worlds that have little in common. There is much of the
improbable in the account of the Transome estate in _Felix Holt_, while the
closing scenes in the life of Tito Melema in _Romola_ are more tragical
than natural. Yet these defects are incidental to her method and art rather
than actual blemishes on her work. For the most part, her work is
thoroughly unitary, cause leads naturally into effect, and there is a moral
development of character such as is found in life itself. Her plots are
strongly constructed, in simple outlines, are easily comprehended and kept
in mind, and the leading motive holds steadily through to the end. Her
analytical method often makes an apparent interruption of the narrative,
and the unity of purpose is frequently developed through the philosophic
purport of the novel rather than in its literary form. Direct narrative is
often hindered, it is true, by her habit of studying the remote causes and
effects of character, but she never wanders far enough to forget the real
purpose had in view. She holds the many elements of her story well under
command, she concentrates them upon some one aim, and she gives to her
story a tragic unity of great moral splendor and effect. Even the diverse
elements, the minute side-studies and the profuse comments, are all woven
into the organic structure, and are essential to the unfoldment of the
plot. They seem to be quite irrelevant interruptions until we look back
upon the completed whole and study the perfected intent of the story. Then
we see how essential they are to the epic finish of the novel, and to that
total effect which a work of genius creates. Then it is seen that a
dramatic unity and well-studied intent hold together every part and make a
completed structure of great beauty.

Her dramatic skill is great, and her dialogues thoroughly good. Her
characters are full of power and life, and stand out as distinct
personalities. The conversation is sprightly, strong and wise. Probably no
novelist has created so many clearly cut, positive, intensely personal
characters as George Eliot, and this individualism is depicted as acting
within social and hereditary limits; hence dramatic action is constantly
arising. Shakspere and Browning only surpass her in dramatic power, as in
the creation of character. Yet her method of producing character differs
essentially from that of Shakspere, Homer and all the great creators. She
describes character, while they present it. Homer gives no description of
Helen; but of her beauty and her person we learn all the more because we
are left to find them out from the influence they produce. We know Hamlet
because he lives before us, and impresses his personality upon every
feature of the great drama in which he appears. George Eliot's manner is to
describe, to minutely portray, and to dissect to the last muscle and nerve.

She has also a rich and racy humor, sensitive and sober, refined and
delicate. She does not caricature folly with Dickens, or laugh at weakness
with Thackeray; but she shows us the limitations of life in such a manner
as to produce the finest humor. She is never repulsive, grotesque or
vulgar; but wise, laughter-loving and sympathetic. Her humor is pure and
homely as it is delicate and exquisite; and it is invariably human and
noble. She has an intense love and a wonderful appreciation of the
ludicrous, sees whatever is incongruous In life, and makes her laughter
genial and joyous. Her humor is the very quintessence of human experience,
strikes deadly blows at what is unjust and untrue. It is both intellectual
and moral, as Professor Dowden suggests. "The grotesque in human character
is reclaimed from the province of the humorous by her affections, when that
is possible, and is shown to be a pathetic form of beauty. Her humor
usually belongs to her entire conception of character, and cannot be
separated from it." She laughs at all, but sneers at no one, - for she has
keen sympathy with all.

George Eliot is not so good a satirist as she is humorist. Her humor is as
fresh and delightful as a morning in May, but her satire is nearly always
labored. She is too much in sympathy with human nature to laugh at its
follies and its weaknesses. Its joys, its bubbling humor and delight she
can appreciate, as well as all the pain and sorrow that come to men and
women; and she can fully enter into the life of her characters of every
kind, and portray their inmost motives and impulses; but the foibles of the
world she cannot treat in the vein of the satirist. In her earlier books
she is said to have been under the influence of Thackeray, but her satire
is heavy, and lacks his light touch and his tender undertone of compassion.
Here is a good specimen of her earlier attempts to be satirical:

When a man is happy enough to win the affections of a sweet girl, who
can soothe his cares with crochet, and respond to all his most
cherished ideas with beaded urn-rugs and chair-covers in German wool,
he has, at least, a guarantee of domestic comfort, whatever trials may
await him out of doors. What a resource it is under fatigue and
irritation to have your drawing-room well supplied with small mats,
which would always be ready if you ever wanted to set anything on them!
And what styptic for a bleeding heart can equal copious squares of
crochet-work, which are useful for slipping down the moment you touch
them? [Footnote: Janet's Repentance, chapter III.]

Similar to this is the account of Mrs. Pullett's grief.

It is a pathetic sight and a striking example of the complexity
Introduced into the emotions by a high state of civilization - the
sight of a fashionably dressed female in grief. From the sorrow
of a Hottentot to that of a woman in large buckram sleeves, with
several bracelets on each arm, an architectural bonnet, and delicate
ribbon-strings - what a long series of gradations! In the enlightened
child of civilization the abandonment characteristic of grief is
checked and varied in the subtlest manner, so as to present an
interesting problem to the analytic mind. If, with a crushed heart and
eyes half-blinded by the mist of tears, she were to walk with a too
devious step through a door-place, she might crush her buckram sleeves,
too, and the deep consciousness of this possibility produces a
composition of forces by which she takes a line that just clears the
door-post. Perceiving that the tears are hurrying fast, she unpins her
strings and throws them languidly backward - a touching gesture,
indicative, even in the deepest gloom, of the hope in future dry
moments when cap-strings will once more have a charm. As the tears
subside a little, and with her head leaning backward at an angle that
will not injure her bonnet, she endures that terrible moment when
grief, which has made all things else a weariness, has itself become
weary; she looks down pensively at her bracelets, and adjusts their
clasps with that pretty studied fortuity which would be gratifying to
her mind if it were once more in a calm and healthy state. [Footnote:
Mill on the Floss, chapter VII.]

In her later books the strained efforts at satire are partially avoided,
and though the satirical spirit is not withdrawn in any measure, yet it is
more delicately managed. It is less open, less blunt, but hardly more
subtle and penetrative. It is still a strained effort, and it is quite too
hard and bare in statement. We are told in _Middlemarch_ that

Mrs. Bulstrode's _na√ѓve_ way of conciliating piety and worldliness, the
nothingness of this life and the desirability of cut glass, the
consciousness at once of filthy rags and the best damask, was not a
sufficient relief from the weight of her husband's invariable
seriousness.

Such a turning of sentiment into satire as the following is rather jarring,
and is a good specimen of that "laborious smartness," as Mr. R.H. Hutton
justly calls it, which is found in all of George Eliot's books: -

Young love-making - that gossamer web! Even the points it clings to - the
things whence its subtile interlacings are swung - are scarcely
perceptible: momentary touches of finger-tips, meetings of rays from
blue and dark orbs, unfinished phrases, lightest changes of cheek and
lip, faintest tremors. The web itself is made of spontaneous beliefs
and indefinable joys, yearnings of one life toward another, visions of
completeness, indefinite trust. And Lydgate fell to spinning that web
from his inward self with wonderful rapidity, in spite of experience
supposed to be finished off with the drama of Laure - in spite, too, of
medicine and biology; for the inspection of macerated muscle or of eyes
presented in a dish (like Santa Lucia's), and other incidents of
scientific inquiry, are observed to be less incompatible with poetic
love than a native dulness or a lively addiction to the lowest prose.
[Footnote: Middlemarch, chapter XXXVI.]

This introduction of a scientific illustration will serve to bring another
tendency of George Eliot's to our attention. She makes a frequent use of
her large learning and culture in her novels. In the earlier ones a Greek
quotation is to be found here and there, while in the later, German seems
to have the preference. In _The Mill on the Floss_ she describes Bob
Jakin's thumb as "a singularly broad specimen of that difference between
the man and the monkey." Such references to recent scientific speculations
are not unfrequent. If they serve to show the tendencies of her mind
towards knowledge and large thought, they also indicate a too ready
willingness to imbibe, and to use in a popular manner, what is not
thoroughly assimilated truth. The force of such an illustration as the
following must be lost on most novel-readers: -

Although Sir James was a sportsman, he had some other feelings toward
women than toward grouse and foxes, and did not regard his future wife
in the light of prey, valuable chiefly for the excitements of the
chase. Neither was he so well acquainted with the habits of primitive
races as to feel that an ideal combat for her, tomahawk in hand, so to
speak, was necessary to the historical continuity of the marriage tie.
[Footnote: Middlemarch, chapter VI.]

It is doubtful whether any reader will quite catch the meaning of this
sentence:

Has any one ever pinched into its pilulous smallness the cobweb of
prematrimonial acquaintanceship? [Footnote: Ibid, chapter II.]

Many of her critics have asserted that this use of the language of science,
and the adoption of the speculative ideas of the time, had largely
increased upon George Eliot in her later books; but this is not true. In
her _Westminster Review_ essays both tendencies are strongly developed. In
one of them she says, "The very chyme and chyle of a rector are conscious
of the gown and band." Again, she says, -

The woman of large capacity can seldom rise beyond the absorption of
ideas; her physical conditions refuse to support the energy required
for spontaneous activity; the voltaic pile is not strong enough to
produce crystallization.

It is not just to George Eliot, however, to refer to such mere casual
blemishes, without insisting on the largeness of thought, the wealth of
knowledge, and the comprehensive understanding of human experience with
which her books abound. She often turns aside to discuss the problems
suggested by the experiences of her characters, to point out how the effect
of their own thoughts and deeds re-act upon them, and to inculcate the
highest ethical lessons. In one of her "asides" she seems to reject this
method, in referring to Fielding.

A great historian, as he insisted on calling himself, who had the
happiness to be dead a hundred and twenty years ago, and so to take his
place among the colossi whose huge legs our living pettiness is
observed to walk under, glories in his copious remarks and digressions
as the least imitable part of his work, and especially in those initial
chapters to the successive books of his history, where he seems to
bring his arm-chair to the proscenium, and chat with us in all the
lusty ease of his fine English. But Fielding lived when the days were
longer (for time, like money, is measured by our needs), when summer
afternoons were spacious, and the clock ticked slowly in the winter
evenings. We belated historians must not linger after his example; and
if we did so, it is probable that our chat would be thin and eager, as
if delivered from a campstool in a parrot-house. I, at least, have so
much to do in unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were
woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be
concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that
tempting range of relevancies called the universe. [Footnote:
Middlemarch, chapter XV.]

She does not ramble away from her subject, it is true; but she likes to
pause often to discuss the doings of her personages, and to pour forth some
tender or noble thought. To many of her readers these bits of wisdom and of
sentiment are among the most valuable portions of her books, when taken in
their true environment in her pages. She has a purpose larger than that of
telling a story or of describing the loves of a few men and women. She
seeks to penetrate into the motives of life, and to reveal the hidden
springs of action; to show how people affect each other; how ideas mould
the destinies of the individual. To do all this in that large, artistic
spirit she has followed, requires that there shall be something more
than narration and conversation. That she has now and then commented
unnecessarily, and in a too-learned manner, is a very small detraction from
the interest of her books.

In _Adam Bede_ she turns aside for a whole chapter to defend her method of
depicting accurately, minutely, in the simplest detail, the feelings,
motives, actions and surroundings of very commonplace and uninteresting
people. Her reasons for this method in novel-writing apply to all her
works, and are worthy of the author of _Adam Bede_ and _Silas Marner_.

I would not, even if I had the choice, be the clever novelist who could
create a world so much better than this, in which we get up in the
morning to do our daily work, that you would be likely to turn a
harder, colder eye on the dusty streets and the common green fields - on
the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your
indifference or injured by your prejudice; who can be cheered and
helped onward by your fellow-feeling, your forbearance, your
outspoken, brave justice.

So I am content to tell my simple story, without trying to make things
seem better than they were; dreading nothing, indeed, but falsity,
which, in spite of one's best efforts, there is reason to dread.
Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult. The pencil is conscious of a
delightful facility in drawing a griffin - the longer the claws, and the
larger the wings, the better; but that marvellous facility, which we
mistook for genius, is apt to forsake us when we want to draw a real
unexaggerated lion. Examine your words well, and you will find that,
even when you have no motive to be false, it is a very hard thing to
say the exact truth, even about your own immediate feelings - much
harder than to say something fine about them which is _not_ the exact
truth.

It is for this rare, precious quality of truthfulness that I delight in
many Dutch paintings, which lofty-minded people despise. I find a
source of delicious sympathy in these faithful pictures of a monotonous
homely existence, which has been the fate of so many more among my
fellow-mortals than a life of pomp or of absolute indigence, of tragic
suffering or of world-stirring actions. I turn without shrinking, from
cloud-borne angels, from prophets, sibyls and heroic warriors, to an
old woman bending over her flower-pot, or eating her solitary dinner,
while the noonday light, softened, perhaps, by a screen of leaves,
falls on her mob-cap, and just touches the rim of her spinning-wheel
and her stone jug, and all those cheap, common things which are the
precious necessaries of life to her: or I turn to that village wedding,
kept between four brown walls, where an awkward bridegroom opens the
dance with a high-shouldered, broad-faced bride, while elderly and
middle-aged friends look on, with very irregular noses and lips, and
probably with quart pots in their hands, but with expression of
unmistakable contentment and good-will. "Foh!" says my idealistic
friend, "what vulgar details! What good is there in taking all these
pains to give an exact likeness of old women and clowns? What a low
phase of life! what clumsy, ugly people!"

But, bless us, things may be lovable that are not altogether handsome,
I hope? I am not at all sure that the majority of the human race have
not been ugly, and even among those "lords of their kind," the British,
squat figures, ill-shapen nostrils, and dingy complexions, are not
startling exceptions. Yet there is a great deal of family love among
us. I have a friend or two whose class of features is such that the
Apollo curl on the summit of their brows would be decidedly trying;
yet, to my certain knowledge, tender hearts have beaten for them, and
their miniatures - flattering, but still not lovely - are kissed in
secret by motherly lips. I have seen many an excellent matron who could
never in her best days have been handsome, and yet she had a packet of
yellow love-letters in a private drawer, and sweet children showered
kisses on her sallow cheeks. And I believe there have been plenty of
young heroes of middle stature and feeble beards, who have felt quite
sure they could never love anything more insignificant than a Diana,
and yet have found themselves in middle life happily settled with a
wife who waddles. Yes! thank God; human feeling is like the mighty
rivers that bless the earth; it does not wait for beauty - it flows with
resistless force, and brings beauty with it.

All honor and reverence to the divine beauty of form! Let us cultivate
it to the utmost in men, women and children - in our gardens and in our
houses; but let us love that other beauty, too, which lies in no secret
of proportion, but in the secret of deep sympathy. Paint us an angel,
if you can, with a floating violet robe, and a face paled by the
celestial light; paint us yet oftener a Madonna, turning her mild face
upward, and opening her arms to welcome the divine glory; but do not
impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish from the regions of
Art those old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands, those
heavy clowns taking holiday in a dingy pot-house - those rounded-backs
and stupid, weather-beaten faces that have bent over the spade and done
the rough work of the world - those homes with their tin pans, their
brown pitchers, their rough curs, and their clusters of onions. In this
world there are so many of these common, coarse people, who have no
picturesque sentimental wretchedness! It is so needful we should
remember their existence, else we may happen to leave them quite out of
our religion and philosophy, and frame lofty theories which only fit a
world of extremes. Therefore let Art always remind us of them;
therefore let us always have men ready to give the loving pains of a
life to the faithful representing of commonplace things - men who see
beauty in these commonplace things, and delight in showing how kindly
the light of heaven falls on them.

There are few prophets in the world - few sublimely beautiful women - few
heroes. I can't afford to give all my love and reverence to such
rarities; I want a great deal of those feelings for my every-day
fellow-men, especially for the few in the foreground of the great
multitude, whose faces I know, whose hands I touch, for whom I have to
make way with kindly courtesy. Neither are picturesque lazzaroni or
romantic criminals half so frequent as your common laborer, who gets
his own bread, and eats it vulgarly, but creditably, with his own
pocket-knife. It is more needful that I should have a fibre of sympathy
connecting me with that vulgar citizen who weighs out my sugar in a
vilely assorted cravat and waistcoat, than with the handsomest rascal
in red scarf and green feathers; more needful that my heart should
swell with loving admiration at some trait of gentle goodness in the
faulty people who sit at the same hearth with me, or in the clergyman
of my own parish, who is, perhaps, rather too corpulent, and in other
respects is not an Oberlin or a Tillotson, than at the deeds of heroes
whom I shall never know except by hearsay, or at the sublimest abstract
of all clerical graces that was ever conceived by an able novelist.
[Footnote: Adam Bede, chapter XVII.]

In all her earlier novels George Eliot has shown the artistic possibilities
of the humblest lives and situations. In the most ordinary lives, as in the
case of the persons described in _Silas Marner_, and in the least
picturesque incidents of human existence, there is an interest for us
which, when properly brought out, will be sure to absorb our attention. She
has abundantly proved that dramatic situations, historic surroundings and
heroic attitudes are not necessary for the highest purposes of the
novelist. Hers are heart tragedies and spiritual histories; for life has
its tragic, pathetic and humorous elements of the keenest interest under
every social condition. Her realism is relieved, as in actual life, by
love, helpfulness and pathos; by deep sorrow, sufferings patiently borne,



Online LibraryGeorge Willis CookeGeorge Eliot; a Critical Study of Her Life, Writings & Philosophy → online text (page 10 of 39)