That famous opening of L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between—“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”—has become a cliché of the present time. But some things in the past are more different than others. Isaiah Berlin used to say that some things change and some things don’t, and that it is important for the historian of ideas to sense by instinct which is which. Take the case of George Eliot—Mary Ann Evans as she then was—an ardent and naive young woman in 1845. Like all young women she had a special girlfriend, Sara Hennell, and, Hughes writes, “there was no room in Mary Ann’s life for another significant emotional attachment.” Still, her half-sister Fanny Houghton thought she had found a nice boy for Mary Ann, a good-looking young picture restorer, himself prepared to take a keen interest in this plain but intelligent and articulate young woman. All went well: the sound of wedding bells almost audible. But quite abruptly Mary Ann decided no: she couldn’t love or respect him enough to marry him. And the decision gave her a series of psychosomatic headaches.
And so Mary Ann Evans, child of worthy yeoman farm contractors in the English Midlands, was saved from becoming Mrs. Somebody or other, to become in time George Eliot. But the point is how familiar that particular situation and its outcome still seems to us today, give or take a few minor changes in social and sexual expectation. Mary Ann Evans was an ordinary woman who had not yet become George Eliot the Victorian, separated from us in a culture that really does seem different from our own, in outlook, in ideas, and in behavior. Jane Austen feels far closer. George Eliot, always wary of her great predecessor and sometimes downright rude about her, feared above all her lack of reverence. For if there is one thing that makes the high-minded Victorians appear marooned in an age and a country that is irrevocably, terminally foreign, it is the way so many of them clung to a rigid uncompromising reverence in the midst of an equally uncompromising disbelief. The believer can laugh at what he believes: the disbeliever has no choice but to be wholly serious about the ethical commandments that have taken its place.
That at least became true of George Eliot, and more fatally true the more her successive books and her growing legend were greeted by her Victorian contemporaries with reverence, even with awe. She was the first novelist whose work was accepted as on the same level of the intellect as the works of the other great Victorian thinkers. Henry James, who seems as much our contemporary today as any figure from the past does, remarked that the notion and purpose of the novel became perverted if it was placed in a museum: its function as art was to record and to pass on. George Eliot’s works of fiction became monumental in her own lifetime. And the girl who giggled with her friend Sara Hennell and both wanted and did not want the love of her erstwhile suitor—the girl who might belong in any age—was in time to become the majestic sibyl seated in the corner of her salon, to whom her lover and partner George Henry Lewes would lead up grave admirers one by one for a strictly rationed dose of sibylline discourse.
No wonder George Eliot fell from favor after her death, a death which, as her biographer Kathryn Hughes rightly suggests, can stand symbolically for the closing of the high Victorian Age. “Within ten years of her death no one was reading George Eliot…. The intellectual elite, the opinion formers, had already moved on.” Virginia Woolf might state that Middlemarch was “the first English novel for adults,” but the praise was two-edged: Woolf’s new kind of novel was proclaiming and practicing a philosophy of subjectiveness and helplessness wholly alien to the magisterial certainties of George Eliot. The revival in George Eliot’s fortunes which occurred during and after the 1939-1945 war was due not only to an increased interest in Victorian fiction generally but to the specific efforts of critics like F.R. Leavis, who in his study The Great Tradition rehabilitated her and placed her firmly, as he thought, at the front of the greatest practitioners of the novelist’s art.
Does that judgment still stand today? Only up to a point. Middlemarch is still required reading in university English courses, although among the merely bookish it has been partially displaced by the cult of Trollope, more particularly his equally comprehensive social novels like The Way We Live Now. Trollope is less bossy in his judgments, more pragmatic, more ready to accept in his easygoing way the complexity of human weakness and social interrelation, less foreign, in fact, from our own contemporary viewpoint. Remaining addicts of George Eliot (Henry James in his time was after all one of them) can enjoy with reservations the full gamut of her work, Daniel Deronda and even Romola included; her companion guardian Lewes said of her first effort, Scenes of Clerical Life, “I think your pathos is better than your fun,” but both now seem more than a trifle voulu and heavy-handed. We feel more at home with that sort of thing in Dickens.
Kathryn Hughes has, naturally enough, nothing new to say about the life story, and is too honest to pretend she has, but she writes shrewdly and well, neither patronizing her subject nor unduly attempting to champion her. She is good on the human weakness and vanity which underlay George Eliot’s proclaimed convictions and certainties, and points out how very little sympathy she would have had with feminist positions today, whether moderate or extreme. Rather sensibly she preferred, whenever she could, to avail herself of the best of both worlds: “warmth and femininity” when these qualities came in question, and intellectual rigor and masculine superiority when they did not. She found no trouble in separating the two sides of herself—not becoming a “whole woman.”
She said she would have liked to have children, but as the mistress of a married man she deferred to society’s conventions and refrained. This was fortunate not only for her reputation, which became ever more august and respectable, but because in any case she did not really care for children: she cordially disliked Lewes’s tiresome boys, offspring of his wife, Alice, who had early gone off with Leigh Hunt’s son into a truly bohemian world. Characteristically she did her best to love the Lewes children when they appeared; but if she had become permanently entangled with Herbert Spencer or the raffish George Bray, with both of whom she may have had an affair, she might well have found herself in a subordinate position which would have stifled her writing. Imprisoned with a normal husband and a brood of her own she would have been even worse off. She was lucky enough to be and to do what suited her best, while the confidence in being right about everything which underlies all her work, fiction and philosophy alike, stems from that primal good fortune. She knew she was right because everything had turned out right for her. She did just what she wanted; and her partnership with Lewes gave her the greatest possible encouragement to do it.
It is this factor that may have produced the curious uncertainty in her remarkable heroines which Kathryn Hughes has perceptively noted. They have all their creator’s fine qualities—nobility, idealism, the moral imperatives of virtue and high thinking—but since they cannot be George Eliot, and achieve what she achieved, what else can they manage to do? There is nothing for them apparently commensurate with the interest with which George Eliot has succeeded in charging their situations in the eyes of the reader. Dorothea Brooke marries and settles down with an ordinary working MP; Romola devotes all her learning and her powers of study to looking after the poor; Gwendolen Harleth, politely rejected by that improbable pioneer of Zionism, Daniel Deronda, dwindles into the vague role of do-gooder. Only meek little Milly, the uncomplaining put-upon wife of the Reverend Amos Barton in Scenes of Clerical Life, seems to find her proper role and to earn her author’s unreserved praise in fulfilling it. She dies in her husband’s arms, and he is helpless and unconsolable in consequence. It is Milly who seems the most suitable candidate for “the Choir Invisible,” singing of goodness rather than of godliness, to which George Eliot, most high-minded of atheists, announced that she aspired to belong.
“O May I Join the Choir Invisible”—the devotional rhapsody she composed for herself and other bien pensants—is George Eliot in her most Victorian and to us today her least congenial mood. High-minded as it may be, it also did her no good in the eyes of the godly, and of the clerical establishment. It was discovered after her death that she had been so far from immune to the satisfactions of a posthumous celebrity that she had expressed a wish in her will to be buried in Westminster Abbey. Normally there would have been no bother about so illustrious a writer being commemorated with Shakespeare and the others in Poets’ Corner. But Dean Stanley of Westminster Abbey, though he had been a personal friend of hers and Lewes’s, took it upon himself sharply to intervene. She had ignored the sanctity of marriage; still worse she disbelieved the truths of Christianity. It must not be. And it was not. George Eliot was interred along with Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery.
Her young husband of a few months, John Cross, the banker, was deeply shocked by the Dean’s decision. But poor John Cross!—he had the heavy weight of her reputation to support, sustain, and, if it were possible, augment still further. Marriage to the great lady, who loved him all the more fervently since, unlike Lewes, he was a real husband, had already proved something of a strain. On their honeymoon in Venice he jumped from their hotel balcony into the Grand Canal. It seems to have been a nervous breakdown, albeit one which never subsequently recurred. But malicious gossip was not slow to suggest that he had leaped out to escape the amorous importunity of a wife not only many years older but “magnificently, awe-inspiringly ugly,” as the young Henry James had wonderingly described her.
Sadly, and after only a few months of great happiness, George Eliot was to die of a kidney ailment, aged sixty-one. Her health had never been good; she suffered from a formidable array of psychosomatic ailments—racking headaches attacked her whenever she wrote—but she was tough too and always a great traveler. Her death came as a shock to the new husband who had looked after her so devotedly, just as the death of her beloved partner Lewes had come as a bewildering shock to her. If any woman ever needed a man it was George Eliot, and she was lucky to have acquired two good men who made it their life’s work to look after her, although Lewes remained mercurial and frivolous to the end, and it may well be, unfaithful on occasion.
Someone asked Henry James what Cross must have felt when his wife died. After prolonged rumination James replied: “Surprise? Regret? Remorse? Relief.” And Cross never married again. Once was enough for him, and the burden of being Chief Worshipper at the great lady’s shrine was to prove as onerous as were the spousal duties Cross had originally taken on. There was the Life to write, a massive three-volume Victorian affair, epitomizing the pieties and concealments which Lytton Strachey was to deride and excoriate when he himself came to write Eminent Victorians. As Kathryn Hughes well puts it, the Eliot of Cross’s biography is “the Sibyl, the Sage, the earnest talking head who urges the world to try harder.” Prime Minister Gladstone, another great Victorian not remarkable for iconoclasm or salacious curiosity, was nonetheless heard to murmur as he read it, “It is not a Life at all. It is a reticence in three volumes.”
The fate of lawgivers and sibyls, in literature if not in life, is to have no lasting influence. George Eliot’s precepts can be said to have perished with her. She had tried to turn the novel into too blunt an instrument not only of culture and duty but of what Matthew Arnold called “sweetness and light.” She should have heeded what her contemporary Emily Dickinson (of whom of course she had never heard) was to do, and “tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Henry James, the novelist who did indeed learn from her but who was also her most searching and clear-eyed critic, did just that. But as Kathryn Hughes implies in her admirably sensible and workmanlike biography, George Eliot can reveal much to us today precisely because she and her mindset and her philosophy of life seem so far off, so irrevocably in a past which has become and will no doubt remain totally a matter of history. Shakespeare may be “our contemporary,” to say nothing of Pushkin or Proust or the Metaphysical poets, but George Eliot is emphatically not. It is true that many young women even today do not feel that Dorothea Brooke or Gwendolen Harleth are remote from them and read about them with passion. But Eliot herself remains forever the Great Victorian, as well as the last. She lives in a distant and now unrecoverable country of her own.