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Cabot's subjects a reputation to a test leads people
to look it over and hold it up to the light, to see
whether it is worth keeping in use or even putting
away in a cabinet. Such a revision of Emerson has
no relegating consequences. The result of it is once
more the impression that he serves and will not wear


out, and that indeed we cannot afford to drop him
His instrument makes him precious. He did some-
thing better than any one else ; he had a particular
faculty, which has not been surpassed, for speaking
to the soul in a voice of direction and authority.
There have been many spiritual voices appealing,
consoling, reassuring, exhorting, or even denouncing
and terrifying, but none has had just that firmness
and just that purity. It penetrates further, it seems
to go back to the roots of our feelings, to where con-
duct and manhood begin ; and moreover, to us to-day,
there is something in it that says that it is connected
somehow with the virtue of the world, has wrought
and achieved, lived in thousands of minds, produced
a mass of character and life. And there is this
further sign of Emerson's singular power, that he is
a striking exception to the general rule that writings
live in the last resort by their form ; that they owe
a large part of their fortune to the art with which
they have been composed. It is hardly too much, or
too little, to say of Emerson's writings in general
that they were not composed at all. Many and many
things are beautifully said ; he had felicities, inspira-
tions, unforgettable phrases ; he had frequently an
exquisite eloquence.

' ' O my friends, there are resources in us on which we have
not yet drawn. There are men who rise refreshed on hearing a
threat ; men to whom a crisis which intimidates and paralyses
the majority demanding not the faculties of prudence and
thrift, but comprehension, immovableness, the readiness of
sacrifice, come graceful and beloved as a bride. . . . But these


are heights that we can scarce look up to and remember without
contrition and shame. Let us thank God that such things
exist. "

None the less we have the impression that that
search for a fashion and a manner on which he was
always engaged never really came to a conclusion ;
it draws itself out through his later writings it
drew itself out through his later lectures, like a sort
of renunciation of success. It is not on these, how-
ever, but on their predecessors, that his reputation
will rest. Of course the way he spoke was the way
that was on the whole most convenient to him ; but
he differs from most men of letters of the same
degree of credit in failing to strike us as having
achieved a style. This achievement is, as I say,
usually the bribe or toll-money on the journey to
posterity ; and if Emerson goes his way, as he
clearly appears to be doing, on the strength of his
message alone, the case will be rare, the exception
striking, and the honour great.




THE writer of these pages has observed that the first
question usually asked in relation to Mr. Cross's
long-expected biography is whether the reader has
not been disappointed in it. The inquirer is apt to
be disappointed if the question be answered in the
negative. It may as well be said, therefore, at the
threshold of the following remarks, that such is not
the feeling with which this particular reader laid
down the book. The general feeling about it will
depend very much on what has been looked for ;
there was probably, in advance, a considerable belief
that we were to be treated to "revelations." I know
not exactly why it should have been, but certain it
is that the announcement of a biography of George
Eliot has been construed more or less as a promise
that we were to be admitted behind the scenes, as it
were, of her life. No such result has taken place.
We look at the drama from the point of view usually
allotted to the public, and the curtain is lowered
whenever it suits the biographer. The most
" intimate " pages in the book are those in which


the great novelist notes her derangements of health
and depression of spirits. This history, to my sense,
is quite as interesting as it might have been ; that is,
it is of the deepest interest, and one misses nothing
that is characteristic or essential except perhaps a
few more examples of the vis comica which made
half the fortune of Adam Bede and Silas Marner.
There is little that is absent that it would have been
in Mr. Cross's power to give us. George Eliot's
letters and journals are only a partial expression of
her spirit, but they are evidently as full an expres-
sion as it was capable of giving itself when she was
not wound up to the epic pitch. They do not
explain her novels ; they reflect in a singularly
limited degree the process of growth of these great
works ; but it must be added that even a superficial
acquaintance with the author was sufficient to assure
'one that her rich and complicated mind did not
overflow in idle confidences. It was benignant and
receptive in the highest degree, and nothing could
have been more gracious than the manner of its
intercourse ; but it was deeply reserved and very
far from egotistical, and nothing could have been
less easy or agreeable to it, I surmise, than to at-
tempt to tell people how, for instance, the plot of
Romola got itself constructed or the character of
Grandcourt got itself observed. There are critics
who refuse to the delineator of this gentleman the
title of a genius ; who say that she had only a great
talent overloaded with a great store of knowledge.


The label, the epithet, matters little, but it is certain
that George Eliot had this characteristic of the mind
possessed: that the creations which brought her
renown were of the incalculable kind, shaped them-
selves in mystery, in some intellectual back-shop or
secret crucible, and were as little as possible implied
in the aspect of her life. There is nothing more
singular or striking in Mr. Cross's volumes than the
absence of any indication, up to the time the Scenes
from Clerical Life were published, that Miss Evans
was a likely person to have written them ; unless it
be the absence of any indication, after they were
published, that the deeply -studious, concentrated,
home-keeping Mrs. Lewes was a likely person to
have produced their successors. I know very well
that there is no such thing in general as the air of
the novelist, which it behoves those who practise
this art to put on so that they may be recognised in
public places ; but there is such a thing as the air of
the sage, the scholar, the philosopher, the votary of
abstractions and of the lore of the ages, and in this
pale but rich Life that is the face that is presented.

The plan on which it is composed is, so far as I
know, without precedent, but it is a plan that could
have occurred only to an " outsider" in literature, if
I may venture to apply this term to one who has
executed a literary task with such tact and success.
The regular litterateur, hampered by tradition, would.
I think, have lacked the boldness, the artless artful-
ness, of conjoining in the same text selected morsels


of letters and journals, so as to form a continuous
and multifarious talk, on the writer's part, punctuated
only by marginal names and dates and divisions into
chapters. There is something a little violent in the
system, in spite of our feeling that it has been
applied with a supple hand ; but it was probably the
best that Mr. Cross could have adopted, and it
served especially well his purpose of appearing only
as an arranger, or rather of not appearing at all.
The modesty, the good taste, the self-effacement of
the editorial element in the book are, in a word,
complete, and the clearness and care of arrangement,
the accuracy of reference, leave nothing to be de-
sired. The form Mr. Cross has chosen, or invented,
becomes, in the application, highly agreeable, and
his rule of omission (for we have, almost always,
only parts and passages of letters) has not prevented
his volumes from being as copious as we could wish.
George Eliot was not a great letter-writer, either in
quantity or quality ; she had neither the spirit, the
leisure, nor the lightness of mind to conjure with
the epistolary pen, and after her union with George
Henry Lewes her disposition to play with it was
further damped by his quick activity in her service.
Letter-writing was part of the trouble he saved her ;
in this as in other ways he interposed between the
world and his sensitive companion. The difference
is striking between her habits in this respect and
those of Madame George Sand, whose correspondence
has lately been collected into six closely -printed


volumes which testify afresh to her extraordinary
energy and facility. Madame Sand, however, in-
defatigable producer as she was, was not a woman of
study ; she lived from day to day, from hand to
mouth (intellectually), as it were, and had no general
plan of life and culture. Her English compeer took
the problem of production more seriously ; she dis- s
tilled her very substance into the things she gave
the world. There was therefore so much the less
of it left for casual utterance.

It was not till Marian Evans was past thirty,
indeed, that she became an author by profession, and
it may accordingly be supposed that her early letters S
are those which take us most into her confidence.
This is true of those written when she was on the
threshold of womanhood, which form a very full ex-
pression of her feelings at the time. The drawback
here is that the feelings themselves are rather want-
ing in interest one may almost say in amiability.
At the age of twenty Marian Evans was a deeply
religious young woman, whose faith took the form
of a narrow evangelicism. Religious, in a manner,
she remained to the end of her life, in spite of her
adoption of a scientific explanation of things ; but
in the year 1839 she thought it ungodly to go to
concerts and to read novels. She writes to her for-
mer governess that she can " only sigh " when she
hears of the " marrying and giving in marriage that
is constantly transacted ; " expresses enjoyment of
Hannah More's letters ("the contemplation of so


blessed a character as hers is very salutary ") ;
wishes that she " might be more useful in her own
obscure and lowly station" ("I feel myself to be a
mere cumberer of the ground "), that she " might
seek to be sanctified wholly." These first fragments
of her correspondence, first glimpses of her mind,
are very curious ; they have nothing in common
with the later ones but the deep seriousness of the
tone. Serious, of course, George Eliot continued to
be to the end ; the sense of moral responsibility, of
the sadness and difficulty of life, was the most in-
veterate part of her nature. But the provincial
strain in the letters from which I have quoted is
very marked : they reflect a meagreness and gray-
ness of outward circumstance ; have a tinge as of
Dissent in a small English town, where there are
brick chapels in back streets. This was only a
moment in her development ; but there is some-
thing touching in the contrast between such a state
of mind and that of the woman before whom, at
middle age, all the culture of the world unrolled
itself, and towards whom fame and fortune, and an
activity which at the earlier period she would have
thought very profane, pressed with rapidity. In
1839, as I have said, she thought very meanly of
the art in which she was to attain such distinction.
"I venture to believe that the same causes which
exist in my own breast to render novels and romances
pernicious have their counterpart in every fellow-
creature. . . . The weapons of Christian warfare


were never sharpened at the forge of romance."
The style of these pietistic utterances is singularly
strenuous and hard; the light and familiar are
absent from them, and I think it is not too much
to say that they show scarcely a single premonitory
ray of the genius which had Silas Marner in reserve.
This dryness was only a phase, indeed ; it was
speedily dispelled by more abundant showers of
emotion by the overflow of perception. Premoni-
tory rays are still absent, however, after her first
asceticism passes away a change apparently co-
incident with her removal from the country to the
pleasant old town of Coventry, where all American
pilgrims to midland shrines go and murmur Tenny-
son on the bridge. After the evangelical note began
to fade it was still the desire for faith (a faith which
could reconcile human affection with some of the un-
amiable truths of science), still the religious idea
that coloured her thought ; not the love of human
life as a spectacle, nor the desire to spread the wings
of the artist. It must be remembered, though, that
during these years, if she was not stimulating pro-
phecy in any definite form she was inhaling those
impressions which were to make her first books so
full of the delightful midland quality, the air of old-
fashioned provincialism. The first piece of literary
work she attempted (and she brought it to the best
conclusion), was a translation of Strauss's Life of
Jesus, which she began in 1844, when she was not
yet twenty-five years of age ; a task which indicates


not only the persistence of her religious preoccupa-
tions, as well as the higher form they took, but the
fact that with the limited facilities afforded by her
life at that time she had mastered one of the most
difficult of foreign languages and the vocabulary of a
German exegetist. In 1841 she thought it wrong
to encourage novels, but in 1847 she confesses to
reading George Sand with great delight. There is
no exhibition in Mr. Cross's pages of the steps by
which she passed over to a position of tolerant scep-
ticism ; but the details of the process are after all
of minor importance : the essential fact is that the
change was predetermined by the nature of her

The great event of her life was of course her
acquaintance with George Henry Lewes. I say " of
course," because this relation had an importance even
more controlling than the publication and success of
her first attempt at fiction, inasmuch as it was in
consequence of Mr. Lewes's friendly urgency that
she wrote the Scenes of Clerical Life. She met him
for the first time in London, in the autumn of 1851;
but it was not till the summer of 1854 that the con-
nection with him began (it was marked to the world
by their going to spend together several months in
Germany, where he was bent on researches for his
Life of Goethe), which was to become so much closer
than many formal marriages and to last till his
death in 1878. The episode of Miss Evans's life
in London during these three years was already


tolerably well known. She had become by this
time a professional literary .woman, and had regular
work as assistant editor of the Westminster Beview,
to which she gave her most conscientious attention.
Her accomplishments now were wide. She was a
linguist, a copious reader, an earnest student of
history and philosophy. She wrote much for her
magazine as well as solicited articles from others,
and several of her contributions are contained in
the volume of essays published after her death
essays of which it is fair to say that they give but
a faint intimation of her latent powers. George
Henry Lewes was a versatile, hard-working journalist,
with a tendency, apparently, of the drifting sort;
and after having been made acquainted with each
other by Mr. Herbert Spencer, the pair commingled
their sympathies and their efforts. Her letters, at
this season, contain constant mention of Lewes (one
allusion to the effect that he "has quite won my re-
gard, after having had a good deal of my vitupera-
tion ") ; she takes an interest in his health and
corrects his proofs for him when he is absent. It
was impossible for Mr. Lewes to marry, as he had a
wife living, from whom he was separated. He had
also three children, of whom the care did not devolve
upon their mother. The union Miss Evans formed
with him was a deliberate step, of which she accepted
all the consequences. These consequences were ex-
cellent, so far as the world is at liberty to judge,
save in an important particular. This particular is


the fact that her false position, as we may call it,
produced upon George Eliot's life a certain effect of
sequestration which was not favourable to social
freedom, or to freedom of observation, and which
excited on the part of her companion a protecting,
sheltering, fostering, precautionary attitude the
assumption that they lived in special, in abnormal
conditions. It would be too much to say that
George Eliot had not the courage of the situation
she had embraced, but she had, at least, not the
levity, the indifference ; she was unable, in the pre-
mises, to be sufficiently superficial. Her deep, stren-
uous, much-considering mind, of which the leading
mark is the capacity for a sort of luminous brooding,
fed upon the idea of her irregularity with an intensity
which doubtless only her magnificent intellectual
activity and Lewes's brilliancy and ingenuity kept
from being morbid. The fault of most of her work
is the absence of spontaneity, the excess of reflection ;
and by her action in 1854 (which seemed super-
ficially to be of the sort usually termed reckless),
she committed herself to being nothing if not reflec-
tive, to cultivating a kind of compensatory earnest-
ness. Her earnestness, her educated conscience, her
exalted sense of responsibility, were coloured by her
peculiar position ; they committed her to a plan of
life, of study, in which the accidental, the unexpected,
were too little allowed for, and this is what I mean
by speaking of her sequestration. If her relations
with the world had been easier, in a word, hei


books would have been less difficult. Mr. Cross,
very justly, merely touches upon this question of
her forming a tie which was deprived of the sanction
of the law ; but he gives a portion of a letter written
to Mrs. Bray more than a year after it had begun,
which sufficiently indicates the serenity of her reso-
lution. Repentance, of course, she never had the
success of her experiment was too rare and complete
for that ; and I do not mean that her attitude was
ever for a moment apologetic. On the contrary, it
was only too superabundantly confirmatory. Her
effort was to pitch, her life ever in the key of the
superior wisdom that made her say to Mrs. Bray, in
the letter of September 1855, "That any unworldly,
unsuperstitious person who is sufficiently acquainted
with the realities of life can pronounce my relation
to Mr. Lewes immoral, I can only understand when
I remember how subtle and complex are the influ-
ences that mould opinion." I need not attempt to
project the light of criticism on this particular case
of conscience ; there remains ever, in the mutual
relations of intelligent men and women, an element
which is for themselves alone to consider. One
reflection, however, forces itself upon the mind : if
the connection had not taken place we should have
lost the spectacle and influence of one of the most
successful partnerships presented to us in the history
of human affection. There has been much talk
about George Eliot's " example," which is not to be
deprecated so long as it is remembered that in speak-


ing of the example of a woman of this value we can
only mean example for good. Exemplary indeed in
her long connection with George Henry Lewes were
the qualities on which beneficent intimacy rests.

She was thirty -seven years old when the Scenes
from Clerical Life were published, but this work
opened wide for her the door of success, and fame
and fortune came to her rapidly. Her union with
Lewes had been a union of poverty : there is a
sentence in her journal, of the year 1856, which
speaks of their ascending certain cliffs called the
Tors, at Ilfracombe, " only twice ; for a tax of 3d.
per head was demanded for this luxury, and we
could not afford a sixpenny walk very frequently."
The incentive to writing Amos Barton seems to have
been mainly pecuniary. There was an urgent need
to make money, and it appears to have been agreed
between the pair that there was at least no harm in
the lady's trying her hand at a story. Lewes pro-
fessed a belief that she would really do something in
this line, while she, more sceptical, reserved her
judgment till after the test. The Scenes from Clerical
Life were therefore pre-eminently an empirical work
of fiction. With the sending of the first episode to
the late Mr. John Blackwood for approval, there
opened a relation between publisher and author
which lasted to the end, and which was probably
more genial and unclouded than any in the annals
of literature, as well as almost unprecedentedly
lucrative to both parties. This first book of George


Eliot's has little of the usual air of a first book, none
of the crudity of an early attempt ; it was not the
work of a youthful person, and one sees that the
material had been long in her mind. The ripeness,
the pathos, a sort of considered quality, are as strik-
ing to-day as when Amos Barton and Janet's Repent-
ance were published, and enable us to understand
that people should have asked themselves with sur-
prise, at that time, who it was, in the midst of them,
that had been taking notes so long and so wisely
without giving a sign. Adam Bede, written rapidly,
appeared in 1859, and George Eliot found herself a
consummate novelist without having suspected it.
The book was an immense, a brilliant success, and
from this moment the author's life took its definite
and final direction. She accepted the great obliga-
tions which to her mind belonged to a person who
had the ear of the public, and her whole effort
thenceforth was highly to respond to them to
respond to them by teaching, by vivid moral illustra-
tion and even by direct exhortation. It is striking
that from the first her conception of the novelist's
task is never in the least as the game of art. The
most interesting passage in Mr. Cross's volumes is
to my sense a simple sentence in a short entry in
her journal in the year 1859, just after she had
finished the first volume of The Mill on the Floss (the
original title of which, by the way, had been Sister
Maggie) : "We have just finished reading aloud Pere
Goriot, a hateful book." That Balzac's masterpiece


should have elicited from her only this remark, at a
time, too, when her mind might have been opened
to it by her own activity of composition, is significant
of so many things that the few words are, in the
whole Life, those I should have been most sorry to
lose. Of course they are not all George Eliot would
have had to say about Balzac, if some other occasion
than a simple jotting in a diary had presented itself.
Still, what even a jotting may not have said after a
first perusal of Le Pkre Goriot is eloquent ; it illumin-
ates the author's general attitude with regard to the
novel, which, for her, was not primarily a picture of
life, capable of deriving a high value from its form,
but a moralised fable, the last word of a philosophy
endeavouring to teach by example.

This is a very noble and defensible view, and one
must speak respectfully of any theory of work which
would produce such fruit as Romola and Middlemarch.
But it testifies to that side of George Eliot's nature
which was weakest the absence of free aesthetic
life (I venture this remark in the face of a passage
quoted from one of her letters in Mr. Cross's third
volume) ; it gives the hand, as it were, to several
other instances that may be found in the same
pages. " My function is that of the cesthetic, not
the doctrinal teacher ; the rousing of the nobler
emotions, which make mankind desire the social right,
not the prescribing of special measures, concern-
ing which the artistic mind, however strongly
moved by social sympathy, is often not the best


judge." That is the passage referred to in my par-
enthetic allusion, and it is a good general description

Online LibraryHenry JamesPartial portraits → online text (page 3 of 24)