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George Eliot. Blind, Mathilde, 1841–1896.
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RARELY has a novelist come to his task with such a far-reaching culture, such an intellectual grasp, as George Eliot. We have seen her girlhood occupied with an extraordinary variety of studies; we have seen her plunged in abstruse metaphysical speculations; we have seen her translating some of the most laborious philosophical investigations of German thinkers; we have seen her again translating from the Latin the ‘Ethics’ of Spinoza; and, finally, we have seen her attracting, and attracted by, some of the leaders in science, philosophy, and literature.

Compared with such qualifications who among novelists could compete? What could a Dickens, or a Thackeray himself, throw into the opposing scale? Lewes, indeed, was a match for her in variety of attainments, but he had made several attempts at fiction, and the attempts had proved failures. When at last, in the maturity of her powers, George Eliot produced ‘Adam Bede,’ she produced a novel in which the amplest results of knowledge and meditation were so happily blended with instinctive insight into life and character, and the rarest dramatic imagi- imagination page: 107 nation, as to stamp it immediately as one of the great triumphs and masterpieces in the world of fiction.

It is worth noticing that in ‘Adam Bede’ George Eliot fulfils to the utmost the demands which she had been theoretically advocating in her essays. In some of these she had not only eloquently enforced the importance of a truthful adherence to nature, but had pointed out how the artist is thus in the very vanguard of social and political reforms; as in familiarising the imagination with the real condition of the people, he did much towards creating that sympathy with their wants, their trials, and their sufferings, which would eventually effect external changes in harmony with this better understanding. Such had been her teaching. And in Dickens she had recognised the one great novelist who, in certain respects, had painted the lower orders with unerring truthfulness. His “Oliver Twists,” his “Nancys,” his “Joes,” were terrible and pathetic pictures of the forlorn outcasts haunting our London streets. And if, as George Eliot says, Dickens had been able to “give us their psychological character, their conception of life and their emotions, with the same truth as, their idiom and manners, his books would be the greatest contribution Art has ever made to the awakening of social sympathies.” Now George Eliot absolutely does what Dickens aimed at doing. She not merely seizes the outward and accidental traits of her characters: she pierces with unerring vision to the very core of their nature, and enables us to realise the peculiarly subtle relations between character and circumstance. Her primary object is to excite our sympathy with the most ordinary aspects of human page: 108 life, with the people that one may meet any day in the fields, the workshops, and the homes of England. Her most vivid creations are not exceptional beings, not men or women pre-eminently conspicuous for sublime heroism of character or magnificent mental endowments, but work-a-day folk,
  • “Not too fine or good
  • For human nature's daily food.”

To this conscientious fidelity of observation and anxious endeavour to report the truth and nothing but the truth, as of a witness in a court of justice, are owing that life-like vividness with which the scenery and people in ‘Adam Bede’ seem projected on the reader's imagination. The story, indeed, is so intensely realistic as to have given rise to the idea that it is entirely founded on fact. That there is such a substratum is hardly a matter of doubt, and there have been various publications all tending to prove that the chief characters in ‘Adam Bede’ were not only very faithful copies of living people, but of people closely connected with its author. To some extent this is incontrovertible. But, on the other hand, there is a likelihood of the fictitious events having in their turn been grafted on to actual personages and occurrences, till the whole has become so fused together as to lead some persons to the firm conviction that Dinah Morris is absolutely identical with Mrs. Elizabeth Evans, the Derbyshire Methodist. Such a supposition would help to reconcile the conflicting statements respectively made by the great novelist and the writers of two curious little books entitled ‘Seth Bede, the Methody, his Life and Labours,’ chiefly written by page: 109 himself, and ‘George Eliot in Derbyshire,’ by Guy Roslyn.

From these brochures one gathers that Hayslope, where the rustic drama of ‘Adam Bede’ unfolds itself, is the village of Ellaston, not far from Ashbourne in Staffordshire. This village is so little altered that the traveller may still see the sign-board of the “Donnithorne Arms,” and the red brick hall, only with windows no longer unpatched. Samuel, William, and Robert Evans (the father of the novelist) were born in this place, and began life as carpenters, as their father before them. Samuel Evans became a zealous Methodist, and was rather laughed at by his family in consequence, for he says, “My elder brothers often tried to tease me; they entertained High Church principles. They told me what great blunders I made in preaching and prayer; that I had more zeal than knowledge.” In this, as in other respects, he is the prototype of Seth, as Adam resembles Robert Evans, one of the more secular elder brothers, only that in real life it was Samuel who married Elizabeth, the Dinah Morris of fiction.

Much has been written about this Elizabeth Evans (the aunt of George Eliot, already spoken of): indeed, her life was one of such rare devotion to an ideal cause, that even such imperfect fragments of it as have been committed to writing by herself or her friends are of considerable interest. Elizabeth was born at Newbold in Leicestershire, and left her father's house when little more than fourteen years old. She joined the Methodists in 1797, after which she had entirely done with the pleasures of the world and all her old companions. “I saw it my duty,” she says, “to leave off all my superfluities of dress; page: 110 hence I pulled off all my bunches, cut off my curls, left off my lace, and in this I found an unspeakable pleasure. I saw I could make a better use of my time and money than to follow the fashions of a vain world.” While still a beautiful young girl, attired in a quaker dress and bonnet, she used to walk across those bleak Derbyshire hills looking so strangely mournful in their treeless nudity, with their bare stone fences grey against a greyer sky. Here she trudged from village to village gathering the poor about her; and pouring forth words of such earnest conviction that, as she says, “Many were brought to the Lord.” The points of resemblance between her career and that of Dinah Morris cannot fail to strike the reader, even their phraseology being often singularly alike, as when Mrs. Evans writes in the short account of what she calls her “unprofitable life:” “I saw it my duty to be wholly devoted to God, and to be set apart for the Master's use;” while Dinah says: “My life is too short, and God's work is too great for me to think of making a home for myself in this world.” It must be borne in mind, however, that these similarities of expression are natural enough when one considers that Dinah is a type of the same old-fashioned kind of Methodism to which Mrs. Evans belonged. What is perhaps stranger is, that the account given by George Eliot of her various meetings with her aunt, Mrs. Elizabeth Evans, should differ considerably from what the latter herself remembered or has stated about them. Shortly after the appearance of ‘Adam Bede,’ attention had been publicly called to the identity of the heroine of fiction with the Methodist preacher. This conviction was so strong in Wirksworth, that a number of friends placed a page: 111 memorial tablet in the Methodist chapel at Wirksworth with the following inscription:—
In Memory of
In order to give a correct notion of the amount of truth in her novel, George Eliot wrote in the following terms to her friend Miss Hennell on the 7th of October, 1859: “I should like, while the subject is vividly present with me, to tell you more exactly than I have ever yet done, what I knew of my aunt, Elizabeth Evans. My father, you know, lived in Warwickshire all my life with him, having finally left Staffordshire first, and then Derbyshire, six or seven years before he married my mother. There was hardly any intercourse between my father's family, resident in Derbyshire and Staffordshire, and our family—few and far between visits of (to my childish feeling) strange uncles and aunts and cousins from my father's far-off native county, and once a journey of my own, as a little child, with my father and mother, to see my uncle William (a rich builder) in Staffordshire—but not my uncle and aunt Samuel, so far as I can recall the dim outline of things—are what I remember of northerly relatives in my childhood.

“But when I was seventeen or more—after my page: 112 sister was married, and I was mistress of the house—my father took a journey into Derbyshire, in which, visiting my uncle and aunt Samuel, who were very poor, and lived in a humble cottage at Wirksworth, he found my aunt in a very delicate state of health after a serious illness, and, to do her bodily good, he persuaded her to return with him, telling her that I should be very, very happy to have her with me for a few weeks. I was then strongly under the influence of evangelical belief, and earnestly endeavouring to shape this anomalous English-Christian life of ours into some consistency with the spirit and simple verbal tenor of the New Testament. I was delighted to see my aunt. Although I had only heard her spoken of as a strange person, given to a fanatical vehemence of exhortation in private as well as public, I believed that I should find sympathy between us. She was then an old woman—above sixty—and, I believe, had for a good many years given up preaching. A tiny little woman, with bright, small dark eyes, and hair that had been black, I imagine, but was now grey—a pretty woman in her youth, but of a totally different physical type from Dinah. The difference—as you will believe—was not simply physical; no difference is. She was a woman of strong natural excitability, which I know, from the description I have heard my father and half-sister give, prevented her from the exercise of discretion under the promptings of her zeal. But this vehemence was now subdued by age and sickness; she was very gentle and quiet in her manners, very loving, and (what she must have been from the very first), a truly religious soul, in whom the love of God and love of man were fused together. There was nothing rightly distinctive in page: 113 her religious conversation. I had had much intercourse with pious dissenters before; the only freshness I found in her talk came from the fact that she had been the greater part of her life a Wesleyan, and though she left the society when women were no longer allowed to preach, and joined the New Wesleyans, she retained the character of thought that belongs to the genuine old Wesleyan. I had never talked with a Wesleyan before, and we used to have little debates about predestination, for I was then a strong Calvinist. Here her superiority came out, and I remember now, with loving admiration, one thing which at the time I disapproved; it was not strictly a consequence of her Arminian belief, and at first sight might seem opposed to it, yet it came from the spirit of love which clings to the bad logic of Arminianism. When my uncle came to fetch her, after she had been with us a fortnight or three weeks, he was speaking of a deceased minister once greatly respected, who, from the action of trouble upon him, had taken to small tippling, though otherwise not culpable. ‘But I hope the good man's in heaven for all that,’ said my uncle. ‘Oh yes,’ said my aunt, with a deep inward groan of joyful conviction, ‘Mr. A.'s in heaven, that's sure.’ This was at the time an offence to my stern, ascetic, hard views—how beautiful it is to me now!

“As to my aunt's conversation, it is a fact that the only two things of any interest I remember in our lonely sittings and walks are her telling me one sunny afternoon how she had, with another pious woman, visited an unhappy girl in prison, stayed with her all night, and gone with her to execution; and one or two accounts of supposed miracles in which she believed, among the rest, the face with the crown of page: 114 thorns seen in the glass. In her account of the prison scenes I remember no word she uttered; I only remember her tone and manner, and the deep feeling I had under the recital. Of the girl she knew nothing, I believe, or told me nothing, but that she was a common, coarse girl, convicted of child-murder. The incident lay in my mind for years on years, as a dead germ, apparently, till time had made my mind a nidus in which it could fructify; it then turned out to be the germ of ‘Adam Bede.’

“I saw my aunt twice after this. Once I spent a day and night with my father in the Wirklsworth cottage, sleeping with my aunt, I remember. Our interview was less interesting than in the former time; I think I was less simply devoted to religious ideas. And once again she came with my uncle to see me, when father and I were living at Foleshill; then there was some pain, for I had given up the form of Christian belief, and was in a crude state of free-thinking. She stayed about three or four days, I think. This is all I remember distinctly, as matter I could write down, of my dear aunt, whom I really loved. You see how she suggested ‘Dinah;’ but it is not possible you should see, as I do, how entirely her individuality differed from ‘Dinah's.’ How curious it seems to me that people should think ‘Dinah's’ sermon, prayers, and speeches were copied, when they were written with hot tears as they surged up in my own mind!

“As to my indebtedness to facts of local and personal history of a small kind connected with Staffordshire and Derbyshire, you may imagine of what kind that is, when I tell you that I never remained in either of those counties more than a few page: 115 days together, and of only two such visits have I more than a shadowy, interrupted recollection. The details which I know as facts, and have made use of for my picture, were gathered from such imperfect allusion and narrative as I heard from my father in his occasional talk about old times.

“As to my aunt's children or grandchildren saying, if they did say, that ‘Dinah’ is a good portrait of my aunt, that is simply the vague, easily-satisfied notion imperfectly-instructed people always have of portraits. It is not surprising that simple men and women, without pretension to enlightened discrimination, should think a generic resemblance constitutes a portrait, when we see the great public, so accustomed to be delighted with mis-representations of life and character, which they accept as representations, that they are scandalised when art makes a nearer approach to truth.

“Perhaps I am doing a superfluous thing in writing all this to you, but I am prompted to do it by the feeling that in future years ‘Adam Bede,’ and all that concerns it, may have become a dim portion of the past, and that I may not be able to recall so much of the truth as I have now told you.”

Nothing could prove more conclusively how powerful was the impression which ‘Adam Bede’ created than this controversy concerning the amount of truth which its characters contained. But, as hinted before, it seems very likely that some of the doings and sayings of the fictitious personages should have been attributed, almost unconsciously, to the real people whom they resembled. How quick is the popular imagination in effecting these transformations came only quite recently under my notice, when some English tra- travellers page: 116 vellers, while visiting Château d'If, were taken by the guide in perfect good faith to see the actual dungeon where Monte Christo was imprisoned! Similarly, one would think, that the moving sermon preached by Dinah on the Green at Hayslope had been afterwards erroneously ascribed to Mrs. Elizabeth Evans. But an account recently published in the Century Magazine by one who had long known the Evanses of Wirksworth, seems irreconcilable with such a supposition. According to this writer it would appear that besides the visits to her aunt at Wirksworth, of which George Eliot speaks in the letter just quoted, there was one other of which no mention is made. This visit, which she paid her cousin, Mr. Samuel Evans, occurred in 1842, when she remained a week at his house in Wirksworth. The aunt and niece were in the habit of seeing each other every day for several hours at this time. They usually met at the house of one of the married daughters of Mrs. Elizabeth Evans, holding long conversations while sitting by themselves in the parlour. “These secret conversations,” says the writer of the article, “excited some curiosity in the family, and one day one of the daughters said, ‘Mother, I can't think what thee and Mary Ann have got to talk about so much.’ To which Mrs. Evans replied: ‘Well, my dear, I don't know what she wants, but she gets me to tell her all about my life and my religious experience, aud she puts it all down in a little book. I can't make out what she wants it for.’ “After her departure, Mrs. Evans is reported to have said to her daughter, “Oh dear, Mary Ann has got one thing I did not mean her to take away, and that is the notes of the first sermon I preached at Ellaston Green.” According to the page: 117 same authority, Marian Evans took notes of everything people said in her hearing: no matter who was speaking, down it went into the note-book, which seemed never out of her hand; and these notes she is said to have transcribed every night before going to bed. Yet this habit was foreign to her whole character, and the friends who knew her most intimately in youth and later life never remember seeing her resort to such a practice. Be that as it may, there can be no doubt that the novelist very freely used many of the circumstances connected with her aunt's remarkable career. How closely she adhered to nature is shown by the fact that in Mrs. Poyser and Bartle Massey she retained the actual names of the characters portrayed, as they happened to be both dead. Bartle Massey, the village cynic, had been the schoolmaster of her father, Robert Evans. How accurately the latter, together with all his surroundings, was described is shown by the following anecdote. On its first appearance ‘Adam Bede’ was read aloud to an old man, an intimate associate of Robert Evans in his Staffordshire days. This man knew nothing concerning either author or subject beforehand, and his astonishment was boundless on recognising so many friends and incidents of his own youth portrayed with unerring fidelity. He sat up half the night listening to the story in breathless excitement, now and then slapping his knee as he exclaimed, “That's Robert, that's Robert to the life.”

Although Wirksworth is not the locality described in ‘Adam Bede,’ it contains features recalling that quaint little market-town, where over the door of one of the old-fashioned houses may be read the name made illustrious by the inimitable Mrs. Poyser. In page: 118 the neighbourhood, too, are “Arkwiright's mills there at Cromford,” casually alluded to by Adam Bede; and should the tourist happen to enter one of the cottages of grey stone, with blue-washed door and window-frames, he may still alight on specimens of Methodism, as devout as Seth Bede, eloquently expounding the latest political event by some prophecy of Daniel or Ezekiel. In short, one breathes the atmosphere in which such characters as Dinah and Seth actually lived and had their being. This uncompromising Realism, so far from detracting, only enhances the genius of this powerful novel. A thousand writers might have got hold of these identical materials: a George Eliot alone could have cast these materials into the mould of ‘Adam Bede.’ Let any one glance at the account of their religious experiences, as given by Elizabeth or Samuel Evans, and he will realise all the more strongly how great was the genius of her who transfused these rambling, commonplace effusions into such an artistic whole. I have entered so minutely into this question of the likeness between the actual characters and those in the novel purely on account of the biographical interest attaching to it. In judging of ‘Adam Bede’ as a work of art these facts possess next to no importance. If we could trace the characters in any one of Shakespeare's plays to human beings actually connected with the poet, we should consider such a discovery immensely valuable as throwing new light on his own life, though it would hardly affect our critical estimate of the drama itself.

So much has been said already about the characters in ‘Adam Bede’ in connection with the real people they resemble, that little need be added here about page: 119 them. Dinah Morris—the youthful preacher, whose eloquence is but the natural, almost involuntary manifestation in words, of a beautiful soul; whose spring of love is so abundant that it overflows the narrow limits of private affection, and blesses multitudes of toiling, suffering men and women with its wealth of pity, hope, and sympathy—was a new creation in the world of fiction. Some writer has pointed out a certain analogy between the sweet Derbyshire Methodist and the gentle pietist whose confessions form a very curious chapter of ‘Wilhelm Meister.’ But the two characters are too dissimilar for comparison. The German heroine is a dreamy, passive, introspective nature, feeling much but doing little; whereas the English preacher does not inquire too curiously into the mysteries of her faith, but moved by the spirit of its teaching goes about actively, participating in the lives of others by her rousing words and her acts of charity. Only a woman would or could have described just such a woman as this: a woman whose heart is centred in an impersonal ideal instead of in any individual object of love; whereas a man's heroine always has her existence rooted in some personal affection or passion, whether for parent or lover, child or husband. This makes Dinah less romantically interesting than Hetty Sorrel, the beautiful, kittenlike, self-involved creature with whom she is so happily contrasted. George Eliot never drew a more living figure than this of Hetty, hiding such a hard little heart under that soft dimpling beauty of hers. Again, I think that only a woman would have depicted just such a Hetty as this. The personal charms of this young girl are drawn in words that have the glow of life itself; yet while intensely page: 120 conscious of her beauty, we are kept aware all the time that, to use one of the famous Mrs. Poyser's epigrammatic sayings, Hetty is “no better nor a cherry wi' a hard stone inside it.” George Eliot is never dazzled or led away by her own bewitching creation as a man would have been. There is a certain pitilessness in her analysis of Hetty's shallow, frivolous little soul, almost as if she were saying—See here, what stuff this beauty which you adore is made of in reality! To quote her own subtle, far-reaching interpretation of beauty: “Hetty's face had a language that transcended her feelings. There are faces which nature charges with a meaning and pathos not belonging to the simple human soul that flutters beneath them, but speaking the joys and sorrows of foregone generations; eyes that tell of deep love which doubtless has been and is somewhere, but not paired with these eyes, perhaps paired with pale eyes that can say nothing, just as a national language may be instinct with poetry unfelt by the lips that use it.”

The sensation created by ‘Adam Bede’ was shown in other ways besides the claim of some to have discovered the original characters of this striking novel. The curiosity of the public was naturally much exercised as to who the unknown author could possibly be, who had so suddenly leaped into fame. And now there comes on the scene an individual who does not claim to be the living model of one of the characters portrayed, but to be the author of the book himself. And the name of this person was Liggins!

While the ‘Scenes of Clerical Life’ were yet appearing in Blackwood's Magazine the inhabitants of Nuneaton and its neighbourhood were considerably perplexed and excited to find well-known places and page: 121 persons touched off to the life. In Amos Barton they recognised the incumbent of Coton Church, in Mr. Pilgrim a medical man familiar to every child in the town, and indeed in every one of the characters an equally unmistakable portrait. Clearly no one but a fellow-townsman could have hit off these wonderful likenesses. Literary talent not being too abundant, their choice of an author was limited. The only man who by any stretch of imagination seemed to have the making of a man of letters in him was this above-mentioned Liggins. To have studied at Cambridge, gallantly run through a fortune, and be in very needy circumstances, were exactly the qualifications to be expected in a man of genius. Further evidence seeming unnecessary, the real authorship of the ‘Scenes’ was now revealed in an Isle of Man paper. At first the reputed author gently denied the impeachment, but on the appearance of ‘Adam Bede’ he succumbed to the temptation. To be fêted at dinner parties as a successful author, and to have a subscription set on foot by enthusiastic lady-admirers and fellow-townsmen, in whose eyes he was a sadly unrequited genius, proved irresistible. A local clergyman even wrote to the Times stating Liggins to be the real surname of “George Eliot!” The latter wrote, of course, denying the statement, and challenging the pretender to produce some specimen of his writing in the style of ‘Adam Bede.’ But the confidence of the Nuneaton public in their hero Liggins was not to be so easily shaken. Two dissenting ministers from Coventry went over to Attleborough to call upon the “great author,” and to find out if he really did write ‘Adam Bede.’ Liggins evaded their questions, indirectly admitting that he did; but when page: 122 they asked him point blank, “Liggins, tell us, did you write ‘Adam Bede’?” he said, “If I didn't, the devil did!” and that was all they could get out of him. Another clergyman was much less sceptical, assuring every one that he was positive as to Liggins being the author, as he had seen the MS. of ‘Adam Bede’ in his hands. To this day there lives in the Isle of Man a certain venerable old gentleman who has never lost his faith in Liggins, but, when George Eliot is mentioned, gravely shakes his head, implying that there is more in the name than meets the eye of the superficial observer. But a heavy retribution befell the poor pseudo-author at last, for when his false pretences to favour were fully manifest he fell into utter neglect and poverty, ending his days in the workhouse.

This foolish misrepresentation hastened the disclosure of George Eliot's real personality and name, which occurred on the publication of the ‘Mill on the Floss.’ Shortly before that, Mr. Blackwood, who had long entertained the wish to know the author of the ‘Scenes of Clerical Life’ and of ‘Adam Bede,’ was invited by Lewes to meet him at last. No one was present at the dinner-table besides Mr. Lewes, Marian, and Mr. Blackwood himself. The dinner was an extremely pleasant one, but when it was over, the guest could not help expressing his regret that George Eliot himself should not have been present. “Here he is,” said Lewes, introducing the quiet, low-spoken lady who had presided at table, not without enjoyment at the sensation he produced as the astonished publisher shook hands with his contributor.