Henry H Lancaster.

Essays and reviews online

. (page 31 of 38)
Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 31 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

evening lecture, no doubt found evangelical channels for
vanity and egoism; but she was clearly in moral advance
of Miss Phipps giggling under her feathers at old Mr.
Crew's peculiarities of enunciation. And even elderly
fathers and mothers, with minds, like Mrs. Linnet's, too
tough to imbibe much doctrine, were the better for having
their hearts inclined towards the new preacher as a messen-
ger from God. They became ashamed, perhaps, of their evil
tempers, ashamed of their worldliness, ashamed of their
trivial, futile past. The first condition of human goodness


is something to love; the second, something to reverence.
And this latter precious gift was brought to Milby by Mr.
Tryan and Evangelicalism."

This knowledge of the various forms of religious
feeling to be found in the heart of man, and this
sympathy with them all, enhance greatly the power
of George Eliot's writings. It would be well if
such knowledge and sympathy were possessed in
the same measure by our professed religious teachers.
This present age is in no real sense of the word sceptical,
yet we suspect there has seldom been a time in which
there was a greater gulf fixed between the clergy and
the educated laity. Our clerical dignitaries are startled
now and again by some outspoken heresy ; they would
be a good deal more startled were they made aware
how much of what they call heresy is unspoken,
merely because it has become an ordinary habit of
thought. They are absorbed in their noisy contests
believing sincerely that matters of vital import are
at stake ; unconscious that the great bulk of the
laity looks on with indifference, save when indig-
nation is roused by some act of clerical intolerance
more heinous than common, yet also with a feel-
ing of sorrowful regret, that between them and
their teachers there is no sympathy, that to their
teachers they can look for no guidance. It is full
time the clergy should look to it, when laymen find
more that is akin to their modes of thought on
religious subjects in the writings of novelists like
Thackeray or George Eliot, than in all the teaching of
all the churches. In this particular, George Eliot's
subtlety, liberality, sympathy with mankind, and
fervour of feeling, deserve the heartiest recognition.
Few can hope to rival her powers ; but all might
seek to imitate the spirit in which sfye approaches
these themes.


When any question of morality arises, George
Eliot's tone is not less lofty than in treating of matters
more peculiarly religious. Her point of view is always
pure and high-minded. Her comments and criticisms,
either upon the actual transactions of the tale, or upon
life generally, are penetrated with a striking nobility
of sentiment. But the case is different with her
characters in action. Her precepts may be admirable ;
her example is not so. We hardly know how to
account for this ; but the same thing is remarkable in
other writers, as, for example, in Dickens, with whom
the disposition to high-flown sentiment is strong.
When this sentiment comes into harsh collision with
the facts of life, unnaturalness, it may be immorality,
of action is the frequent result. George Eliot cannot
be called a sentimental writer ; but in her hands high
moral theories applied to ordinary realities lead to
similar results. Perhaps the sentiment in the one
case, the moral doctrine in the other, may be too
bright and good for human nature's daily food, and
therefore prove at the critical moment an insufficient
power ; but however this may be, neither of them
necessarily, nor even commonly, is associated with
rectitude of conduct.

Whatever may be the explanation, the fact is cer-
tain. It is not too much to say that George Eliot's
characters rarely or never act from principle. They
are actuated sometimes by real and fervent religious
feeling, often by noble and lofty sentiment ; but
principle, in the proper sense of the word, very seldom
has power over them. The existence of such a motive
is forgotten in her psychology. The only instance
we can remember of any of her characters acting
from rational conviction is when Eomola, persuaded
by the exhortation of Savonarola, gives up her inten-
tion of flying from her husband's home. This refusal


to recognise principle as a cause of action is common
enough among women, both in their walk and conversa-
tion, and (in the case of such of them as are authors)
in their writings. Miss Yonge is a striking instance
of it. But a more masculine power of thought might
have been expected from George Eliot.

Much in the same way there is in her writings
a noticeable disregard of the secondary principles of
morality. Unless her characters are animated by the
most exalted motives, they are without any influence
sufficient to restrain them from serious offences. We
do not, of course, mean that George Eliot has drawn
no ordinary characters influenced often by common-
place motives. What we mean is, that the principles
to which we have referred are not allowed sufficient
scope on the whole that they have not their proper
place among the motives which influence human
action generally that the power they have to restrain
when religion is absent is not duly acknowledged.
Honour, for example, the most powerful perhaps
of those secondary principles, has no part in her
drama. There is a strong instance of this in " Adam
Bede." Arthur Donnithorne is represented as a
young English gentleman in the best sense of the
word, thoroughly generous-hearted and honourable.
And yet he seduces a girl, the niece of a farmer of
the better class, whom he has known all his life, and
with whose family, the principal tenants on the estate,
he has all his life been on terms of condescending-
intimacy, as befits the young squire. The seduction is
peculiarly bad, because it is carried out by real love-
making, marriage, if not actually promised, being
prominently brought before the girl's mind. When
found out by Adam Bede, he takes leave of Hetty in
a very cool letter, the purport of which is to assure
her that the marriage which he had led her to expect


could never take place. He leaves her without the
smallest thought of or provision for the future, and is,
when away, greatly cheered by the intelligence that
she is about to marry Adam, who also had been one
of the lowly friends of his youth. There are, of
course, many men who would have done all this quite
coolly, but Arthur Donnithorne could not. He would
not, indeed, have been restrained by religion, nor by
any very deep conceptions of morality, for neither
one influence nor the other had much hold upon him;
but he would have been restrained by a feeling of
honour. The Arthur Donnithorne of the book would
have felt that he was not behaving " like a gentle-
man/' and that would have been enough to give him
pause. It would have made him hasten from tempta-
tion when he saw that Hetty was dreaming of mar-
riage, and was therefore likely to fall. But in George
Eliot's treatment it is assumed that, the highest
motives being absent, no lower motive could have had
sufficient power. Now this is untrue to nature, and
therefore makes the whole character inconsistent and
unreal. The same mistake runs through all her
writings. It is a mistake which would be committed
by a certain order of preachers ; but it rests upon an
inadequate view of human nature, leads to a false
representation of life. The world would be in a very
bad way were it not for the authority of those lower
principles of morality which George Eliot, at any
crisis of action, utterly disregards. And the extremes
of wrong-doing into w r hich her characters, inconsis-
tently with their natures, are often hurried, arise
mainly from this source. For a teacher of morality
that being the light in which we are now regarding
George Eliot thus to undervalue the influence of
those principles, is a grievous blunder, and a blunder
of a directly pernicious tendency.


The relations between the sexes, in one aspect or
another, occupy a prominent place in all novels. The
majority preserve the beaten track of falling in love,
courtship under difficulties of various sorts, ending, as
the case may be, in marriage or in some untoward
catastrophe. Others begin with matrimonial felicity,
and seek to awake an interest by setting forth the
troubles to which that felicity may be exposed ; while
some, avoiding matrimony altogether, narrate a tale
of vice or crime, as in " Clarissa Harlowe " or " Kosa-
mond Gray." George Eliot has taken up this theme
in many of its aspects. With her the ordinary love-
story is not very frequent, nor always successful. The
loves of Esther and Felix Holt do not enlist our sym-
pathies. We doubt the truth to nature in making a
girl like Esther be subjugated by a man like Felix
Holt, clever, indeed, but coarse, overbearing, and
without genius sufficient to justify his unpleasant
eccentricities. Her taste must have revolted from
him ; while her acute intellect would have detected
the pretentiousness of his nature, and the want of any
sound basis for his opinions. Of the two, Harold
Transome, with all his faults, has far more reality
about him. Felix Holt is precisely the character a
woman would create, meaning him to be very fine ;
but he is not the man a woman would readily fall in
love with. On the other hand, nothing can be more
purely beautiful than the episode of Rufus Lyon and
Esther's mother, nothing more deeply true than the
growth of the affection of Dinah Morris for Adam
Bede. No reader can forget the scene in which the
young Methodist confesses the power of an earthly
love, and the author's passionate comment : " What
greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel
that they are joined for life, to strengthen each other
in all labour, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to


minister to each other in all pain, to be one with
each other in silent unspeakable memories at the last
parting ? "

It is matter for regret that a writer who can thus
portray the beauty of romance and the purity of
affection should ever have stooped to themes less
lovely. But the pleasant aspect of the relations
between man and woman is not that which George
Eliot loves best to look upon. She dislikes those rela-
tions as at present constituted. She is the champion
of woman against the selfishness and oppression of
man. " God was cruel when He made woman" is the
wild exclamation of one of her characters, with which
the writer evidently sympathises.

A writer animated by such a spirit naturally turns
away from cheerful views. Accordingly the less for-
tunate of the relations between the sexes seduction,
unhappy marriage, breach of the marriage vow are
of constant occurrence in her writings. What may
be the exact merits of this " teaching " we are at a
loss to discover. To us it seems purely pernicious.

We do not deny that these, like any of the other
crimes or calamities of life, may be proper subjects of
fiction. But to make them so, they must be treated
with studious reserve and delicacy, and they must be
exceptional the result of overmastering circumstance.
George Eliot fulfils neither of these conditions. So
far from approaching these matters with reserve she
enters into every detail with an indecorous and
unpleasing minuteness. Thus, in " Adam Bede " we
have an elaborate analysis of the mental process by
which a silly girl is carried on to her fall. It is exe-
cuted with wonderful skill ; but it is neither a pleasant
nor a profitable subject for meditation, and might
well have been spared. But, worse than this, we have
forced on us minute descriptions of the physical steps


which lead to the result pictures of Hetty's pouting
lips and swimming eyes, of the two wandering
together in the wood, etc., for all which we can ima-
gine no defence. It is disagreeable to recall these
things ; but censure, especially on such a ground as
this, must be justified. And this style of writing
seems to us deserving of the severest censure. It is
not, indeed, openly indecent ; but it is not the less
evil because it is suggestive only. For ourselves we
think it but the worse on that account, and of the two
prefer the frank coarseness of such scenes as the
adventure of Tom Jones with Lady Bellaston. How
differently is the same theme handled in " The Heart
of Midlothian" ! our feelings and sympathies far more
strongly stirred, and yet not an allusion which can
offend good taste. Elsewhere in George Eliot's writ-
ings, especially in the third volume of "The Mill on
the Floss/' there is a certain tone of sensuality, less
disagreeable than the suggestive style, but still quite
unworthy of her :

" ' may I get this rose ? ' said Maggie, making a great
effort to say something, and dissipate the burning sense of
irretrievable confession. ' I think I am quite wicked with
roses I like to gather them and smell them till they have
no scent left/

" Stephen was mute : he was incapable of putting a sen-
tence together, and Maggie bent her arm a little upward
towards the large half-opened rose that had attracted her.
Who has not felt the beauty of a woman's arm ? the
unspeakable suggestions of tenderness that lie in the dimpled
elbow and all the varied gently-lessening curves down to
the delicate wrist, with its tiniest, almost imperceptible
nicks in the firm softness. A woman's arm touched the
soul of a great sculptor two thousand years ago, so that he
wrought an image of it for the Parthenon which moves us
still as it clasps lovingly the time-worn marble of a headless
trunk. Maggie's was such an arm as that and it had the
warm tints of life.


" A mad impulse seized on Stephen ; he darted towards
the arm, and showered kisses on it, clasping the wrist."

Perhaps even worse than this treatment of these
matters is the way in which they are introduced.
They are not represented as exceptional, or as the
result of extraordinary circumstances; they are brought
before us almost as things of course. We have already
alluded to Arthur Donnithorne and Hester Sorrell.
Another instance of what we mean is to be found in
"Janet's Kepentance." There Mr. Tryan tells how, in
the days of " dissipation " at Oxford, he " took a girl
away from her home ; " and he tells it as no out-of-
the-way occurrence. Now, such an occurrence in real
life would be very much out of the way. Seduction
of women in that rank by men in that rank, is, in
spite of all that sentimental writers say, a very un-
common thing. Of course it does happen ; but it is
rare, and to represent it as an ordinary event is false
in art and wrong in morals. A more flagrant instance
still is the conduct of Mrs. Transome in "Felix Holt."
A woman of high birth, occupying a good position,
and raised above low temptation both by culture and
natural ability, is there represented as having stooped
to a country attorney a coarse vulgar man, wearing
" black satin waistcoats/' with " fat white hands/' and
a " scented handkerchief." That he was a brute as
well, who would make money out of this connection, and
enrich himself by keeping her in comparative poverty,
a woman like Mrs. Transome would have foreseen
from the first. And this is suddenly opened upon the
reader without any attempt to account for it, as in
the ordinary course of life, as a thing likely to happen
any day in the society around us. There is no sur-
prise expressed about it ; no sense of degradation
indicated ; nothing like repentance or regret for the
sin itself ; the only feeling aroused is shame at being


found out. The fact that punishment follows does
not at all redeem the immorality of such treatment.
No one is moved by this ; for the smallest experience
of life shows that the punishment of wrong-doing,
here at least, is a mere accident sometimes utterly
disproportioned to the offence, often never coming at
all. The morality of a representation of vice or
crime is determined by the circumstances in which
the act is done, and the motives which animate the
actors ; it is not at all affected by whether or not
retribution is brought in at the last.

No one would object to the charity which pervades
George Eliot's writings. Her wide sympathies, and
the generosity with which she appreciates the good in
things evil, are great sources of her power, and com-
mand hearty admiration. But these qualities are
very different from a tendency to make evil prevail
over good ; and that is what we are forced to urge
against her. To represent men and women as imma-
culate would be childish ; to make some almost uni-
formly good, and others invariably evil, would be
unnatural ; but, on the other hand, to show noble
natures yielding to temptations unworthy of them, or
influenced by motives over which they should have
easy command, is to make light of the distinction be-
tween right and wrong, to make the downward path
appear more headlong even than it really is, and thus,
while to excuse error, also to discourage effort. It
is terribly true that circumstances go far to shape
character ; but a moralist should take good heed not
to give them more power than they really have, and
especially not to exaggerate the power of trivial cir-

Another, and a less painful example of how George
Eliot makes a fine nature act, as it were, below itself,
is to be found in " The Mill on the Floss/' Every

2 C


one remembers the noble creation of Maggie Tulliver :
" a creature full of eager, passionate longings for all
that was beautiful and good ; thirsty for knowledge ;
with an ear straining after dreamy music that died away
and would not come near to her ; with a blind uncon-
scious yearning for something that would link together
the wonderful impressions of this mysterious life, and
give her soul a sense of home in it." Her childhood
was happy, but her youth was one of hardship and
self-discipline. Under these influences she meets, in
early womanhood, Mr. Stephen Guest, " a large-headed
long-limbed young man," with " a diamond ring, attar
of roses, and an air of nonchalant leisure at twelve
o'clock in the day ;" and after one interview with him,
in which he neither does nor says anything remarkable,
she " shivers " at the notion of his marrying anybody
but herself. The next step is his singing to her, and
the result of that George Eliot must tell herself :

" Maggie always tried in vain to go on with her work
when music began. She tried harder than ever to-day ; for
the thought that Stephen knew how much she cared for his
singing was one that no longer roused a merely playful
resistance ; and she knew, too, that it was his habit always
to stand so that he could look at her. But it was of no
use : she soon threw her work down, and all her intentions
were lost in the vague state of emotion produced by the
inspiring duet emotion that seemed to make her at once
strong and weak : strong for all enjoyment, weak for all
resistance. When the strain passed into the minor, she
half-started from her seat with the sudden thrill of that
change. Poor Maggie ! she looked very beautiful when her
soul was being played on in this way by the inexorable power
of sound. You might have seen the slightest perceptible
quivering through her whole frame, as she leaned a little
forward, clasping her hands as if to steady herself; while
her eyes dilated and brightened into that wide-open, childish
expression of wondering delight, which always came back
in her happiest moments. . . .


" Stephen rolled out, with saucy energy
' Shall I, wasting in despair,
Die because a woman 's fair V

and seemed to make all the air in the room alive with a new
influence. Lucy, always proud of what Stephen did, went
towards the piano with laughing admiring looks at him ;
and Maggie, in spite of her resistance to the spirit of the
song and to the singer, was taken hold of and shaken by
the invisible influence was borne along by a wave too strong
for her"

Shortly after this astonishing musical effect a
dancing-party takes place, at which he speaks to her
" with that glance and tone of subdued tenderness
which young dreams create to themselves in the
summer woods when low cooing voices fill the air "
whatever that may mean ; and at the same entertain-
ment there occurs the scene in the conservatory
which we have before quoted. After this there is but
one more interview, and then comes the climax :

" He was looking into her deep, deep eyes far off and
mysterious as the starlit blackness, and yet very near and
timidly loving. Maggie sat perfectly still perhaps for
moments, perhaps for minutes until the helpless trembling
had ceased, and there was a warm glow on her cheek.

" ' The man is waiting he has taken the cushions/ she
said. ' Will you go and tell him ? '

"'What shall I tell him?' said Stephen, almost in a
whisper. He was looking at the lips now.

" Maggie made no answer.

" ' Let us go,' Stephen murmured, entreatingly, rising and
taking her hand to raise her too. * We shall not be long

" And they went. Maggie felt that she was being led
down the garden among the roses, being helped with firm
tender care into the boat, having the cushion and cloak
arranged for her feet, and her parasol opened for her (which
she had forgotten) all by this stronger presence that seemed
to bear her along without any act of her own will, like the


added self which comes with the sudden exalting influence
of a strong tonic and she felt nothing else. Memory was

" They glided rapidly along, Stephen rowing, helped by
the backward-flowing tide, past the Tofton trees and houses
on between the silent sunny fields and pastures, which
seemed filled with a natural joy that had no reproach for
theirs. The breath of the young, unwearied day, the delicious
rhythmic dip of the oars, the fragmentary song of a passing
bird heard now and then, as if it were only the overflowing
of brim-full gladness, the sweet solitude of a twofold con-
sciousness that was mingled into one by that grave untiring
gaze which need not be averted what else could there be in
their minds for the first hour ? Some low, subdued languid
exclamation of love came from Stephen from time to time,
as he went on rowing idly, half automatically : otherwise,
they spoke no word ; for what could words have been but
an inlet to thought ? and thought did not belong to that en-
chanted haze in which they were enveloped it belonged to
the past and the future that lay outside the haze."

The author has laboured to throw a halo of romance
round this story ; but even her genius cannot hide its
innate absurdity. Under ordinary circumstances, a
woman such as Maggie Tul liver would not have been
likely to fall in love with a man like Stephen Guest.
But when to do so implied a violation of all propriety,
and even decency, our sympathies are repelled by the
inadequacy of the influences which lead to such an
act. Many women might have been hurried into
this wrong-doing even by the vulgar fascinations of
Stephen Guest ; but not Maggie Tulliver. Her pas-
sionate and unruly nature might have yielded under
other conditions, but not to him. She never could
have dreamed that he would gratify her "thirst for all
knowledge/' or would " give her soul a sense of home
in this mysterious life." He can make no appeal to
her intellect or her imagination, to her higher nature


in any way ; lie does nothing but sing to her and row
her about in a boat. Second-rate music ; and what
George Eliot calls the " rhythmic movement of the
oars/ 7 or, when the agony deepens, " the delicious
rhythmic dip of the oars ;" roses, cooing voices,
cushions, parasols timeously opened, such are the
influences which have power to silence gratitude and
honour in a nature like that of Maggie Tulliver, and
before their irresistible charm she becomes " lost to life
and use and name and fame ! " When they are not
at the piano or on the river, they are wandering
among roses " in a dim, dreamy state," or " under the
drooping green of laburnums. 37 In all George Eliot's
tales, the passion of love is presented too exclusively
in its physical aspect. Eomola herself is at once over-
powered by the attraction of a comely face. But in
" The Mill on the Floss" the love-making is altogether

Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 31 of 38)