• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

On the Heights

Selections from George Eliot’s Letters

edited by Gordon S. Haight
Yale University Press, 567 pp., $25.00

Even taken in its derivative meaning of outline, what is form but the limit of that difference by which we discriminate one object from another?—a limit determined partly by the intrinsic relations or composition of the object, & partly by the extrinsic action of other bodies upon it. This is true whether the object is a rock or a man.”

—George Eliot, “Notes on Form in Art”


A generation before Freud, George Eliot taught the unhappy truth to her contemporaries that character is fate. If character is fate, then in a harsh sense there can be no accidents. Personalities suffer accidents; characters endure fate. George Eliot herself is a grand instance of the pattern she created for all of her personages; her own character eminently proved to be her fate. If we seek major personalities among the great novelists, we find many competitors: Balzac, Tolstoy, Dickens, Henry James, even the enigmatic Conrad. By general agreement, the supreme example of a moral character would be George Eliot. She has a nearly unique spiritual authority, best characterized by the English critic Walter Allen about twenty years ago:

George Eliot is the first novelist in the world in some things, and they are the things that come within the scope of her moral interpretation of life. Circumscribed though it was, it was certainly not narrow; nor did she ever forget the difficulty attendant upon the moral life and the complexity that goes to its making.1

Her peculiar gift, almost unique despite the place of her work in a tradition of displaced Protestantism that includes Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Wordsworth’s poetry, is to dramatize her interpretations in such a way as to abolish the demarcations between aesthetic pleasure and moral renunciation, the rule of compensation generally exemplified by her own work, as in Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss. The demarcations become ghostlier because we learn to take aesthetic pleasure when Adam Bede and Maggie Tulliver manifest the heroism of their moral renunciation. We ourselves cannot quite be like that, we say to ourselves, but we are augmented by their strength of character so that, for some moments, we have the illusion of seeing human reality as the immensely strong George Eliot wants us to see it. Doubtless, in Middlemarch George Eliot intended Dorothea Brooke to be the grand exception to this formula, since Dorothea does secure her supposed equal in Will Ladislaw, who represented for her the resolution that George Henry Lewes had constituted for George Eliot herself. Whether Lewes was wholly the fulfillment her spirit required, we are free to doubt.

Richardson’s heroine, Clarissa Harlowe, and Wordsworth in his best poems share in a compensatory formula: the experience of loss can be transformed into imaginative gain. George Eliot’s imagination, despite its Wordsworthian antecedents, and despite the ways in which Clarissa Harlowe is the authentic precursor of Dorothea Brooke, is too severe in Middlemarch to accept the formula of compensation, Wordsworth’s “abundant recompense,” with respect to Dorothea and Casaubon. The beauty of renunciation, for ourselves as readers of George Eliot’s fiction, does not result from a transformation of loss, but rather from a strength that is in no way dependent upon exchange or gain. George Eliot presents us with morality as an end in itself.

To her contemporaries, this was no puzzle. F.W.H. Myers, remembered now as a “psychic researcher” (a marvelous metaphor that we oddly use as a title for those who quest after spooks) and as the father of L.H. Myers, author of the novel The Near and the Far, wrote a famous description of Eliot’s 1873 visit to Cambridge:

I remember how at Cambridge I walked with her once in the Fellows’ Garden of Trinity, on an evening of rainy May; and she, stirred somewhat beyond her wont, and taking as her text the three words which had been used so often as the inspiring trumpet-call of men—the words God, Immortality, Duty—pronounced with terrible earnestness how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable was the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third. Never, perhaps, have sterner accents confirmed the sovereignty of impersonal and unrecompensing Law. I listened, and night fell; her grave, majestic countenance turned towards me like a sybil’s in the gloom; it was as though she withdrew from my grasp, one by one, the two scrolls of promise and left me the third scroll only, awful with inevitable fates. And when we stood at length and parted, amid that columnar circuit of forest trees, beneath the last twilight of starless skies, I seemed to be gazing, like Titus at Jerusalem, on vacant seats and empty halls—on a sanctuary with no Presence to hallow it, and heaven left empty of God.2

However this may sound now, Myers intended no ironies. As the sybil of “unrecompensing Law,” George Eliot joined the austere company of nineteenth-century prose prophets: Carlyle, Ruskin, Newman, and Arnold in England; Emerson in America; Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and finally Freud on the Continent. But none of these nine, though storytellers of a sort, wrote novels. Eliot’s deepest affinities scarcely were with Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope. But since she was a novelist, we are required to read her as we read them.

This causes difficulties, since Eliot was not a great stylist, and was far more immersed in philosophical than in narrative tradition. Yet her frequent clumsiness in authorial asides, and her hesitations in storytelling, matter not at all. We do not even regret her lack of a comic sense, which never dares take revenge upon her anyway. Wordsworth at his strongest, as in “Resolution and Independence,” still can be unintentionally funny (which inspired the splendid parodies of the poem’s leech gatherer and its solipsistic bard in Lewis Carroll’s “White Knight’s Ballad,” and Edward Lear’s “Incidents in the Life of my Uncle Arly”). But I have also seen no effective parodies of George Eliot, and doubt their possibility. It is usually unwise to be witty concerning our desperate need not only to decide upon right action, but also to will such action, against pleasure and against what we take to be self-interest. Like Freud, Eliot ultimately is an inescapable moralist, precisely delineating our discomfort with culture, and remorselessly weighing the economics of the psyche’s civil wars.


George Eliot is not one of the great letter writers. Her letters matter because they are hers, and in some sense do tell part of her own story, but they do not yield to a continuous reading. On a scale of nineteenth-century letter writing by important literary figures, on which Keats would rank first and Walter Pater last (the Paterian prose style is never present in his letters), George Eliot would find a place about dead center. She is always herself in her letters, too much herself perhaps, but that self is rugged, honest, and formidably inspiring. Her letters, like her life, do present us with the enigma of her stern moral grandeur never having found a companion adequate to its intensity.

Contemporary feminist critics seem to me a touch uncomfortable with Eliot. Here she is on extending the franchise to women, in a letter to John Morley (May 14, 1867):

Thanks for your kind practical remembrance. Your attitude in relation to Female Enfranchisement seems to be very nearly mine. If I were called on to act in the matter, I would certainly not oppose any plan which held out any reasonable promise of tending to establish as far as possible an equivalence of advantages for the two sexes, as to education and the possibilities of free development. I fear you may have misunderstood something I said the other evening about nature. I never meant to urge the “intention of Nature” argument, which is to me a pitiable fallacy. I mean that as a fact of mere zoological evolution, woman seems to me to have the worse share in existence. But for that very reason I would the more contend that in the moral evolution we have “an art which does mend nature”—an art which “itself is nature.” It is the function of love in the largest sense, to mitigate the harshness of all fatalities. And in the thorough recognition of that worse share, I think there is a basis for a sublimer resignation in woman and a more regenerating tenderness in man.

However, I repeat that I do not trust very confidently to my own impressions on this subject. The peculiarities of my own lot may have caused me to have idiosyncracies rather than an average judgment. The one conviction on the matter which I hold with some tenacity is, that through all transitions the goal towards which we are proceeding is a more clearly discerned distinctness of function (allowing always for exceptional cases of individual organization) with as near an approach to equivalence of good for woman and for man as can be secured by the effort of growing moral force to lighten the pressure of hard non-moral outward conditions. It is rather superfluous, perhaps injudicious, to plunge into such deeps as these in a hasty note, but it is difficult to resist the desire to botch imperfect talk with a little imperfect writing.3

This is a strong insistence upon form in life as in art, upon the limit of that difference by which we discriminate one object from another. I have heard feminist critics decry it as defeatism, though George Eliot speaks of “mere zoological evolution” as bringing about every woman’s “worse share in existence.” “A sublimer resignation in woman” is not exactly a popular goal these days, but Eliot never speaks of the “sublime” without profundity and an awareness of human loss.

In the Romantic period, the sublime, particularly in the poetry of Wordsworth, became a substitute for what in religion had been called the human experience of the glory of God. Wordsworth displaced the sublime of religion into aesthetic experience, and this had a profound influence upon later nineteenth-century writers, and upon none more than George Eliot, whose sense of the beauty of moral renunciation stems as much from Wordsworth as from any other literary source. When she praises Ruskin as a teacher “with the inspiration of a Hebrew prophet,” she also judges him to be “strongly akin to the sublimest part of Wordsworth,” a judgment clearly based upon the source in Wordsworth of Ruskin’s tropes for the sense of loss that dominates the sublime experience.

The harshness of being a woman, however mitigated by societal reform, will remain, Eliot reminds us, since we cannot mend nature and its unfairness. Her allusion to the Shakespearean “art / Which does mend Nature,” and which “itself is Nature” (The Winter’s Tale, IV.iv.95–97) subtly emends Shakespeare in the deliberately wistful hope for a moral evolution of love between the sexes. What dominates her letter to Morley is a harsh plangency, yet it is anything but defeatism. Perhaps she should have spoken of a “resigned sublimity” rather than a “sublimer resignation,” which would have meant that her own life would have resembled Maggie Tulliver’s rather than Dorothea Brooke’s. But her art, and life, gave the lie to any contemporary feminist demeaning of the author of Middlemarch, who shares with Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson the eminence of being the strongest women writers in the English language.

  1. 1

    Walter E. Allen, George Eliot (CollierMacmillan, 1967), pp. 185–186.

  2. 2

    Quoted in Allen, pp. 13–14.

  3. 3

    Selections, Haight, ed., pp. 331–332.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print