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Mr. Right

The George Eliot Letters: Volume VIII: 1840-1870, Supplementary Letters Volume IX: 1871-1881, Supplementary Letters, Agenda and Corrigenda, Indexes to Volumes 1-9

edited by Gordon S. Haight
Yale University Press, Volume IX, 539 pp., $30.00

The day seems too short for our happiness,” George Eliot writes in one of the letters included in the supplementary volumes of her correspondence, “and,” she continues, “we both of us feel that we have begun life afresh—with new ambition and new powers.” This seems to be an exact description of the state of affairs that resulted from the coming together of Miss Marian Evans, age thirty-five, editor of The Westminster Review, and Mr. George Henry Lewes, age thirty-seven, man of letters, in a relationship conceived of as a “natural” marriage. Legal it could not be, since Lewes had a wife and children, and divorce was, for more than one reason, out of the question.

Our own fascination with the Evans/Lewes union differs somewhat from that of their contemporaries. When it first became public knowledge, in 1854-1855, discussion centered on the relationship between advanced ideas and loose morals. Lewes was known as a Comtean, a supporter of the “development hypothesis,” and an editor of the progressive, anticlerical weekly, The Leader. Marian Evans, because of her role on the leading quarterly of advanced thought, and her translation of Strauss’s Life of Jesus, which contributed importantly to shattering Victorian beliefs in fundamentalist Christianity, was considered “very free in all her opinions as to morals and religion,” as Anna Jameson wrote to Ottilie von Goethe. Mrs. Jameson, the art critic and feminist whose own marriage had ended in separation (but nothing more scandalous), went on to say that certain principles and duties had still to be maintained, “so that I do not well understand how a good and conscientious woman can run away with another woman’s husband.”

One of the many excellences of Gordon Haight’s seven-volume edition of The George Eliot Letters, published in 1954, was his inclusion of such illuminating ancillary correspondence as Mrs. Jameson’s letter. In the two supplementary volumes, which include hundreds of additional letters that have come to light in the past twenty years, Professor Haight continues the same spacious tradition. He includes, for example, an interesting exchange between George Combe, the phrenologist, and Charles Bray, freethinker and proponent of educational and political reform, two men of advanced ideas whose friendship and hospitality were precious to Marian Evans during her spinster years.

Combe wrote Bray in November 1854 that Marian Evans and Lewes, who had gone to the Continent together in July, had “by their practical conduct, inflicted a great injury on the cause of religious freedom.” Combe himself was not only ending his relationship with the erring pair, and urging Bray not to receive them into “your own female domestic circle,” but vowing to go so far as to cut off his subscription to The Leader, which “has become disagreeable to Mrs. Combe and me as the recorded thinking of minds that can act in such a manner.”

Bray replied that he quite agreed that “the cause of religious freedom has suffered lately in more ways than one,” a reference to the awkward conjunction of the Evans/Lewes scandal with the business failure of John Chapman, publisher of The Westminster and of Miss Evans’s translation of Strauss and other advanced works. Bray went on to suggest a distinction between the religious sanction, the conventional law, and the “natural law” governing marriage, and to propose the Victorian procedure to advance reform: write something. “We want a good book or article on the subject of marriage and divorce. Could not you write one for the Westminster? It would do great good just now. Treat it physiologically, phrenologically, morally, socially, practically.”

Ideas being advanced with breathtaking rapidity, “ideas which will presently be obsolete” (as Marian Evans put it in 1852), ideas exciting to discuss and write about made the mid-nineteenth century an exhilarating time for intellectuals, as this collection of letters so richly suggests. But did thinking advanced thought lead to acting wrongly? That was the contemporary, and George Eliot’s, dilemma, to which the passage of time and accretion of data (much of it by Professor Haight) have supplied a pretty clearly affirmative answer.

Charles Bray, for one, seems to have arranged his “female domestic circle” as what today is called an open marriage. John Chapman kept a mistress, in the person of his children’s governess, as well as a wife under his roof at 142 Strand, and every intellectual female who came to that famous address, including Marian Evans, was prey to his highly sophisticated arts of seduction. If Miss Evans escaped his attentions (as is likely but not certain), her friend Barbara Leigh Smith did not. She was the most generous, the most effective feminist of the age; her affair with Chapman came very close to becoming another Victorian “natural marriage” but did not. In at least one respect this was fortunate, because Chapman would surely have swallowed up Miss Leigh Smith’s fortune, a significant portion of which was destined to launch Girton College.

John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte, Lewes’s philosophical mentors, both notoriously worshiped women who were not their wives. Thornton Hunt, Lewes’s closest friend and his co-editor on The Leader, fathered a large number of children on both his wife and his mistress at regular and almost simultaneous intervals—and his mistress was Lewes’s wife. Lewes acquired the worst reputation of all, because his manners and speech in mixed company were extremely risqué; but posterity has discovered no reason to fault his morals and much reason to enjoy his manners, which let a gust of fresh air into this roomful of outwardly respectable, privately unconventional Victorians. He was a person on whom the Victorian inoculation of surface propriety simply didn’t take.

He was the very model of a “natural” husband. Lewes seems to have been in love with and loyal to his wife Agnes, a beautiful and intelligent woman, long after her liaison with Hunt produced a child (first of an eventual four); and scrupulous and generous to her and all her children after he left her home. Lewes was also a faithful, adoring, and supportive companion of Marian Evans as long as they lived together, which turned out to be, in defiance of what most people expected in 1854, until he died in 1878.

From the start Lewes offered Miss Evans an equal and un-Victorian participation in his thoughts, his work, and his diversions, the latter including country walks, theater, music, art, travel, and an enormous range of reading—they read aloud to each other almost daily. All this made “the day seem too short for our happiness,” but it is the rest of her sentence—the conviction that they were both beginning “life afresh—with new ambition and new powers”—that interests us most today, for we know that “George Eliot,” the magisterial novelist, burst full grown, a fresh life, from the Lewes/Evans union. And we may suspect that her move away from religion and philosophy toward literary criticism and fiction; and his move away from fiction, theater, and criticism, and toward science, proceeded according to the rather doctrinaire views they shared about the different ambitions and powers proper to the two sexes.

There is something almost miraculous about the mature excellence of “Amos Barton,” the first of George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life and her first attempt at fiction, begun on Lewes’s urging in 1856. “I confess that before reading the m.s. I had considerable doubts of my friend’s power as a writer of fiction,” Lewes wrote the publisher John Blackwood; “but after reading it those doubts were changed to very high admiration…. According to my judgement,” he continued—and Lewes’s judgment of fiction was sound—“such humor, pathos, vivid presentation and nice observation have not been exhibited (in this style) since the ‘Vicar of Wakefield,”’ Blackwood saw instantly not only that the new author was “worthy of the honours of print and pay,” but also that George Eliot’s fiction would bring both glory and profit to Blackwood’s publishing firm and his magazine. In quick succession the Scenes (1857-1858), Adam Bede (1859), and The Mill on the Floss (1860) confirmed Lewes’s and Blackwood’s judgment. Few ever moved so rapidly as did George Eliot to the front rank of novelists.

Her quick mastery of an untried form has often been attributed to the satisfactions of her life with Lewes. None of her love letters to him survive, and the journals of their courtship were destroyed by John Cross, the young man she married after Lewes’s death, and by Charles Lee Lewes, George Lewes’s eldest son, but we know that she lived through the years before she met Lewes hungry for passion and believing fulfillment was denied her because of her plainness.

The most arresting letters in the new volumes are those she wrote to Herbert Spencer, only months before she fell in love with Lewes, in which she openly declares her love for Spencer with an eloquent dignity in which there is a touch of the fierce (“If you become attached to some one else, then I must die…”). The note of the tiger, somewhat tamed by age and success, recurs in another letter, written to Cross in 1878, two years before their marriage: “I like to be loved in this faulty, frail (yet venerable) flesh.”

These new letters dramatize the importance of money as well as the importance of sex in the lives of Lewes and Eliot: the financial rewards of her fiction lavishly repaid the anxious protectiveness that Lewes devoted to its production. One of Marian Evans’s worst faults, in her own estimation, before she began living with Lewes, had been indolence. After her father’s death brought her a modest inheritance, she had lived as a spinster in London on an income of about ninety pounds a year, supplemented by the room and board she seems to have received from Chapman in lieu of salary. What with visits to the country houses of such friends as the Brays, and tickets to the theater supplied by such friends as Spencer, she had enjoyed a modest but comfortable independence, free from any domestic responsibility or the necessity to earn her living, which most other Victorian spinsters might well have envied.

Living with Lewes she not only needed a more substantial home, but had the chance to take trips to the Continent and the seashore, which cost money, as did the heavy demands of Lewes’s legitimate family—his four sons, whose education in a Swiss boarding school, preparation for civil service examinations, and establishment in the colonies are interestingly documented in a large group of new letters exchanged between George Eliot, Lewes, and his boys. These letters tell a story that would be familiar in our own time as an account of divorce, second marriage, alimony, and child support; but without any of the legal compulsions those terms imply, Lewes and George Eliot fulfilled their obligations with a generosity and affection that are exemplary—and she went on fulfilling them after Lewes’s death. In her eyes, the moral justification of her irregular union derived from her discharge of the step-maternal role, into which she threw herself with ardor; but it cost a great deal of money, which her fiction, not Lewes’s books on science and philosophy, or their critical and learned articles, could supply.

Lewes’s annual income from his copious writings hovered all his life between about three and six hundred pounds; only when, for a couple of years in the 1860s, he edited The Cornhill, The Fortnightly, and The Pall Mall Gazette did he earn over a thousand pounds. While George Eliot’s first full-length novel brought her seventeen hundred pounds in just the first year of its sale, and by 1867 her income from her invested literary earnings passed a thousand pounds.

New ambition and new powers” characterize Lewes’s life as well as Marian Evans’s in the mid-1850s. Though he had flirted briefly with medical studies as a very young man, Lewes’s career as a naturalist, an experimenting and dissecting physiologist, and a popularizer of science postdated their 1854 union. When Marian Evans first met him, in 1852, his profession was literature. He had written two novels, many plays, and over one hundred articles demonstrating his concern with questions of form in every genre from the poem to the opera libretto, but especially the play and the novel.

Like many other Victorians who had never been to a university, Lewes was an excellent classicist, and his remarkable proficiency in modern languages gave him a knowledge of literary developments abroad that perhaps surpassed that of any of his contemporaries. He wrote about Shelley, Paul de Kock, Balzac, Goethe, George Sand, Goldoni, Eugène Sue, Lessing, Lope de Vega, Schlegel, Shakespeare, Richter, Lamb, Dumas, Leopardi, Racine, Macaulay, and Alfieri. Grandson of an actor, Lewes stood alone among the Victorians as a drama critic, “the most able and brilliant critic,” in George Bernard Shaw’s view, “between Hazlitt and our own contemporaries.”

He had written his antimetaphysical history of philosophy in the mid-1840s, and was expounding Comte’s philosophy of science in the pages of The Leader, but politics, business, and science were officially Thornton Hunt’s departments on that weekly, while Lewes was the literary editor, responsible also for music, theater, and the other arts. The best writing he did for The Leader, or perhaps anywhere, was his “Vivian” columns—irreverent, sparkling drama criticism spoken through the persona of a citified, sybaritic bachelor who runs after, but never quite catches, every pretty woman he sees.

Vivian’s last columns appeared in 1854, during Lewes’s “honeymoon” on the Continent with Marian Evans. Lewes was then working with new energy and drive on the Life of Goethe, where an unusual amount of space is given to Goethe’s interest in the sciences, especially his theory of optics—an interest which had not appeared in any of Lewes’s previous writings on Goethe. On the same trip, Marian Evans was writing her first substantial literary criticism (a form she took to as brilliantly as she took to the novel) and working on her never-to-be-published Spinoza translation. And when they returned to England, and she produced the novels that made the name of George Eliot famous, Lewes became known as the author of The Physiology of Common Life, Studies of Animal Life, Aristotle, and Problems of Life and Mind. In 1879, grieving at his death, George Eliot devoted herself to completing the last of these works* and to establishing a memorial to Lewes at a cost of £5,000, in the form of an endowed Studentship of physiology at Cambridge. She was to enter history as a woman of letters, he as a man of science.

Lewes’s letters from the 1860s and 1870s show that he maintained his enthusiasm for music, painting, and theater until his death, and that he continued to be relied on by his friends for criticism of their literary works. His ebullience and irreverence continued to make him a charming companion for an evening with Trollope, or George Eliot. (“Polly’s health has been very satisfactory but it doesn’t make her less miserable over her work,” he writes in 1872. “My health has not been satisfactory, but it has not prevented my being jubilant over my work. There is the contrast!”) As early as 1859, when Adam Bede was published, he declined a magazine editor’s request that he write another novel, “having agreed with Polly that it was desirable I should not swerve from Science any more, at least just now.”

It was Lewes the man of letters, however, who inspired Marian Evans to become a novelist in 1856. His was undoubtedly the most developed aesthetic sensibility she ever encountered, and he was the most dedicated literary man she was likely to meet in Chapman’s or Bray’s circles. He argues, in his Life of Goethe, against “the indisposition in men to accept Art as serious.” “Why is the artist, who is in earnest, excluded from the toleration spontaneously awarded to the philosopher?”

Furthermore, Lewes brought to their union what has never been given its proper recognition, a concern with women’s literary creativity unsurpassed among the Victorians. George Eliot was only one out of four major women writers (and there was a host of minor ones) to whom Lewes was an indispensable critic, and she was not the first. In the early 1840s he had been George Sand’s principal critical advocate in England. In the mid-1840s, as correspondent and critic, he was far and away the major critical force in the writing life of Charlotte Brontë. In the mid-century his was the critical voice raised on behalf of Jane Austen, an author so little to Victorian taste that Dickens never read her, and neither Charlotte Brontë nor George Eliot would have read her if Lewes had not urged them to do so.

In his “Vivian” columns Lewes protested wittily against the rising competitive threat that women writers posed to male writers at the mid-century: “they are ruining our profession.” In his correspondence with Charlotte Brontë, and in all his critical writings about women, Lewes put forth doctrinaire views about the “powers” of the female sex. They were made for loving and for mothering, and only “unfulfilled expectations” led them to “intellectual activity.” Women’s minds were unfit for the study of mathematics, political economy, everything falling under the headings of “technical jargon” and “information”; they might however study history, literature, ethics, and foreign languages. Women were unfit for any profession but literature, and in that field it was fiction to which, “by nature and circumstance, women are best adapted.”

Such ideas about women’s powers were fairly standard Victorian fare, and were echoed by George Eliot in her own criticism; but what was unusual about Lewes was the enthusiasm with which he proclaimed “the right of Woman to citizenship in the Republic of Letters”—if, and only if, she stuck to the novel. In that field he clearly expected women to surpass men, and he believed the novel would be enriched by “woman’s view of life, woman’s experience…a new element…literature must be greatly benefited thereby.” Unusual also was Lewes’s conviction that the novel was literature, a high art about which the writer could be in earnest, even a writer as brilliant, as learned, and as serious as George Eliot.

About three hundred of Lewes’s letters are included in these volumes. There are fewer by George Eliot, but these add detail about her temperament, her religion, her writing, her contact with feminists, her relations with her own family and with the adoring Edith Simcox, much of whose autobiography is included. Blackwood, Bray, Chapman, Spencer, Huxley, Lytton, and Trollope are included as correspondents. And Gordon Haight has maintained a standard of editing as high as that in his initial seven-volume edition. Rich, subtle, suggestive, and exact, his edition of George Eliot’s letters has not only fixed her firmly in the great tradition of English fiction but also provided a guide to the drama of doubt and faith, to the advance of science and philosophy and feminism in the mid-Victorian years. No mere supplements, these new volumes are thoroughly integrated into the earlier volumes of The George Eliot Letters, and an entirely new index to the complete edition has been provided.

In his preface to Volume VIII Gordon Haight promises a further edition of Lewes’s letters. Perhaps he or another writer can be persuaded to take on a full-scale portrait of this fascinating and brilliant man, including “Vivian,” including the playwright and novelist, the opera-buff and raconteur, and the fancier of pretty women who lived with George Eliot but remained his irrepressible self. “There’s a young lioness in the Z. gardens just now more kissable than the loveliest Circassian in the Sultan’s harem,” he wrote to Herbert Spencer. “Perhaps you think that a weakness? Do you never dance before noodles, and shall not I dance before majestic lions?”

  1. *

    An interesting analysis by K.K. Collins of George Eliot’s revisions of and additions to Lewes’s Problems of Life and Mind, Third Series appeared in the summer 1978 Victorian Studies.

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