The Life of George Eliot

By John Morley

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 confesses her deep repugnance unless it can be written so as to involve neither self-glorification nor impeachment 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. 226, 297, 307). She shows the same fastidious apprehension 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 difference among us in respect of such experience as that.

 [1] George Eliot's Life. By J.W. Cross. Three volumes. Blackwood and Sons. 1885.

 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 commemoration of her life. There be some who 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 doctrine; the objector may easily retort that if it had been sternly acted on, we should have known very very little about Dr. Johnson, and nothing about Socrates.

This is but an ungracious prelude to some remarks upon a book, which 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, judgment, 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 connected 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 effective.

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 justified Lockhart and Moore in making a long story of the lives of Scott and Byron. Even here, among men of letters, who were also men of action and of great sociability, are not all biographies too long? Let any sensible reader turn to the shelf where his Lives repose; we shall be surprised if he does not find that nearly every one of them, taking the present century alone, and including such splendid and attractive subjects as Goethe, Hume, Romilly, Mackintosh, Horner, Chalmers, Arnold, Southey, Cowper, would not have been all the better for judicious curtailment. 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 resisted 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 remarkable 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 considered especially a woman's art. She was too busy in serious work to have leisure for that most delightful way of wasting time. Besides that, she had by nature none of that fluency, rapidity, abandonment, pleasant volubility, which make letters amusing, captivating, or piquant. What Mr. Cross says of her as the mistress of a salon, is true of her for the most 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 compensated by the gain' (iii. 335). There is the outpouring of ardent feeling for her friends, sobering down, as life goes on, into a crooning kindliness, affectionate and honest, but often tinged with considerable self-consciousness. It was said of some one that his epigrams did honour to his heart; in the reverse direction we occasionally feel that George Eliot's effusive playfulness does honour to her head. It lacks simplicity 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 habitually 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 by our 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 Macaulay, the graceful levity of Voltaire, the rattling 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 sometimes observed of her, that in her conversation, elle s'écoutait 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'écoute quand elle 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 alambiqué, in spite of tiresome double and treble distillations of phraseology, in spite of fatiguing moralities, gravities, and ponderosities, we have still been in communion with a high and commanding intellect and a great nature. We are vexed by pedantries that recall the précieuses of the Hôtel 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.


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