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barked stems, have human histories hidden in them ; the
power of unuttered cries dwells in the passionless- seeming
branches, and the red, warm blood is darkly feeding the
quivering nerves of a sleepless memory that watches through
all dreams. These things are a parable."

Another quality of George Eliot's writings which
has attracted unbounded admiration, is the humour
they are thought to display. When " Adam Bede "
appeared, we remember an able critic gave her credit
for a more infinite humour than that of Scott. Now,
while her writings sparkle with wit, we should have
doubted their claims to be considered humorous, in
the proper sense of the word. It is a delicate matter
to discriminate between these wayward faculties ; and
we have no wish to enter upon a well-worn controversy.



360 GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS.

We can never hope to come to any definite conclusion ;
the question whether or not a writer is humorous
must be always very much answered according to
individual fancy. The dogmas of another eminent
critic as to Scott are even more bewildering. In Mr.
Senior's " Essays," lately republished, are included
elaborate criticisms of the Waverley Novels, which
originally appeared in the "Quarterly Keview." There,
amid many able and acute remarks, we find great
objection taken to Sir Walter Scott's " bores," as
the critic calls them ; and among these are particu-
larly specified the Antiquary and Dugald Dalgetty.
Views like these, coming from such a quarter, puzzle
us amazingly, and suggest the idea, which had best
be frankly expressed, that Scott's most characteristic
excellence is missed by many of his readers, especially
his Southern readers. To our thinking, the humour
of George Eliot is as a shadow beside that of the
Ariosto of the North. It is often purely verbal, as in
the following examples, in the former of which the
affected style of phraseology introduced by Mr. Dickens
is very apparent :

" Do you know the dulcet strength, the animating bland-
ness of tea sufficiently blended with real farmhouse cream ?
No most likely you are a miserable town-bred reader,
who think of cream as a thinnish white fluid, delivered in
infinitesimal pennyworths down area steps ; or perhaps,
from a presentiment of calves' brains, you refrain from any
lacteal addition, and rasp your tongue with unmitigated
bohea. You have a vague idea of a milch cow as probably
a white plaster animal standing in a butterman's window,
and you know nothing of the sweet history of genuine
cream, such as Miss Gibbs's."

" ' I 've nothing to say again' her piety, my dear ; but I
know very well I shouldn't like her to cook my victual.
When a man conies in hungry an' tired, piety won't feed



GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS. 3C1

him, I reckon. Hard carrots 'ull lie heavy on his stomach,
piety or no piety. I called in one day when she was dishin'
up Mr. Tryan's dinner, an' I could see the potatoes was as
watery as watery. It 's right enough to be speritial I 'm
no enemy to that ; but I like my potatoes mealy/ "

At its best, her humour is hard, resting less upon
habits of thought than upon point and force of expres-
sion. In the mouths of Florentine magnates Mrs.
Poyser's keen proverbs are dignified into grave
aphorisms : " Friendliness is much such a steed as
Ser Benghi's, it will hardly show much alacrity unless
it has got the thistle of hatred under its tail " but
the style of thing is the same, exceedingly clever and
witty, not, we think, humorous. How hard, and how
wanting in mobility is even Mrs. Poyser beside Mause
Headrigg or Jenny Dennison ! And, as is always
the case with wit of this description, it is too uni-
versal. George Eliot is guilty of the error to which
masters of verbal wit are prone, namely, that all her
characters are witty. She is not such a sinner in this
respect as some as Sheridan, for example ; but the
fault is there. Her characters range over all ranks of
society, and represent many modes of thought ; they
speak in various dialects ; but they express themselves
always with a force and vigour, often with a wit,
which strikes the reader as unnatural.

As it is with her characters, so also with her
humorous scenes. The " High Life Below Stairs,"
in the first volume of " Felix Holt," has been the
subject of much exaggerated praise. The fun of it
consists almost solely in some very clever " chaff " on
a heavy- minded butler by a flippant valet the lead-
ing feature of which is rather ponderous jesting on
the butler's name. The alehouse scene in "Silas
Marner " is in a higher style. But neither of them
can stand for one moment beside the post-office scene

2 A



362 GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS.

in the " Antiquary," where Mrs. Mailsetter and two
of her cronies are " sorting " the letters before they
are delivered. The interlocutors are three Mrs.
Mailsetter herself, the baker's wife, and the butcher's
wife : each has plainly a character of her own, and
thinks and speaks in strict accordance therewith ; not
one of them even makes a remark that strikes us as
unusually clever or unusually well put, and yet all
Fairport is taken through hands by these chattering
old women ; and what humour there is in the contrast
between their various points of view and estimates of
character, in their characteristic squabble, and the
still more characteristic compromise by which it is
healed, the naturalness and perfect keeping of the
whole !

George Eliot's jocular incidents may be dismissed
in a line. They are too absurd. The " Florentine
Joke" in "Romola," where a monkey is brought to a
doctor as a sick baby ; a preposterous mock play-bill
in " Janet's Repentance ; " the triumph of a servant
over his rival by the daring exploit of cutting off his
coat-tails when he was sleeping dwelt upon at great
length in " Felix Holt" as a thing of infinite jest,
these three examples are enough to show that George
Eliot has no comprehension of that branch of the
ludicrous which is called fun.

She perhaps reaches to humour in her children,
and that because she thoroughly understands children,
and can enter into their every thought. The child-
hood of Maggie and Tom Tulliver makes the first
volume of " The Mill on the Floss " quite different
from the other two. Gleams of bright humour, too,
come with the golden-haired child into the house of
Silas Marner. But beyond this we cannot go.
Heartily as we admire George Eliot's brilliant wit,
we cannot hold her entitled to a foremost place



GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS. 3G3

among humorists. As a rule, women do not appre-
ciate humour ; they never excel in it. If it be true,
as the author of " Friends in Council " says, that a
man's humour is the deepest part of his nature, this
is not to be wondered at. Howsoever able they may
be, women can hardly have the mental reach or
experience required to embrace the whole of man's
nature. And besides, and what is perhaps more to
the purpose, the vagaries of this faculty are repug-
nant both to their tastes and to their prejudices.

We have next to consider George Eliot with special
reference to her vocation as a novelist. That her
literary career has fallen on a time when it is the
imperative mode to write stories, has been in some
respects an advantage to her; in some the reverse.
She possesses many of the qualifications necessary for
the novelist ; in others again she ' is conspicuously
deficient.

In the first place, we think she seriously errs in the
choice of her stories. They are uniformly of a painful
nature. We are far from saying that pain or sorrow
should be excluded from fiction ; but it must not
occupy a too prominent place. Nor can the pain in
George Eliot's tales be held as falling under the impos-
ing name of tragedy. The tragic is separated from
the merely painful or sorrowful by differences hard to
state clearly, but not therefore fanciful. Tragic feel-
ing in the old time sprang from sources different from
those which gave it birth among the moderns. Greek
tragedy concerned itself, for the most part, with the
actions of the gods, at best of demigods and heroes,
beings far removed from the feebler race of man ;
and the whole was borne along on the bosom of a
dark tide of destiny, incomprehensible, resistless,
powerful over all, even over the gods, hurrying on to
some mysterious end, the destruction alike of the



364 GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS.

mortal and the divine race. It was thus as compared
with our tragedy alien from humanity, and appeals
to our sense of the terrible and the sublime. Modern
tragedy, on the other hand, seeks its themes in the
fortunes of man, and rests rather on the emotion of
melancholy. This emotion, according to Schlegel,
lies at the root of all modern poetry the poetry of
desire. " When the soul, resting as it were under the
willows of exile, breathes out its longing for its distant
home, what else but melancholy can be the keynote
of its songs ?" The same idea is beautifully expressed
by Hood :

" All things are touch'd with melancholy.
Born of the secret soul's mistrust,
To feel her fair ethereal wings
Weigh'd down with vile degraded dust ;
Even the bright extremes of joy
Bring on conclusions of disgust,
Like the sweet blossoms of the May
Whose fragrance ends in must.
O give her, then, her tribute just,
Her sighs and tears, and musings holy !
There is no music in the life
That sounds with idiot laughter solely ;
There 's not a string attuned to mirth,
But has its chord in melancholy."

This does not mean at least we do not quote it as
meaning that a green melancholy, or even a vague
sadness of spirit, is identical with tragic feeling.
Weeping from mere wantonness is quite apart from
tragedy. But Schlegel can best explain his own point
of view, familiar to many of our readers as the expla-
nation may be :

" All that we do, all that we effect, is vain and perishable ;
death stands everywhere in the background, and to it every
well or ill spent moment brings us nearer and closer ; and



GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS. 365

even when a man has been so singularly fortunate as to
reach the utmost term of life without any grievous calamity,
the inevitable doom still awaits him to leave or to be left by
all that is most dear to him on earth. There is no bond of
love without a separation, no enjoyment without the grief
of losing it. When, however, we contemplate the relations
of our existence to the extreme limit of possibilities ; when
we reflect on its entire dependence on a chain of causes and
effects, stretching beyond our ken ; when we consider how
weak and helpless, and doomed to struggle against the enor-
mous powers of nature and conflicting appetites we are cast
on the shores of an unknown world, as it were, shipwrecked
at our very birth ; how we are subject to all kinds of errors
and deceptions, any one of which may be our ruin ; that in
our passions we cherish an enemy in our bosoms ; how every
moment demands from us, in the name of the most sacred
duties, the sacrifice of our dearest inclinations, and how at
one blow we may be robbed of all that we have acquired
with much toil and difficulty ; that with every accession to
our stores, the risk of loss is proportionately increased, and
we are only the more exposed to the malice of hostile fortune :
when we think upon all this, every heart which is not dead
to feeling must be overpowered by an inexpressible melan-
choly, for which there is no other counterpoise than the
consciousness of a vocation transcending the limits of this
earthly life. This is the tragic tone of mind ; and when the
thought of the possible issues out of the mind as a living
reality, when this tone pervades and animates a visible
representation of the most striking incidents of violent revo-
lutions in a man's fortune, either prostrating his mental
energies or calling forth the most heroic endurance then
the result is Tragic Poetry."

After this quotation it is but fair to bring to the
reader's recollection George Eliot's own statement and
vindication of the tragic element in her writings :

" The pride and obstinacy of millers and other insignifi-
cant people, whom you pass unnoticingly on the road every
day, have their tragedy too ; but it is of that unwept, hidden
sort, that goes on from generation to generation, and leaves



366 GEORGE ELIOT S NOVELS.

no record such tragedy, perhaps, as lies in the conflicts of
young souls, hungry for joy, under a lot made suddenly hard
to them, under the dreariness of a home where the morning
brings no promise with it, and where the unexpectant discon-
tent of worn and disappointed parents weighs on the children
like a damp, thick air, in which all the functions of life are
depressed ; or such tragedy as lies in the slow or sudden
death that follows on a bruised passion, though it may be a
death that finds only a parish funeral."

The doctrine here laid down seems to be that the
elements of true tragedy are always existing, and are
to be found in all classes of society. Now, this can
only be admitted subject to considerable reservations.
In the first place, even the social position of the
actors becomes, in this question, a thing of some
moment. The fate of any poor French girl who was
drowned in the Loire during the Terror may have
been as sad and as pitiable as the death of Marie
Antoinette ; but it was not as tragic : if there was no
other distinction, the element of catastrophe would
in such a case be deficient. In the next place, the
mental range of the victims their intellectual and
moral capacity is a thing of great moment. The
disappointed love of a miller's daughter is likely to
be very different from the passionate despair in which
Komeo and Juliet ends ; the gradual descent into
low treachery of a wily Greek is a less " tragic" theme
than the downfall' of a nature like Macbeth's. Above
all, the character of the suffering represented is of the
greatest moment. It is quite unsound to maintain
that the vexations and sorrows of every-day life reach
the heights or the depths of tragedy. There is "a
grand style " of theme as well as in expression. The
criminal, the painful, even the sorrowful, is not the
tragic. SchlegeFs analysis, indeed, might seem to
embrace the ordinary fortunes of man ; and he has



GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS. 367

doubtless traced to its true source the tragic feeling ;
but if this feeling is to have full scope and proper
development, if, in a word, real tragedy is to be
created, there must be the extremes of calamity or
trial acting on natures powerful beyond common
for good or evil. The familiar illustration of Dr.
Johnson applies : the pitcher may be as full as the
barrel, but it does not hold so much. Before the
supreme masters, indeed, these distinctions are as
naught. In the hands of the highest genius even
ordinary types of crime may rise to tragedy ; and the
cell of a peasant girl condemned for child-murder
may be made the scene of a struggle between the
mightiest spiritual influences which have sway over
the heart of mankind. But it would be idle to say
that any such height is reached in "Adam Bede,"
and even less in any of the other tales. The vexa-
tions resulting from a large family and a small income,
the evil habit of drinking especially in women, the
disagreeableness to a lady of birth and culture of
being found out in guilty relation with the family
solicitor, the sudden passion of a girl for her cousin's
lover, and her subsequent death by drowning; even
the blight thrown over a life by the loss of the loved,
or the waking of a high-minded woman from a golden
dream of love to find herself wedded to a traitor
none of these are necessarily themes of tragedy.

If there is any truth in this view, and if George
Eliot's writings do really fall short of the tragic, then
we hold it clear that in them misfortune and sorrow
are too much the prevailing lot. Thus death, the crown
of all sorrow, the easiest, and therefore the commonest
source of pathos, but yet that which is most rarely
appealed to by the true artist, is seldom absent from
her stage. Now, of all writings which regard chiefly
the gloomy aspects of life, we doubt the truth and



368 GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS.

dispute the profit. It is not by allowing the imagina-
tion to dwell on representations, however pathetic,
of pain and suffering, that we best gain strength to
endure the one or the other. The "purification of
the passions" cannot come in this wise. This is
somewhat of a digression, and the criticism is not
new ; yet it is worth enforcing at present. For our
novelists, deficient in art, think that interest can be
best aroused by criminality or sorrow. Some go for a
subject to the annals of the Old Bailey ; others disturb
and distress readers with scenes of misery unavailing
to instruct or to elevate. These devices may pay,
and they will not perhaps do much harm ; but we
protest earnestly against their being sheltered under
the plea which is conveyed in the misleading words,
" the tragedy of every-day life."

Besides this infelicity in her choice of subjects,
George Eliot is deficient in the power of inventing a
story. Her plots are always bad. We do not, of
course, compare her with such masterpieces of art as
" Tom Jones/' or with the easy grace of Miss Austen ;
she does not reach even to the careless coherence of
Scott. The " Scenes of Clerical Life" were but short
tales hardly admitting of what is properly called a
plot; in "Adam Bede" and " Komola" there is a
mere sequence of events ; and " The Mill on the
Floss" is but a series of improbable incidents. In
" Felix Holt," again, there is a very careful plot ; and
just in proportion to the elaboration of the effort is
the failure conspicuous. "Felix Holt," among its
many and rare excellencies, can make no claim to
the merit of interest as a story. If people would
only have courage to speak truth, we suspect that
most readers would confess to a feeling of extreme
weariness over its pages. As to the characters we
shall speak afterwards ; we are now concerned with



GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS. 369

the story alone : and we assert with confidence that
nobody can feel real excitement or interest in any-
thing so utterly improbable and unnatural. The
whole story of the Transome estate how it was lost
and won, the removal of the real heir, the appear-
ance of his daughter (after her strange protection) in
the vicinity of the estate, the appearance at the same
time and place of the last representative of the old
house, and his too opportune death, these things
are all managed with a clumsiness which finds its
appropriate conclusion in the perfect absurdity of the
conduct of everybody.

Headers of the present day are an impatient genera-
tion, and must be interested somehow. Deficiency in
plot, therefore, has to be made up for in some way ;
and this necessity leads to sensationalism and un-
naturalness of incident. Certainly, from whatever
cause they come, examples of these faults are frequent
in George Eliot's writings. The arrival of the re-
prieve in " Adam Bede " at the moment of execution
is an old stage-trick, which jars painfully on the
reader ; in " Eomola " the closing scene of Tito is
strangely theatrical ; in " The Mill on the Floss " the
elopement in a punt, and the final catastrophe of the
flood, are the one morally, the other physically
about equally unnatural ; but perhaps the climax of
absurdity is reached in " Felix Holt." The election
riot in that novel has appeared to some critics worthy
of special commendation. There could be no stronger
proof of the low ebb to which criticism has sunk
among us. The only purpose which that scene serves
is the purpose of representing the hero of the book
a hero, moreover, whose title to be such rests sole]y
on his intellect as a most obtrusive and unmitigated
fool. Felix Holt is, above all things, a shrewd able
man ; and we are expected to believe that a man of



370 GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS.

this sort would put himself at the head of a mob, lead
them to the robbery of a house, superintend the
brutal usage of an old man, ending with tying him to
a post, generally, in short, be their guide, philo-
sopher, and friend throughout all their frantic passion;
in which character he himself murders a special con-
stable, and all this with the single object of stop-
ping the riot. On the part of any man such conduct
would be utterly absurd ; on the part of Felix Holt
it was simply impossible. This fault of extravagance
of incident pervades all George Eliot's novels, and a
very serious fault it is, entirely destructive of natural-
ness, and therefore of interest.

As an historical novelist (and she has aimed at this
dignity), we cannot think George Eliot has been suc-
cessful. Her characteristic excellencies she carries, of
course, into all her writings. But in this particular
line she has one special and vital defect : she has not
the power of representing a period. Taking even
" Romola," it can hardly be maintained that the
great crisis in Florentine history, at the date of which
the story is laid, is either vividly or fully brought
before the reader. We are not now speaking of the
power lavished on individual characters; we are speak-
ing of the representation of the time, with all its varied
and vital interests ; and readers who remember " Quen-
tin Durward " will comprehend the art which is, we
think, in "Komola" conspicuous by its absence. In
"Komola" many great men are brought on the scene.
Such matters as the ordering of processions and the
fashion of costume are given, we cannot doubt, with
most perfect accuracy ; but the spirit of the whole is
wanting ; there is nothing like the dramatic power
which has made alive for us the courts of Louis xi.
and of Charles of Burgundy. The same remarks
apply to " Felix Holt." We are told that the date of



GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS. 371

the story is 1832, and the title is "Felix Holt the
Radical"- & good publishers' device, considering what
political questions were mainly agitating the country
when the book appeared. But the whole thing is a
delusion. So far as connection with the time goes, or
with the prominent subject of the time, the date of
the tale might as well have been 1732, and the title
Felix Holt the Mahometan. We speak, of course, of
a real connection with the time not of such outward
matters as the fact that there is a general election,
arid that one man contests the county as a Tory, and
another as a Badical. A careful and impartial re-
presentation of the state of feeling in this country
after the passing of the Keform Bill ; an estimate of
what Radicalism then was presenting, we should
think, a curious contrast to what Radicalism now is,
these would have afforded material for much care-
ful and interesting study. Nothing of the sort is
attempted. There is much writing about politics,
but nothing approaching to a real picture of the
political life of the time. Mail-coaches, Dissenters'
meeting-houses, many phases of life are represented ;
but that which especially ought to have been re-
presented, namely, the political phase, has been
omitted. As for the ideal Radical of 1832, he is an
entirely modern figure an utter anachronism a sort
of cross between Mr. Lowe and Lord Elcho.

Nor can it be said with truth that George Eliot has
been felicitous in her representations of the historical
characters whom she brings on her scene. The period
of " Romola " gave her great scope : a world of varied
character was before her where to choose ; but we can-
not think she has chosen well, or that the result has
been fortunate. Savonarola was an ambitious effort,
but the nobler side of his character alone is given : no
one will find in " Romola " a key to the whole com-



372 GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS.

plex nature of that man a mystery to all his con-
temporaries, probably not less so to himself. The
introduction of Macchiavelli is a more conspicuous
failure. Even in his boyhood we suspect the great
Florentine would never have sported such very obvious
Macchiavellianisms as the following. We are quite
sure that if he had, the expression of them would not
have in the least surprised or horrified any intelligent
Italian :

" ' That is true,' said Niccolo Macchiavelli ; ' but where
personal ties are strong, the hostilities they raise must be
taken due account of. Many of these halfway severities are
mere hotheaded blundering. The only safe blows to be in-
flicted on men and parties are the blows that are too heavy
to be avenged/

" ' Niccolo/ said Cennini, * there is a clever wickedness in
thy talk sometimes that makes me mistrust thy pleasant



Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 29 of 38)