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In a Walled Garden. Belloc, Bessie Rayner, 1829–1925.
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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 extra‐ page: 2 ordinary 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 page: 3 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 page: 4 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 page: 5 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 page: 6 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.

And so it came to pass that when “Middlemarch” was published, many years after, the place seemed familiar to me, and Dorothea stood beneath elms with the sunset falling upon her hair, and that she has always been to me most real, though I cannot but think most unreasonable in her misuse of life. The girl is real enough; it is her chances which she and her biographer seem to me to have singularly missed, probably because the very weight and worth of English Dissenters forty to fifty years ago secluded them from all society but their own. From the aristocracy and from the wealthy landed gentry they were absolutely cut off. They never rode steeplechases by moonlight with their nightshirts buttoned over their uniforms; they did not frequent a doubtful salon at Holland House, or a much more doubtful one at Kensington page: 7 Gore; to them a woman of indifferent reputation was only that and nothing more, whatever her abilities or her place in the world. The old scandals of the pre‐Victorian Court, the occasional trials before the Lords, the wine and the whisky of the political dinner, the hunting pastor who strolled into his wife’s bedroom in pink, cracking his whip as he bent to kiss his new‐born child—all these things were as far from the horizon of the Dissenters then as they are from ours now, and farther. But it was not wholly gain; some things were missed which might well be totted up on the other side. The wide political skyline, the knowledge of foreign countries, of the embassies and the diplomatic services, the unbroken links with the older Roman Catholic families—Howards, Talbots, Petres, Arundels, Welds—and the stirrings of the new life among the Catholic converts; add to these the traditions of the stage, the Kembles and the Keans, Garrick’s widow only lately dead (she survived her husband for nearly fifty years); add to these whatever life remained in the English Church, a life soon to re‐blossom like the rose; and it must, I think, be acknow‐ page: 8 ledged acknowledged that the noble, pure‐hearted English Dissenters saw but one side of the national truth. As between them and the rest of the nation a gulf was fixed which can only be measured from where we now stand, when the lines of parties are so much effaced, when the Catholic Church is daily rising in power, when the press and the railroad and the post are more and more welding our peoples into one.

George Eliot, I think, places her story just before the passing of the Reform Bill, a period which in Warwickshire brought out the sharpest contrasts between the classes. Radical Birmingham was with difficulty kept from rising, and when the one vote carried the Bill, a gentleman—my father—drove at a gallop through the night in one of Lord Grey’s carriages and brought the first news to the “Metropolis of the Midlands.” Ah! those were days when the telegraph and the railroad were alike unknown. Great affairs of State were swung off by signal from the huge arms of the great machine on the roof of the Admiralty, and were repeated from the Telegraph Hill at Hampstead to Harrow, and far across to the north or south, as the case page: 9 might be. But for any other sort of news we galloped through the night. The landed gentry were ensconced in their parks, and the one family with which George Eliot’s father was locally connected paid ninepence, as did all the rest of the world, for their letters—unless they obtained franks, as was probable. Strange antique world, that I, though not yet very old, can faintly remember. The coaches with four horses and a horn which stopped at the Mitre Inn in Oxford; the post‐chaises and their relays which, perchance, as happened to one of ours, were wrecked against carts at two o’clock in the morning, to the great danger of life and limb; and for foreign parts the travelling carriage shipped at Dover, and thence rumbling all over the Continent, exactly as if the inmates were Horace Walpole or Lord Chesterfield doing the grand tour; such were our conveyances. Moi qui vous parle, I have spent eight days posting between Paris and Geneva, and three days from Boulogne to the capital, halting at Montreux, at Abbeville, and at Amiens.

Such being the outer world into which Dorothea Casaubon was born, George Eliot formed the opinion that her moral chances were page: 10 very poor indeed. And yet, strange to say, at that very time, and in that very circle wherein is laid the beautiful drama of Mr. Gilfil’s love‐story, a girl was actually born who has proved to be one of the principal, and certainly one of the most really efficient, workers of modern times. It has always seemed to me a curious irony of literary fate which made her create a Dorothea in Warwickshire, in Coventry, in the very class, almost in the very family, in which Mr. Newdigate’s energetic cousin was born!

Dorothea, then, starts with more than average intelligence; thirty years later than Jane Austen’s heroine, delightful Elizabeth Bennet; and so far touched with the modern spirit that she burns with desire to do good, which, oddly enough, is inspired by the example of St. Theresa. Now, St. Theresa was a cloistered nun (George Eliot, be it noted, had an early attraction to Spain), and her work was not outwardly practical, but spiritual. Its efficacy entirely depended upon the validity of certain alleged facts in regard to prayer and a personal relation to an unseen Christ. The undeniable continuity of St. Theresa’s work, which subsists page: 11 to this day in full swing and efficacy, is one of the proofs, patent to all, of the deep root of this kind of faith in human nature; but as it was a faith which George Eliot wholly denied, and of which there is no sign of her heroine having in any way partaken, it is singular that so powerful and well‐cultivated an intellect should have chosen the Spanish nun, dead three hundred years ago, as a constraining example. I have never been able to understand in what way St. Theresa impressed Dorothea Casaubon, nor why she wanted to resemble the saint. The foundress of some active order would have seemed more to the purpose.

Also, in regard to Dorothea’s marriage, her point of view is, to me, inexplicable. To marry for money or position may be wrong, to marry for pity, or for usefulness, or religion, may be foolish and dangerous; but to marry that you may help a man to finish a big book, even were it the all‐embracing Code Napoléon, seems to me to be an inconceivable reason. So far had I written, when, on reading the last sentence to a young friend, she answered, quick as lightning: “Ah, well, then, I understand it.” I page: 12 bow submissive; I feel bound to give the emendation—only remarking that it does not seem to me to partake of that touch of nature which makes the whole world kin.

In truth, “Middlemarch” is to me as a landscape seen in the twilight; au teint grisâtre. It is from first to last the plaint of a lost ideal. I do not think it even a true rendering of life as it was lived in England sixty years ago. It would be easy to account for this by saying that the writer had lost “the wider hope.” I prefer not to do it. Such an explanation is, indeed, so far obviously true as that in a country town the most strenuous belief, the most unflagging work, is religious. But the scepticism of “Middlemarch” also extends to things social and human; although at the very time there were forces stirring in England which were about to transform the era of the first gentleman in Europe into that of the Queen and Prince Albert. Surely a notable change.

I understand the opening of the story to be about the year 1828, and Dorothea to be about ten years older than George Eliot herself. I have touched on the outward aspect of the page: 13 England of my own birth; let us see wherein lay the hopeful germs of the future. In 1828 Miss Nightingale was a little student, and Mrs. Fry was a mature woman. Mrs. Fanny Kemble was a bright girl of twenty; two years later she was acting in Birmingham, and impressing her vivid personality on my father’s household—sitting on the hearth, and playing with the youngest child. In the upper sphere of all, the Duchess of Kent was doing her utmost to bring up fitly that young daughter of nine years old, on whose character hung much of the future of England and her colonies. In politics, Grey and Brougham were fighting hard battles with the Tories, and the elder Mill and the young D’Israeli, and another youth, named William Gladstone, were alive in the world of letters, or preparing for the fray. Mr. Newman and Mr. Manning were preparing as hard‐working young clergymen. A friend of mine remembers to this day how great a pleasure it was when young Mr. Manning came over to Midhurst, carrying a black bag with his sermon. In Birmingham, two eminent doctors—De Lys, the Frenchman, and Joseph Hodgson, Sir Robert Peel’s friend— page: 14 were the local Lydgates. The air was trembling with scientific discovery; the railroad and the steamboat were invented, though the former was not yet in use; the photographic plates of the Lunar Society lay hidden in a cupboard, and there had lain for thirty years; but the Penny Magazine, parent of the modern press, with its extraordinary wood‐cuts, which cost such a mint of money, was just about to start (its first cut was, I believe, the Dresden Madonna). Harriet Martineau had begun to write, and Mrs. Barbauld had left off. Mrs. Siddons was lately dead, her statue was not yet in Westminster Abbey. Princess Lieven was writing to Earl Grey; and Lady Morgan, in white satin, was stirring up any metropolis wherein she might happen to be with Sir Charles. Surely a bright, eager England of blue and green coats with gilt buttons; of white muslin frocks and hair twisted over high combs; an England full of the last speech and the last sermon; not so very long before “Tract 90.” And all the innumerable ladies of the landed classes whom we, with our own eyes, have during the last forty years seen travelling, page: 15 painting, writing, and serving on committees, were little girls at their mothers’ knees, like that little Princess who was dutifully to grow up and do heavy work as private secretary to England for fifty‐eight years! And into this England was Dorothea Brooke born, with no sort of need, it seems to me, to wish to imitate St. Theresa. We have one or two saints of the world who would have suited her better as a model! Surely, surely, no young woman born in the Shires, however “unked” she might feel at times, had any cause to marry Mr. Casaubon’s big book or Will Ladislaw’s unworthy personality. No, no, Dorothea! I am obliged to admit and believe that you were a real person, but you will never persuade me that you might not have done better in every sense of the word!


My younger public, having read the foregoing pages, assure me that I have not given a sufficient description of George Eliot herself. One of them even says, “You have opened a door and shut it in our faces,” adding that, as I had known her so well, I must have something page: 16 more to say of the most remarkable woman of my generation. And indeed it requires touch upon touch to render such a personality living to those who never saw her, for her power was in some sense a veiled one. In the first place, none of her portraits appear to me to be like her. The one in a hooded bonnet, said to have been sketched in St. James’s Hall, is a monstrous caricature and accidental impression of her face, which was neither harsh nor masculine. The one which prefaces her life is too sentimental. The early photograph, on sale at Spooner’s in the Strand, is very like, but not favourable, and absolutely without any art in the arrangement. It is, however, the only real indication left to us of the true shape of the head, and of George Eliot’s smile and general bearing. In daily life the brow, the blue eyes, and the upper part of the face had a great charm. The lower half was disproportionately long. Abundant brown hair framed a countenance which was certainly not in any sense unpleasing, noble in its general outline, and very sweet and kind in expression. Her height was good, her figure remarkably supple; at moments it had an almost serpentine page: 17 grace. Her characteristic bearing suggested fatigue; perhaps, even as a girl, she would hardly have been animated; but when she was amused her eyes filled with laughter. She did not look young when I first saw her, and I have no recollection of her ever looking much older.

The effect of her presence—it was peculiarly impressive. Her great weight of intellect told in all circles. My father was much attached to her, and whenever any special celebrity was invited to dinner, such as Thackeray, Grote the historian, or old Mr. Warburton (one of the principal founders of the London University), he was never content unless he had also secured his young countrywoman, Marian Evans, for he himself was a Warwickshire man. On these occasions, from 1851 to 1855, she used to wear black velvet, then seldom adopted by unmarried ladies. I can see her descending the great staircase of our house in Savile Row (afterwards the Stafford Club), on my father’s arm, the only lady, except my mother, among the group of remarkable men, politicians, and authors of the first literary rank. She would talk and laugh softly, and look up into my father’s face respect‐ page: 18 fully, while the light of the bright hall‐lamp shone on the waving masses of her hair, and the black velvet fell in folds about her feet. But for the deliberate casting away of her social chances when she left for Germany with Mr. Lewes, she would undoubtedly have achieved a very great position in the London world quite independently of her novels. In those years not a soul suspected her of a tinge of imaginative power. A real, deep thought and quiet wit were the characteristics of her talk. Most interesting as it was, I should hesitate to call it charming. There was always a want of brightness in her conversation. Her nature smouldered deeply, and occasionally glowed with interior fire; to the outward eye it never burst into a quick flame. respectfully

The story of George Eliot’s life having been fully told in her own letters, the chief question which I can be supposed in any way to answer is: “Why did she act as she did in the principal relation of her life?” I do not know that any sufficient explanation can be given of the reason of human inconsistency. She was the very last woman in England of whom such a step could page: 19 have been prophesied. She certainly was in all her bearing grave, sincere, and of a sort of provincial reticence. In principle she was a strict monogamist, witness the testimony of all her books; and in every relation of life she placed an immense value upon the virtue of faithfulness. You could not be with her and not recognize that her Yea was yea and that her Nay was nay. But she probably believed, though she would hardly have allowed it in words, written or spoken, in a sliding scale of action; by which I mean that she considered a man or a woman justified, on rare occasions, in taking circumstances into account. Mr. Lewes’s home having been broken up by causes of which I conclude that she held him innocent, George Eliot must have thought that he was justified in forming another tie. I do not think that she would have accepted a light excuse, but it is quite evident that her moral judgment accepted what she herself regarded as a grave one; and I can only say, as a Catholic, that I do not expect people who are not Catholics to think and act as if they were such. It is a distinguishing mark of the Roman Church that she speaks with page: 20 authority on this matter, independent of what may be called local arguments. She does not leave the conduct of life in the grave matter of marriage dependent upon the judgment of interested parties, but it is surely unreasonable to expect that a woman whose intellect had totally rejected Christianity in any form should have held Mr. Lewes unable to contract what she undoubtedly regarded as a second marriage. He was at the time very ill, threatened with softening of the brain from overwork and worry, and she went with him to Germany and nursed him into convalescence; being herself independent in means and of a worldly position hitherto high and secure. Surely only those who hold the sacramental view of marriage would have had a right to condemn her, and their condemnation would fall nearer the source of the error—on the fatal facility with which, years earlier, she had suffered her spiritual nature to be swept bare. But it behoves us to speak with pain and hesitation of so deep a problem as the responsibility of an individual soul before God. The example was very unfortunate, and was one of many causes which have page: 21 deeply shaken the old respect for the marriage law in England; and she herself, strangely, lost no opportunity of saying, by pen and speech: “Do not follow my path in life.” At the time of her very sudden and untimely death, her mind was, I think, slowly reverting to some measure of faith—at least, if we may judge by the indications of “Daniel Deronda.” Happier and more normal circumstances, into which she had entered, might have helped that great mind to have regained its freedom of poise, her sense of loyalty being no longer engaged upon the side of wrong.

And this brings me to the one mystery which I have ever felt quite unable to solve. That George Eliot should have chosen her own path and created in her own mind a moral code which covered her action—that I can understand. It would be unjust to judge her by a Christian law which she repudiated. But why, in the exercise of this amount of moral liberty, she should have idealized and finally almost worshipped Mr. Lewes, is one of those problems before which those who know the inner wheels of London life in the Fifties may well stand confounded. On page: 22 the manuscripts now deposited in the British Museum she has left an imperishable testimony to her conception of his worth. The dedications “to my dear and ever dearer husband” rise in a pathetic crescendo of affection and esteem. I had myself at any time but an external acquaintance with Mr. Lewes, never having seen him until the return of George Eliot from Germany. I had been aware of her intention for some weeks before she went away. She told me of it during a long walk round Hyde Park. Needless to say, that I heard her with a sinking heart, and that remonstrance was practically impossible. That conversation seems to me, after a lapse of nearly forty years, to be printed on the very stones of Park Lane. When, after many months, she returned to London, I sought her out with anxious affection. I then saw Mr. Lewes for the first time. And during the long years of their union I saw him occasionally in the drawing‐rooms of their various homes. My domestic circumstances withdrew me from George Eliot’s sphere, but the inward tie was never broken. I was, I believe, almost the last person to whom she wrote before her sudden death, after four days’ page: 23 illness; and I was, perhaps, the first to whom the most unexpected event was communicated by letter, with a request that I would break the intelligence to Madame Bodichon, our close friend.

Since, then, my personal knowledge of Mr. Lewes was comparatively slight, I refrain from any observations on him. The impression he made on his contemporaries has been recorded by several among them. There is no real difference in the portraits drawn by Mr. L’Espinasse and Mrs. Lynn Linton, by Carlyle himself and by Mrs. Carlyle in her letters. The acute and brilliant side of his mind is shown in his books, biographical and philosophical. They are delightful reading if not very profound. His moral ideas he has told in “Rose, Blanche, and Violet.” I would add that I believe him to have been very kind and helpful in domestic life. But there will come a time when no care for the living and no respectful reticence with regard to the dead, will check the publication of contemporary diaries and private letters. It is because I see plain signs of that time approaching, that I wish to place on record the exact truth of my page: 24 conception of George Eliot’s character. It must be borne in mind that to her Mr. Lewes seemed true and reverent. She must have evolved some better self than that perceived by the outer world.

I will say in conclusion that I know she loved much, not only the one to whom she gave faithful years of devoted care, but his children, whom she educated and made her own, the friends of her youth, the poor, the sick, and the suffering. She apparently regarded the Christian controversy as relegated to the region of dead intellectual lumber; yet it is true of her, as of all of us, that to our own Master we must stand or fall. To Him I leave my dead friend.