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would probably have been the first to admit. Where
that intercourse can be had, nothing is more fit to
make the judgment robust, nothing more fit to
freshen and revive our interests, and to clothe them
with reality. Even second-rate companionship has
some clear advantages. The question is, whether
these advantages outweigh the equally clear disadvan-
tages. Mr. Mill was persuaded that they do not.

Those whom disgust at the aimlessness and insigni-
ficance of most of our social intercourse may dispose to
withdrawal from it— and their number will probably



ME. mill's autobiogeaphy. 91

increase as the reaction against intellectual flippancy
goes on — will do well to remember that Mr. Mill's
retirement and his vindication of it sprang from no
moral valetudinarianism. He did not retire to gratify
any self-indulgent whim, but only in order to work
the more uninterruptedly and definitely. The Auto-
biography tells us what pains he took to keep himself
informed of all that was going on in every part of
the world. ' In truth, the modern facilities of com-
munication have not only removed all the disad-
vantages, to a political writer in tolerably easy cir-
cumstances, of distance from the scene of political
action, but have converted them into advantages.
The immediate and regular receipt of newspapers and
periodicals keeps him au courant of even the most tem-
porary politics, and gives him a much more correct
view of the state and progress of opinion than he
could acquire by personal contact with individuals ;
for every one's social intercourse is more or less
limited to particular sets or classes, whose impres-
sions and no others reach him through that channel ;
and experience has taught me that those who give
their time to the absorbing claims of what is called
society, not having leisure to keep up a large ac-
quaintance with the organs of opinion, remain much
more ignorant of the general state either of the public
mind, or of the active and instructed part of it, than
a recluse who reads the newspapers need be. There
are, no doubt, disadvantages in too long a separation
from one's country — in not occasionally renewing



92 ME. mill's autobiography.

one's impressions of the light in which men and tilings
appear when seen from a position in the midst of
them ; but the deliberate judgment formed at a dis-
tance, and undisturbed by inequalities of perspective,
is the most to be depended on, even for application
in practice. Alternating between the two positions,
I combined the advantages of both.' Those who
knew him Avill perhaps agree that he was more widely
and precisely informed of the transactions of the day,
in every department of activity all over the world,
than any other person of their acquaintance. People
should remember, further, that though Mr. Mill saw
comparatively little of men after a certain time, yet
he was for many years of his life in constant and
active relations with men. It was to his experience
in the Indian Office that he attributed some of his
most serviceable qualities, especially this : ' I learnt
how to obtain the best I could, when I could not
obtain everything ; instead of being indignant or dis-
pirited because I could not have entirely my own
way, to be pleased and encouraged when I could have
the smallest part of it ; and when even that could not
be, to bear with complete equanimity the being over-
ruled altogether' (pp. 85, 86). In these words we
seem almost to hear the modest and simple tones of
the writer's own voice.



THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT.^

The illustrious woman who is the subject of these
volumes makes a remark to her publisher which is at
least as relevant now as it was then. Can nothing
be done, she asks, by dispassionate criticism towards
the reform of our national habits in the matter of
literary biography ? * Is it anything short of odious
that as soon as a man is dead his desk should
be raked, and every insignificant memorandum which
he never meant for the public be printed for the
gossiping amusement of people too idle to reread his
books?' Autobiography, she says, at least saves a
man or a woman that the world is curious about,
from the publication of a string of mistakes called
Memoirs. Even to autobiography, however, she con-
fesses her deep repugnance unless it can be written
so as to involve neither self-glorification nor impeach-
ment of others — a condition, by the way, with which
hardly any, save Mill's, can be said to comply. ' I
like,' she proceeds, ' that He being dead yet speaketh
should have quite another meaning than that' (iii.

^ George Eliot's Life. By J, W. Cross. Three volumes.
Blackwood and Sons. 1885.



94 THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT.

226, 297, 307). She shows the same fastidious appre-
hension still more clearly in another way. 'I have
destroyed almost all my friends' letters to me,' she
says, ' because they were only intended for my eyes,
and could only fall into the hands of persons who
knew little of the writers if I allowed them to remain
till after my death. In proportion as I love every
form of piety — which is venerating love — I hate
hard curiosity; and, unhappily, my experience has
impressed me with the sense that hard curiosity is
the more common temper of mind ' (ii. 286). There
is probably little diiTerence among us in respect of
such experience as that.

Much biography, perhaps we might say most, is
hardly above the level of that ' personal talk,' to which
Wordsworth sagely preferred long barren silence, the
flapping of the flame of his cottage fire, and the under-
song of the kettle on the hob. It would not, then,
have much surprised us if George Eliot had insisted
that her works should remain the only commemora-
tion of her life. There be some Avho think that those
who have enriched the world with great thoughts and
fine creations, might best be content to rest unmarked
' where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,'
leaving as little work to the literary executor, except
of the purely crematory sort, as did Aristotle, Plato,
Shakespeare, and some others whose names the world
will not willingly let die. But this is a stoic's doc-
trine ; the objector may easily retort that if it had
been sternly acted on, we should have known very



THE LIFP] OF GEORGE ELIOT. 95

very little about Dr. Johnson, and nothing about
Socrates.

This is but an ungracious prelude to some remarks
upon a book, Avhich must be pronounced a striking
success. There will be very little dispute as to the
fact that the editor of these memorials of George
Eliot has done his work with excellent taste, judg-
ment, and sense. He found no autobiography nor
fragment of one, but he has skilfully shaped a kind
of autobiography by a plan which, so far as we know,
he is justified in calling new, and which leaves her
life to write itself in extracts from her letters and
journals. With the least possible obtrusion from the
biographer, the original pieces are formed into a con-
nected whole ' that combines a narrative of day-to-
day life with the play of light and shade which only
letters written in serious moods can give.' The idea
is a good one, and Mr. Cross deserves great credit for
it. We may hope that its success will encourage
imitators. Certainly there are drawbacks. We miss
the animation of mixed narrative. There is, too, a
touch of monotony in listening for so long to the
voice of a single speaker addressing others who are
silent behind a screen. But Mr. Cross could not, we
think, have devised a better way of dealing with his
material : it is simple, modest, and efiective.

George Eliot, after all, led the life of a studious
recluse, with none of the bustle, variety, motion, and
large communication with the outer world, that justi-
fied Lockhart and Moore in making a long story of



96 THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT,

the lives of Scott and Byron. Even here, among
men of letters, who were also men of action and of
great sociability, arc not all biographies too long?
Let any sensible reader turn to the shelf where his
Lives repose ; we shall l)e surprised if he does not
find that nearly every one of them, taking the pres-
ent century alone, and including such splendid and
attractive subjects as Goethe, Hume, Romilly, Mack-
intosh, Horner, Chalmers, Arnold, Southey, Cowper,
would not have been all the better for judicious cur-
tailment. Lockhart, who wrote the longest, wrote
also the shortest, the Life of Burns ; and the shortest
is the best, in spite of defects which would only have
been worse if the book had been bigger. It is to be
feared that, conscientious and honourable as his self-
denial has been, even Mr. Cross has not wholly re-
sisted the natural and besetting error of the biographer.
Most people will think that the hundred pages of the
Italian tour (vol. ii.), and some other not very remark-
able impressions of travel, might as well or better
have been left out.

As a mere letter-writer, George Eliot will not rank
among the famous masters of what is usually con-
sidered especially a woman's art. She was too busy
in serious work to have leisure for that most delight-
ful way of wasting time. Besides that, she had by
nature none of that fluency, rapidit}^, abandonment,
pleasant volubility, which make letters amusing, cap-
tivating, or piquant. What Mr. Cross says of her
as the mistress of a salon, is true of her for the most



THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELTOT. 97

part as a correspondent : — ' Playing around many
disconnected subjects, in talk, neither interested nor
amused her much. She took things too seriously,
and seldom found the effort of entertaining compen-
sated by the gain '(iii. 335). There is the outpour-
ing of ardent feeling for her friends, sobering down,
as life goes on, into a crooning kindliness, affectionate
and honest, ])ut often tinged with considerable self-
consciousness. It was said of some one that his epi-
grams did honour to his heart ; in the reverse direc-
tion we occasionally feel that George Eliot's effusive
playfulness does honour to her head. It lacks sim-
plicity and verve. Even in an invitation to dinner,
the words imply a grave sense of responsibility on
both sides, and sense of responsibility is fatal to the
charm of familiar correspondence.

As was inevitable in one whose mind was so habit-
ually turned to the deeper elements of life, she lets
fall the pearls of wise speech even in short notes.
Here are one or two : —

* My own experience and development deepen
every day my conviction that our moral progress may
be measured by the degree in which we sympathise
with individual suffering and individual joy.'

' If there is one attitude more odious to me than
any other of the many attitudes of " knowingness," it
is that air of lofty superiority to the vulgar. She
will soon find out that I am a very commonplace
woman.'

' It so often happens that others are measuring us

VOL. in. H



98 THE LTFK OF GEORGE ELIOT.

by onr past self while we are looking back on that
self with a mixture of disgust and sorrow.'

The following is one of the best examples, one of
the few examples, of her best manner : —

I have been made rather unhappy by my husband's
impulsive proposal about Christmas. We are dull old
persons, and your two sweet young ones ought to find
each Christmas a new bright bead to string on their
memory, whereas to spend the time with us would be to
string on a dark shrivelled berry. They ought to have a
group of young creatures to be joyful with. Our own
children always spend their Christmas with Gertrude's
family ; and we have usually taken our sober merry-
making with friends out of town. Illness among these
will break our custom this year ; and thus mein Mann,
feeling that our Christmas was free, considered how very
much he liked being with you, omitting the other side of
the question — namely, our total lack of means to make a
suitably joyous meeting, a real festival, for Phil and
Margaret. I was conscious of this lack in the very
moment of the proposal, and the consciousness has been
pressing on me more and more painfully ever since. Even
my husband's affectionate hopefulness cannot withstand
my melancholy demonstration. So pray consider the
kill-joy proposition as entirely retracted, and give us
something of yourselves only on simple black-letter days,
when the Herald Angels have not been raising expectations
early in the morning.

This is very pleasant, but such pieces are rare, and
the infirmity of human nature has sometimes made
us sigh over these pages at the recollection of the
cordial cheeriness of Scott's letters, the high spirits of
Macanlay, the graceful levity of Voltaire, the rattling



THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT. 99

dare-devilry of Byron. Epistolary stilts among men
of letters went out of fashion with Pope, who, as was
said, thought that unless every period finished with a
conceit, the letter was not worth the postage. Poor
spirits cannot be the explanation of the stiffness in
George Eliot's case, for no letters in the English
language are so full of playfulness and charm as those
of Cowper, and he was habitually sunk in gulfs deeper
and blacker than George Eliot's own. It was some-
times observed of her, that in her conversation, elle
s'koiitait quand elle parlait — she seemed to be listening
to her own voice while she spoke. It must be allowed
that we are not always free from an impression of
self-listening, even in the most caressing of the letters
before us.

This is not much better, however, than trifling.
I daresay that if a lively Frenchman could have
watched the inspired Pythia on the sublime tripod,
he would have cried, Elle s'dcoute quand die parle.
When everything of that kind has been said, we have
the profound satisfaction, which is not quite a matter
of course in the history of literature, of finding after
all that the woman and the writer were one. The life
does not belie the books, nor private conduct stultify
public profession. We close the third volume of the
biography, as we have so often closed the third volume
of her novels, feeling to the very core that in spite of
a style that the French call alamhiquS, in spite of
tiresome double and treble distillations of phraseology,
in spite of fatiguing moralities, gravities, and ponder-



100 THE LIFE OF CEORGE ELIOT.

osities, Avc have still ])oeii in coiumuiiion with a high
and commanding intellect and a great nature. We
are vexed by pedantries that recall the p'Scieuses of
the Hotel Rambouillet, but we know that she had the
soul of the most heroic women in history. We crave
more of the Olympian serenity that makes action
natural and repose refreshing, but we cannot miss the
edification of a life marked by indefatigable labour
after generous purposes, by an unsparing struggle for
duty, and by steadfast and devout fellowship with
lofty thoughts.

Those who know Mr. Myers's essay on George
Eliot will not have forgotten its most imposing
passage : —

I remember how at Cambridge, I walked with her once
in the Fellows' Garden of Trinity, on an evening of rainy
May ; and she, stirred somewhat beyond her wont, and
taking as her text the three words which have been used
so often as the inspiring trumpet-calls of men, — the words
God, Immortality, Dw^?/,— pronounced, with terrible
earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbeliev-
able the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the
third. Never, perhaps, had steri:ier accents affirmed the
sovereignty of impersonal and unrecompensing law. I
listened, and night fell ; her grave, majestic coiintenance
turned toward me like a Sibyl's in the gloom ; it was as
though she withdrew from my grasp, one by one, the two
scrolls of promise, and left me the third scroll only, awful
with inevitable fates.

To many, the relation which was the most import-
ant event in George Eliot's life will seem one of
those irretrievable errors which reduce all talk of duty



THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT. 101

to a mockery. It is inevitable that this should be so,
and those who disregard a social law have little right
to complain. Men and women whom in every other
respect it would be monstrous to call bad, have taken
this particular law into their own hands before now,
and committed themselves to conduct of which
'magnanimity owes no account to prudence.' But if
they had sense and knew what they were about, they
have braced themselves to endure the disapproval of
a majority fortunately more prudential than them-
selves. The world is busy, and its instruments are
clumsy. It cannot know all the facts ; it has neither
time nor material for unravelling all the complexities
of motive, or for distinguishing mere libertinage from
grave and deliberate moral misjudgment; it is pro-
tecting itself as much as it is condemning the offenders.
On all this, then, we need have neither sophistry nor
cant. But those who seek something deeper than a
verdict for the honest working purpose of leaving
cards and inviting to dinner, may feel, as has been
observed by a contemporary writer, that men and
women are more fairly judged, if judge them we
must, by the way in which they bear the burden of
an error than by the decision that laid the burden
on their lives. Some idea of this kind was in her
own mind when she wrote to her most intimate friend
in 1857, 'If I live five years longer, the positive
result of my existence on the side of truth and
goodness will outweigh the small negative good that
would have consisted in my not doing anything to



LIBRARY

UNIVERSITY OF r.ATIFOENiA
SANTA BARBARA



102 THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT.

shock others' (i. 461). This urgent desire to balance
the moral account may have had something to do
with that laborious sense of responsibility which
weighed so heavily on her soul, and had so equivocal
an effect upon her art. Whatever else is to be said
of this particular union, nobody can deny that the
picture on which it left a mark was an exhibition of
extraordinary self-denial, energy, and persistency in
the cultivation and the use of great gifts and powers
for what their possessor believed to be the highest
objects for society and mankind.

A more perfect companionship, one on a higher
intellectual level, or of more sustained mental activity,
is nowhere recorded. Lewes's mercurial temperament
contributed as much as the powerful mind of his
consort to prevent their seclusion from degenerating
into an owlish stagnation. To the very last (1878)
he retained his extraordinary buoyancy. 'Nothing
but death could quench that bright flame. Even on
his worst days he had always a good story to tell ;
and I remember on one occasion in the drawing-room
at Witley, between two bouts of pain, he sang through
with great brio, though without much voice, the
greater portion of the tenor part in the Barber of
Seville, George Eliot playing his accompaniment, and
both of them thoroughly enjoying the fun ' (iii. 334).
All this gaiety, his inexhaustible vivacity, the facility
of his transitions from brilliant levity to a keen
seriousness, the readiness of his mental response, and
the wide range of intellectual accomplishments that



THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT. 103

were much more than superficial, made him a source
of incessant and varied stimulation. Even those, and
there were some, who thought that his gaiety bordered
on flippancy, that his genial self-content often came
near to shockingly bad taste, and that his reminiscences
of poor Mr. Fitzball and the green-room and all the
rest of the Bohemia in which he had once dwelt, were
too racy for his company, still found it hard to resist
the alert intelligence with which he rose to every
good topic, and the extraordinary heartiness and spon-
taneity with which the wholesome spi'ing of human
laughter was touched in him.

Lewes had plenty of egotism, not to give it a more
unamiable name, but it never mastered his intellectual
sincerity. George Eliot describes him as one of the
few human beings she has known who will, in the
heat of an argument, see, and straightway confess,
that he is in the wrong, instead of trying to shift his
ground or use any other device of vanity. 'The
intense happiness of our union,' she wrote to a friend,
' is derived in a high degree from the perfect freedom
with which we each follow and declare our own
impressions. In this respect I know no man so great
as he — that difference of opinion rouses no egotistic
irritation in him, and tliat he is ready to admit that
another argument is the stronger the moment his
intellect recognises it ' (ii. 279). This will sound very
easy to the dispassionate reader, because it is so
obviously just and proper, but if the dispassionate
leader ever tries, he may find the virtue not so easy



104 THE LIFE OF CEOKGE ELIOT.

as it looks. Finally, and above all, we can never
forget in Lewes's case how much true elevation and
stability of character was implied in the unceasing
reverence, gratitude, and devotion with which for
five-and-twent)'' years he treated her to whom he
owed all his happiness, and who most truly, in his
own words (ii. 76), had made his life a new birth.

The reader will be mistaken if he should infer from
such passages as abound in her letters that George
Eliot had any particular weakness for domestic or
any other kind of idolatry. George Sand, in Lucrezia
Floriani, where she drew so unkind a picture of
Chopin, has described her own life and character as
marked by 'a great facility for illusions, a blind
benevolence of judgment, a tenderness of heart that
was inexhaustible ; consequently great precipitancy,
many mistakes, much weakness, fits of heroic devotion
to unworthy objects, enormous force applied to an
end that was wretched in truth and fact, but sublime
in her thought.' George Eliot had none of this
facility. Nor was general benignity in her at all of
the poor kind that is incompatible with a great deal
of particular censure. Universal benevolence never
lulled an active critical faculty, nor did she conceive
true humility as at all consisting in hiding from an
impostor that you have found him out. Like Cardinal
Newman, for whose beautiful passage at the end of
the Apologia she expresses such richly deserved
admiration (ii. 387), she unites to the gift of unction
and brotherly iove a capacity for giving an extremely



THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT. 105

shrewd m'lD to a brother whom she does not love.
Her passion for Thomas-a-Kempis did not prevent
her, and there was no reason why it should, from
dealing very faithfully with a friend, for instance (ii.
271) ; from describing Mr. Buckle as a conceited,
ignorant man ; or castigating Brougham and other
people in slashing reviews ; or otherwise from showing
that great expansiveness of the affections went with
a remarkably strong, hard, masculine, positive, judging
head.

The benefits that George Eliot gained from her
exclusive companionship with a man of lively talents
were not without some compensating drawbacks.
The keen stimulation and incessant strain, unrelieved
by variety of daily intercourse, and never diversified
by participation in the external activities of the
world, tended to bring about a loaded, over-conscious,
over-anxious state of mind, which Avas not only not
wholesome in itself, but was inconsistent with the
full freshness and strength of artistic work. The
presence of the real world in his life has, in all but
one or two cases, been one element of the novelist's
highest success in the world of imaginative creation.
George Eliot had no greater favomite than Scott, and
when a series of little books upon English men of
letters was planned, she said that she thought that
writer among us the happiest to whom it should fall
to deal with Scott. But Scott lived full in the life
of his fellow-men. Even of Wordsworth, her other
favourite, though he was not a creative artist, we



lOG THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT.

may say that he daily saturated himself in those
natural elements and effects, which were the material,
the suggestion, and the sustaining insiiiration of his
consoling and fortifying poetry. George Eliot did
not live in the midst of her material, but aloof from
it and outside of it. Heaven forbid that this should
seem to be said by way of censure. Both her health
and other considerations made all approach to busy
sociability in any of its shapes both unwelcome and
impossible. But in considering the relation of her
manner of life to her work, her creations, her medita-
tions, one cannot but see that when compared with
some writers of her own sex and age, she is constantly



Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies (Volume 3) → online text (page 7 of 25)