Dorothea Casaubon and George Eliot



CHANCE brought into my hands three years ago Mr. Richard Hutton’s fine volume on the “Leaders of Religious Thought in England”; and I turned with natural interest to the essay on George Eliot, who was so intimately known to me through a long series of years, and to the criticism on “Middlemarch” and its heroine, Dorothea Casaubon. And I reflected that, so far as I knew, nearly all the elaborate criticisms on George Eliot’s work had been written by men. Women seem to have held aloof with a sort of fear from any attempt to measure the achievements of that extraordinary mind; and yet neither her ponderous weight of learning, nor the full flow of her thought, nor the extraordinary wealth of illustration with which she wrought out her meaning should have hindered women from discussing the utterances of one who was in her own person essentially womanly, and who bore down upon the younger members of her own sex with what seemed for a time to be an almost irresistible impact.

There are reasons which make “Middlemarch” especially interesting to me; for it was there that I first saw the writer! It is a much truer book than “Adam Bede”—truer, I mean, to the real conviction of the creating mind. “Adam Bede” is a wonderful tour de force—a painting from knowledge and observation of a group of people known, for the most part, to George Eliot in her youth, and the finest of whom were profoundly moved by convictions on which had ceased to have the slightest hold. During the years when I saw her most intimately, I had with her private conversations, and heard her speak with others in a weighty, thoughtful manner which left not the slightest loophole for the idea that at this period of her life, from 1850 onwards, she retained any faith in Christianity. I think that her unbelief was historical, I had almost said mechanical, but it was of the most sincere and absolute kind.

Yet these intellectual conclusions were in singular opposition to the general cast of her character. Born myself in the very bosom of Puritan England, and fed daily upon the strict letter of the Scripture from aged lips which I regarded with profound reverence, I am in a position to declare that, from first to last, George Eliot was the living incarnation of English Dissent. She had “Chapel” written in every line of the thoughtful, somewhat severe, face; not the flourishing Dissent of Spurgeon or Parker, or the florid kindliness of Ward Beecher, or the culture of Stopford Brooke, but the Dissent of Jonathan Edwards, of Philip Henry, of John Wesley as he was ultimately forced to be. Her horror of a lie, her unflinching industry, and sedulous use of all her talents, her extraordinary courage—even her dress, which, spend as she might and ultimately did, could never be lifted into fashion and retained a certain quaint solemnity of cut and gesture like an eighteenth‐century diction applied to clothes—everything about her, to me, suggested Bunyan in his Bedford prison, or Mary Bosanquet watched by Fletcher of Madeley as she bore the pelting of the stones in the streets of Northampton. No one has ever before said this, so far as I know; no one has ever attempted to describe her as I saw her in her younger years, but I think I saw the truth. She has been compared personally to Dante and Savonarola. I think that her real affinity may be traced nearer home; that there was in her nothing Italian, nothing in any sense foreign; in the Wars of the Roses her ancestors would have adhered to any leader who promised best for the people; in those of the Commonwealth the brewer of Huntingdon would have commanded them to a man. And precisely in such an atmosphere, except for certain differences of speculative opinion, did I first see George Eliot. Driving from Warwick through the arching elms of that embowered nook of the Shires, with a very dear and gifted companion (a descendant of Oliver Cromwell), we reached Coventry, and Rose Bank, the house of Mr. Charles Bray. It lay on the outskirts of that provincial town which has been rendered doubly famous by George Eliot’s life and letters, and is at least the suggestion of the Middlemarch of her dream. There, being at the time myself just one and twenty, I was taken to make the acquaintance of the very learned scholar, Miss Evans. Not Abelard in all his glory, not the veritable Isaac Casaubon of French Huguenot fame, not Spinosa in Holland or Porson in England, seemed to my young imagination more astonishing than this woman, herself not far removed from youth, who knew a bewildering number of learned and modern languages, and wrote articles in a first‐class quarterly.

I remember the scene vividly, though, unfortunately, after so long an interval of time, I can remember none of the conversation. George Eliot had a bad headache, and received us kindly and politely, but with an air of resigned fatigue, Mr. Bray himself was a great talker; always full of ideas, somewhat vigorously expressed. I do not remember that Miss Evans said any noteworthy thing, but I looked at her reverently, and noticed her extraordinary quantity of beautiful brown hair (always to the last a great charm), and that we all went out and stood on a sort of little terrace at the end of the garden, to see the sunset, and that the light fell full on her head and was reflected from her kind blue eyes. And as night fell, my companion and I were driven back to Warwick, and I did not see the learned scholar again till the next year in London, the year 1851. ...

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