Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options

View Options

George Eliot. Blind, Mathilde, 1841–1896.
page: 76
page: 77



MEANWHILE, these literary labours were pleasantly diversified by frequent visits to her friends at Rosehill and elsewhere. In October 1852, she stayed with Mr. and Mrs. George Combe at Edinburgh, and on her way back was the guest of Harriet Martineau, at her delightfully situated house in Ambleside. Her acquaintance with Mr. Herbert Spencer had ripened into a cordial friendship. They met constantly both in London and in the country, and their intercourse was a source of mutual intellectual enjoyment and profit. As must already have become evident, it is erroneous to suppose that he had any share in the formation of her mind: for as Mr. Herbert Spencer said, in a letter to the Daily News, “Our friendship did not commence until 1851 ... when she was already distinguished by that breadth of culture, and universality of power, which have since made her known to all the world.”

In a letter to Miss Phelps, George Eliot touches on this rumour, after alluding in an unmistakable manner to another great contemporary: “I never—to answer one of your questions quite directly—I never had any personal acquaintance with” (naming a prominent Positivist); “never saw him to my knowledge, except page: 78 in the House of Commons; and though I have studied his books, especially his ‘Logic’ and ‘Political Economy,’ with much benefit, I have no consciousness of their having made any marked epoch in my life.

“Of Mr. ——'s friendship I have had the honour and advantage for twenty years, but I believe that every main bias of my mind had been taken before I knew him. Like the rest of his readers, I am, of course, indebted to him for much enlargement and clarifying of thought.”

But there was another acquaintance which Miss Evans made during the first year of her residence in the Strand, destined to affect the whole future tenor of her life—the acquaintance of Mr. George Henry Lewes, then, like her, a contributor to the Westminster Review.

George Henry Lewes was Marian's senior by two years, having been born in London on the 18th of April, 1817. He was educated at Greenwich in a school once possessing a high reputation for thoroughly “grounding” its pupils in a knowledge of the classics. When his education was so far finished, he was placed as clerk in a merchant's office. This kind of occupation proving very distasteful, he turned medical student for a time. Very early in life he was attracted towards philosophy, for at the age of nineteen we find him attending the weekly meetings of a small club, in the habit of discussing metaphysical problems in the parlour of a tavern in Red Lion Square, Holborn. This club, from which the one in ‘Daniel Deronda’ is supposed to have borrowed many of its features, was the point of junction for a most heterogeneous company. Here, amicably seated round the fire, a speculative tailor would hob and nob with some medical student page: 79 deep in anatomy; a second-hand bookseller having devoured the literature on his shelves, ventilated their contents for the general benefit; and a discursive American mystic was listened to in turn with a Jewish journeyman watchmaker deeply imbued with Spinozism. It is impossible not to connect this Jew, named Cohen, and described as “a man of astonishing subtilty and logical force, no less than of sweet personal worth,” with the Mordecai of the novel just mentioned. However wide the after divergencies, here evidently lies the germ. The weak eyes and chest, the grave and gentle demeanour, the whole ideality of character correspond. In some respects G.H. Lewes was the “Daniel Deronda” to this “Mordecai.” For he not only loved but venerated his “great calm intellect.” “An immense pity,” says Mr. Lewes, “a fervid indignation filled me as I came away from his attics in one of the Holborn courts, where I had seen him in the pinching poverty of his home, with his German wife and two little black-eyed children.”

To this pure-spirited suffering watchmaker, Lewes owed his first acquaintance with Spinoza. A certain passage, casually cited by Cohen, awakened an eager thirst for more in the youth. The desire to possess himself of Spinoza's works, still in the odour of pestilential heresy, haunted him like a passion. For he himself, then “suffering the social persecution which embitters any departure from accepted creeds,” felt in defiant sympathy with all outcasts. On a dreary November evening, the coveted volumes were at length discovered on the dingy shelves of a second-hand bookseller. By the flaring gaslight, young Lewes, with a beating heart, read on the back of a page: 80 small brown quarto those thrilling words, ‘Spinoza: Opera Posthuma!’ He was poor in those days, and the price of the volume was twenty shillings, but he would gladly have sacrificed his last sixpence to secure it. Having paid his money with feverish delight, he hurried home in triumph, and immediately set to work on a translation of the ‘Ethics,’ which, however, he was too impatient to finish.

This little incident is well worth dwelling upon not only as being the first introduction of a notable thinker to philosophy, but as showing the eager impulsive nature of the man. The study of Spinoza led to his publishing an article on his life and works in the Westminster Review of 1843, almost the first account of the great Hebrew philosopher which appeared in this country. This article, afterwards incorporated in the ‘Biographical History of Philosophy,’ formed the nucleus, I believe, of that “admirable piece of synthetic criticism and exposition,” as Mr. Frederic Harrison calls it; a work which, according to him, has influenced the thought of the present generation almost more than any single book except Mr. Mill's ‘Logic.’

Before the appearance of either article or ‘History of Philosophy,’ Mr. Lewes went to Germany, and devoted himself to the study of its language and literature, just brought into fashion by Carlyle. Returning to England in 1839, he became one of the most prolific journalists of the day. Witty, brilliant, and many-sided, he seemed pre-eminently fitted by nature for a press writer and littérateur. His versatility was so amazing, that a clever talker once said of him: “Lewes can do everything in the world but paint: and he could do that, too, after a week's study.” page: 81 At this time, besides assisting in the editorship of the Classical Museum, he wrote for the Morning Chronicle, the Athenæum, the Edinburgh, Foreign Quarterly, British Quarterly, Blackwood, Fraser, and the Westminster Review. After publishing ‘A Biographical History of Philosophy,’ through Mr. Knight's ‘Weekly Volumes’ in 1846, he wrote two novels, ‘Ranthorpe,’ and ‘Rose, Blanche, and Violet,’ which successively appeared in 1847 and 1848. But fiction was not his forte, these two productions being singularly crude and immature as compared with his excellent philosophical work. Some jokes in the papers about “rant,” killed what little life there was in “Ranthorpe.” Nevertheless, Charlotte Brontë, who had some correspondence with Mr. Lewes about 1847, actually wrote about it as follows: “In reading ‘Ranthorpe,’ I have read a new book, not a reprint, not a reflection of any other book, but a new book.” Another great writer, Edgar Poe, admired it no less, for he says of the work: “I have lately read it with deep interest, and derived great consolation from it also. It relates to the career of a literary man, and gives a just view of the true aims and the true dignity of the literary character.”

‘The Spanish Drama;’ ‘The Life of Maximilian Robespierre, with extracts from his unpublished correspondence;’ ‘The Noble Heart: a Tragedy;’ all followed in close succession from the same inexhaustible pen. The last, it was said, proved also a tragedy to the publishers. But not content with writing dramas, Mr. Lewes was also ambitious of the fame of an actor, the theatre having always possessed a strong fascination for him. Already as page: 82 a child he had haunted the theatres, and now, while delivering a lecture at the Philosophical Institution in Edinburgh, he shocked its staid habitués not a little by immediately afterwards appearing on the stage in the character of Shylock: so many, and seemingly incompatible, were Lewes's pursuits. But this extreme mobility of mind, this intellectual tripping from subject to subject, retarded the growth of his popularity. The present mechanical subdivision of labour has most unfortunately also affected the judgment passed on literary and artistic products. Let a man once have written a novel typical of the manners and ways of a certain class of English society, or painted a picture with certain peculiar effects of sea or landscape, or composed a poem affecting the very trick and language of some bygone medieval singer, he will be doomed, to the end of his days, to do the same thing over and over again, ad nauseam. Nothing can well be more deadening to any vigorous mental life, and Mr. Lewes set a fine example of intellectual disinterestedness in sacrificing immediate success to the free play of a most variously endowed nature.

The public too was a gainer by this. For the life of Goethe could not have been made the rich, comprehensive, many-sided biography it is, had Mr. Lewes himself not tried his hand at such a variety of subjects. This life, begun in 1845, the result partly of his sojourn in Germany, did not appear in print until 1855. Ultimately destined to a great and lasting succcss, the MS. of the ‘Life of Goethe’ was ignominiously sent from one publisher to another, until at last Mr. David Nutt, of the Strand, showed his acumen by giving it to the reading world.

page: 83

Some years before the publication of this biography Mr. Lewes had also been one of the founders of that able, but unsuccessful weekly, the Leader, of which he was the literary editor from 1849 to 1854. Many of his articles on Auguste Comte were originally written for this paper, and afterwards collected into a volume for Bohn's series. Indeed, after Mr. John Stuart Mill, he is to be regarded as the earliest exponent of Positivism in England. He not only considered the ‘Cours de Philosophie Positive’ the greatest work of this century, but believed it would “form one of the mighty landmarks in the history of opinion. No one before M. Comte,” he says, “ever dreamed of treating social problems otherwise than upon theological or metaphysical methods. He first showed how possible, nay, how imperative, it was that social questions should be treated on the same footing with all other scientific questions. This being his object, he was forced to detect the law of mental evolution before he could advance. This law is the law of historical progression.” But while Mr. Lewes, with his talent for succinct exposition, helped more than any other Englishman to disseminate the principles of Comte's philosophy in this country, he was at the same time violently opposed to his ‘Politique Positive,’ with its schemes of social reorganisation.

Even so slight a survey as this must show the astonishing discursiveness of Mr. Lewes's intellect. By the time he was thirty he had already tried his hand at criticism, fiction, biography, the drama, and philosophy. He had enlarged his experience of human nature by foreign travel; he had addressed audiences from the lecturer's platform; he had en- enjoyed page: 84 joyed the perilous sweets of editing a newspaper; he had even, it is said, played the harlequin in a company of strolling actors. Indeed, Mr. Thackeray was once heard to say that it would not surprise him to meet Lewes in Piccadilly, riding on a white elephant; whilst another wit likened him to the Wandering Jew, as you could never tell where he was going to turn up, or what he was going to do next.

In this discursiveness of intellect he more nearly resembled the Encyclopedists of the 18th century than the men of his own time. Indeed his personal appearance, temperament, manners, general tone of thought, seemed rather to be those of a highly-accomplished foreigner than of an Englishman. He was a lightly-built, fragile man, with bushy curly hair, and a general shagginess of beard and eyebrow not unsuggestive of a Skye terrier. For the rest, he had a prominent mouth and grey, deeply-set eyes under an ample, finely-proportioned forehead. Volatile by nature, somewhat wild and lawless in his talk, he in turn delighted and shocked his friends by the gaiety, recklessness, and genial abandon of his manners and conversation. His companionship was singularly stimulating, for the commonest topic served him as a starting-point for the lucid development of some pet philosophical theory. In this gift of making abstruse problems intelligible, and difficult things easy, he had some resemblance to the late W.K. Clifford, with his magical faculty of illuminating the most abstruse subjects by his vivid directness of exposition.

As Lewes's life was so soon to be closely united to that of Marian Evans, this cursory sketch of page: 85 his career will not seem inappropriate. At the time they met at Dr. Chapman's house, Mr. Lewes, who had married early in life, found his conjugal relations irretrievably spoiled. How far the blame of this might attach to one side or to the other does not concern us here. Enough that in the intercourse with a woman of such astonishing intellect, varied acquirements, and rare sympathy, Mr. Lewes discovered a community of ideas and a moral support that had been sadly lacking to his existence hitherto.

In many ways these two natures, so opposite in character, disposition, and tone of mind, who, from such different starting-points, had reached the same standpoint, seemed to need each other for the final fruition and utmost development of what was best in each. A crisis was now impending in Marian's life. She was called upon to make her private judgment a law unto herself, and to shape her actions, not according to the recognised moral standard of her country, but in harmony with her own convictions of right and wrong. From a girl, it appears, she had held independent views about marriage, strongly advocating the German divorce laws. On the appearance of ‘Jane Eyre,’ when every one was talking of this book and praising the exemplary conduct of Jane in her famous interview with Rochester, Marian Evans, then only four-and-twenty, remarked to a friend that in his position she coiinsidered him justified in contracting a fresh marriage. And in an article on Madame de Sablé, written as early as 1854, there is this significant passage in reference to the “laxity of opinion and practice with regard to the marriage-tie in France.” “Heaven page: 86 forbid,” she writes, “that we should enter on a defence of French morals, most of all in relation to marriage! But it is undeniable that unions formed in the maturity of thought and feeling, and grounded only on inherent fitness and mutual attraction, tended to bring women into more intelligent sympathy with man, and to heighten and complicate their share in the political drama. The quiescence and security of the conjugal relation are, doubtless, favourable to the manifestation of the highest qualities by persons who have already attained a high standard of culture, but rarely foster a passion sufficient to rouse all the faculties to aid in winning or retaining its beloved object—to convert indolence into activity, indifference into ardent partisanship, dulness into perspicuity.”

Such a union, formed in the full maturity of thought and feeling, was now contracted by Marian Evans and George Henry Lewes. Legal union, however, there could be none, for though virtually separated from his wife, Mr. Lewes could not get a divorce. Too little has as yet transpired concerning this important step to indicate more than the bare outline of events. Enough that Mr. Lewes appears to have written a letter in which, after a full explanation of his circumstances, he used all his powers of persuasion to win Miss Evans for his life-long companion; that she consented, after having satisfied her conscience that in reality she was not injuring the claims of others; and that henceforth she bore Mr. Lewes's name, and became his wife in every sense but the legal one.

This proceeding caused the utmost consternation amongst her acquaintances, especially amongst her page: 87 friends at Rosehill. The former intimate and affectionate intercourse with Mrs. Bray and her sister was only gradually restored, and only after they had come to realise how perfectly her own conscience had been consulted and satisfied in the matter. Miss Hennell, who had already entered on the scheme of religious doctrine which ever since she has been setting forth in her printed works, “swerved nothing from her own principles that the maintenance of a conventional form of marriage (remoulded to the demands of the present age) is essentially attached to all religion, and pre-eminently so to the religion of the future.”

In thus defying public opinion, and forming a connection in opposition to the laws of society, George Eliot must have undergone some trials and sufferings peculiarly painful to one so shrinkingly sensitive as herself. Conscious of no wrong-doing, enjoying the rare happiness of completest intellectual fellowship in the man she loved, the step she had taken made a gap betveen her kindred and herself which could not but gall her clinging, womanly nature. To some of her early companions, indeed, who had always felt a certain awe at the imposing gravity of her manners, this dereliction from what appeared to them the path of duty was almost as startling and unexpected as if they had seen the heavens falling down.

How far the individual can ever be justified in following the dictates of his private judgment, in opposition to the laws and prevalent opinions of his time and country, must remain a question no less difficult than delicate of decision. It is pre- precisely page: 88 cisely the point where the highest natures and the lowest sometimes apparently meet; since to act in opposition to custom may be due to the loftiest motives—may be the spiritual exaltation of the reformer, braving social ostracism for the sake of an idea, or may spring, on the other hand, from purely rebellious promptings of an anti-social egoism, which recognises no law higher than that of personal gratification. At the same time, it seems, that no progress could well be made in the evolution of society without these departures on the part of individuals from the well-beaten tracks, for even the failures help eventually towards a fuller recognition of what is beneficial and possible of attainment. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, George Sand, the New England Transcendentalists, with their communistic experiment at Brooke Farm, all more or less strove to be path-finders to a better and happier state of society. George Eliot, however, hardly belonged to this order of mind. Circumstances prompted her to disregard one of the most binding laws of society, yet, while she considered herself justified in doing so, her sympathies were, on the whole, more enlisted in the state of things as they are than as they might be. It is certainly curious that the woman, who in her own life had followed such an independent course, severing herself in many ways from her past with all its traditional sanctities, should yet so often inculcate the very opposite teaching in her works—should inculcate an almost slavish adherence to whatever surroundings, beliefs, and family ties a human being may be born to.

I need only add here that Mr. Lewes and Marian page: 89 went to Germany soon after forming this union, which, only ending by death, gave to each what had hitherto been lacking in their lives. Many marriages solemnised in a church, and ushered in with all the ostentation of trousseau, bridesmaids, and wedding breakfast, are indeed less essentially such in all the deeper human aspects which this relation implies, than the one contracted in this informal manner. Indeed, to those who saw them together, it seemed as if they could never be apart. Yet, while so entirely at one, each respected the other's individuality, his own, at the same time, gaining in strength by the contact. Mr. Lewes's mercurial disposition now assumed a stability greatly enhancing his brilliant talents, and for the first time facilitating that concentration of intellect so necessary for the production of really lasting philosophic work. On the other hand, George Eliot's still dormant faculties were roused and stimulated to the utmost by the man to whom this union with her formed the most memorable year of his life. By his enthusiastic belief in her he gave her the only thing she wanted—a thorough belief in herself. Indeed, he was more than a husband: he was, as an intimate friend once pithily remarked, a very mother to her. Tenderly watching over her delicate health, cheering the grave tenor of her thoughts by his inexhaustible buoyancy, jealously shielding her from every adverse breath of criticism, Mr. Lewes in a manner created the spiritual atmosphere in which George Eliot could best put forth all the flowers and fruits of her genius.

In joining her life with that of Mr. Lewes, the care page: 90 of his three children devolved upon George Eliot, who henceforth showed them the undeviating love and tenderness of a mother. One of the sons had gone out to Natal as a young man, and contracted a fatal disease, which, complicated with some accident, resulted in an untimely death. He returned home a hopeless invalid, and his tedious illness was cheered by the affectionate tendance of her who had for so many years acted a mother's part towards him.