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 …