Greatness and Melancholy

George Eliot: the Emergent Self

by Ruby V. Redinger
Knopf, 515 pp., $15.00

Young Thomas Hardy

by Robert Gittings
Little, Brown, 259 pp., $10.95

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.”

Redinger’s favorite tactic is to hoist an alluring psychological flag, and then scrupulously take it down again, because the evidence won’t serve to keep it up. But she takes it down only after it has had its entirely gratuitous flutter in the breeze. Conversely, she likes to admit there is no evidence (about Eliot’s feelings for her mother, say), and then to go ahead and create a whole lot of evidence anyway, from novels, letters, and silences—especially silences.

There is an important imbalance in Redinger’s book, though, which is not Redinger’s fault, but the necessary consequence of the perspective she has chosen. The story of how George Eliot became George Eliot can only be a success story. Yet the success tends to mask the sadness of her later work, which is not the residue of her early life, as Redinger suggests, but a side effect of her mature wisdom. Eliot learned what Virginia Woolf called “the melancholy virtue of tolerance,” and Middlemarch caused the young Yeats to doubt “whatsoever my instinct knew of splendour.”

These judgments are unjust, of course, but they are unjust because they are partial, not because they are wrong. When Dorothea Brooke, in Middlemarch, says she wants to know how to “lead a grand life here—now—in England,” she is expressing, exactly, Yeats’s instinct for splendor. When she tells Will Ladislaw, her husband’s cousin and her own future husband, that we can fight evil by desiring that which is perfectly good, “even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would,” Ladislaw says fatuously, “That is a beautiful mysticism,” and Dorothea, with a remarkable blend of helplessness and wit and eloquence, begs him not to give her feeling a name: “You will say it is Persian, or something else geographical. It is my life.”

The sadness, as well as the greatness, of Middlemarch lies in the defeat of such generous illusions by the world, and in the acceptance of that defeat by the mature George Eliot, so that if Eliot is able to make Dorothea look silly, Dorothea in return is able to make even Eliot seem shallow, which is no mean achievement. “But why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one?” Of course it wasn’t, but this abstract, school-marmish, generalizing tolerance is a poor answer to Dorothea’s cry, and it is in this sense that Woolf’s and Yeats’s strictures on Eliot are best understood.

Becoming George Eliot, acquiring that calm and lucid narrative voice, that “large music of reasonable speech” which Eliot herself invoked in Romola, brought a larger loss than we often realize. But the loss was never complete, as my rather peculiar contrasting of Dorothea and Eliot suggests. Eliot was Dorothea too: literally, in the text, she wrote Dorothea’s words; but in her life also—she had been Dorothea. Eliot was a more various writer than we usually think of her as being. We tend to be taken in by her large music, by those turns of phrase which include us all in her unfolding intelligence—“For we all of us, grave or light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them,” “We are all of us imaginative in some form or other, for images are the brood of desire,” “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” This is wonderful music, of course, but it is only one of Eliot’s voices, and it is not always as right as it sounds.

Mr. Casaubon, in Middlemarch, is revealed in his own speech as a fussy, self-preoccupied man. His neighbors comment on his dusty erudition and on his (presumably spindly) legs. Dorothea’s sister doesn’t like the noises he makes when he eats his soup. But then the narrator springs to his eloquent defense:

I am not sure the greatest man of his age, if ever that solitary superlative existed, could escape these unfavourable reflections of himself in various small mirrors; and even Milton, looking for his portrait in a spoon, must submit to have the facial angle of a bumpkin.

Yet Casaubon is not Milton, he is an arid, second-rate scholar, whom the narrator, in spite of her large pleas on his behalf, is always nailing to the wall. He is as “genuine a character as any ruminant animal,” his cold speech is as “sincere as the bark of a dog, or the cawing of an amorous rook.” He says yes “with that peculiar pitch of voice which makes the word half a negative,” he always says “My love” when he is feeling particularly icy. Writing to Dorothea to ask her to marry him, he speaks stiffly of an “activity of the affections,” but mainly he speaks of his needs. Dorothea, in her innocence, writes simply in reply,

My dear Mr. Casaubon,—I am very grateful to you for loving me, and thinking me worthy to be your wife.

Casaubon has not said a word about love, and what he really wants is a docile research assistant. It is hard to forgive this frigidity, and when, some time later, the narrator tells us that, for her part, she is “very sorry for him,” this can only be because we should all feel sorry for everyone if we knew their glum secrets. Eliot says as much when she writes of Casaubon’s plight as one in which “everything is below the level of tragedy except the passionate egoism of the sufferer.” But this is a very low common denominator of the human spirit, and it won’t carry the morality Eliot wants it to bear.

Dorothea was wrong about Casaubon, she thought he was a mixture of Milton and John Locke, and of course that is not his fault. But then it is not her fault if he has “a small hungry shivering self,” and it is not true that Casaubon’s “center of self” is equal to hers, as Eliot suggests it is. Dorothea’s errors are generous, and Casaubon’s mistake (in marrying her) is mean, an attempt at “annexing happiness,” as Eliot revealingly puts it. And it is only by pulling us all down to Casaubon’s level, by shutting us up in what she calls the loneliness of distrust, that she can get our sympathy for him.

The melancholy of Middlemarch springs from this and similar movements toward a dim view of human possibility. Even if the view were true, we would probably be wise to deny it now and again. And the greatness of the book arises from the interplay between this sad wisdom and everything in the characters and the language of the book that resists it. Inverting Redinger’s position, we might say that George Eliot’s achievement lay in her never entirely becoming George Eliot, in her continuing fidelity to her own earlier, unsatisfied, beseeching self, an uncompromising creature who lived on, tamed but not silenced, in the dispiriting Victorian sybil.

When Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd first appeared, unsigned, in the Cornhill Magazine, one reviewer was convinced it was the work of George Eliot. “There is a passage descriptive of the companionship of the stars, so learned and so poetical that it seems to be irrefutable evidence of authorship.” Hardy was not as flattered as he might have been. He thought he had his own ways of being learned and poetical, and he knew, of course, that Eliot’s shadow would hang over all his fiction; even if he couldn’t know that the shadow would turn into a great tradition, or that F. R. Leavis, sacrificing chronology to conviction, would assume that Hardy, in 1874, was borrowing from Daniel Deronda, published in 1876 (“He actually did, I think, take the use of the name of the old West Saxon kingdom, Wessex, from Daniel Deronda“).

Raymond Williams, in The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence and again in The Country and The City, has tried to pull Hardy out of Eliot’s shadow—“the more I read Hardy, the surer I am that he is a major novelist”—and has even rerouted the great tradition through Dorset. I don’t think this tactic works, though, and a better way of getting Hardy out of the shadow, it seems to me, is to make smaller rather than larger claims for his novels, remarkable as they are, and to insist on the unmistakable greatness of his poetry. What links Hardy and Eliot, in any case, is not rivalry or rural settings, or the use of the name Wessex, or the lofty tone that so appealed to the reviewer of Far From the Madding Crowd. It is what Hardy called, with his customary precision, a provincialism of feeling. “Arnold is wrong about provincialism,” Hardy wrote, “if he means anything more than a provincialism of style and manner in exposition. A certain provincialism of feeling is invaluable.” Eliot, in Daniel Deronda, had written that a human life “should be well rooted in some spot of a native land.”

What is significant about these statements is that they are made by people who physically or otherwise have left their roots and provinces behind; who understand, as Proust did, that the true paradises are lost paradises. Eliot wrote out of her enduring loss, and Hardy, in exile in his native county, wrote out of a weird gift for getting his paradise back—even if he got it back only to see how lost it was. “I have a faculty,” he said, “for burying an emotion in my heart or brain for forty years, and exhuming it at the end of that time as fresh as when interred.” It is characteristic of Hardy that the language of this victory over lost time should be, insistently, the language of the graveyard.

Starting in similar places, Eliot and Hardy divide into different glooms. If Eliot shows us, to borrow a phrase from Empson, that life is essentially inadequate to the human spirit, then Hardy suggests some of the ways in which the human spirit is inadequate to life. It is true that Hardy has his grander pessimism, that he writes of “Crass Casualty” and “Sportsman Time” (who “but rears his brood to kill”); of the “ache of modernism” and (in a poem dated 1900) the “century’s corpse”; of the “chronic melancholy which is taking hold of the civilized races with the decline of belief in a beneficent Power”; of the plight of being alive and the pleasures of being dead, but this all comes, as Raymond Williams rather righteously says, from the “decadent thought of his time,” and Hardy’s repeated, unceasing attempts to suggest that life is bad because we die young and suffer much never quite carry the authority of Hardy’s other, more insidious view: that life is bad because it is life, a noisy, bustling invasion of privacy, the breaking of a perfect, presexual peace.

Reflecting on his experiences of the world so far as he had got [Hardy wrote via Mrs. Hardy], he came to the conclusion that he did not wish to grow up. Other boys were always talking of when they would be men; he did not want at all to be a man, or to possess things, but to remain as he was, in the same spot, and to know no more people than he already knew (about half a dozen).

As so often in Hardy, the words and phrases change their meaning as the sentences follow one another. The boy (Hardy is somewhere between four and eight years old) seems to wish to die young (“He did not wish to grow up”); then he wants to stay alive but not to be a man. But before the sexual connotations of this striking phrase can settle down, he extends the meaning of growing up to include possessing things and leaving home and knowing lots of people. We can compare this sequence of thought with the movement of the poem which begins “For Life I had never cared greatly.” Not caring for life, the poet seems to prefer death, but this implication is no sooner offered than it is taken back, and life is seen to mean social life, “life among men.”

Life among men, life as a man: social and sexual maturities. The two are almost always connected in Hardy, and both are usually accompanied by a sort of flirtation with the idea of death, as in the above instances. It is here, perhaps, that a number of the elements of Robert Gittings’s scrupulous account of Hardy’s early life—up to his first marriage in 1874, and the publication of The Hand of Ethelberta in 1875—begin to come together.

Hardy married Emma Gifford because she was life’s representative, because she had, in Gittings’s words, a “violent bodily gusto for life, of which he always seemed such a wistful spectator.” He fell in love with three of his cousins, all sisters and all bearing a marked resemblance to his mother: an impossible, wishful way of growing up and not growing up all at once. His poems are full of postponed meetings. “Love lives on propinquity,” he wrote, “but dies of contact.” He was sexually aroused, apparently, by the sight of a woman hanged to death—“what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half round and back”—which suggests that life, in its threatening sexual aspects, was most bearable for him when it had recently disappeared. Hesitation before life, a lingering around death, these are precisely the twilight states in which Hardy has Tess Durbeyfield take her walks:

She knew how to hit to a hair’s-breadth that moment of evening when the light and the darkness are so evenly balanced that the constraint of day and the suspense of night neutralize each other, leaving absolute mental liberty. It is then that the plight of being alive becomes attenuated to its least possible dimensions.

Tess, indeed, is tortured by life rather than by death or disgrace, she is hounded by nature itself, animal instinct, “the pulse of hopeful life” which will not let her rest, the “spirit within her” which rises “automatically as the sap in the twigs.” The juxtaposition of “sap” and “automatically” is quite chilling, I think, and a distinctive Hardy effect. He writes of “Life…, the great passionate pulse of existence,” of an “appetite for joy which pervades all creation,” of an “inherent will to enjoy,” of a “tendency to find sweet pleasure somewhere, which pervades all life,” and only Hardy, perhaps, could make these celebratory phrases sound, in context, like so many damning accusations. Life itself is on trial in Tess, and in most of Hardy’s work. It is a zone of “bleak unrest,” as a poem has it, and movement, in Hardy, even the movement of leaves in an evening wind, is reluctant, and dangerous:

Out of doors there began noises as of silk smartly rubbed; the restful dead leaves of the preceding autumn were stirred to irritated resurrection, and whirled about unwillingly, and tapped against the shutters. It soon began to rain.

In old age Hardy recalled a dream which seems to explain a great many of his moods. He was climbing a ladder, carrying a baby, which he was trying to put into a hayloft. In the loft sat George Meredith, a man of famous sexual good fortunes. Gittings, commenting on this dream, reminds us that Hardy developed sexually very late, “if indeed he developed at all.” But it would no doubt be wrong to ascribe Hardy’s distaste for life to his probable impotence. The situation may well be the other way round, since Hardy put off his visits to Oxford and Cambridge, so important to him both as an architect and as a man desperate for learning, in much the same way that he put off his decisions about women. He managed not to grow up into the country mason or architect his training prepared him for, he was unhappy in London, and he seems never to have been comfortable with his role as writer and sage living near home but estranged from all the day to day activities of his kin. He attenuated his life in every direction, that is, and his impotence, if such it was, is as likely to have been a symptom as a cause.

Where in all this do we place the suicide of Horace Moule, Hardy’s friend and mentor, who killed himself in Cambridge in 1873? Gittings thinks that Moule’s death is the major source of Hardy’s gloom, since none of Hardy’s heroes or heroines, after Far From the Madding Crowd, escapes being “maimed by fate,” as Gittings puts it.

However much his naturally sombre mind inclined that way before, however much his own identification with Job and the prophets of destruction may have coloured his expression, we can date the emergence of Hardy as a fully tragic artist, an expounder of man’s true miseries, from the suicide of his friend, and the appalling revealed ironies of that personal history.

There is too naïve a notion of causality at work here, I think. It is the small vice of Gittings’s great virtues, the result of his clinging so closely to tangible facts, so as to avoid the fall into speculation. But of course, any connection of cause to effect is a speculation, and Moule’s death, it seems to me, is not the source of Hardy’s gloom so much as a signature on his estrangement, a license for what he himself called his aloofness.

And I would want to argue too that Hardy is not a tragic artist, not an expounder of man’s true miseries, but the great writer of life’s margins, the poet of all our hesitations and reluctances. At its best, Hardy’s pessimism is too nervous and energetic to be gloomy. It tests our comfortable commitment to continuing our daily existences from the point of view not of a potential suicide, but of a living ghost, a man who survived to the age of eighty-eight without caring greatly for Life. “I never cared for Life,” Hardy wrote in another poem. “Life cared for me.”