The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 83
George Eliot's Life
George Eliot's Life.
When the Beecher-Tilton scandal was at its height, the religious press made some outcry about the full detail of the reports. A New York newspaper justified them. It argued, in effect, "This is a matter which more vitally affects the community than any that can possibly arise. Here you have family honour and a clergyman both involved. What is the use of reporting it so that nobody can understand the actual offence? If we soften the statements, the report is untrue. The horrible thing is not the reporting of these affairs, but their occurrence. Turn up all feculence into the light of day. That is the process of deodorisation and sanitation."
The same question has been raised in Melbourne. We have a divorce court, but only for those who can afford to pay. The expense of putting the divorce draina on the boards is considerable. If a man is a woodcarter or a paviour, if a woman is a mangier or a washer, the wrongs must be suffered without remedy, but when there is coin, the public must be outraged as a necessity in doing justice between man and wife. A person with £100 a year has no feelings, but if it be a £1000, lawyers and judges will weep, if need be.
Mr. Cross wants to slide round, and glide over, the all-important incident in George Eliot's life. But there is an instinct in the reader which declares that it ought to be told, that is to say, if the Life be written. Otherwise, the effect becomes that of treating it as naught, which is mischievous. Besides, it is an indispensable key to the Life. We find failure in the soul, a sinking, and melancholy, which Conservatives will insist in explaining as the consequence of a lapse. We like not to use the word Magdalen, but Providence appears to have said to this amiable, good, and gifted woman: "There is a flaw, the tinge of page 10 which cannot be blurred out, and which prevents you from attaining the ideal of a St. Theresa."
The more we think of the central incident of George Eliot's life, the more we perceive that it must be thrashed out, and fought out, on the battleground between those who maintain the English view of the sexual relation and those who maintain the view that it is a matter of indifference. If George Sand or George Eliot can act in such and such a way, your own daughter, or wife, may also, without doing wrong, and here lies the pinch.
As you look at your young and innocent daughter, and cast her horoscope, you say, "Spare her from becoming an eminent actress, opera-singer, artist, or even novelist. I want her to be the simple British matron. I care not to judge anybody, but let me be wholly on the safe side." When one hears a family man praising the stage, the home-thrust is, "Would you like to see your own daughter there?" Mr. Burnand has furnished the unanswerable reply.
George Eliot drew her admirable father as a youngish man under the guise of Adam Bede, and as an elderly man, in the character of Mr. Garth, in "Middlemarch." He was true to the core, like Carlyle's father. Mary Ann Evans—George Eliot—lost her mother when she was seventeen, and it is always a graver loss to part with a good mother than a good father. Mary Ann became deeply evangelical. She was diverted from this by an association with a family named Hennell, and a Mr. Bray, who manufactured ribbons and sceptical books—one at all events Some aspiring young lady was engaged in the translation of Strauss's "Life of Jesus," when she became engaged herself. Miss Evans took up the translation early in the first volume, and went through with it. We suppose no one will quarrel with her for having independent opinions.
A few words about George Lewes. A lively, mercurial little man, brimful of cleverness, he early developed a strong bias for journalism and the drama. He acted Shy lock once in Liverpool, if we remember aright. He came of a theatrical stock, and we are not sure that he was not a regular actor for a brief period. Under the name of Slingsby Lawrence he translated two pieces from the French for Charles Matthews, and that performer appeared in them with success. One was Balzac's Mercadet, under the title of the "Game of Speculation," in which Matthews acted Affable Hawk. The other was "The Cozy Couple," from Octave: Feuillet's "Village."
Lewes married a handsome lady, and we have a dim reminiscence, which may be incorrect, that she was connected with the stage. Yates, in the World, calls to mind that he visited them at their home, which seemed to be a happy one. Lewes joined the staff of the Leader, a very smart periodical on French page 11 lines. Whitty, who died in Melbourne, and wrote the "Friends of Bohemia," was another principal contributor. Thornton Hunt was editor. He carried out the free and easy principles of the Leader, by going wrong with Lewes's wife. We believe Lewes condoned the offence, and this precluded him from getting a divorce when she gave way to bad habits afterwards, necessitating a separation. There were two sons of the marriage, and Miss Evans acted as a loving mother to them during her long connection with Lewes. We have read somewhere, too, that there were a couple of daughters, but are not sure whether this is accurate. Was there an arrangement by which the father kept the sons, and the mother the daughters?
Lewes wrote two inferior novels. The latter half of his life was devoted to more serious things, a rather indifferent study of Goethe, a superfluous "Life of Robespierre,", and numerous heavy volumes of ill-digested philosophy. He has not left anything permanent. The fatal word "clever," is over all he has written. He was an able man, but too broad and Catholic in his studies to make an enduring mark. It would not be accurate to characterise his work as splendid superficiality, but this age demands specialists. He was too facile in writing.
Lewes contributed to the Westminster Review. So did Miss Evans. She had been driven from her home, and quarrelled with her father, through her liberal opinions. The development of a mind of course cannot be checked by family considerations. Miss Evans lodged with Chapman, the proprietor of the Review, and she became its sub-editor.
At the mature age of 36 she chose to elope, in a manner, to the Continent, with Mr. Lewes, in very much the same way as Madame Dudevant, "George Sand," ran away from Paris to Italy with Alfred de Musset. But George Eliot and George Lowes lived happily together for over twenty years.
We meant to have written some criticism of her novels, but it would only amount to padding, and we want to cram the Review as full as the young lady's trunk, which had to be jumped upon.