George Eliot: the Emergent Self
Young Thomas Hardy
George Eliot, born Mary Anne Evans in 1819, died in 1880. Within five years a Life had appeared, written by her widowed husband, J. W. Cross, who disarmingly confessed that he had left out “everything that I thought my wife would have wished to be omitted.” He probably left out even more than she would have wished, prompting Gladstone to remark that the work was “not a Life at all,” but “a Reticence in three volumes”; and allowing Henry James, with a characteristic mixture of condescension and admiration, to see in George Eliot a “quiet, anxious, sedentary, serious, invalidical English lady, without animal spirits, without adventures or sensations,” who nevertheless somehow managed to produce “rich, deep, masterly pictures of the multiform life of man.”
Thomas Hardy was not a man to miss the possibilities suggested by Cross’s conjugal piety, and his death in 1928 was fast followed by the first part of a Life, apparently written by his widow, and published in the same year. The second part came out in 1930. The subtitle of the book might have given the game away, if anyone had thought then that there was a game afoot: “compiled largely from contemporary notes, letters, diaries, and biographical memoranda, as well as from oral information in conversations extending over many years.” Cross had made a similar sort of claim for his book—“The life has been allowed to write itself in extracts from her letters and journals”—but Mrs. Hardy sounded positively overwhelmed by her sources. It was not until 1943, though, when an American visitor published his memories of an interview with Hardy, that the cat really came out of the bag.
I intend [Hardy said] to write my autobiography through my good wife. Each day I slant my memoirs as though my wife were writing them herself. After she has copied the day’s stint on the typewriter, we hold a discussion, and she makes invaluable suggestions which are almost always immediately incorporated in the text. Then my original manuscript is given to the flames. Thus is insured absolute accuracy. My idea, of course, is to have the work appear after my death as a biography of myself written by my wife.
Hardy’s “absolute accuracy” is more or less synonymous with Cross’s idea of everything George Eliot would have wished to be omitted, although what Hardy left out mainly was all talk of his lowly social origins, and what Cross left out mainly was any suggestion that Eliot might have had her miserable, unprogressive moments. Like the great good Victorians they were, Eliot and Hardy, in later life and in death, were converting themselves (and were being converted) into imposing monuments, effigies of the writer as sage. There is something very provoking about such creations, they invite the very gossip they are meant to keep at bay; and gossip, of course, has endowed both Eliot and Hardy with the illegitimate children which are supposed to hide in so many Victorian cupboards.
There doesn’t seem to be any foundation for such rumors, indeed the evidence in both cases points rather to sexual restraint or incapacity, and in any case we are now interested less in the guilty secrets of our nineteenth-century heroes than in the unhappiness which must lurk, we feel, behind their benign and upright façades. Such an interest may well say more about us than it does about them, but the unhappiness is certainly there for us to find. Explaining that she would never write her autobiography, Eliot told Cross that “the only thing I should care much to dwell on would be the absolute despair I suffered.” And Hardy, across the composure of the memoir he is transmitting through his wife, reveals a constant sense of social exile, the insistent anxiety of a man who has fallen between classes and between cultures. These new studies by Redinger and Gittings—of the early years of Eliot and Hardy, respectively—resurrect for us the uncertain, dependent, demanding figures who disappeared into their own monuments.
September 1856 made a new era in my life,” Eliot wrote, “for it was then I began to write Fiction.” She was thirty-seven, but a number of great novelists have started later, and she had a strict Evangelical conscience to cope with, which told her she shouldn’t bother with “things that never existed.” “My imagination is an enemy,” she wrote. She worked her way into fiction by means of her rather solemn theories of realism—Amos Barton, she said in the story of that name, was “palpably and unmistakably commonplace,” and as late as Middlemarch (1871-1872), she was inviting our interest in “the element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency”—so that her imagination became enlisted in the cause of goodness and common sense. This is a moving and impressive process to watch, but I don’t think it is tangled in any psychological way, and Ruby V. Redinger makes very heavy weather of the matter by trying to include Eliot’s brother Isaac in her quarrel with her imagination. “In her own mind guilt and daydreaming were associated….” Of course. They are in any strenuous Protestant conscience, and Isaac is simply Eliot’s other, vigilant self in this context.
But this is not Redinger’s best territory—she thinks Evangelicalism is a religion, and doesn’t know the difference between church and chapel—and her central argument is stronger. She brings back the desperate George Eliot that Cross hid away, the girl given to “great bursts of weeping,” to throwing herself on the floor “in an agony of tears”; the young woman whose “frequent fits of weeping were a source of pain to her anxious fellow-travellers,” who was “frequently very depressed” (these are all phrases used about her by contemporaries); the writer who thought herself that her “various aches” were “purely psychical,” and who said that she had felt “something like the madness which imagines that the four walls are contracting and going to crush one.”
With these phrases in mind, one turns to The Mill on the Floss and sees Maggie Tulliver, a girl whose eyes were “full of unsatisfied intelligence, and unsatisfied, beseeching affection.” The repetition of unsatisfied is powerful, and it comes as a surprise to find Virginia Woolf, ordinarily so sensitive to any form of exclusion, remarking that Eliot had “none of that romantic intensity which is connected with a sense of one’s own individuality, unsated and unsubdued, cutting its shape sharply upon the background of the world.” But that is a testimony to the muffling authority of Cross’s Life, and while Gordon S. Haight’s biography of Eliot, and his edition of her letters, have already restored the unsatisfied Eliot for us, it is good to follow out, with Redinger, the evolution of the often frantic Mary Anne (later Mary Ann, then Marian) Evans into the sage George Eliot, or as Redinger puts it, to observe the “subtly continuing, modulating force of her writing present upon her buried past.”
Redinger’s book is an attempted answer to Henry James, who thought that “in one way or another, in the long run, her novels would have got themselves written.” That is certainly too bland a view, and clearly Eliot’s difficulties with her own turbulent and timid character are an important part of her writing, early and late. On the other hand, it is easy to fall into the opposite trap and suggest that but for a series of lucky breaks, her novels would not have got themselves written at all, and this is just what Redinger does. She has the besetting vice of biographers, a determination to show how everything turned out for the best in the end, so that Eliot’s religious doubts and scruples are fortunate, because they save her talent from being “permanently damaged rather than merely held in check.” Her starting late as a novelist is a good thing, because if she had started earlier she would probably have failed. Her brother’s silence once she had elected to live with George Henry Lewes, although Lewes had a wife he felt he could not divorce, was a stroke of luck because it “may have been the final step needed” for the writing of The Mill on the Floss. The high point of this line of thought is the suggestion that Blackwood’s accepting “Amos Barton” in 1856 rescued George Eliot for the world:
Without doubt it saved an astonishingly successful literary career from ending before it had begun. It is unlikely that her newly found courage to write fiction would have survived even one rejection.
Now it is true that Eliot was exceptionally sensitive to criticism and that her confidence was always fragile; that she needed, as she wrote, to hear people saying to her “the kindest things truth will permit.” But this vision of her writing life as snuffed out by a rejection slip strikes me as far falser than James’s notion that her books would have got themselves written anyway. Eliot’s achievement was a strong-willed conquest of her own cringing self, and while Redinger knows this to be the case, she is too sensitive to (and too sentimental about) Eliot’s sufferings to represent Eliot’s complementary and more important toughness in any serious way.
The best things in Redinger’s book are not about Eliot at all, but about the people who cared for Eliot—Cross, Lewes, Edith Simcox, Maria Lewis, Sara Hennell—and this is plainly a reflection of Redinger’s own deep care for her subject, who is almost literally alive to her. She lists Eliot among her acknowledgments, as if Eliot were in a position to receive an author’s copy, and at one point she begins a sentence, “No one who has come face to face with the real George Eliot….” It is this perspective, no doubt, that makes Redinger so discreet about Cross’s jumping into the Grand Canal while on his honeymoon with George Eliot, a woman he had always called his aunt. “The evidence for this is not explicit,” she says. But it was explicit enough for Gordon Haight.
But the most striking feature of Redinger’s book is its wild commitment to conjecture. Almost every page has a word or phrase like “no doubt,” “perhaps,” “one senses,” “one feels,” “one might infer,” “it is possible that,” “it is not improbable that,” “in all likelihood,” “obviously,” “usually,” “must have been,” “might have felt,” “could have been,” “would have been,” “likely to”—these are all literal quotations, and they all serve to introduce speculation. Some of the speculation is interesting, and a lot of it is nonsense, but it is the quantity of it that counts, it seems to me, since it means we are reading a work of fiction based on the life of George Eliot. After all, only an omniscient narrator could divine Eliot’s “solitary thoughts” when they were “much too private” to put in a letter; or could tell us how preoccupied Eliot was with her brother’s marriage, when she herself offered “no sign of her anguish, no confession, no otherwise self-revealing remarks.”