George Willis Cooke.

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

. (page 11 of 39)
Online LibraryGeorge Willis CookeGeorge Eliot; a Critical Study of Her Life, Writings & Philosophy → online text (page 11 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

and tender sympathy for others' woes. And if she sometimes sketches with
too free a hand the coarse and repulsive features of life, this fault is
relieved by her tender sympathy with the sorrows and weaknesses of her
characters. She asks her readers not to grudge Amos Barton his lovely wife,
that "large, fair, gentle Madonna," with an imposing mildness and the
unspeakable charm of gentle womanhood. He was a man of very middling
qualities and a quite stupid sort of person, but he loved his wife and made
the most he could of such talents as he had. She pleads in his behalf by
saying, -

I have all my life had a sympathy for mongrel ungainly dogs, who are
nobody's pets; and I would rather surprise one of them by a pat and a
pleasant morsel, than meet the condescending advances of the loveliest
Skye-terrier who has his cushion by my lady's chair.

Much the larger number of characters in these novels are of the same
unpromising quality. Most of them are ignorant, uncouth and simple-minded;
yet George Eliot gives them a warm place in our hearts, and we rejoice to
have known them all. This ignorant rusticity is discovered to have charms
and attractions of its own. Especially does the reader learn that what is
most human and what is most lovely in personal character may be found
within these rough exteriors and amid these unpromising circumstances.

Even so fine a character as Adam Bede, one of the best in all her books,
was a workman of limited education and little knowledge of the outside
world. The author does "not pretend that his was an ordinary character
among workmen." Yet such men as he are found among his class, and the noble
qualities he possessed are not out of place among workingmen. Her warm
sympathy with this class, the class in which she was born and reared, and
her earnest desire to do it justice, is seen in what she says of Adam.

He was not an average man. Yet such men as he are reared here and there
in every generation of our peasant artisans - with an inheritance of
affections nurtured by a simple family life of common need and common
industry, and an inheritance of faculties trained in skilful,
courageous labor; they make their way upward, rarely as geniuses, most
commonly as painstaking, honest men, with the skill and conscience to
do well the tasks that lie before them. Their lives have no discernible
echo beyond the neighborhood where they dwelt, but you are almost sure
to find there some good piece of road, some building, some application
of mineral produce, some improvement in farming practice, some reform
of parish abuses, with which their names are associated by one or two
generations after them. Their employers were richer for them, the work
of their hands has worn well, and the work of their brains has guided
well the hands of other men. They went about in their youth in flannel
or paper caps, in coats black with coal-dust or streaked with lime and
red paint; in old age their white hairs are seen in a place of honor at
church and at market, and they tell their well-dressed sons and
daughters seated round the bright hearth on winter evenings, how
pleased they were when they first earned their twopence a day. Others
there are who die poor, and never put off the workman's coat on
week-days; they have not had the art of getting rich; but they are men
of trust, and when they die before the work is all out of them, it is
as if some main screw had got loose in a machine; the master who
employed them says, "Where shall I find their like?" [Footnote:
Chapter XIX.]

In _Amos Barton_ she states her reasons for portraying characters of so
little outward interest. Amos had none of the more manly and sturdy
qualities of Adam Bede, and yet to George Eliot it was enough that he was
human, that trouble and heartache could come to him, and that he must carry
his share of the burdens and weaknesses of the world.

The Rev. Amos Barton, whose sad fortunes I have undertaken to relate,
was, you perceive, in no respect an ideal or exceptional character; and
perhaps I am doing a bold thing to bespeak your sympathy on behalf of a
man who was so very far from remarkable, - a man whose virtues were not
heroic, and who had no undetected crime within his breast; who had not
the slightest mystery hanging about him, but was palpably and
unmistakably commonplace; who was not even in love, but had had that
complaint many years ago. "An utterly uninteresting character!" I think
I hear a lady reader exclaim, - Mrs. Farthingale, for example, who
prefers the ideal in fiction; to whom tragedy means ermine tippets,
adultery and murder; and comedy, the adventures of some personage who
is quite a "character."

But, my dear madam, it is so very large a majority of your
fellow-countrymen that are of this insignificant stamp. At least
eighty out of a hundred of your adult male fellow-Britons returned in
the last census are neither extraordinarily silly, nor extraordinarily
wicked, nor extraordinarily wise; their eyes are neither deep and
liquid with sentiment, nor sparkling with suppressed witticisms; they
have probably had no hairbreadth escapes or thrilling adventures; their
brains are certainly not pregnant with genius, and their passions have
not manifested themselves at all after the fashion of a volcano. They
are simply men of complexions more or less muddy, whose conversation is
more or less bald and disjointed. Yet these commonplace people - many of
them - bear a conscience, and have felt the sublime prompting to do the
painful right; they have their unspoken sorrows, and their sacred joys;
their hearts have perhaps gone out towards their first-born, and they
have mourned over the irreclaimable dead. Nay, is there not a pathos in
their very insignificance, - in our comparison of their dim and narrow
existence with the glorious possibilities of that human nature which
they share?

Depend upon it, you would gain unspeakably if you would learn with me
to see some of the poetry and the pathos, the tragedy and the comedy,
lying in the experience of a human soul that looks out through dull
gray eyes, and that speaks in a voice of quite ordinary tones. In that
case, I should have no fear of your not caring to know what further
befell the Rev. Amos Barton, or of your thinking the homely details I
have to tell at all beneath your attention.

In her hands the novel becomes the means of recording the history of those
whom no history takes note of, and of bringing before the world its unnamed
and unnoted heroes. Professor Dowden says her sympathy spreads with a
powerful and even flow in every direction. In this effort she has been
eminently successful; and her loving sympathy with all that is human; her
warm-hearted faith in the weak and unfortunate; the graciousness of her
love for the common souls who are faithful and true in their way and in
their places, will excuse much greater literary faults than any into which
she has fallen. The sincere and loving humanity of her books gives them a
great charm, and an influence wide-reaching and noble.

No one of her imitators and successors has gained anything of like power
which is given to her novels by her intense sympathy with her characters.
Others have described ignorant and coarse phases of life as something to
look at and study, but not to bring into the heart and love. George Eliot
loves her characters, has an intense affection for them, pours out her
motherliness upon them. Not so Daudet or James or Howells, who study
crude life on the surface, and because it is the fashion. There is no
heart-nearness in their work, little of passionate human desire to do
justice to phases of life hitherto neglected. She has in this regard the
genius of Scott and Hugo, who live in and with their characters, and so
make them living and real. She identifies herself with the life she
describes, and never looks at it from without, with curious and cold and
critical gaze, simply for the sake of making a novel.

She is more at home among villagers than in the drawing-room. A profound
intuition has led her to the very heart of English life among the happier
and worthier classes of working-people. There is no squalor in her books,
no general misery, but always conscience, respectability and home-comforts.
There is something of coarseness in some of her scenes, and a realism too
bare and bald; but for the most part she has come far short of what might
have been done in picturing the repulsive and sensual side of life. In all
her books there is abundant evidence of her painstaking, and of her anxious
desire to be truthful. She has studied life on the spot, and gives to it
the local coloring. In writing _Romola_, she searched into every corner of
Florentine history, custom and thought. She is true to every touch of local
incident and manner. In _Daniel Deronda_, she made herself familiar with
Jewish life, and has given the race aroma to her portraits and scenes. She
is thoroughly a realist, but a realist with a wide and attractive sympathy,
a profound insight into motives and impulses, and a strong imagination. She
is too great a genius to believe that the novelist can describe life as the
geologist describes the strata of the earth. She feels with her characters;
she has that form of insight or imagination which enables her to apprehend
a mind totally unlike her own. This is what saves the history of Hetty from
coarseness and repulsiveness. It is Hetty's own account of her life-woes.
Its infinite pathos, and the tenderness and pity it awakens, destroys our
concern for the other features of the narrative.

Psychologic analysis seems out of place in a novel, but with George Eliot
it is a chief purpose of her writing. She lays bare the soul, opens its
inmost secrets, and its anatomy is minutely studied. She devotes more space
to the inner life and character of her personalities than to her narratives
and conversations. She traces some of her characters through a long process
of development, and shows how they are affected by the experiences of life.
Her more important characters grow up under her pen, develop under the
influence of thought or sorrow. Novelists usually carry their characters
through their pages on the same level of mind and life; and George Eliot
not only does this with her uncultured characters, but she also shows the
soul in the process of unfolding or expanding. None of her leading
characters are at the end what they were in the beginning; with the most
subtle power she traces the growth of Tito Melema's mind through its
perilous descent into selfish corruption, and with equal or even greater
skill she unfolds the history of Daniel Deronda's development under the
impulse to find for himself a life-mission. In this direction George Eliot
is always great. Her skill is remarkable, albeit she has not sounded either
the highest or the lowest ranges of human capacity. The range within which
her studies are made is a wide one, however, and within it she has shown
herself the master of human motives and a consummate artist in portraying
the soul. She devotes the utmost care to describing some plain person who
appears in her pages for but a moment, and is as much concerned that he
shall be truly presented as if he were of the utmost consequence. More than
one otherwise very ordinary character acquires under this treatment of hers
the warmest interest for the reader. And she describes such persons,
because their influence is subtle or momentous as it affects the lives of
others. Personages and incidents play a part in her books not for the sake
of the plot or to secure dramatic unity, but for the sake of manifesting
the soul, in order that the unfoldment of psychologic analysis may go on.
The unity she aims at is that of showing the development of the soul under
influence of some one or more decisive impulses or as affected by given
surroundings. The lesser characters, while given a nature quite their own,
help in the process of unfolding the personality which gives central
purpose to each of her novels. The influence of opposite natures on each
other, the moulding power of circumstances, and especially the bearings of
hereditary impulses, all play a prominent part in this process of
psychologic analysis.

Through page after page and chapter after chapter she traces the feelings
and thoughts of her characters. How each decisive event appears to them is
explained at length. Moreover, the most trivial trait of character, the
most incidental impulse, is described in all its particularity. Through
many pages Hetty's conduct in her own bedroom is laid before the reader,
and in no other way could her nature have been so brought to our knowledge.
Her shallow lightness of heart and her vanity could not be realized by
ordinary intercourse with one so pretty and so bright; but George Eliot
describes Hetty's taking out the earrings given her by Arthur, and we see
what she is. The author seeks to open before us the inner life of that
childish soul, and we see into its nature and realize all its capacities
for good and evil.

Oh, the delight of taking out that little box and looking at the
earrings! Do not reason about it, my philosophical reader, and say that
Hetty, being very pretty, must have known that it did not signify
whether she had any ornaments or not; and that, moreover, to look at
earrings which she could not possibly wear out of her bedroom could
hardly be a satisfaction, the essence of vanity being a reference to
the impressions produced on others; you will never understand women's
natures if you are so excessively rational. Try rather to divest
yourself of all your rational prejudices, as much as if you were
studying the psychology of a canary-bird, and only watch the movements
of this pretty round creature as she turns her head on one side with an
unconscious smile at the earrings nestled in the little box. Ah! you
think, it is for the sake of the person who has given them to her, and
her thoughts are gone back now to the moment when they were put into
her hands. No; else why should she have cared to have earrings rather
than anything else? and I know that she had longed for earrings from
among all the ornaments she could imagine.

This faculty of soul interpretation may be illustrated by innumerable
passages and from characters the most diverse in nature and capacity. As an
instance of her ability to interpret uncommon minds, those affected in some
peculiar manner, reference may be made to Baldassarre, in _Romola_. The
descriptions of this man's sufferings, the giving way of his mind under
them, and the purpose of revenge which took complete possession of him,
form a study in character unsurpassed. For subtle insight into the action
of a morbid mind, and for a majestic conception of human passion, the
passage wherein Baldassarre finds he can again read his Greek book is most
worthy of attention.

Her ability to delineate a growing mind, and a mind at work under the
influence of new and rare experiences, is shown in the case of Daniel
Deronda. His quiet love of ease as a boy is described as he sits one day
watching the falling rain, and meditates on the possibility which has been
suggested to him, that his is not to be the life of a gentleman.

He knew a great deal of what it was to be a gentleman by inheritance,
and without thinking much about himself - for he was a boy of active
perceptions, and easily forgot his own existence in that of Robert
Bruce - he had never supposed that he could be shut out from such a lot,
or have a very different part in the world from that of the uncle who
petted him... But Daniel's tastes were altogether in keeping with his
nurture: his disposition was one in which every-day scenes and habits
beget not _ennui_ or rebellion but delight, affection, aptitudes;
and now the lad had been stung to the quick by the idea that his
uncle - perhaps his father - thought of a career for him which was
totally unlike his own, and which he knew very well was not thought of
among possible destinations for the sons of English gentlemen.

The mind of this lad expands; ideal desires awake in him; there is a
yearning for a life of noble knight-errantry in some heroic cause. The
reader is permitted to watch from step to step the growth of this longing,
and to behold each new deed by which it is expressed. He craves for a
broader life, but he is surrounded by such a social atmosphere as to make
his longing futile. As a young man who is seeking to know what there is in
the world for him to do, and who is eager for some task that is to end in a
larger life for man, he is again described.

It happened that the very vividness of his impressions had often made
him the more enigmatic to his friends, and had contributed to an
apparent indefiniteness in his sentiments. His early wakened
sensibility and reflectiveness, had developed into a many-sided
sympathy, which threatened to hinder any persistent course of action:
as soon as he took up any antagonism, though only in thought, he seemed
to himself like the Sabine warriors in the memorable story - with
nothing to meet his spear but flesh of his flesh, and objects that he
loved. His imagination had so wrought itself to the habit of seeing
things as they probably appeared to others, that a strong partisanship,
unless it were against an immediate oppression, had become an
insincerity for him. His plenteous, flexible sympathy had ended by
falling into one current with that reflective analysis which tends to
neutralize sympathy. Few men were able to keep themselves clearer of
vices than he; yet he hated vices mildly, being used to think of them
less in the abstract than as a part of mixed human natures having an
individual history, which it was the bent of his mind to trace with
understanding and pity. With the same innate balance he was fervidly
democratic in his feeling for the multitude, and yet, through his
affections and imagination, intensely conservative; voracious of
speculations on government and religion, yet loath to part with
long-sanctioned forms which, for him, were quick with memories and
sentiments that no argument could lay dead... He was ceasing to care
for knowledge - he had no ambition for practice - unless they could both
be gathered up into one current with his emotions; and he dreaded, as
if it were a dwelling-place of lost souls, that dead anatomy of culture
which turns the universe into a mere ceaseless answer to queries, and
knows, not everything, but everything else about everything - as if one
should be ignorant of nothing concerning the scent of violets except
the scent itself, for which one had no nostril. But how and whence was
the needed event to come? - the influence that would justify partiality,
and make him what he longed to be, yet was unable to make himself - an
organic part of social life, instead of roaming in it like a yearning
disembodied spirit, stirred with a vague, social passion, but without
fixed local habitation to render fellowship real? To make a little
difference for the better was what he was not contented to live
without; but how make it? It is one thing to see your road, another to
cut it.

He rescues Mirah and sets out in search of her brother. He finds Mordecai,
and gradually a way is opened to him along which his yearning is satisfied.
Step by step the reader is permitted to trace the expansion of his mind. A
window is opened into his soul, and we see its every movement as Daniel is
led on to find the mission which was to be his. When that task is fully
accepted he says to Mordecai, -

Since I began to read and know, I have always longed for some
ideal task, in which I might feel myself the heart and brain of a
multitude - some social captainship, which would come to me as a duty,
and not to be striven for as a personal prize.

In her strong tendency to psychologic analysis George Eliot much resembles
Robert Browning. It is the life of passion and ideas which both alike
delight to describe. They greatly differ, however, in their methods of
dissecting the inner life. Browning lays bare the soul in some startling
experience, George Eliot by the slow development of the mind through all
the stages of growth. He is impersonal, but she is always present to make
comments and to expound the causes of growth. Yet her characters are as
clear-cut, as individual, as his. His analysis is the more rapid, subtle
and complete in immediate expression; hers is the more penetrating,
vigorous and interesting. His lightning flash sees the soul through and
through in the present moment; her calmer and intenser gaze penetrates the
long succession of hidden causes by which the soul is shaped to its earthly

Any account of George Eliot which dwells only on her humor and sarcasm, her
realism and her powers of analysis, does her grave injustice. She has also
in rare degree the power of artistic constructiveness, a strong and
brilliant imagination and genius of almost the highest range. She can
create character as well as analyze it, and with that brilliant command of
resources which indicates a high order of genius. She had culture almost
equal to Goethe's, and quite equal to Mrs. Browning's; and she had that
wide sympathy with life which was his, with an equal capacity for their
expression in an artistic reconstruction of human experience. While Mr. R.
H. Hutton is justified in saying that "few minds at once so speculative and
so creative have ever put their mark on literature," yet the critic needs
to beware lest he give the speculative tendency in her mind a place too
prominent compared with that assigned to her creative genius. The poet and
the novelist are so seldom speculative, so seldom put into their creations
the constant burden of great thoughts, that when one appears who does this,
it is likely to be dwelt upon too largely by the critics. George Eliot
speculates about life and its experiences, and it is evident she had a
philosophy of life at her command; but it is quite as true that she soars
on pinions free into the heavens of genius, and brings back the song which
no other has sung, and which is a true song. She has created characters,
she has described the histories of souls, in a manner which will cause some
of her books to endure for all time. If she has allied her genius to
current culture and speculation, it has in that way been given continuity
of purpose and definiteness of aim. The genius is there and cannot be
hidden or obscured; and those who love what is great and noble will be
profoundly attracted by her books. If a great thinker, she is still more
truly a great literary artist; and such is the largeness and gracious power
of her genius that those who do not love her speculations will be drawn to
her in spite of all objections. Her genius is generous, expansive,
illuminative, profound. Her creativeness is an elemental power; new births
are to be found in her books; life has grown under her moulding touch.



Before George Eliot began her career as a novelist she had already turned
her attention to what is good and bad in fiction-writing, and had given
expression to her own theory of the novel. What she wrote on this subject
is excellent in itself, but it now has an additional interest in view of
her success as a novelist, and as throwing light on her conception of the
purposes to be followed in the writing of fiction. In what she wrote on
this subject two ideas stand out distinctly, that women are to find in
novel-writing a literary field peculiarly adapted to their capacities, and
that the novel should be a true portraiture of life.

She was a zealous advocate of woman's capacity to excel as a novelist, and
she saw in this form of literature a field especially adapted to her
greater powers of emotion and sympathy. Very generous and appreciative are
her references to the lady novelists whom she defends, the excellence of
whose work she maintains entitles them to the highest places as literary
artists. In the article on "Lady Novelists" she has drawn attention both to
those qualities in which woman may excel and to those in which she may

Online LibraryGeorge Willis CookeGeorge Eliot; a Critical Study of Her Life, Writings & Philosophy → online text (page 11 of 39)