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of the manner in which George Eliot may be said to
have acted on her generation ; but the " artistic
mind," the possession of which it implies, existed in
her with limitations remarkable in a writer whose
imagination was so rich. We feel in her, always,
that she proceeds from the abstract to the concrete ;
that her figures and situations are evolved, as the
phrase is, from her moral consciousness, and are only
indirectly the products of observation. They are

x deeply studied and massively supported, but they are
not seen, in the irresponsible plastic way. The world
was, first and foremost, for George Eliot, the moral,
the intellectual world; the personal spectacle came
after ; and lovingly humanly as she regarded it we
constantly feel that she cares for the things she finds

Vin it only so far as they are types. The philosophic
door is always open, on her stage, and we are aware
that the somewhat cooling draught of ethical purpose
draws across it. This constitutes half the beauty of
her work; the constant reference to ideas may be
an excellent source of one kind of reality for, after
all, the secret of seeing a thing well is not necessarily
that you see nothing else. Her preoccupation with
the universe helped to make her characters strike
you as also belonging to it ; it raised the roof, widened
the area, of her aesthetic structure. Nothing is finer,
in her genius, than the combination of her love of
general truth and love of the special case ; without



52 THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT

this, indeed, we should not have heard of her as a
novelist, for the passion of the special case is surely
the basis of the story-teller's art. All the same, that
little sign of all that Balzac failed to suggest to her
showed at what perils the special case got itself con-
sidered. Such dangers increased as her activity pro-
ceeded, and many judges perhaps hold that in her
ultimate work, in Middle'march and Daniel Deronda
(especially the latter), it ceased to be considered at
all. Such critics assure us that Gwendolen and
Grandcourt, Deronda and Myra, are not concrete
images, but disembodied types, pale abstractions, signs
and symbols of a " great lesson." I give up Deronda
and Myra to the objector, but Grandcourt and Gwen-
dolen seem to me to have a kind of superior reality ;
to be, in a high degree, what one demands of a
figure in a novel, planted on their legs and complete.
The truth is, perception and reflection, at the out-
set, divided George Eliot's great talent between
them ; but as time went on circumstances led the
latter to develop itself at the expense of the former
one of these circumstances being apparently the
influence of George Henry Lewes. Lewes was inter-
ested in science, in cosmic problems ; and though his
companion, thanks to the original bent of her versa-
tile, powerful mind, needed no impulse from without
to turn herself to speculation, yet the contagion of
his studies pushed her further than she would other-
wise have gone in the direction of scientific observa-
tion, which is but another form of what I have called



THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT 53

reflection. Her early novels are full of natural as
distinguished from systematic observation, though
even in them it is less the dominant note, I think,
than the love of the " moral," the reaction of thought
in the face of the human comedy. They had obser-
vation sufficient, at any rate, to make their fortune,
and it may well be said that that is enough for any
novel. In Silas Marner, in Adam Bede, the quality
seems gilded by a sort of autumn haze, an afternoon
light, of meditation, which mitigates the sharpness of
portraiture. I doubt very much whether the author
herself had a clear vision, for instance, of the mar-
riage of Dinah Morris to Adam, or of the rescue of
Hetty from the scaffold at the eleventh hour. The
reason of this may be, indeed, that her perception was
a perception of nature much more than of art, and
that these particular incidents do not belong to nature
(to my sense at least) ; by which I do not mean that
they belong to a very happy art I cite them, on the
contrary, as an evidence of artistic weakness ; they are
a very good example of the view in which a story must
have marriages and rescues in the nick of time, as a
matter of course. I must add, in fairness to George
Eliot, that the marriage of the nun-like Dinah, which
shocks the reader, who sees in it a base concession,
was a trouvaille of Lewes's and is a small sign of that
same faulty judgment in literary things which led
him to throw his influence on the side of her writing
verse verse which is all reflection, with direct, vivi-
fying vision, or emotion, remarkably absent.



54 THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT

It is a part of this same limitation of the pleasure
she was capable of taking in the fact of representa-
tion for itself that the various journals and notes of
her visits to the Continent are, though by no means
destitute of the tempered enjoyment of foreign sights
which was as near as she ever came to rapture, sin-
gularly vague in expression on the subject of the
general and particular spectacle the life and manners,
the works of art. She enumerates diligently all
the pictures and statues she sees, and the way
she does so is a proof of her active, earnest
intellectual habits ; but it is rarely apparent that
they have said much to her, or that what they
have said is one of their deeper secrets. She is
capable of writing, after coming out of the great
chapel of San Lorenzo, in Florence, that " the world-
famous statues of Michael Angelo on the tombs . . .
remained to us as affected and exaggerated in the
original as in copies and casts." That sentence
startles one, on the part of the author of Romola, and
that Mr. Cross should have printed it is a commend-
able proof of his impartiality.

It was in Romola, precisely, that the equilibrium
I spoke of just now was lost, and that reflection
began to weigh down the scale. Romola is pre-
eminently a study of the human conscience in an
historical setting which is studied almost as much,
and few passages in Mr. Cross's volumes are more
inteiesting than those relating to the production of
this magnificent romance. George Eliot took all her



THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT 55

work with a noble seriousness, but into none of it
did she throw herself with more passion. It drained
from her as much as she gave to it, and none of her
writing ploughed into her, to use her biographer's
expression, so deeply. She told him that she began
it a young woman and finished it an old one. More
than any of her novels it was evolved, as I have said,
from her moral consciousness a moral conscious-
ness encircled by a prodigious amount of literary
research. Her literary ideal was at all times of the
highest, but in the preparation of Romola it placed
her under a control absolutely religious. She read
innumerable books, some of them bearing only
remotely on her subject, and consulted without
stint contemporary records and documents. She
neglected nothing that would enable her to live,
intellectually, in the period she had undertaken to
describe. We know, for the most part, I think, the
result. Romola is on the whole the finest thing she
wrote, but its defects are almost on the scale of its
beauties. The great defect is that, except in the
person of Tito Melema, it does not seem positively
to live. It is overladen with learning, it smells
of the lamp, it tastes just perceptibly of pedantry.
In spite of its want of blood, however, it assur-
edly will survive in men's remembrance, for the
finest pages in it belong to the finest part of our
literature. It is on the whole a failure, but such a
failure as only a great talent can produce ; and one
may say cf it that there are many great " hits " far



56 THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT

less interesting than such a mistake. A twentieth
part of the erudition would have sufficed, would have
given us the feeling and colour of the time, if there
had heen more of the breath of the Florentine streets,
more of the faculty of optical evocation, a greater
saturation of the senses with the elements of the
adorable little city. The difficulty with the book,
for the most part, is that it is not Italian; it has
always seemed to me the most Germanic of the
author's productions. I cannot imagine a German
writing (in the way of a novel) anything half so
good ; but if I could imagine it I should suppose
Romola to be very much the sort of picture he would
achieve the sort of medium through which he would
show us how, by the Arno-side, the fifteenth century
came to an end. One of the sources of interest in
the book is that, more than any of its companions,
it indicates how much George Eliot proceeded by
reflection and research ; how little important, com-
paratively, she thought that same breath of the streets.
It carries to a maximum the in-door quality.

The most definite impression produced, perhaps,
by Mr. Cross's volumes (by the second and third) is
that of simple success success which had been the
result of no external accidents (unless her union with
Lewes be so denominated), but was involved in the
very faculties nature had given her. All the ele-
ments of an eventual happy fortune met in her
constitution. The great foundation, to begin with,
was there the magnificent mind, vigorous, luminous,



THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT 57

and eminently sane. To her intellectual vigour, her
immense facility, her exemption from cerebral lassi-
tude, her letters and journals bear the most copious
testimony. Her daily stint of arduous reading and
writing was of the largest. Her ability, as one may
express it in the most general way, was astonishing,
and it belonged to every season of her long and fruit-
ful career. Her passion for study encountered no
impediment, but was able to make everything feed
and support it. The extent and variety of her know-
ledge is by itself the measure of a capacity which
triumphed wherever it wished. Add to this an
immense special talent which, as soon as it tries its
wings, is found to be adequate to the highest, longest
nights and brings back great material rewards.
George Eliot of course had drawbacks and difficulties,
physical infirmities, constant liabilities to headache,
dyspepsia, and other illness, to deep depression, to
despair about her work ; but these jolts of the
chariot were small in proportion to the impetus
acquired, and were hardly greater than was neces-
sary for reminding her of the secret of all ambitious
workers in the field of art that effort, effort, always
effort, is the only key to success. Her great further-
ance was that, intensely intellectual being as she
was, the life of affection and emotion was also widely
open to her. She had all the initiation of knowledge
and none of its dryness, all the advantages of judg-
ment and all the luxuries of feeling. She had an
imagination which enabled her to sit at home with



58 THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT

book and pen, and yet enter into the life of other
generations ; project herself into Warwickshire ale-
houses and Florentine symposia, reconstitute condi-
tions utterly different from her own. Toward the
end she triumphed over the great impossible ; she
reconciled the greatest sensibility with the highest
serenity. She succeeded in guarding her pursuits
from intrusion ; in carrying out her habits ; in sacri-
ficing her work as little as possible ; in leading, in
the midst of a society united in conspiracies to
interrupt and vulgarise, an independent, strenuously
personal life. People who had the honour of pene-
trating into the sequestered precinct of the Priory
the house in London in which she lived from 1863
to 1880 remember well a kind of sanctity in the
place, an atmosphere of stillness and concentration,
something that suggested a literary temple.

It was part of the good fortune of which I speak
that in Mr. Lewes she had found the most devoted
of caretakers, the most jealous of ministers, a com-
panion through whom all business was transacted.
The one drawback of this relation was that, consider-
ing what she attempted, it limited her experience too
much to itself ; but for the rest it helped her in a
hundred ways it saved her nerves, it fortified her
privacy, it protected her leisure, it diminished the fric-
tion of living. His admiration of her work was of the
largest, though not always, I think, truly discriminat-
ing, and he surrounded her with a sort of temperate
zone of independence independence of everything



THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT 59

except him and her own standards. Nervous, sensi-
tive, delicate in every way in which genius is delicate
(except, indeed, that she had a robust reason), it was
a great thing for her to have accident made rare
and exposure mitigated ; and to this result Lewes, as
the administrator of her fame, admirably contributed.
He filtered the stream, giving her only the clearer
water. The accident of reading reviews of one's
productions, especially when they are bad, is, for
the artist of our day, one of the most frequent ; and
Mr. Lewes, by keeping these things out of her way,
enabled her to achieve what was perhaps the highest
form of her success an inaccessibility to the news-
paper. " It is remarkable to me," she writes in 1876,
"that I have entirely lost my personal melancholy. I
often, of course, have melancholy thoughts about the
destinies of my fellow creatures, but I am never in that
mood of sadness which used to be my frequent visitant
even in the midst of external happiness." Her later
years, coloured by this accumulated wisdom, when she
had taken her final form before the world and had
come to be regarded more and more as a teacher and
philosopher, are full of suggestion to the critic, but I
have exhausted my limited space. There is a certain
coldness in them perhaps the coldness that results
from most of one's opinions being formed, one's mind
made up, on many great subjects ; from the degree,
in a w ord, to which " culture " had taken the place
of the more primitive processes of experience.

" Ah, les livres, ils nous de"bordent, ils nous



60 THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT

etouffent nous pe"rissons par les livres ! " That cry
of a distinguished French novelist (there is no harm
in mentioning M. Alphonse Daudet), which fell upon
the ear of the present writer some time ago, repre-
sents as little as possible the emotion of George Eliot
confronted with literatures and sciences. M. Alphonse
Daudet went on to say that, to his mind, the personal
impression, the effort of direct observation, was the
most precious source of information for the novelist;
that nothing could take its place ; that the effect of
books was constantly to check and pervert this effort;
that a second-hand, third-hand, tenth-hand, impres-
sion was constantly tending to substitute itself for a
fresh perception ; that we were ending by seeing
everything through literature instead of through our
own senses ; and that in short literature was rapidly
killing literature. This view has immense truth on
its side, but the case would be too simple if, on one
side or the other, there were only one way of finding
out. The effort of the novelist is to find out, to
know, or at least to see, and no one, in the nature
of things, can less afford to be indifferent to side-
lights. Books are themselves, unfortunately, an
expression of human passions. George Eliot had no
doubts, at any rate ; if impressionism, .before she laid
down her pen, had already begun to be talked about,
it would have made no difference with her she would
have had no desire to pass for an impressionist

There is one question we cannot help asking our-
selves as we close this record of her life ; it is im<



THE LITE OF GEORGE ELIOT 6 1

possible not to let our imagination wander in the
direction of what turn her mind or her fortune
might have taken if she had never met George
Henry Lewes, or never cast her lot with his. It is
safe to say that, in one way or another, in the long
run, her novels would have got themselves written,
and it is possible they would have been more natural,
as one may call it, more familiarly and casually
human. Would her development have been less
systematic, more irresponsible, more personal, and
should we have had more of Adam Bede and Silas
Marner and less of Romola and Middlemarch ? The
question, after all, cannot be answered, and I do not
push it, being myself very grateful for Middlemarch
and Romola. It is as George Eliot does actually
present herself that we must judge her a condition
that will not prevent her from striking us as one of
the noblest, most beautiful minds of our time. This
impression bears the reader company throughout
these letters and notes. It is impossible not to feel,
as we close them, that she was an admirable being.
They are less brilliant, less entertaining, than we
might have hoped ; they contain fewer " good things "
and have even a certain grayness of tone, something
measured and subdued, as of a person talking with-
out ever raising her voice. But there rises from
them a kind of fragrance of moral elevation ; a love
of justice, truth, and light ; a large, generous way of
looking at things; and a constant effort to hold
high the torch in the dusky spaces of man's con-



62 THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT

science. That is how we see her during the latter
years of her life : frail, delicate, shivering a little,
much fatigued and considerably spent, but still
meditating on what could be acquired and imparted;
still living, in the intelligence, a freer, larger life
than probably had ever been the portion of any
woman. To her own sex her memory, her example,
will remain of the highest value ; those of them for
whom the "development" of woman is the hope of
the future ought to erect a monument to George
Eliot. She helped on the cause more than any
one, in proving how few limitations are of necessity
implied in the feminine organism. She went so far
that such a distance seems enough, and in her effort
she sacrificed no tenderness, no grace. There is
much talk to-day about things being "open to
women"; but George Eliot showed that there is
nothing that is closed. If we criticise her novels
we must remember that her nature came first and
her work afterwards, and that it is not remark-
able they should not resemble the productions, say,
of Alexandre Dumas. What is remarkable, extra-
ordinary and the process remains inscrutable and
mysterious is that this quiet, anxious, sedentary,
serious, invalidical English lady, without animal
spirits, without adventures or sensations, should
have made us believe that nothing in the world was
alien to her ; should have produced such rich, deep,
masterly pictures of the multiform life of man.

1885.



Ill

DANIEL DERONDA
A CONVERSATION



DANIEL DERONDA:
A CONVERSATION

THEODORA, one day early in the autumn, sat on her
verandah with a piece of embroidery, the design of
which she made up as she proceeded, being careful,
however, to have a Japanese screen before her, to
keep her inspiration at the proper altitude. Pul-
cheria, who was paying her a visit, sat near her with
a closed book, in a paper cover, in her lap. Pul-
cheria was playing with the pug-dog, rather idly,
but Theodora was stitching, steadily and meditatively.
" Well," said Theodora, at last, " I wonder what he
accomplished in the East." Pulcheria took the little
dog into her lap and made him sit on the book.
" Oh," she replied, " they had tea-parties at Jerusalem
exclusively of ladies and he sat in the midst and
stirred his tea and made high-toned remarks. And
then Mirah sang a little, just a little, on account of
her voice being so weak. Sit still, Fido," she con-
tinued, addressing the little dog, "and keep your
nose out of my face. But it's a nice little nose, all
F



66 DANIEL DERONDA : A CONVERSATION

the same," she pursued, "a nice little short snub nose
and not a horrid big Jewish nose. Oh, my dear,
when I think what a collection of noses there must
have been at that wedding ! " At this moment Con-
stantius steps upon the verandah from within, hat and
stick in hand and his shoes a trifle dusty. He has some
distance to come before he reaches the place where
the ladies are sitting, and this gives Pulcheria time
to murmur, " Talk of snub noses ! " Constantius is
presented by Theodora to Pulcheria, and he sits down
and exclaims upon the admirable blueness of the sea,
which lies in a straight band across the green of the
little lawn ; comments too upon the pleasure of hav-
ing one side of one's verandah in the shade. Soon
Fido, the little dog, still restless, jumps off Pulcheria's
lap and reveals the book, which lies title upward.
"Oh," says Constantius, "you have been finishing
Daniel Deronda?" Then follows a conversation
which it will be more convenient to present in
another form.

Theodora. Yes, Pulcheria has been reading aloud
the last chapters to me. They are wonderfully
beautiful.

Constantius (after a moment's hesitation). Yes, they
are very beautiful. I am sure you read well, Pul-
cheria, to give the fine passages their full value.

Theodora. She reads well when she chooses, but
I am sorry to say that in some of the fine passages of
this last book she took quite a false tone. I couldn't
have read them aloud myself; I should have broken



DANIEL DERONDA : A CONVERSATION 67

down. But Pulcheria would you really believe it ?
when she couldn't go on it was not for tears, but
for the contrary.

Constantius. For smiles? Did you really find it
comical ? One of my objections to Daniel Deronda is
the absence of those delightfully humorous passages
which enlivened the author's former works.

Pulcheria. Oh, I think there are some places as
amusing as anything in Adam Bede or The Mill on the
Floss : for instance where, at the last, Deronda wipes
Gwendolen's tears and Gwendolen wipes his.

Constantius. Yes, I know what you mean. I
can understand that situation presenting a slightly
ridiculous image ; that is, if the current of the story
don't swiftly carry you past.

Pulcheria. What do you mean by the current of
the story 1 I never read a story with less current.
It is not a river ; it is a series of lakes. I once read
of a group of little uneven ponds resembling, from a
bird's-eye view, a looking-glass which had fallen upon
the floor and broken, and was lying in fragments.
That is what Daniel Deronda would look like, on a
bird's-eye view.

Theodora. Pulcheria found that comparison in
a French novel. She is always reading French
novels.

Constantius. Ah, there are some very good ones.

Pulcheria (perversely). I don't know ; I think
there are some very poor ones.

Constantius. The comparison is not bad, at any



68 DANIEL DERONDA : A CONVERSATION

rate. I know what you mean by Daniel Deronda
lacking current. It has almost as little as Romola.

Pulcheria. Oh, Romola is unpardonably slow ; it
is a kind of literary tortoise.

Constantius. Yes, I know what you mean by
that. But I am afraid you are not friendly to our
great novelist.

Theodora. She likes Balzac and George Sand and
other impure writers.

Constantius. Well, I must say I understand that.

Pulcheria. My favourite novelist is Thackeray,
and I am extremely fond of Miss Austen.

Constantius. I understand that too. You read
over The Newcomes and Pride and Prejudice.

Pulcheria. No, I don't read them over now ; I
think them over. I have been making visits for a
long time past to a series of friends, and I have spent
the last six months in reading Daniel Deronda aloud.
Fortune would have it that I should always arrive by
the same train as the new number. I am accounted
a frivolous, idle creature ; I am not a disciple in the
new school of embroidery, like Theodora ; so I was
immediately pushed into a chair and the book thrust
into my hand, that I might lift up my voice and
make peace between all the impatiences that were
snatching at it. So I may claim at least that I have
read every word of the work. I never skipped.

Theodora. I should hope not, indeed !

Constantius. And do you mean that you really
didn't enjoy it ?



DANIEL DERONDA : A CONVERSATION 69

Pulcheria. I found it protracted, pretentious,
pedantic.

Constantius. I see ; I can understand that.

Theodora. Oh, you understand too much ! This
is the twentieth time you have used that formula.

Constantius. What will you have ? You know I
must try to understand ; it's my trade.

Theodora. He means he writes reviews. Trying
not to understand is what I call that trade !



Online LibraryHenry JamesPartial portraits → online text (page 4 of 24)