May Clarissa Gillington Byron.

A day with George Eliot online

. (page 1 of 2)
Online LibraryMay Clarissa Gillington ByronA day with George Eliot → online text (page 1 of 2)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


With a sudden impulse of gaiety she did what she

had very often done before — stuck the rose in her

hair a little above the left ear.

(Adam Bede.)






In the same Series.




Charlotte Bronte.





T is an October morning in the
later 'sixties, bright, bracing,
breezy, with sufficient "tang"
in the air to justify a fire despite
the brilliant sunshine. The
London trees have taken on an
unmistakable tinge of autumn,
and the London gardens have not much to
show. That very-much-frequented house, The
Priory, in North Bank, Regent's Park, is only
now, at eight a.m., opening its eyes awake —
or in other words, drawing back its blinds and
curtains. Few houses in London, it is said,
" have been the scene of stronger and more
interesting emotions " : but the Priory does not
wear its heart upon its sleeve, and nobody
would guess from its stolid and reserved exterior
that it was a species of Mecca to the "cultured"


of all sorts and conditions. For, some fifty
years ago, it required, "if not a genuine strength
of mind, at any rate a certain amount of
1 cussedness ' not to be a George Eliotite " ; and
the authoress of Adam Bede was alternately
revered as a saint, respected as a sibyl, and
regarded as the greatest of living novelists, by
her various and multitudinous admirers.

The big, bony, heavy-featured woman,
who appears in her own eyes as only capable
of "kindling unpleasant sensations, with a
palpitating heart and awkward manners," and
who is the object of unfaltering, enthusiastic
worship on the part of so many friends, comes
slowly out of her bedroom into her large study
on the first floor, and casts a somewhat depre-
cating glance upon her writing-table, strewn
with papers. In front of this table stands a
cast of the Melian yEsculapius : it looks at her
with a dumbly self-reproachful air, as of one
whose skill availed nought to counteract her
almost incessant ill-health. The books lying
here and there are almost suggestive of their
owner's most constant malaises, — headache and


cold feet : their very titles are oppressive to
the average mind. For George Eliot — or Mrs.
Lewes, as she is more usually known — is read-
ing aloud to Mr. Lewes, o' nights, such imposing
and monumental works as Plato's Republic,
Nisard's History of French Literature, Lecky's
History of Morals, and Herbert Spencer's
Psychology ; not to mention the consumption of
such hors d'ceuvres and "kickshaws" as the
works of Lucretius, Theocritus, Sainte Beuve,
Becker's Charicles, and a vast variety of minor
volumes in five or six different languages. It
would be difficult, indeed, to gather, from the
ponderous character of her miscellaneous reading
that this woman is the creator of such im-
mortal types, — brimming with quaint provincial
humour — as Mrs. Poyser {Adam Bede) or Aunt
Glegg (Mill on the Floss). Still more difficult,
when you realize, from personal acquaintance
with her, the extraordinary seriousness of
George Eliot, — the gravity with which, in her
eyes, the smallest detail of life is weighted.
"The sense of the importance of every action
and every word, indeed of every influence
which she might exercise over her fellow-
creatures . . . the momentous issues of the


thoughts and emotions which slowly build up
the moral character," — these have deprived her
of that sense of laughter, in ordinary affairs,
which is such a help and solace to its possessor.
She never says a smile-provoking thing : never
writes one in her letters : her vivid and
admirable perception of all that makes for
gaiety is exclusively confined to her novels.
Here she patiently develops her characters in
"rather slow but humorous dialogue, such
as Shakespeare loved to interpolate in his plays
when he chose to show us how the ' Goodman
Dull' of the Midlands talked awry." And
even here, while allowing that " I have no
stock of proverbs in my memory, and there is
not one thing put into Mrs. Poyser's mouth
which is not fresh from my own mint," she has
confessed that "my books are deeply serious
things to me, and come out of all the painful
discipline, all the most hardly-learned lessons of
my past life."

Mr. Lewes enters the study, and they go
down to breakfast together. He is in many
respects the exact antithesis of George Eliot.


Not only do his bright eyes strongly contrast
with her pensive, penetrating, grey-blue ones,
his long black hair with her abundant masses of
auburn-brown ; but his ready wit and urbanity
are a singular foil to her somewhat sombre and
impressive manner. "A Mirabeau in mina-
ture," she termed him when first they met.
They are both, however, of a "lean and hungry
aspect." — "Happiness," she has complained,
" of which we seem to have more than anyone
I know, does not have the effect of making us
fat and strong. I often compare ourselves to
two mediaeval saints painted by a very naive
master." . . . And in the most essential point
of all they are alike — deep and devoted mutual
affection. " Always exceedingly dependent on
some one person for affection and support,"
George Eliot has found in George Lewes the
exact fulfilment of all that most she needs. He
is the staff on which she leans for strength,
the sympathetic yet expert critic of her work,
the tenderest, warmest, of her many devotees.
"Without his insight into literary faculty, and
his sustaining sympathy, it is doubtful whether
she would have produced the writings which
have made her fame."


And while he regards " Polly" as being at
once a supreme genius and the best, most
lovable of women, she holds fast by him as the
ivy to the oak, and finds that "the affections,
instead of being dulled by age, have acquired
a stronger activity," — "because," as she has
written, " what greater thing is there for two
human souls than to feel that they are joined
for life, to strengthen each other in all pain, to
be one with each other in silent unspeakable
memories at the moment of the last parting?"
And she has exemplified, to the letter, in the
course of her life, the theory that " a supreme
love, a motive that gives a sublime strength to
a woman's life, and exalts habit into partnership
with her soul's highest needs, is not to be had
how and when she wills : to know that high
initiation she must often tread where it is hard
to tread, and feel the chill air, and walk through
darkness. It is not true that love makes all
things easy : it makes us choose what is

Therefore, although she loves to portray
some blessed and perfected union, like that of


Adam Bede and Dinah Morris, she has attained,
perhaps, her highest note in the delineation of
love that finds its goal in abnegation, surrender
and self-sacrifice, — love that is crowned by
death. In Maggie, of The Mill on the Floss, —
Maggie, in whose wild, passionate, unconven-
tional nature George Eliot consciously or
unconsciously incorporated much of herself, —
she has reached the final outcome of her own
belief that " the most difficult heroism is that
which consists in the daily conquests of our
private demons, not in the slaying of world-
notorious dragons."

And it is just because Maggie Tulliver is
presented to us as, for all her splendid courage,
so very human a creature, that she remains,
and probably will remain, one of the best-
beloved memories in the whole great realm of
fiction. About her there is nothing "icily
regular, faultlessly null " : quite the contrary.
11 If the ethics of art," George Eliot has
declared, " do not admit the truthful presenta-
tion of a character essentially noble, but liable
to great error — error that is anguish to its own


nobleness — then, it seems to me, the ethics of
art are too narrow, and must be widened to
correspond to a widening psychology." . . Yet
"the art which leaves the soul in despair is
laming to the soul, and is denounced by the
healthy sentiment of an entire community."
So she has set Maggie Tulliver, in the extreme
of her sorrow and perplexity, upon an immortal
pinnacle, above the placid and complacent flood
of the ordinary " happy ending." And her
record closes, not to the tintinnabulation of
wedding bells, but to the roar and rush of flood-
ing waters, in that final conflict when " there
was at least this fruit from all her years of
striving after the highest and the best, — that
her soul, though betrayed, beguiled, ensnared,
could never deliberately consent to a choice of
the lower." . .

And thus we see her, momentarily re-united
with her old comrade and playmate, as the mill-
house crumbles in the flood. . . . '"Alone,
Maggie?' said Tom in a voice of deep astonish-
ment, as he opened the middle window on a level


with the boat. ' Yes, Tom. God has taken care
of me, to bring me to you. Get in quickly.' "

And we must needs recognise and " love
the highest when we see it," on learning, almost
with relief, the immediately-following solution
of Maggie's bitter problems of existence :
11 Brother and sister had gone down in an
embrace never to be parted, living through
again in one supreme moment the days when
they had clasped their little hands in love."
(The Mill on the Floss.)

. . . . Breakfast over, the novelist reads
awhile, as is her wont, in her Bible : a large-
print volume has recently been given her by
Mr. Lewes ; her abnormally long-sighted eyes
are beginning to show the strain of thirty-five
years' laborious study. For you must understand
that George Eliot is not, has never been, the
facile scribe of light-hearted irresponsible fiction.
She has taken up novel-writing comparatively
late in life, at about forty years of age, — and
then only in deference to the wish and advice
of Mr. Lewes. It does not come naturally to


her, either ; it is always a harassing experience.
" I could no more live through one of my
books," she declares, " a second time, than I
can live through last year again." Self-distrust,
dejection, depression, despondency, assail her
the whole length of the way throughout a story.
"The self-questioning whether my nature will
be able to meet the heavy demands upon it,
both of personal duty and intellectual produc-
tion, bears upon me almost continually, in a
way that prevents me ever from tasting the
quiet joy I might have had in the work done.
Buoyancy and exultation, I fancy, are out of
the question when one has lived as long as I
have." . . No : she is first and foremost a
student. The first work she ever thought of
writing, when still quite young, was "a
synopsis of ecclesiastical history, demanding
nothing but great learning, clear thought, and
untiring industry and ingenuity." As translator,
as editor, as coadjutor to Lewes in his most
onerous literary tasks, she has still " kept the
force and flower of her mind for philosophy,"
still always yearned, at the back of her
thoughts, after the entirely abstract and purely
metaphysical. And although she has, " during


" Alone, Maggie ? " said Tom in a voice of deep
astonishment, as he opened the middle window on a
level with the boat.
" Yes, Tom. God has taken care of me, to bring me

to you. Get in quickly."

(The Mill on the Floss.)


a long and studious youth, received impressions
of persons, of scenes, of books," and has
"travelled and enriched her store," — so that
she is able to set down bygone impressions with
amazing accuracy of detail, — as in Scenes of
Clerical Life, — yet she is rarely able to assimilate
what one may call life up-to-date. She "never
lives in the open " : she is kept in cotton-wool
seclusion and safety, so far as may be, from all
adverse influences. She has no experience of
active business : all her affairs are transacted
for her : the taste of the present, active, living,
workaday world has not entered her life these
many years. She must depend entirely upon
her marvellous memory, with its wealth of
detail, for all her finest work : and where that
memory cannot be utilised, as in Romola, — when
she has only imagination and erudition to fall
back upon, — she is utterly exhausted by the
effort. " I began Romola a young woman," she
sighs, " I finished it an old woman. . . Great
facts have struggled to find a voice through me,
and have only been able to speak brokenly."

There, in a few words, you have the secret
of George Eliot's genius. The student, the


philosopher, the recluse, writes novels as a
medium might. M My stories grow in me like
plants," she has avowed, — that is, without her
direct knowledge or volition. "It almost
seems as if her mind had been intended more
as an instrument for interpreting the minds of
others, more as a phonograph through the
agency of which the natures of all the various
interlocutors with whom she met could be
delicately registered and made to report them-
selves to the world, than as a distinct organ of
her own taste and purpose. . . There is hardly
a country squire or dairymaid or poacher or
inn-keeper or country lad or lass to whom
George Eliot does not give a thoroughly indi-
vidual voice." And where she speaks in her
own voice, it is not that of a romancist at all.
It is the accent of one whose mission, as she
conceives it, has been "to paint the lives of
those she saw about her, to describe their joys
and sorrows, their successes and failures, and,
by insisting on the deep importance of this
world, to teach us to hinder as little as possible
the good which is lingering around us." Or, in
her own words, " My books are a form of
utterance .... deliberately, carefully con-


structed on a basis which seen in my doubting
mind is never shaken by a doubt . . . my
conviction as to the relative goodness and
nobleness of human dispositions and motives.
And the inspiring principle which alone gives
me courage to write is that of so presenting our
human life as to help my readers in getting a
clearer conception and a more active admiration
of those vital elements which bind men together
and give a higher worthiness to their existence.
. . . We ought each of us not to sit down
and wait, but to be heroic and constructive
if possible. . ."

Now, by a curious paradox, this serious
and learned woman has revealed in her tales —
most likely without knowing it — the real reason
of her abnormal gravity, — and the true source
of her superabundant sympathy. In the same
manner as those artists usually draw children
most successfully, who have none of their own,
so George Eliot — admirable and beloved step-
mother as she is to Mr. Lewes's three boys —
has never known the prattle of little voices,
of children waking like small birds in the early


morning. She has never heard the headlong
pattering of tiny feet upon a nursery floor. In
a word, she has been denied the chief function
and supreme joy of womanhood, — and for that
very cause, perhaps, she can delineate childhood
with a sweetness of touch, an accuracy of
rendering, which are only comparable to the
canvases of Sir Joshua, and which are never
for an instant strained, incongruous, or other-
wise than exquisitely right and true. Hardly
a story she has ever achieved but contains one
or more of these delicious little chubby, rosy
figures : time fails to enumerate them. Perhaps
the most charmingly conceived, the most care-
fully reproduced of all, is the little Eppie in Silas
Marner. This tale, which "contains all her
merits in high perfection, concentrated by the
narrow limits in which the work is enclosed,"
and which is intended to "set in a strong light
influences of pure, natural, human relations,"
contains this unrivalled study of infancy. Very
few mothers could have conveyed, so deftly, so
delicately, the infinite gradations of growth in
the child, coupled with the correspondent growth
in the case-hardened, lonely old man. Almost
as actual spectators of the process, we see how


"As her life unfolded, his soul, long stupefied
in a cold narrow prison, was unfolding too, and
trembling gradually into full consciousness ; "
until, as months lengthen out to years, it
becomes clear that " Eppie, with her short,
toddling steps, must lead Father Silas a pretty
dance on any fine morning when circumstances
favoured mischief. . . He had wisely chosen
a broad strip of linen as a means of fastening
her to his loom when he was busy. . . Having
cut the linen strip in a manner jagged but
effectual, in two minutes she had run out at the
open door, where the sunshine was inviting
her, while poor Silas believed her to be a better
child than usual."

There is, in short, hardly any one of
George Eliot's tales in which this tender delight
in children is not manifested : nor are the little
creatures only included to heighten the effect of
a situation : they take a normal and relevant
part, just as in real life. And one is enabled to
guess what Marian Evans might once have
been, — the joyful mother, united at all points
with her little ones, — had she never become


George Eliot, the famous writer, courted,
adulated, flattered — but always with a secret
void in her deep and womanly heart.

After half-an-hour's reading of the Bible
the novelist turns to her correspondence, which
is voluminous, and entails considerable toil.
Constantly in communication as she is with so
many well-known folks and personal acquaint-
ances, she undertakes, according to the habit of
the time, letters of what might seem inordinate
and unnecessary length. And, strange to say,
they more than ever confirm the idea that she
is merely a medium for the production of her
imaginative work. For these private letters,
set down in her exquisite handwriting, with
hardly an error or erasure, are but poor com-
pared to her published writings — stilted, arti-
ficial, and monotonous in manner, with an air
of intending great things and coming extremely
short of them. They are almost tedious — and
compare most unfavourably with the impres-
siveness of her spoken words, which, uttered in
low, vibrating, musical tones, have thrilled so
many eager listeners. Yet undoubtedly she


He had wisely chosen a broad strip of linen as a
means of fastening her to his loom when he was busy.

(Silas Maimer.)


enjoys this part of her morning ; and it is with
a certain reluctance that she puts away these
more personal outpourings, and, lying back
in a comfortable chair, with a high support
to her feet, starts work upon a manuscript
placed upon her knees. " In this way," she
has just written to a friend, "I get advantage
from the longsightedness which involves the
early use of glasses. . . But it is vain to get
one's back and knees in the right attitude, if
one's mind is superannuated. Some time or
other, if death does not come to silence me,
there ought to be deliberate abstinence from
writing — self-judgment which decides that one
has no more to say."

This last phrase throws a suggestive light
upon the morbid self-introspection which hinders
her at the very outset of a new book and haunts
her throughout. The brooding tendency of her
mind, which bids her perpetually "look before
and after, and sigh for what is not " — yet
without any very definite notion of what might
be better worth having, is intensified by almost
constant ill-health : "I could have done much


more," she says, " if I had been well : but that
regret applies to most years of my life." And
a vague yearning towards something lost or
lacking is discernible in all she does, — whether
expressed in dim desire towards realms unattain-
able, as in the plaintive verses from the Spanish
Gypsy —

" Spring comes hither,

Buds the rose,
Roses wither,

Sweet spring goes.
Ojala, would she carry me !

" Summer soars,

Wide-winged day
White light pours,
Flies away,
Ojala, would he carry me !

" South winds blow,

Westward borne,
Onward go

Toward the morn,
Ojala, would they carry me !


" Sweet birds sing

O'er the graves,
Then take wing

O'er the waves,
Ojala, would they carry me ! "

— or in that characteristic sotto-voce burden of
sadness which underlies her finest achievements,
— that "pitying study of man, in the frame of
mind of one who is determined to make the
best of a bad business," that "subdued tone of
regret that the highest human endeavour is
destined to be baffled." These symptoms of
inherent pessimism are not, perhaps, so notice-
able in Adam Bede as elsewhere. She has
declared herself thankful to have written so
true a book as Adam Bede : and indeed, it con-
tains a wider diapason of emotion, besides a
happier realisation of the joy of life, than her
other volumes. No one can obliterate from
memory, once having read, the charming
picture of Hetty Sorrel, young, childish, and
coquettish, as she appears in the earlier
chapters— the scene in the dairy, for instance,
with Arthur Donnithorne, or that in the garden


among the currant bushes, when, given a rose
by the gigantic Adam, " Hetty took the rose
.... and with a sudden impulse of gaiety
she did what she had very often done before —
stuck the rose in her hair a little above the
left ear. The tender admiration in Adam's
face was slightly shadowed by reluctant dis-
approval." . . .

These delicate and enchanting little episodes
of country life throw into darker relief such
scenes — no less veracious — as that where the
betrayed and deserted Hetty, a poor little
butterfly with broken wings, contemplates an
end of herself in the wintry pool. " She set
down her basket, and then . . . sat still, looking
at the pool. . . There was no need to hurry —
there was all the night to drown herself in."

The priceless gift of sympathy, George
Eliot's chief claim to real greatness, is, in Adam
Bede, revealed at its fullest. "Creation," as
she has put it, "is the super-added life of the
intellect ; sympathy, all-embracing love, the


super-added moral life. . . Sympathy, the one
poor word which includes all our best insight
and all our best love." Assuredly in this
poignant sympathy lies the secret of her suc-
cess : for she contrives to enlist our own
most sympathetic feelings for every one of her
dramatis personae in turn. The fact that the
story of Hetty was a true one : that in Adam
Bede himself she was delineating her own father,
and in Dinah Morris her aunt, may have lent
additional strength of characterisation to George
Eliot's hand in this particular book. But sym-
pathy, it may be said, is her gospel of life : the
only gospel which her negative creed confesses.
For, although she has passed through the
Christian experience, and maintained through-
out her life a grave and reverent regard for it :
though the Imitation of Christ is her life-long
companion, — George Eliot is not a nominal or
professing Christian. Presumably, if obliged to
affix a label to her opinion, she would style
herself a Positivist. She feels a "yearning
affection towards the great religions of the
world which have reflected the struggles and
the needs of mankind." And she repudiates
the idea of having no beliefs of her own.


' ' I have too profound a conviction of the
efficacy that lies in all sincere faith, and the
spiritual blight that comes with no faith. . .
I care only to know if possible the last meaning
that lies in all religious doctrines from the
beginning till now." The true Christian ideal
she upholds as the noblest pattern that man can
follow. But of individual immortality she has
no hope : and this blank outlook towards the
eternal future throws a melancholy shadow
over every output of her mind. To her, "it is
a pang to witness the suffering of a fellow-
creature, and I feel his suffering the more
because he is mortal, because his life is so short,
and I would have it if possible filled with happi-


Online LibraryMay Clarissa Gillington ByronA day with George Eliot → online text (page 1 of 2)