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…
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