Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options




View Options


In a Walled Garden. Belloc, Bessie Rayner, 1829–1925.
previous
next
page: 15

II.—GEORGE ELIOT.

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.

previous
next