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young face as if it were a mask of Satan/

" ' Not at all, my good Domenico/ said Macchiavelli,
smiling, and laying his hand on the elder's shoulder. ' Satan
was a blunderer, an introducer of novita, who made a
stupendous failure. If he had succeeded, we should all have
been worshipping him, and his portrait would have been
more flattered/

" ' Well, well/ said Cennini, ' I say not thy doctrine is not
too clever for Satan : I only say it is wicked enough for him/ "

Novelists are very rarely successful in their dialogue :
it seems very difficult to make people talk as they do
in real life. In this particular George Eliot is espe-
cially happy. She falls short, indeed, of Miss Austen
and Thackeray, who in this point stand quite alone.
But she is conspicuously superior to most writers ;
and in her this excellence is the more remarkable
because her dialogue is not confined to ordinary
themes. It is easy for conversation to be natural,
when, as with Trollope, the subjects of it are common-
place. But George Eliot's conversations are natural



GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS. 373

whatever be the subject. In the greatest warmth of
passion, in the depth of misery, in the utmost fervour
of exhortation, her characters use language never
stilted, or exaggerated, or bombastic ; yet it is always
such as rises to the lips under the overmastering
power of deep emotion, penetrated as it were with
the feeling of the moment. Even her historical
novels a style of writing in which the temptation to
make people talk ridiculously seems all-powerful are
free from this fault. In her pages we meet with none
of the " Odd-Zookses" and " By mine Halidomes," and
other wonderful ejaculations, which startle us in Sir
Walter Scott himself.

Descriptions of scenery in novels are often, we
suspect, passed over by the ordinary reader. Such of
George Eliot's readers as follow this general custom
deprive themselves of a keen pleasure. Her descrip-
tions are rich and vivid in an unusual degree. True,
they are all in a certain style. As her characters are
taken, for the most part, from the lower classes of
society, so her descriptions are of what may be called
the humbler kinds of scenery. She is an artist rather of
the Dutch school. The mightier wonders of nature, the
grandeur of the hills, the majesty and mystery of the
sea, are not brought down to us ; but nature in her
lowlier and gentler aspects never was sketched with a
firmer hand, or made beautiful with a colouring so
rich. She is perfectly at home with English rural
life, and at her will ordinary English scenery rises
before our eyes bright with an unexpected beauty.
The power of appealing which lies in the commonest
features of natural scenery has rarely been interpreted
with such subtlety and truth. The mill on the banks
of the sluggish river gliding among the osiers, the
farm-house hid amid the apple-blossoms, the farm-
yard blithe with industry, and the heavy waggons



374 GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS.

bringing plenty from a field ; the labours of the
reapers among the splendours of an English autumn,
the ingathering of the harvest such are the scenes
where her genius for description finds its most perfect
triumph. " Loamshire," in a word, is altogether her
own domain. Fresh in the recollection of every one is
that wonderful effort of descriptive power with which
"Felix Holt" opens how the coach rolled through a
land where

" the bushy hedgerows wasted the land with their straggling
beauty, shrouded the grassy borders of the pastures with
catkinned hazels, and tossed their long blackberry branches
on the cornfields. Perhaps they were white with May, or
starred with pale pink dog-roses ; perhaps the urchins were
already nutting amongst them, or gathering the plenteous
crabs. It was worth the journey only to see those hedgerows,
the liberal homes of unmarketable beauty of the purple-
blossomed ruby-berried nightshade, of the wild convolvulus
climbing and spreading in tendrilled strength till it made
a great curtain of pale-green hearts and white trumpets,
of the many- tubed honeysuckle which, in its most delicate
fragrance, hid a charm more subtle and penetrating than
beauty. Even if it were winter the hedgerows showed their
coral, the scarlet haws, the deep-crimson hips, with linger-
ing brown leaves to make a resting-place for the jewels of
the hoar-frost. Such hedgerows were often as tall as the
labourers' cottages dotted along the lanes, or clustered into a
small hamlet, their little dingy windows telling, like thick-
filmed eyes, of nothing but the darkness within."

Of the same stamp is the following passage, in
which a peculiarly English scene is painted with a
loving elaboration and surprising fidelity. It is from
the " Scenes of Clerical Life," and readers will gladly
excuse the frequency of our quotations when we can
bring again before them writing like this :

" No wonder Mr. Jerome was tempted to linger in the
garden, for though the house was pretty and well deserved



GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS. 375

its name, ' the White House/ the tall damask roses that
clustered over the porch being thrown into relief by rough
stucco of the most brilliant white, yet the garden and
orchards were Mr. Jerome's glory, as well they might be ; and
there was nothing in which he had a more innocent pride
peace to a good man's memory ! all his pride was innocent
than in conducting a hitherto uninitiated visitor over his
grounds, and making him in some degree aware of the in-
comparable advantages possessed by the inhabitants of the
White House in the matter of red- streaked apples, russets,
northern greens (excellent for baking), swan-egg pears, and
early vegetables, to say nothing of flowering ' srubs,' pink
hawthorns, lavender bushes more than ever Mrs. Jerome
could use, and, in short, a superabundance of everything that
a person retired from business could desire to possess him-
self or to share with his friends. The garden was one of
those old-fashioned paradises which hardly exist any longer
except as memories of our childhood : no finical separation
between flower and kitchen garden there ; no monotony of
enjoyment for one sense to the exclusion of another ; but a
charming paradisaical mingling of all that was pleasant to
the eyes and good for food. The rich flower-border running
along every walk, with its endless succession of spring-
flowers, anemones, auriculas, wall-flowers, sweet-williams,
campanulas, snapdragons, and tiger- lilies, had its taller
beauties, such as moss and Provence roses, varied with
espalier apple-trees ; the crimson of a carnation was carried
out in the lurking crimson of the neighbouring strawberry-
beds ; you gathered a moss-rose one moment and a bunch
of currants the next ; you were in a delicious fluctuation
between the scent of jasmine and the juice of gooseberries.
Then what a high wall at one end, flanked by a summer-
house so lofty, that after ascending its long flight of steps
you could see perfectly well there was no view worth looking
at ; what alcoves and garden- seats in all directions ; and
along one side, what a hedge, tall and firm, and unbroken,
like a green wall ! "

Without doubt, however, George Eliot's great point
as a novelist is in her characters. On whatever scores
they may be objected to, there can be no dispute as



376 GEORGE ELIOT's NOVELS.

to the fact that they are powerfully and vigorously
drawn. She has a curious familiarity with certain
out-of-the-way forms of clerical life, both in the
Church and among Dissenters. Perhaps the most
subtle and most delicately drawn of all her characters
are the Rev. Amos Barton in " Scenes of Clerical
Life/ 7 and the Kev. Rufus Lyon in "Felix Holt/'
The former of these is an interesting, even a romantic
character ; the latter is not in the least so ; but they are
to be classed together because they are both types of
a class, and because of the truth with which their
whole natures are shown to us. Again, how admir-
ably done are Mr. Tryan in " Janet's Repentance," in
the extreme evangelical school, and the dignified
rector of the old school in " Felix Holt," than whom
no two characters could be more distinct ; and then
Mr. Irwine in " Adam Bede," a sort of mean between
the two, is finely discriminated from either. Her
clerical gallery is very large ; and in it she has ex-
hibited not only her wide and generous sympathies,
but also that rare quality in a novelist, the power of
distinguishing characters not stamped by any marked
peculiarities. The Dodson Family in "The Mill on
the Floss" has, we think, been much overpraised. It
is a picture of harsh and vulgar, if not of positively
low life, unredeemed, so far as we can see, by any
delicacy of touch. There is in it no display of that
power of delicate discrimination of character which
we have just spoken of; on the contrary, each sister
rides her own hobby with an obtrusive consistency
which is carried quite to an extreme. Nor are any of
the hobbies in the least amusing. Aunt Grlegg always
coarsely insolent about money, and Aunt Pullet always
maundering about her china and her linen, seem to
us not humorous, or even farcical. In fact, we think
this group forms a striking contrast to the delicacy of



GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS. 377

all her clerical portraits. She has certainly achieved
her greatest triumphs with parsons and artisans. Her
minor characters are uniformly good. She resembles
in this a careful actor who studies his by-play. She
spares no pains that every part, however slight, should
be thoroughly drawn. This is especially noticeable in
" Felix Holt," in which the stage is fuller than in any of
her previous novels. The valet Christian, the waiting-
maid Denner, the Debarrys, father and son, every one
of these is a careful and completed study. In nothing,
not even in intellectual power, does George Eliot rise
so superior to the ordinary novelists of the day as in
the perfect finish which she bestows on all her work.

We have already noticed George Eliot's love of
commenting on the motives and actions of her cha-
racters, or at least of indulging in reflections directly
arising out of them. She acts herself the part of
chorus, showing us how and why things go wrong,
and improving the occasion generally, all in a style
somewhat more explicit than that of the chorus of old
time. In the hands of most writers this would be-
come tedious ; it is not so in her hands. On the
contrary, as is the case with Thackeray, though these
comments may detract from the animation of the
story, they give breadth and power to the whole work.

A critic, in the last number of " Macmillan's Maga-
zine," dwells on this characteristic of George Eliot's
writings. He upholds it as a rare excellence, and
says that only in virtue of it can novels yield us what
they ought to yield, namely, " criticism of life." This
may be true ; but the writer speaks of the scope and
power of George Eliot's "moral reflections" in lan-
guage which partakes of that exaggeration of praise
with which the majority of our critics are doing their
best to spoil a great writer. He selects the following
" specimen reflection" as especially marvellous :

2 B



378 GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS.

" Our lives make a moral tradition for our individual
selves,. as the life of mankind at large makes a moral tradi-
tion for the race, and to have once acted greatly seems a
reason why we should always be noble. But Tito was feel-
ing the effect of an opposite tradition : he had won no
memories of self- conquest and perfect faithfulness from
which he could have a sense of falling."

Beside this may be placed the following in the same
style :

" And it has been well believed through many ages that
the beginning of compunction is the beginning of a new life;
that the mind which sees itself blameless may be called dead
in trespasses in trespasses on the love of others, in tres-
passes on their weaknesses, in trespasses on all those great
claims which are the image of our own need."

We quote these passages, both because of the over-
praise we have alluded to, and because they serve to
illustrate the power of George Eliot's style. There is
nothing in either of them very new or striking. The
thought in the former is merely that action, of what-
ever kind it be, reacts upon a man's nature ; and the
thought in the latter is merely that very self-satisfied
people are apt to be uncharitable. Thackeray would
have put them both in two lines. But that is not
George Eliot's way. She uses her splendid diction to
give dignity to the thought. There is a pomp and
stateliness about the above sentences which prevents
the reader from discovering that he has heard the
same thing a hundred times before. Carried away
by the sounding words, he is at once impressed with
the profundity of a reflection in which, if translated
into homely language, he would recognise a very old
friend. We are far from making this matter of re-
proach against George Eliot. If not in the very
highest or purest style of art, it is at least a perfectly
justifiable device. George Eliot is rarely gifted with



GEORGE ELIOT S NOVELS. 379

a commanding eloquence, and no writer could be ex-
pected to relinquish the power which such a gift con-
fers. And if at times she presses it a little too far,
no one would be hasty to judge her. Only, when the
thing is forced upon our notice, it is right to distin-
guish between depth of thought and force of expres-
sion.

We have before remarked on George Eliot's ten-
dency towards improbable incident To the same
cause namely, an inability to work out a plot may
be ascribed the unnaturalness of action which some-
times alienates our sympathy from her best characters.
Their proceedings are dictated by motives so utterly
inadequate that we have no feeling for them, or with
them, in what they do. This fault as indeed most
of the faults in art which can be brought against her
is conspicuous in "Felix Holt," and for the plain
reason that, in " Felix Holt," she has made her most
elaborate endeavour after artistic completeness. Al-
most all the leading characters in that book act un-
naturally, and the finish-off is a climax of absurdity.
No woman in Esther's position, and with Esther's
feelings, would have gone to visit the Transomes.
Delicacy, not less than common sense, would have
made such a step impossible. It is impossible to
measure the force of a woman's love ; but very few,
we think, would throw away a fortune justly her own,
in order to gratify a wild and irrational caprice on the
part of a lover, to whose faults, moreover, she is by
no means blind. Certainly no woman of Esther's
temperament would have done so, and therefore we
feel instinctively that the result will be a dismal
failure. Esther, with a large family living on 100
a year, we feel to be an utter blunder. In taking the
absurd step she does, she has been false to her own
character, and nothing but unhappiness to herself and



380 GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS.

her husband can ensue. And what can be said of
Harold Transome's position at the close of the book ?
He is represented as living on quite happily and con-
tentedly in the possession of wealth not his own ; nay,
worse than that, which he knows to be the property
of a woman whom he has deliberately made love to
for the sake of this wealth, and who has refused him.
It is not worth while to point out that Harold's
powerful and hard character renders this peculiarly
impossible to him ; no man could stoop to such a life.
We can recall few things in fiction more unnatural or
absurd. But all absurdities are as nothing compared
with the absurdities of Felix Holt himself. One can
imagine Esther giving up a fortune for love of him ;
but why should he have demanded this sacrifice ?
From what motive did his resolution to refuse riches
spring ? All men can sympathise with a St. Francis
accepting poverty as his Heaven- destined bride ; but
what affinity has the foolish petulance of Felix Holt
with such emotions as those which moved the saint of
Assisi ? A reviewer in the " Westminster" says, that
if George Eliot's doctrine as to this choice of her hero
is to be taken in its ordinary meaning, it is " simply
mischievous." We believe it is intended so to be
taken ; and we agree with the reviewer in thinking
that, if it shall ever have any effect, such effect can
be for mischief only. As a matter of fact, it will, of
course, have no effect whatever ; but this unnatural
folly is a serious blemish. There is no adequate
motive for such a proceeding, and therefore the book
is, so far, unnatural. The man who commits this
extravagance is, inferentially at least, praised and
honoured for it, and therefore a false standard of right
and wrong is to this extent inculcated. Many instances
of a similar nature might be given from George Eliot's
novels, but this one is perhaps the most marked ; and



GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS. 381

at all events it is quite sufficient to illustrate our
criticism.

Thus far we have considered George Eliot's powers
as a writer generally, and especially her powers as a
writer of fiction. But her ardent admirers put forth
claims on her behalf far beyond this scope. They
insist that she should be looked upon as the teacher
of the age ; and that in the sense in which all the
supreme writers of fiction, whether in prose or verse,
may be said to be teachers. Now, taking this point
of view, the first question which occurs is, whether
she is in her fitting pulpit? or, in other words,
Has the novel-writer any title to higher aims than
the amusement of readers ? Sydney Smith expresses
a pretty clear opinion on the point: " The main ques-
tion as to a novel is did it amuse ? Were you
surprised at dinner coming so soon ? Did you mis-
take eleven for ten, and twelve for eleven 1 Were
you too late to dress ? and did you sit up beyond the
usual hour ? If a novel produces these effects, it is
good; if it does not story, language, love, scandal
itself cannot save it. It is only meant to please ; and
it must do that, or it does nothing." But this doc-
trine, especially the last sentence, is too extreme for
the present day. We are, as we so often hear, an
" earnest " generation ; and crave for instruction at
all seasons, and in divers places. Admirers of Carlyle
will remember how strongly he objects on this score
to the Waverley Novels : " Not profitable for doctrine,
for reproof, for edification, for building up or elevating
in any shape ! The sick heart will find no healing
here, the darkly struggling heart no guidance ; the
heroic, that is in all men, no divine awakening voice."
We cannot now discuss the truth of this charge ;
we refer to it merely as showing that such high
themes are now demanded from novelists. It is not



382 GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS.

meant that our novels are to be sermons in disguise,
even though the disguise be worn with the grace of
Miss Edgeworth. But it is meant that trivial aims
and light emotions are sufficing motives in no work
of fiction ; that novels which hope to last should rest
upon the permanent interests of mankind, and reach
the depths of the heart. Literature has higher pur-
poses than that of merely amusing ; and if such
purposes belong to the dramatist, why not to the
novelist likewise? And especially at the present
time, when novel-writing, like the rod of Moses, has
swallowed up almost every other form of literature.

Adopting, then, this point of view, and granting to
George Eliot the appropriateness of her position as a
teacher and moral instructor, the question remains,
What is the purport of her teaching ? or, in other
words, What subjects does she touch upon, and how
does she handle them ? Foremost, and most striking
of all, is her treatment of religion. She does not
go out of her way to seek this subject, but when
it does occur, she treats it freely, with know-
ledge and experience, and with perfect frankness.
The following quotation reminds one of the ".Northern
Farmer :"

" T don't understand these new sort o' doctrines. When
Mr. Barton comes to see me, he talks about nothing but "my
sins and my need o' marcy. Now, Mr. Hackit, I 've never
been a sinner. From the fust beginning, when I went into
service, I al'ys did my duty by my emplyers. I was as
good a wife as any's in the county never aggravated my
husband. The cheese -factor used to say my cheese was
al'ys to be depended on. I Ve known women, as their
cheeses swelled a shame to be seen, when their husbands
had counted on the cheese-money to make up their rent ; and
yet they 'd three gowns to my one. If I 'm not to be saved,
I know a many as are in a bad way. But it 's well for me
as I can't go to church any longer, for if th' old singers are



GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS. 383

to be done away with, there '11 be nothing left as it was in
Mr. Patten's time ; and what 's more, I hear you Ve settled
to pull the church down and build it up new ?"

Equally natural, yet entirely different in feeling, is
this :

" Mrs. Raynor had been reading about the lost sheep, and
the joy there is in heaven over the sinner that repenteth.
Surely the eternal love she believed in through all the
sadness of her lot would not leave her child to wander
farther and farther into the wilderness till there was no
turning the child so lovely, so pitiful to others, so good,
till she was goaded into sin by woman's bitterest sorrows !
Mrs. Raynor had her faith and her spiritual comforts,
though she was not in the least evangelical, and knew
nothing of doctrinal zeal. I fear most of Mr. Tryan's
hearers would have considered her destitute of saving know-
ledge, and I am quite sure she had no well-defined views
of justification. Nevertheless, she read her Bible a great
deal, and thought she found divine lessons there how to
bear the cross meekly, and be merciful. Let us hope that
there is a saving ignorance, and that Mrs. Raynor was justified
without knowing exactly how."

And then compare with these as in a loftier vein
of thought :

"His mind was destitute of that dread which has been
erroneously decried as if it were nothing higher than a
man's animal care for his own skin : that awe of the Divine
Nemesis which was felt by religious pagans, and, though it
took a more positive form under Christianity, is still felt by
the mass of mankind simply as a vague fear at anything
which is called wrong-doing. Such terror of the unseen is
so far above mere sensual cowardice that it will annihilate
that cowardice : it is the initial recognition of a moral law
restraining desire, and checks the hard bold scrutiny of im-
perfect thought into obligations which can never be proved
to have any sanctity in the absence of feeling."

" Nevertheless, Evangelicalism had brought into palpable



384 GEORGE ELIOT'S NOVELS.

existence and operation in Milby society that idea of duty,
that recognition of something to be lived for beyond the
mere satisfaction of self, which is to the moral life what the
addition of a great central ganglion is to animal life. No
man can begin to mould himself on a faith or an idea
without rising to a higher order of experience : a principle
of subordination, of self-mastery, has been introduced into
his nature ; he is no longer a mere bundle of impressions,
desires, and impulses. Whatever might be the weaknesses of
the ladies who pruned the luxuriance of their lace and ribbons,
cut out garments for the poor, distributed tracts, quoted Scrip-
ture, and defined the true gospel, they had learned this
that there was a divine work to be done in life, a rule of
goodness higher than the opinion of their neighbours ; and if
a notion of the heaven in reserve for themselves was a little too
prominent, yet the theory of fitness for that heaven consisted
in purity of heart, in Christlike compassion, in the subduing
of selfish desires. They might give the name of piety to
much that was only puritanic egoism ; they might call many
tilings sin that were not sin; but they had at least the
feeling that sin was to be avoided and resisted, and colour-
blindness, which may mistake drab for scarlet, is better than
total blindness which sees no distinction of colour at all.
Miss Rebecca Linnet, in quiet attire, with a somewhat ex-
cessive solemnity of countenance, teaching at the Sunday
school, visiting the poor, and striving after a standard of
purity and goodness, had surely more moral loveliness than
in those flaunting peony- days, when she had no other model
than the costumes of the heroines in the circulating library.
Miss Eliza Pratt, listening in rapt attention to Mr. Tryan's



Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 30 of 38)