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George Eliot. Blind, Mathilde, 1841–1896.
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page: 90
page: 91

CHAPTER VII.

SCENES OF CLERICAL LIFE.

AS has already been mentioned, Mr. Lewes and Marian went to Germany in 1854, dividing the year between Berlin, Munich, and Weimar. In the latter pleasant little Saxon city, on which the mighty influence of Goethe seemed still visibly resting, as the reflection of the sun lingers in the sky long after the sun himself has set, Lewes partly re-wrote his ‘Life of Goethe.’ Here must have been spent many delightful days, wandering in Goethe's track, exploring the beautiful neighbourhood, and enjoying some of the most cultivated society in Germany. Several articles on German life and literature, afterwards published in the Westminster Review, were probably written at this time. The translation of Spinoza's ‘Ethics’ by George Eliot was also executed in the same year. Mr. Lewes, alluding to it in ‘Goethe's Life,’ says, in a foot-note, “It may interest some readers to learn that Spinoza will ere long appear in English, edited by the writer of these lines.” This was a delusive promise, since the translation has not yet made its appearance. But surely its publication would now be warmly welcomed.

The time, however, was approaching when George Eliot was at last to discover where her real mastery page: 92 lay. And this is the way, as the story goes, that she discovered it. They had returned from the Continent and were settled again in London, both actively engaged in literature. But literature, unless in certain cases of triumphant popularity, is perhaps the worst paid of all work. Mr. Lewes and George Eliot were not too well off. The former, infinite in resources, having himself tried every form of literature in turn, could not fail to notice the matchless power of observation, and the memory matching it in power, of the future novelist. One day an idea struck him. “My dear,” he said, “I think you could write a capital story.” Shortly afterwards there was some dinner engagement, but as he was preparing to go out, she said, “I won't go out this evening, and when you come in don't disturb me. I shall be very busy.” And this was how the ‘Scenes of Clerical Life’ came first to be written! On being shown a portion of the first tale, ‘Amos Barton,’ Mr. Lewes was fairly amazed.

Stories are usually fabricated after the event; but, if not true, they often truly paint a situation. And the general testimony of friends seems to agree that it was Mr. Lewes who first incited the gifted woman, of whose great powers he was best able to form a judgment, to express herself in that species of literature which would afford the fullest scope to the creative and dramatic faculties which she so eminently possessed. Here, however, his influence ended. He helped to reveal George Eliot to herself, and after that there was little left for him to do. But this gift of stimulating another by sympathetic insight and critical appreciation is itself of priceless value. When Schiller died, Goethe said, “The half of my existence is gone page: 93 from me.” A terrible word to utter for one so great. But never again, he knew, would he meet with the same complete comprehension, and, lacking that, his genius itself seemed less his own than before.

There is an impression abroad that Mr. Lewes, if anything, did some injury to George Eliot from a literary point of view; that the nature of his pursuits led her to adopt too technical and pedantic a phraseology in her novels. But this idea is unjust to both. In comparing her earliest with her latest style, it is clear that from the first she was apt to cull her illustrations from the physical sciences, thereby showing how much these studies had become part of herself. Indeed, she was far more liable to introduce these scientific modes of expression than Mr. Lewes, as may be easily seen by comparing his ‘Life of Goethe,’ partly re-written in 1854, with some of her essays of the same date. As to her matter, it is curious how much of it was drawn from the earliest sources of memory—from that life of her childhood to which she may sometimes have turned yearningly as to a long-lost Paradise. Most of her works might, indeed, not inaptly be called ‘Looking Backward.’ They are a half-pathetic, half-humorous, but entirely tender revivification of the “days that are no more.” No one, however intimate, could really intermeddle with the workings of a genius drawing its happiest inspiration from the earliest experiences of its own individual past.

Nothing is more characteristic of this obvious tendency than the first of the ‘Scenes of Clerical Life,’ ‘The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton.’ At Chilvers Coton the curious in such matters may still see the identical church where the incumbent of Shep- Shepperton page: 94 perton used to preach sermons shrewdly compounded of High Church doctrines and Low Church evangelicalism, not forgetting to note “its little flight of steps with their wooden rail running up the outer wall, and leading to the school-children's gallery.” There they may still see the little churchyard, though they may look in vain for the “slim black figure” of the Rev. Amos, “as it flits past the pale gravestones,” in “the silver light that falls aslant on church and tomb.” And among the tombs there is one, a handsome substantial monument, overshadowed by a yew-tree, on which there is this inscription:
HERE LIES,
WAITING THE SUMMONS OF THE ARCHANGEL'S TRUMPET,
ALL THAT WAS MORTAL OF
THE BELOVED WIFE OF THE
REV. JOHN GWYTHER, B.A.,
CURATE OF THIS PARISH,
NOV. 4TH, 1836,
AGED THIRTY-FOUR YEARS,
LEAVING A HUSBAND AND SEVEN CHILDREN.
This Emma Gwyther is none other than the beautiful Milly, the wife of Amos, so touchingly described by George Eliot, whose mother, Mrs. Evans, was her intimate friend. George Eliot would be in her teens when she heard the story of this sweet woman: heard the circumstantial details of her struggles to make the two ends of a ridiculously small income meet the yearly expenses: heard her mother, no doubt (in the words of Mrs. Hackit) blame her weak forbearance in tolerating the presence in her house of the luxurious and exacting countess, who, having ingratiated herself page: 95 with the gullible Amos by her talk of the “livings” she would get him, gave much scandal in the neighbourhood: heard of the pathetic death-bed, when, worn by care and toil, the gentle life ebbed quietly away, leaving a life-long void in her husband's heart and home. All this was the talk of the neighbourhood when George Eliot was a girl; and her extraordinary memory allowed nothing to escape.

On the completion of ‘Amos Barton,’ Mr. Lewes, who, as already mentioned, was a contributor to ‘Maga.’ sent the MS. to the editor, the late Mr. John Blackwood, as the work of an anonymous friend. This was in the autumn of 1856. The other scenes of ‘Clerical Life’ were then unwritten, but the editor was informed that the story submitted to his approval formed one of a series. Though his judgment was favourable, he begged to see some of the other tales before accepting this, freely making some criticisms on the plot and studies of character in ‘Amos Barton.’ This, however, disheartened the author, whose peculiar diffidence had only been overcome by Mr. Lewes's hearty commendation. When the editor had been made aware of the injurious effect of his objections, he hastened to efface it by accepting the tale without further delay. It appeared soon afterwards in Blackwood's Magazine for January 1857, where it occupied the first place. This story, by some considered as fine as anything the novelist ever wrote, came to an end in the next number. ‘Mr. Gilfil's Love Story,’ and ‘Janet's Repentance’ were written in quick succession, and the series was completed in November of the same year.

Although there was nothing sufficiently sensational in these ‘Scenes’ to arrest the attention of that great page: 96 public which must be roused by something new and startling, literary judges were not slow to discern the powerful realism with which the author had drawn these uncompromising studies from life. After the appearance of ‘Amos Barton,’ Mr. Blackwood wrote to the anonymous author: “It is a long time since I have read anything so fresh, so humorous, and so touching. The style is capital, conveying so much in so few words.” Soon afterwards he began another letter: “My dear Amos, I forget whether I told you or Lewes that I had shown part of the MS. to Thackeray. He was staying with me, and having been out at dinner, came in about eleven o'clock, when I had just finished reading it. I said to him, ‘Do you know that I think I have lighted upon a new author, who is uncommonly like a first-class passenger.’ I showed him a page or two, I think the passage where the curate returns home and Milly is first introduced. He would not pronounce whether it came up to my ideas, but remarked afterwards that he would have liked to have read more, which I thought a good sign.”

Dickens, after the publication of the ‘Scenes,’ sent a letter to the unknown writer through the editor, warmly expressing the admiration he felt for them. But he was strongly of opinion from the first that they must have been written by a woman. In the meanwhile the tales were reprinted in a collected form, and they were so successful that the editor, writing to Mr. Lewes at the end of January 1858, when the book had hardly been out a month, was able to say, “George Eliot has fairly achieved a literary reputation among judges, and the public must follow, although it may take time.” And in a letter to George Eliot herself, page: 97 he wrote in February: “You will recollect, when we proposed to reprint, my impression was that the series had not lasted long enough in the magazine to give you a hold on the general public, although long enough to make your literary reputation. Unless in exceptional cases, a very long time often elapses between the two stages of reputation—the literary and the public. Your progress will be sure, if not so quick as we could wish.”

While the sketches were being re-issued in book form, Messrs. Blackwood informed its author that they saw good cause for makling a large increase in the forthcoming reprint, and their anticipations were fully justified by its success. All sorts of rumours were abroad as to the real author of these clerical tales. Misled by a hint, calculated to throw him off the real scent, Mr. Blackwood was at first under the impression that they were the work of a clergyman, and perhaps this may have been the origin of a belief which lingered till quite recently, that George Eliot was the daughter of a clergyman, a statement made by several of the leading daily papers after her death. Abandoning the idea of the clergyman, Mr. Blackwood next fixed upon a very different sort of person, to wit, Professor Owen, whom he suspected owing to the similarity of handwriting and the scientific knowledge so exceptional in a novelist. No less funny was the supposition held by others of Lord Lytton—who more than once hoaxed the public under a new literary disguise—having at last surpassed himself in the sterling excellence of these tales. Now that Bulwer has gone the way of all fashions, it seems incredible that the most obtuse and slow-witted of critics should have mistaken for a moment his high-flown senti- sentimental page: 98 mental style for the new author's terse, vigorous and simple prose.

It was impossible, however, for an author to remain a mere nameless abstraction. An appellation of some kind became an imperative necessity, and, during the passage of ‘Mr. Gilfil's Love Story’ through the press, the pseudonym of “George Eliot”—a name destined to become so justly renowned—was finally assumed.

The ‘Scenes of Clerical Life’ were to George Eliot's future works what a bold, spirited sketch is to a carefully elaborated picture. All the qualities that distinguished her genius may be discovered in this, her first essay in fiction. With all Miss Austen's matchless faculty for painting commonplace characters, George Eliot has that other nobler faculty of showing what tragedy, pathos, and humour may be lying in the experience of a human soul “that looks out through dull grey eyes, and that speaks in a voice of quite ordinary tones.” While depicting some commonplace detail of every day life, she has the power to make her reader realise its close relation to the universal life. She never gives you the mere dry bones and fragments of existence as represented in some particular section of society, but always manages to keep before the mind the invisible links connecting it with the world at large. In ‘Mr. Gilfil's Love-Story’ there is a passage as beautiful as any in her works, and fully illustrating this attitude of her mind. It is where Tina, finding herself deceived in Captain Wybrow, gives way to her passionate grief in solitude.

“While this poor little heart was being bruised with a weight too heavy for it, Nature was holding on her calm inexorable way, in unmoved and terrible beauty. page: 99 The stars were rushing in their eternal courses; the tides swelled to the level of the last expectant weed; the sun was making brilliant day to busy nations on the other side of the swift earth. The stream of human thought and deed was hurrying and broadening onward. The astronomer was at his telescope; the great ships were labouring over the waves; the toiling eagerness of commerce, the fierce spirit of revolution, were only ebbing in brief rest; and sleepless statesmen were dreading the possible crisis of the morrow. What were our little Tina and her trouble in this mighty torrent, rushing from one awful unknown to another? Lighter than the smallest centre of quivering life in the water-drop, hidden and uncared for as the pulse of anguish in the breast of the tiniest bird that has fluttered down to its nest with the long-sought food, and has found the nest torn and empty.”

There is rather more incident in this story of Mr. Gilfil than in either of the two other ‘Scenes of Clerical Life.’ In ‘Amos Barton’ the narrative is of the simplest, as has already been indicated; and the elements from which ‘Janet's Repentance’ is composed are as free from any complex entanglement ot plot. The author usually describes the most ordinary circumstances of English life, but the powerful rendering of the human emotions which spring from them takes a most vivid hold of the imagination: ‘Mr. Gilfil's Love-Story,’ however, seems a little Italian romance dropped on English soil.

It is, in brief, the narration of how Sir Christopher Cheverel and his wife, during their residence at Milan, took pity on a little orphan girl, “whose large dark page: 100 eyes shone from out her queer little face like the precious stones in a grotesque image carved in old ivory.” Caterina, or Tina as she is called, taken back to Cheverel Manor, grew up under the care of the Baronet's wife, to whom she became endeared by her exceptional musical talent. Sir Christopher had no children, but had chosen his nephew, Captain Wybrow, for his heir, and planned a marriage between him and Miss Assher, the handsome and accomplished owner of a pretty estate. Another marriage, on which he has equally set his heart, is that between his ward Maynard Gilfil, an open-eyed manly young fellow destined for the Church, and the mellow-voiced, large-eyed Tina, for whom he has long nursed an undeclared passion. But alas, for the futility of human plans! Tina, to whom the elegant Anthony Wybrow has been secretly professing love, suffers tortures of jealousy when he and Miss Assher, to whom he has dutifully become engaged, come on a visit to Cheverel Manor. The treacherous Captain, to lull the suspicions of his betrothed, insinuates that poor Miss Sarti entertains a hopeless passion for him, which puts the poor girl, who gets an inkling of this double-dealing, into a frenzy of indignation. In this state she possesses herself of a dagger, and as she is going to meet the Captain by appointment, dreams of plunging the weapon in the traitor's heart. But on reaching the appointed spot, she beholds the false lover stretched motionless on the ground already—having suddenly died of heart disease. Tina's anguish is indescribable: she gives the alarm to the household, but stung by remorse for a contemplated revenge of which her tender-hearted nature was utterly in- incapable page: 101 capable, she flies unperceived from the premises at night. Being searched for in vain, she is suspected of having committed suicide. After some days of almost unbearable suspense, news is brought that Tina is lying ill at the cottage of a former maid in the household. With reviving hopes her anxious lover rides to the farm, sees the half-stunned, unhappy girl, and, after a while, manages to remove her to his sister's house. She gradually recovers under Mrs. Heron's gentle tendance, and one day a child's accidental striking of a deep bass note on the harpsichord suddenly revives her old passionate delight in music. And ‘the soul that was born anew to music was born anew to love.’ After a while Tina agrees to become Mr. Gilfil's wife, who has been given the living at Shepperton, where a happy future seems in store for the Vicar. “But the delicate plant had been too deeply bruised, and in the struggle to put forth a blossom it died.

“Tina died, and Maynard Gilfil's love went with her into deep silence for evermore.”

Besides this sympathy with the homeliest characters and situations, or, more properly speaking, springing from it, there already runs through these three tales the delicious vein of humour irradiating George Eliot's otherwise sombre pictures of life with sudden flashes of mirth as of sunlight trembling above dark waters. In this depth and richness of humour George Eliot not only takes precedence of all other distinguished women, but she stands among them without a rival. Hers is that thoughtful outlook on life, that infinite depth of observation which, taking note of the inconsistencies and the blunders, the self-delusions and “fantastic pranks” of her fellow-men, finds the source page: 102 of laughter very near to tears; never going out of her way for the eccentric and peculiar in human nature, seeing that human nature itself appears to her as the epitome of all incongruity. It is this breadth of conception and unerringness of vision piercing through the external and accidental to the core of man's mixed nature which give certain of her creations something of the life-like complexity of Shakespeare's.

Her power of rendering the idiom and manners of peasants, artisans, and paupers, of calling up before us the very gestures and phrases of parsons, country practitioners, and other varieties of inhabitants of our provincial towns and rural districts, already manifests itself fully in these clerical stories. Here we find such types as Mr. Dempster, the unscrupulous, brutal, drunken lawyer; Mr. Pilgrim, the tall, heavy, rough-mannered, and spluttering doctor, profusely addicted to bleeding and blistering his patients; Mr. Gilfil, the eccentric vicar, with a tender love-story hidden beneath his rugged exterior; the large-hearted, unfortunate Janet, rescued from moral ruin by Mr. Tryan, the ascetic evangelical clergyman, whose character, the author remarks, might have been found sadly wanting in perfection by feeble and fastidious minds, but, as she adds, “The blessed work of helping the world forward happily does not wait to be done by perfect men; and I should imagine that neither Luther nor John Bunyan, for example, would have satisfied the modern demand for an ideal hero, who believes nothing but what is true, feels nothing but what is exalted, and does nothing but what is graceful. The real heroes of God's making are quite different: they have their natural heritage of love and conscience, which they page: 103 drew in with their mother's milk; they know one or two of those deep spiritual truths which are only to be won by long wrestling with their own sins and their own sorrows; they have earned faith and strength so far as they have done genuine work, but the rest is dry, barren theory, blank prejudice, vague hearsay.”

George Eliot's early acquaintance with many types of the clerical character, and her sympathy with the religious life in all its manifestations, was never more fully shown than in these ‘Scenes.’ In ‘Janet's Repentance’ we already discover one of George Eliot's favourite psychological studies—the awakening of a morally mixed nature to a new, a spiritual life. This work of regeneration Mr. Tryan performs for Janet, Felix Holt for Esther, and Daniel Deronda for Gwendolen. Her protest against the application of too lofty a moral standard in judging of our fellow-creatures, her championship of the “mongrel, ungainly dogs who are nobody's pets,” is another of the prominent qualities of her genius fully expressed in this firstling work, being, indeed, at the root of her humorous conception of life. One of the finest bits of humour in the present volume is the scene in ‘Amos Barton,’ which occurs at the workhouse, euphemistically called the “College.” Mr. Barton, having just finished his address to the paupers, is thus accosted by Mr. Spratt, “a small-featured, small-statured man, with a remarkable power of language, mitigated by hesitation, who piqued himself on expressing unexceptionable sentiments in unexceptionable language on all occasions.

“‘Mr. Barton, sir—aw—aw—excuse my trespassing on your time—aw—to beg that you will administer page: 104 a rebuke to this boy; he is—aw—aw—most inveterate in ill-behaviour during service-time.’

“The inveterate culprit was a boy of seven, vainly contending against ‘candles’ at his nose by feeble sniffing. But no sooner had Mr. Spratt uttered his impeachment than Mrs. Fodge rushed forward, and placed herself between Mr. Barton and the accused.

“‘That's my child, Muster Barton,’ she exclaimed, further manifesting her maternal instincts by applying her apron to her offspring's nose. ‘He's aly's a-findin' faut wi' him, and a-poundin' him for nothin'. Let him goo an' eat his roost goose as is a-smellin' up in our noses while we're a-swallering them greasy broth, an' let my boy alooan.’

“Mr. Spratt's small eyes flashed, and he was in danger of uttering sentiments not unexceptionable before the clergyman; but Mr. Barton, foreseeing that a prolongation of this episode would not be to edification, said ‘Silence!’ in his severest tones.

“‘Let me hear no abuse. Your boy is not likely to behave well, if you set him the example of being saucy.’ Then stooping down to Master Fodge, and taking him by the shoulder, ‘Do you like being beaten?’

“‘No—a.’

“‘Then what a silly boy you are to be naughty. If you were not naughty, you wouldn't be beaten. But if you are naughty, God will be angry, as well as Mr. Spratt; and God can burn you for ever. That will be worse than being beaten.’

“Master Fodge's countenance was neither affirmative nor negative of this proposition.

page: 105

“‘But,’ continued Mr. Barton, ‘if you will be a good boy, God will love you, and you will grow up to be a good man. Now, let me hear next Thursday that you have been a good boy.’

“Master Fodge had no distinct vision of the benefit that would accrue to him from this change of courses.”

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