John Morley.

Critical miscellanies (Volume 3) online

. (page 8 of 25)
Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies (Volume 3) → online text (page 8 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

bookish, artificial, and mannered. She is this because
she fed her art too exclusively, first on the memories
of her youth, and next from books, pictures, statues,
instead of from the living model, as seen in its actual
motion. It is direct calls and personal claims from
without that make fiction alive. Jane Austen bore
her part in the little world of the parlour that she
described. The writer of Sylvia's Lovers, whose work
George Eliot appreciated with unaffected generosity
(i. 305), was the mother of children, and was sur-
rounded by the wholesome actualities of the family.
The authors of Jane Eyre and TFuthering Heights
passed their days in one long succession of wild,
stormy, squalid, anxious, and miserable scenes —
almost as romantic, as poetic, and as tragic, to use
George Eliot's words, as their own stories. George
Sand eagerly shared, even to the pitch of passionate


tumult and disorder, in the emotions, the aspirations,
the ardour, the great conflicts and controversies of
her time. In every one of these, their daily close-
ness to the real life of the world has given a vitality
to their work which we hardly expect that even the
next generation will find in more than one or two of
the romances of George Eliot. It may even come to
pass that their position will be to hers as that of
Fielding is to Richardson in our own day.

In a letter to Mr. Harrison, which is printed here
(ii. 441), George Eliot describes her own method as
'the severe effort of trying to make certain ideas
thoroughly incarnate, as if they had revealed them-
selves to me first in the flesh and not in the spirit.'
The passage recalls a discussion one day at the Priory
in 1877. She was speaking of the difterent methods
of the poetic or creative art, and said that she began
with moods, thoughts, passions, and then invented
the story for their sake, and fitted it to them ;
Shakespeare, on the other hand, picked up a story
that struck him, and then proceeded to work in the
moods, thoughts, passions, as they came to him in the
course of meditation on the story. We hardly need
the result to convince us that Shakespeare chose the
better part.

The influence of her reserved fashion of daily life
was heightened by the literary exclusiveness which
of set purpose she imposed upon herself. ' The less
an author hears about himself,' she says, in one place,
' the better.' ' It is my rule, very strictly observed.


not to read the criticisms on my writings. For years
I have found this abstinence necessary to preserve mo
from that discouragement as an artist, wliich ill-
judged praise, no less than ill-judged blame, tends to
produce in us.' George Eliot pushed this repugnance
to criticism beyond the personal reaction of it upon
the artist, and more than disparaged its utility, even
in the most competent and highly trained hands.
She finds that the diseased spot in the literary culture
of our time is touched with the finest point by the
saying of La Bruy^re, that ' the pleasure of criticism
robs us of the pleasure of being keenly moved by
very fine things' (iii. 327). 'It seems to me,' she
writes (ii. 412), 'much better to read a man's own
writings than to read what others say about him,
especially when the man is first-rate and the others
third-rate. As Goethe said long ago about Spinoza,
"I always preferred to learn from the man himself
what he thought, rather than to hear from some one
else what he ought to have thought."' As if the
scholar will not always be glad to do both, to study
his author and not to refuse the help of the rightly
prepared commentator; as if even Goethe himself
would not have been all the better acquainted with
Spinoza if he could have read Mr. Pollock's book
upon him. But on this question Mr. Arnold has
fought a brilliant battle, and to him George Eliot's
heresies may well be left.

On the personal point whether an author should
ever hear of himself, George Eliot oddly enough con-


tradicts herself in a casual remark upon Bulwer. ' I
have a great respect,' she says, ' for the energetic
industry which has made the most of his powers.
He has been writing diligently for more than thirty
years, constantly improving his position, and profit-
ing by the lessons of public oj^inion and of other
writers ' (ii. 322). But if it is true that the less an
author hears about himself the better, how are these
salutary ' lessons of public opinion ' to penetrate to
him 1 ' Eubens,' she says, writing from Munich in
1858 (ii. 28), ' gives me more pleasure than any other
painter whether right or wrong. More than any one
else he makes me feel that painting is a great art,
and that he was a great artist. His are such real
breathing men and women, moved by passions, not
mincing, and grimacing, and posing in mere imitation
of passion.' But Rubens did not concentrate his in-
tellect on his own ponderings, nor shut out the whole-
some chastenings of praise and blame, lest they should
discourage his inspiration. Beethoven, another of the
chief objects of George Eliot's veneration, bore all
the rough stress of an active and troublesome calling,
though of the musician, if of any, we may say, that
his is the art of self-absorption.

Hence, delightful and inspiring as it is to read this
story of diligent and discriminating cultivation, of
accurate truth and real erudition and beauty, not
vaguely but methodically interpreted, one has some
of the sensations of the moral and intellectual hot-
house. Mental hygiene is apt to lead to mental


valetudinarianism. ' Tlie ignorant journalist,' may
be left to the torment which George Eliot wished
that she could inflict on one of those literary slovens
whose manuscripts bring even the most philosophic
editor to the point of exasperation : ' I should like to
stick red-hot skewers through the writer, whose style
is as sprawling as his handwriting.' By all means.
But much that even the most sympathetic reader
finds repellent in George Eliot's later work might
perhaps never have been, if Mr. Lewes had not prac-
tised with more than Eussian rigour a censorship of
the press and the post-oflSce which kept every dis-
agreeable whisper scrupulously from her ear. To stop
every draft with sandbags, screens, and curtains, and
to limit one's exercise to a drive in a well-warmed
brougham with the windows drawn up, may save a
few annoying colds in the head, but the end of the
process will be the manufacture of an invalid.

Whatever view we may take of the precise con-
nection between what she read, or abstained from
reading, and what she Avrote, no studious man or
woman can look without admiration and envy on the
breadth, variety, seriousness, and energy, with which
she set herself her tasks and executed them. She
says in one of her letters, ' there is something more
piteous almost than soapless poverty in the application
of feminine incapacity to literature ' (ii. 16). Nobody
has ever taken the responsibilities of literature more
ardently in earnest. She was accustomed to read
aloud to Mr. Lewes three hours a day, and her pri-


vate reading, except when she was engaged in the
actual stress of composition, must have filled as many
more. His extraordinary alacrity and her brooding
intensity of mind prevented these hours from being
that leisurely process in slippers and easy-chair which
passes with many for the practice of literary cultiva-
tion. Much of her reading was for the direct pur-
poses of her own work. The young lady who begins
to write historic novels out of her own head will find
something much to her advantage if she Avill refer to
the list of books read by George Eliot during the
latter half of 1861, when she was meditating Eomola
(ii. 325). Apart from immediate needs and uses, no
student of our time has known better the solace, the
delight, the guidance that abide in great writings.
Nobody who did not share the scholar's enthusiasm
could have described the blind scholar in his library
in the adorable fifth chapter of Eomola ; and we feel
that she must have copied out with keen gusto of
her own those words of Petrarch which she puts
into old Bardo's mouth — ' Lihri meduUitus deledant,
colloquuntur, considunt, et viva quadam nobis atcjue arguta
familiaritate junguntur.'

As for books that are not books, as Milton bade
us do with 'neat repasts of wine,' she wisely spared
to interpose them oft. Her standards of knowledge
were those of the erudite and the savant, and even in
the region of beauty she was never content with any
but definite impressions. In one place in these
volumes, by the way, she makes a remark curiously


inconsistent witli the usual scientific attitude of her
mind. She has been reading Darwin's Origin ofSpecie.%
on which she makes the truly astonishing criticism
that it is ' sadly wanting in illustrative facts,' and
that ' it is not impressive from want of luminous and
orderly presentation ' (ii. 43-48). Then she says that
' the development theory, and all other explanation
of processes by which things came to l)e, produce a
feeble impression compared with the mystery that lies
under processes.' This position it does not now con-
cern us to discuss, but at least it is in singular dis-
crepancy with her strong habitual preference for accu-
rate and quantitative knowledge, over vague and
misty moods in the region of the unknowable and the

George Eliot's means of access to books were very
full. She knew French, German, Italian, and Spanish
accurately. Greek and Latin, Mr. Cross tells us, she
could read with thorough delight to herself ; tliough
after the appalling specimen of Mill's juvenile La-
tinity that Mr. Bain has disinterred, the fastidious
collegian may be sceptical of the scholarship of
prodigies. Hebrew was her favourite study to the
end of her days. People commonly supposed that
she had been inoculated with an artificial taste for
science by her companion. We now learn that she
took a decided interest in natural science long before
she made Mr. Lewes's acquaintance, and many of the
roundabout pedantries that displeased people in her
latest writings, and were set down to his account.


appeared in her composition before slie had ever
exchanged a word with him.

All who knew her well enough were aware that
she had what Mr. Cross describes as 'Hmitless per-
sistency in application.' This is an old account of
genius, but nobody illustrates more effectively the
infinite capacity of taking pains. In reading, in look-
ing at pictures, in ])laying difficult music, in talking,
she was equally importunate in the search, and equally
insistent on mastery. Her faculty of sustained con-
centration was part of her immense intellectual power.
' Continuous thought did not fatigue her. She could
keep her mind on the stretch hour after hour ; the
body might give way, but the brain remained un-
wearied' (iii. 422). It is only a trifling illustration
of the infection of her indefatigable quality of taking
pains, that Lewes should have formed the important
habit of rewriting every page of his work, even of
short articles for Eeviews, before letting it go to the
press. The journal shows what sore pain and travail
composition was to her. She wrote the last volume
of Adam Becle in six weeks ; she ' could not help
writing it fast, because it was written under the stress
of emotion.' But what a prodigious contrast between
her pace and Walter Scott's twelve volumes a year !
Like many other people of powerful brains, she united
strong and clear general retentiveness with a weak
and untrustworthy verbal memory. ' She never could
trust herself to write a quotation without verifying
it.' ' What courage and patience,' she says of some



one else, ' are wanted for every life that aims to pro-
duce anything,' and her own existence was one long
and painful sermon on that text.

Over few lives have the clouds of mental dejection
hung in such heavy unmoving banks. Nearly every
chapter is strewn with melancholy words. ' I cannot
help thinking more of your illness than of the j)lcasure
in prospect — according to my foolish nature, which is
always prone to live in past pain.' The same senti-
ment is the mournful refrain that runs through all.
Her first resounding triumph, the success of Adam
Bede, instead of buoyancy and exultation, only adds
a fresh sense of the weight upon her future life. ' The
self-questioning whether my nature will be able to
meet the heavy demands upon it, both of personal
duty and intellectual production — presses upon me
almost continually in a way that prevents me even
from tasting the quiet joy I might have in the ivork
done. I feel no regret that the fame, as such, brings
no pleasure ; but it is a grief to me that I do not
constantly feel strong in thankfulness that my past
life has vindicated its uses.'

Bomola seems to have been composed in constant
gloom. ' I remember my wife telling me, at Witlcy,'
says Mr. Cross, 'how cruelly she had suffered at
Dorking from working under a leaden Aveight at this
time. The writing of Romola ploughed into her more
than any of her other books. She told me she could
put her finger on it as marking a well-defined transi-
tion in her life. In her own words, " I began it a


young woman — I finished it an old woman.'" She
calls upon herself to make 'greater efforts against
indolence and the despondency that comes from too
egoistic a dread of failure.' ' This is the last entry I
mean to make in my old book in which I wrote for
the first time at Geneva in 1849. What moments of
despair I passed through after that — despair that life
would ever be made precious to me by the conscious-
ness that I lived to some good purpose ! It was that
sort of despair that sucked away the sap of half the
hours which might have been filled by energetic
youthful activity ; and the sam.e demon tries to get
hold of me again whenever an old work is dismissed
and a new one is being meditated' (ii. 307). One
day the entry is : ' Horrible sce^jticism about all
things paralysing my mind. Shall I ever be good
for anything again 1 Ever do anything again V On
another, she describes herself to a trusted friend as
'a mind morbidly desponding, and a consciousness
tendins; more and more to consist in memories of
error and imperfection rather than in a strengthening
sense of achievement.' We have to turn to such
books as Bunyan's Gi'ace Alounding to find any
parallel to such wretchedness.

Times were not wanting when the sun strove to
shine through the gloom, when the resistance to
melancholy was not wholly a failure, and when, as
she says, she felt that Dante was right in condemning
to the Stygian marsh those who had been sad under
the blessed sunlight. ' Sad were we in the sweet air


that is gliuldcncd by the sun, bearing shiggish smoke
in our hearts ; now lie we sadly here in the black
ooze.' But still for the most part sad she remained
in the sweet air, and the look of pain that haunted
her eyes and brow even in her most genial and
animated moments, only told too truly the story of
her inner life.

That from this central gloom a shadow should
spread to her work was unavoidable. It would be
rash to compare George Eliot with Tacitus, with
Dante, with Pascal. A novelist — for as a poet, after
trying hard to think otherwise, most of us find her
magnificent but unreadable — as a novelist bound l^y
the conditions of her art to deal in a thousand
trivialities of human character and situation, she has
none of their severity of form. But she alone of
moderns has their note of sharp-cut melancholy, of
sombre rumination, of brief disdain. Living in a
time when humanity has been raised, whether formally
or informally, into a religion, she ilraws a painted
curtain of pity before the tragic scene. Still the
attentive ear catches from time to time the accents of
an unrelenting voice, that proves her kindred with
those three mighty spirits and stern monitors of men.
In George Eliot, a reader with a conscience may be
reminded of the saying that when a man opens Tacitus
he puts himself in the confessional. She was no
vague dreamer over the folly and the weakness of
men, and the cruelty and blindness of destiny. Hers
is not the dejection of the poet who ' could lie down


like a tired child, And weep away this life of care,' as
Shelley at Naples; nor is it the despairing misery
that moved Cowper in the awful verses of the Casta-
way. It was not such self-pity as wrung from Burns
the cry to life, ' Thou art a galling load, A long, a
rough, a weary road. To wretches such as I;' nor
such general sense of the woes of the race as made
Keats think of the world as a place where men sit
and hear each other groan, ' Where but to think is to
be full of sorrow, And leaden-eyed despairs.' She
was as far removed from the plangent reverie of
Rousseau as from the savage truculence of Swift.
Intellectual training had given her the spirit of order
and proportion, of definiteness and measure, and this
marks her alike from the great sentimentalists and
the sweeping satirists. ' Pity and fairness,' as she
beautifully says (iii. 317), ' are two little words which,
carried out, would embrace the utmost delicacies of
the moral life.' But hers is not seldom the severe
fairness of the judge, and the pity that may go with
putting on the black cap after a conviction for high
treason. In the midst of many an easy flowing page,
the reader is surprised l)y some bitter aside, some
judgment of intense and concentrated irony with the
flash of a blade in it, some biting sentence where
lurks the stern disdain and the anger of Tacitus, and
Dante, and Pascal. Souls like these are not born for

This is not the occasion for an elaborate discussion


of George Eliot's place in the mental history of her
time, but her biography shows that she travelled
along the road tliat was trodden by not a few in her
day. She started from that fervid evangelicalism
which has made the base of many a powerful character
in this century, from Cardinal Newman downwards.
Then with curioTis rapidity she threw it all oft', and
eml^raced with equal zeal the rather harsh and crude
negations which were then associated with the JFest-
minster Review, The second stage did not last much
longer than the first. ' Eeligious and moral sympathy
with the historical life of man,' she said (ii. 363), 'is
the larger half of culture ;' and this sympathy, which
was the fruit of her culture, had by the time she was
thirty become the new seed of a positive faith and a
semi-conservative creed. Here is a passage from a
letter of 1862 (she had translated Strauss, we may
remind ourselves, in 1845, and Feuerbach in 1854) : —

Pray don't ask me ever again not to rob a man of his
religious belief, as if you thought my mind tended to such
robbery. I have too profound a conviction of the efficacy
that lies in all sincere faith, and the spiritual blight that
comes with no-faith, to have any negative propagancbsm
in me. In fact, I have very little sympathy with Free-
thinkers as a class, and have lost all interest in mere
antagonism to religious doctrines. 1 co,re only to know,
if possil)le, the lasting meaning that lies in all religious
doctrine from the beginning till now (ii. 243).

Eleven years later the same tendency had deepened
and gone farther ; —


All the great religions of the world, historically con-
sidered, are rightly the objects of deep reverence and
sympathy — they are the record of spiritual struggles,
which are the types of our own. This is to me pre-
eminently true of Hebrewism and Christianity, on which
my own youth was nourished. And in this sense I have
no antagonism towards any religious belief, but a strong
outflow of sympathy. Every community met to worship
the highest Good (which is understood to be expressed by
God) carries me along in its main current ; and if there were
not reasons against my following such an inclination, I
should go to church or chapel, constantl)', for the sake of
the delightful emotions of fellowship which come over me
in religious assemblies — the very nature of such assemblies
being the recognition of a binding belief or spiritual law,
which is to lift us into willing obedience and save us from
the slavery of unregulated passion or impulse. And with
regard to other people, it seems to me that those who
have no definite conviction which constitutes a protesting
faith, may often more beneficially cherish the good within
them and be better members of society by a conformity
based on the recognised good in the public belief, than
by a nonconformity which has nothing but negatives to
utter. Not, of course, if the conformity would be accom-
panied by a consciousness of hypocrisy. That is a ques-
tion for the individual conscience to settle. But there
is enough to be said on the different points of view
from which conformity may be regarded, to hinder a
ready judgment against those who continue to conform
after ceasing to believe in the ordinary sense. But
with the utmost largeness of allowance for the diffi-
culty of deciding in special cases, it must remain true
that the highest lot is to have definite beliefs about
which you feel that ' necessity is laid upon you '
to declare them, as something better which you are
bound to try and give to those who have the worse (iii.


These volumes contain many passages in the same
sense — as, of course, her books contain them too.
She was a constant reader of the Bil)lc, and the Imi-
tatio was never far from her hand. ' Slic particularly
enjoyed reading aloud some of the finest chapters of
Isaiali, Jeremiah, and St. Paul's Epistles. The Bible
and our elder English poets best suited the organ-like
tones of her voice, which required for their full effect a
certain solemnity and majesty of rhythm.' She once
expressed to a younger friend, who shared her opinions,
her sense of the loss which they had in being unable
to practise the old ordinances of family prayer. ' I
hope,' she says, 'we are well out of that phase in
which the most philosophic view of the past was held
to be a smiling survey of human folly, and when the
wisest man was supposed to be one who could sym-
pathise with no age but the age to come ' (ii. 308).

For this wise reaction she was no doubt partially
indebted, as so many others have been, to the teaching
of Comte. Unquestionably the fundamental ideas
had come into her mind at a much earlier period,
when, for example, she was reading Mr. R W.
Mackay's Progress of the Intellect (1850, i. 253). But
it was Comte who enabled her to systematise these
ideas, and to give them that 'defiuiteness,' which, as
these pages show in a hundred places, was the quality
that she sought before all others alike in men and
their thoughts. She always remained at a respectful
distance from complete adherence to Comte's scheme,
but she was never tired of protesting that he was a


really great thinker, that his famous survey of the
Middle Ages in the fifth volume of the Positive Philo-
sophy was full of luminous ideas, and that she had
thankfully learned much from it. Wordsworth, again,
was dear to her in no small degree on the strength of
such passages as that from the Prelude, which is the
motto of one of the last chapters of her last novel :—

The human nature with which I felt
That I belonged and reverenced with love,
Was not a persistent presence, but a spirit
Diffused through time and space, with aid derived
Of evidence from monuments, erect,
Prostrate, or leaning towards their common rest
In earth, the widely scattered wreck sublime
Of vanished Tuitions.

Or this again, also from the Prelude (see iii. 389) ;—

There is
One great society alone on earth :
Tlie noble Living and the noble Dead.

Underneath this growth and diversity of opinion
we see George Eliot's oneness of character, just, for
that matter, as we see it in Mill's long and grave
march from the uncompromising denials instilled into
him by his father, then through Wordsworthian mys-
ticism and Coleridgean conservatism, down to the
pale belief and dim starhght faith of his posthumous

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies (Volume 3) → online text (page 8 of 25)