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George Eliot And Her Two Great Novels Post by :pauljohn Category :Essays Author :George Hamlin Fitch Date :November 2011 Read :1906

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George Eliot And Her Two Great Novels


George Eliot is a novelist in a class by herself. She never impressed me as a natural story-teller, save when she lived over again that happy girlhood which served to relieve the sadness of her mature life. In parts of Adam Bede and throughout The Mill on the Floss she seems to tell her stories as though she really enjoyed the work. All the scenes of her beautiful girlhood in the pleasant Warwickshire country, when she drove through the pleasant sweet-scented lanes and enjoyed the lovely views that she has made immortal in her books--these she dwelt upon, and with the touch of poetry that redeemed the austerity of her nature she makes them live again, even for us in an alien land. So, too, the English rustics live for us in her pages with the same deathless force as the villagers in Hardy's novels of Wessex life. And George Eliot and Thomas Hardy are the two English writers who have made these villagers, with their peculiar dialect and their insular prejudices, serve the purpose of the Greek chorus in warning the reader of the fate that hangs over their characters.

Of all English novelists, George Eliot was probably the best equipped in minute and accurate scholarship. Trained as few college graduates are trained, she was impelled for several years to take up the study of German metaphysics. Her mind, like her face, was masculine in its strength, and though she suffered in her youth from persistent ill-health, she conquered this in her maturity and wrought with passionate ardor at all her literary tasks. So keen was her conscience that she often defeated her own ends by undue labor, as in the preparation for Romola, whose historical background swamps the story.

Above all she was a preacher of a stern morality. She laid down the moral law that selfishness, like sin, corrodes the best nature, and that the only happiness lies in absolute forgetfulness of self and in working to make others happy. Thus all her books are full of little sermons on life, preached with so much force that they cannot fail to make a profound impression even upon the careless reader.

George Eliot impresses one as a very sad woman, with an eager desire to recapture the lost religious faith of her happy, unquestioning childhood and a still more passionate desire to believe in that immortality which her cold agnostic creed rejected as illogical. It was pitiful, this strong-minded woman reaching out for the things that less-endowed women accept without question. It was even more pitiful to see her, with her keen moral sense, violate all the conventions of English law and society in order to take up life with the man who stimulated her mind and actually made her one of the greatest of English novelists.

Left alone, it is very doubtful whether George Eliot ever would have found herself, ever would have developed that mine of reminiscence which produced those perfect early stories of English country life. To George Henry Lewes, the man for whose love and companionship she incurred social ostracism, readers in all English-speaking countries owe a great debt of gratitude, for it was his wise counsel and his constant stimulus and encouragement which resulted in making George Eliot a writer of fine novels instead of an essayist on ethical and religious subjects. It detracts little from this debt that Lewes was also responsible for the stimulus of George Eliot's bent toward philosophical speculation and to that cold if clear scientific thought, which spoiled parts of Middlemarch and ruined Daniel Deronda.

Marian Evans was born at Ashbury farm in Warwickshire in 1819 and died in 1880. Her father was the agent for a large estate, and the happiest hours of her girlhood were spent in driving about the country with him. Those keen eyes which saw so deeply into human nature were early trained to observe all the traits of the English rustic, and those childish impressions gave vitality to her humorous characters. Before she was ten years old Marian had read Scott and Lamb, as well as Pilgrim's Progress and Rasselas. When thirteen years old she revealed unusual musical gifts. She had the misfortune at seventeen to lose her mother, and for years after she managed her father's house.

Evidently the old farmer, whom his daughter has sketched with loving hand in Adam Bede, took great pride in the mental superiority of his daughter, for he hired tutors for her in Latin, Greek, Italian and German. All four languages she mastered as few college men master them. She read everything, both old and new, and her intimacy with the wife of Charles Bray of Coventry led her to refuse to go to church. This free thinking angered her father and caused him to demand that she leave his house. After three weeks her love and her keen sense of duty led her to conform to her father's wishes and to resume the church-going, which in his eyes was a part of life that could not be dropped.

But that early departure from the established religion carried her into the field of German skepticism. She translated Strauss' Life of Jesus. For three years her studies were interrupted by the serious illness of her father. When he died she went to Geneva and remained on the Continent a year. Then she came home and took up her residence with the Brays. The development of her mind was very rapid. She served for some time as editor of the WESTMINSTER REVIEW. She then formed a strong friendship with Herbert Spencer, and through Spencer she met George Henry Lewes, who made a special study of Goethe and the German philosophers, and who was the editor of the LEADER, the organ of the Free Thinkers.

Lewes and Marian Evans soon became all the world to each other, but Lewes had an insane wife, and the foolish law of England forbade him to get a divorce or to marry again. So the two decided to live together and to be man and wife in everything except the sanction of the law. The result was disastrous for a time to the woman. There is no question that the social isolation that resulted hurt her deeply. Her close friends like Spencer remained loyal, and her husband was always the devoted lover as well as the ideal companion.

Two years after this new connection Lewes induced his wife to try fiction. Her first story was The Sad Adventures of the Rev. Amos Barton which was followed by Janet's Repentance. These stories appeared under the pen name of George Eliot, which she never relinquished. Gathered into book form under the title Scenes From Clerical Life, these stories in a minor key made a profound impression on Charles Dickens, who divined they were the work of a woman of unusual gifts.

The praise of Lewes and the appreciation of Dickens and other experts gave great stimulus to her mind, and she produced Adam Bede, perhaps her best work, which had a great success. In the following year came The Mill on the Floss, an even greater success. Then in quick succession came the other early novels, Silas Marner, Romola and Felix Holt. A break of six years follows, and then came Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda.

Lewes died in 1878, and two years later this woman, almost exhausted by her tremendous literary labors, married J.W. Cross, an old friend, but, like Charlotte Brontë, she had only short happiness, for she died in the following year. The nations praised her, but she never recovered from the shock of Lewes' death.

Of George Eliot's work the things that impress one most are her fine descriptions of natural scenes, her keen analyses of character and her many little moral sermons on life and conduct. With an abnormal conscience and a keen sense of duty, life proved very hard for her. This is reflected in the somberness of her stories and in the dread atmosphere of fate that hangs over her characters. But over against this must be placed her joy in depicting the rustic character and humor and her delight in reproducing the scenes of her childhood in one of the most beautiful counties of England.

Herbert Spencer, who was long associated with George Eliot, and for a time contemplated the possibility of a union with that remarkable woman, pays her a high tribute in The Study of Sociology. After explaining the origin in women of the ability to distinguish quickly the passing feelings of those around, he says: "Ordinarily, this feminine faculty, showing itself in an aptitude for guessing the state of mind through the external signs, ends simply in intuitions formed without assignable reasons; but when, as happens in rare cases, there is joined with it skill in psychological analysis, there results in extremely remarkable ability to interpret the mental states of others. Of this ability we have a living example (George Eliot) never hitherto paralleled among women, and in but few, if any, cases exceeded among men."

Perhaps the reader who does not know George Eliot would do well to begin with The Mill on the Floss, her finest work, which is full of humor, lovely pictures of English rural life and an analysis of soul in Maggie Tolliver that has never been surpassed. Yet the end is cruel and unnatural, as hard and as unsatisfying as the author's own religious creed. Next read Adam Bede, one of the saddest books in all literature, with comic relief in Mrs. Poyser, one of the most humorous characters in English fiction.

George Eliot drew Dinah Morris from her favorite aunt, who was a Methodist exhorter, and the power and spontaneity of this novel came from the sharpness and clearness of her early impressions, joined to her love of living over again her girlhood days, before doubt had clouded her sky. Also read Silas Marner with its perfect picture of Raveloe, "an English village where many of the old echoes lingered, undrowned by new voices." These descriptions are instinct with poetry, and they affect one like Wordsworth's best poems or like Tennyson's vignettes of rural life. The pale weaver of Raveloe will always remain as one of the great characters in English fiction.

Of George Eliot's more elaborate work it is impossible to speak in entire praise. If you have the leisure, and these books I have named please you, then by all means read Romola, which is a remarkable study of the degeneracy of a young Greek and of the noble strivings of a great-hearted woman. The pictures of Florence in the time of Savonarola are splendid, but they smell of the lamp. Middlemarch is also worth careful study for its fine analysis of character and motive. In all George Eliot's books her characters develop before our eyes, and this is especially true in this elaborate study of the pathos and the tragedy of human life.

George Eliot wrote little poetry, but one piece may be commended to careful attention, "The Choir Invisible." It sums up with impassioned force her ethical creed, which she put in these fine lines:

Oh, may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end in self.
* * * * *
This is life to come
Which martyred men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow. May I reach
That purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love.
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty--
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense.
So shall I join the choir invisible,
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

This was the creed of George Eliot, which she preached in her books and which she followed in her life. This was the only hope of immortality that she cherished--to "live again" in minds that she stimulated.

(The end)
George Hamlin Fitch's essay: George Eliot And Her Two Great Novels

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