Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen

 


 

Introduction to Silas Marner, The Weaver of Raveloe*


 

Like most great artists of the world, George Eliot was peculiarly the product of her own time. The child of speculation and doubt, she voices in prose all the uneasy questions of the human soul which found such a bitter cry in the poetry of Arnold. Mill and Spencer, Darwin and Comte, the masters of rationalism, were her true mental sponsors; it is their doctrine she preaches, their guidance she accepts; and if we remember that this daughter of their adoption was born in one of the narrower houses of the older faith, we shall be less surprised at the tenacity with which she clings to her newer beliefs and the vehemence with which she inculcates them. To the desperation of a skeptic she added the zeal of a convert. More uncompromising than Matthew Arnold in discarding the accepted creed of her day, less sure than Browning of any personal faith with which to replace it, she is eminently the one great artist given to English literature by the scientific spirit of the Victorian age. And this, perhaps, is the best point of departure from which to make a study of her work,-the point of view which is most likely to give us fruitful and luminous results.

Her life, so simple in its story, may be told almost in a paragraph. Mary Ann Evans (or Marian Evans, as she afterwards called herself, and as she was known to her friends) was born at Arbury Farm, in Warwick shire, November 22, 1819. At the time of her birth, her father, Robert Evans, was forester and land-agent in charge of the estates of Mr. Francis Newdigate, of Arbury Hall. Four months afterwards the family removed to Griff, on the same property, where they remained for the next twenty years. Here Marian first went to school with her brother Isaac; and many of the impressions of this period of her life are preserved for us, it is said, in the characters of Maggie and Tom Tulliver, in The Mill on the Floss. At the age of nine she was sent to a private school in Nuneaton, where she formed a close friendship with one of the teachers, a Miss Lewis, to whom many of her most intimate letters were afterwards addressed. She was next transferred to a similar school in Coventry, where she remained for three years. Among her companions she attained a distinction for seriousness beyond her years; she was devoted to her books, passionately fond of music, and even at that age a remarkable talker. Indeed, so charming was her conversation, that there is a tradition her school-fellows disputed for the pleasure of walking with her, until the teacher settled their differences by apportioning the coveted privilege among them daily in alphabetical rotation. At the age of sixteen she lost her mother (Christiana Pearson, Robert Evans's second wife), and thereafter assumed full control of her father's household. In the spring of 1841, when she was just of age, her brother Isaac married and brought his wife home to the house at Griff, and Marian removed with her father to Foleshill on the outskirts of Coventry. Here her education began in earnest. By a systematic course of reading and private study she laid the foundation of those habits which were to make her one of the most broadly cultivated women of the century. She studied Latin and Greek with the master of the Grammar School; another tutor was secured in French, German, and Italian; while she undertook Hebrew by herself. Here, too, she made the acquaintance of Charles Bray and his wife, Caroline Hennell, who were soon to become her closest friends, and who with Charles Hennell were the first to give her mind its bent towards free thought. So pronounced did her rationalistic convictions become that a breach with her father was only avoided by her conceding to his wishes and so far compromising her views as to attend church service as usual.

In 1846 appeared George Eliot's first literary venture, a translation of Strauss's Life of Jesus, a careful and scholarly piece of work. In 1849, on the death of her father, she went abroad and remained nearly a year. Returning to England in the spring of 1850, she began to contribute to The Westminster Review, and in September was invited by John Chapman to assist him in the editorial conduct of the magazine, a task to which she devoted herself for two years. At this period, although she had the advantage of meeting many of the leading radicals and eager scientific speculators, whom Chapman was accustomed to bring about him in fortnightly gatherings at his house, George Eliot had little time for independent work. Her only productions were a translation of Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity, issued in 1854, and a number of critical essays contributed to The Westminster.

It was not in this sort of composition, however, that George Eliot was destined to reach her most effective utterance. She is not happy as an essayist. She is at once too cold and too strenuous to touch lightly the foibles of her fellows. Her humor, so undoubted and so abundant, is lacking in that easy restraint, that final tolerance, which gives the keenest edge to irony. When evil and error are to be attacked, she loses her head and falls upon them with a bludgeon, quite forgetting how effective the rapier can be. As a consequence, her not infrequent excursions into the domain of satire are usually luckless and Quixotic. She is far too serious, her nature is far too deeply imbued with the tinge of her evangelical blood, ever to confront folly with a smile. She is the sister of Calvin and Knox, albeit so far astray form that fold. Her passion for righteousness hurried her into the forum, and filled her mouth with ponderous invectives against wrong. For the orthodox Christian, she is a priestess without an altar, a prophetess without a shrine; but the vestments of her holy office are never laid aside. That indolent regard with which such essayists as Montaigne and Lamb and Stevenson looked out upon the world was never hers; not could she command the scorching sarcasm of Carlyle. So that her essays, with all their conscientious accuracy, are somewhat flat and pendantic.

Soon, however, she was to find the proper outlet for her powers in those remarkable novels which began with the Scenes from Clerical Life, in 1857, and ended with Daniel Deronda, in 1876. This unfolding of her genius was largely due to the encouragement and devoted care of the man with whom her name will always be inseparably connected. George Henry Lewes was one of the brilliant set by whom Mr. Chapman had been surrounded on The Westminster Review. He had been married in early life to a woman who deserted him; but as he had condoned her offence in the eye off the law, by taking her back to his home, he could not, when she left him a second time, obtain a divorce in the English courts. His intimacy with George Eliot grew, and in 1854, as a legal marriage was impossible, they took the law into their own hands, and entered upon the relation which was to last until his death, a quarter of a century later, and which entailed for them both (so far, at least, as personal good intention and determination can go) all the obligations which religious sanctions usually supply. That George Eliot could never quite justify her own conduct to herself, in thus violating universally accepted traditions, may perhaps be inferred from the frequency with which in her after work she enforces the sanctity of the marriage tie. Marian Evans and George Henry Lewes left England in July, 1854, for a residence of three months in Weimar, where Lewes was busy on his Life of Goethe, and an equal stay in Berlin. They then returned to take up their abode in Dover, and later in East Sheen and in Richmond. It was not until 1865 that they took possession of The Priory, in St. John's Wood, where those famous Sunday gatherings were held until the time of Mr. Lewes's death.

In November, 1856, at Lewes's urgent suggestion, and under his encouragement, George Eliot made her first attempt in fiction. The insight which could criticise other novelists with so much sympathy must be capable, her husband conjectured, of not a little creative skill in the same field.

The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton was written, and sent by Lewes to William Blackwood, as the work of an anonymous friend. Blackwood at once saw the merits of the work, and accepted it for publication in his magazine. This was the first of the series of Scenes from Clerical Life, which was completed and issued in book form in 1858. As the different numbers appeared in Blackwood's, the editor was informed by Mr. Lewes that he was to know his anonymous contributor as George Eliot. The name was soon famous, and more than one pretender arose to claim the public honor of bearing it. If the Scenes from Clerical Life arrested the attention of the reading world, Adam Bede, which followed it, established the new novelist's right to a place among her most distinguished contemporaries.

Once embarked on her career, George Eliot's powers of concentration enabled her to accomplish large tasks in the next sixteen or seventeen years. Her first novel was followed by The Mill on the Floss (a title suggested by her editor, Mr. Blackwood, in place of "Sister Maggie," the name she had at first given it) in 1860; Silas Marner, in 1861; Romola, previously printed in The Cornhill Magazine, in 1863; Felix Holt, in 1866; Middlemarch, issued in eight bi-monthly parts, in 1871-72; and Daniel Deronda, also in eight parts, in 1876. This enumeration of the novels, with the addition of two volumes of poems, The Spanish Gypsy, in 1868, Jubal, and Other Poems, in 1874; a volume of essays, in 1879, entitled The Impressions of Theophrastus Such; and two other volumes of essays published since her death, forms a complete list of George Eliot's original works. Her only short stories were The Lifted Veil and Brother Jacob, both published anonymously in Blackwood's Magazine, the one in 1859, the other in 1864, and not reprinted in book form until 1879.

And so her life went by until Mr. Lewes's death, in 1878, with occasional stays in the quieter country places, of which she was particularly fond. Towards the end of 1876 they bought a house at Witley, near Godalming, where she wrote the "Impressions of Theophrastus Such." The manuscript had already been put in the publishers' hands, when Mr. Lewes was taken seriously ill and died on the 28th of November, 1878.

For many weeks after this George Eliot denied herself to all friends and acquaintances, and gave up writing and reading all letters, devoting herself entirely to the preparation of Lewes's unfinished writing. She founded to his memory the George Henry Lewes studentship. The only entry in her diary for the first of January, 1879, is, "Here I and Sorrow sit." And at the end of two months, this desolation had worn her spirits greatly. But she afterwards found some solace in the reception which her latest book had at the hands of the public. "The way in which the public takes Theophrastus is really a comfort to me," she wrote to a friend. In the task of editing Mr. Lewes's writings for the press she was greatly assisted by Mr. J.W. Cross, their common friend, whose intimacy with them both had been of many years' standing.

Finally, in the spring of 1880, their friendship issued in marriage, and the wedding was celebrated at St. George's, Hanover Square, on the sixth of May. In the autumn of the same year, after a tour in Europe, Mr. and Mrs. Cross returned to London and settled at 4 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. But their quiet was short-lived, for here George Eliot was taken with a heavy cold, and died after a short illness on the 22nd of December, 1880.

In many respects Silas Marner is the most distinctive of the novels. Here George Eliot is at her best. The didactic habit had not yet overcome the artistic impulse; and there are fewer of those passages of dissertation than in the later works. The author pauses less frequently to preach in the midst of her story. The tale is more gracious, too, more sweet and winning, less gloomy than any other. It is rounded out to the designs of poetic justice; and the shadow of human tragedy is mitigated somewhat on those natural pages. It is complete in design and admirably constructed, a masterpiece where we may study our author in small compass.

And perhaps one of the most salient features of this work, as of all her novels, is an ample Shakespearian humor. The very characteristic which is lacking in her essays crops out here in abundance. For George Eliot is preeminently one of those to whom nothing human can ever be alien. For abstract wrong she has no pity; the occasional triumphs of evil can move her to no sardonic laughter, not put her even for a moment at the pessimists' point of view. But whenever her fellow-beings are concerned, or the almost living creatures of her brain, she is all mercy and sympathy and lovingkindness. Not once does she ridicule their follies, nor belittle the meanest of them all. She loves them too well ever to make fun of them behind their back their back. That rasping satire of Thackeray's is no part of her method. And when she would move us to smiles, there is no malice, no superiority, in her voice, as we seem to hear her say, "How delightful, how absurd a thing is humanity!" Open the leaves of Silas Marner, at chapter six, and read how the landlord

"broke silence by saying, in a doubtful tone, to his cousin, the butcher,-
"'Some folks'ud say that was a fine beast you druv in yesterday, Bob?'
"The butcher, a jolly, smiling, red-haired man, was not disposed to answer rashly. He have a few puffs before he spat, and replied,-
"'and they would n't be fur wrong, John.'
"After this feeble delusive thaw, the silence set in as severely as before."

That is George Eliot's typical humor, so delicious, so dry. And again, turn to the beginning of chapter thirteen, and read of Uncle Kimball,

"Who, being always volatile in sober business hours, became intense and bitter over cards and brandy, shuffled before his adversary's deal with a glare of suspicion, and turned up a mean trump-card with an air of inexpressible disgust, as if in a world where such things could happen one might as well enter on a course of reckless profligacy."

Ah, the glare of suspicion, how well we all know it! What harmless mirth it arouses! What chords of tolerant sweet reasonableness it touches in our own breast! So that, "feeling kindly unto all the earth," we are put in a mood which lies close to reverence. For worship, first of all, demands absence of self-righteousness and more than justice to others. Ridicule is never far from malignity, but aspiration in well-doing must always be near to humor such as this. It is not in George Eliot to sneer at the coxcomb, or to caricature the simple. When her country folk are ludicrous, we perceive that pathos, not contempt, surrounds the short-comings of beauty. The sadness of imperfection lurks beneath incongrutiy's broadest smile. The sorry figure bears its sorry heart.

And so one thinks of George Eliot as a moralist before all else, supremely concerned with the ethical significance of life. As the artistic temperament takes color and complexion form its environment, and transfuses them into emotion, so the scientific temperament takes its acquired bias and conviction, and reproduces them in philosophy; and George Eliot was a scientist to the core. A large intelligence was her dominant characteristic. However keenly she might feel, she could always see more keenly still. She not only had the creative imagination which brought forth those children of her brain; she had the piercing gift of analysis as well. So that more than any other English novelist, when her characters were once born, she had the power of probing to the quick all their secret impulses and springs of action. Her instinct for dramatic scenes was unerring; and her dissection of motive, as merciless as some process of nature. She went to the core of a human problem not so much by the peculiarly feminine power of sympathy as by the virile power of a capacious and deductive mind. She saw clearly the inevitable logic of events, and meted out to the puppets of her stage the fateful consequences of their own deeds. To trace the growth of character, and in tracing it to exhibit the profound influence of act and habit on self-development,-this was her great aim. The gradual and cumulative corruption of weakness and self-development,-this was her great aim. This gradual and cumulative corruption of weakness and self-indulgence in Tito Melema in Romola is an instance in point. That all character is a growth from conduct is her corollary to the orem of evolution, that all physical life is a growth from its natural and primitive surroundings.

Skeptic as she is, placing no faith in a paternal deity or a personal immortality, she must find her sanctions for right altogether outside the accepted encouragements of revelation. Religion in its established forms had for her no authority; her deepest convictions led her to adhere to the rationalistic principles into which she had been drawn, and to abandon wholly the evangelical teaching of her childhood. The impress of that teaching on her spirit, however, was indelible. It was her mind only that changed; not her temper nor purpose. Considering, then, how strong was her moral sense, how it had been fostered and quickened by her early training, how it had been upheld by the severe surroundings of her non-conformist relatives and associates, one perceives at once how great would be her need to find in this newer creed of science some incentive, some logical support, to take the place of that which she had lost. And in all her writings this moral design is always uppermost; under her hands the novel with a purpose assumed its prominent rank in the world of art.

Consider, in Silas Marner, how the meshes of his own netting are slowly drawn around Godfrey Cass; how the filaments of his shifty deceit, each frangible as gossamer in itself, are little by little twisted into a wain-rope about his heart. Naturally frank and simple in disposition, he has tampered with truth as a child might tamper with the gearing of a mill wheel. By a single touch the awful machinery of the universe has been set in motion, and at first he stands half aghast at the result of his daring, while the hurrying whirl of events runs faster and faster, until it is past his power to retard, and suddenly he is caught in its dizzying maze and swept to a well-nigh inevitable doom. We behold in the merciless consequences of our own volition a scourging genie more terrible than ever poor fisherman set free from copper jar,-impalpable as smoke, huge as the sky. This incorruptible Nemesis stalks through the novels of George Eliot, dealing retribution with implacable hand. It is the nameless, agnostic Providence, at whose threshold, with her "keen sense of the infinite hunger of the spirit, which nothing human could appease," she sought consolation in her religious need. In the shadow of that mighty face all her fancy's people dwell.

And surely, when we have once recognized her position, and put ourselves for a moment at her point of view, looking out upon a world presided over by no more individual and loving divinity than this, a world of iron chance and more than doubtful struggle, we cannot stint our admiration for the great nobility of mind which made George Eliot an ethical enthusiast with a fervor for right equal to Newman's or Savonarola's own. And yet, when this is said, there was always wanting in her the last touch of wonder, the subtile presto of all the wizardries of the soul, transmuting conviction into faith. Her poetry reveals this lack. It is full of high purpose, and yet it never rises above the temperature of cold prose. The rapture is not there. It is poetry by courtesy, and by virtue of metre alone. She has the prose-master's gift, to persuade us to her view, never the poet's power of wrapping us away beyond the limits of though into the verges of profounder being. Her passion for good is a desperation rather than a joy. And this want of spiritual rapture, this predominance of the purely mental faculty, will always tend more and more to diminish George Eliot's force as a great writer. When we think of Wordsworth and Tennyson, of Emerson and Browning, to speak only of modern guides of thought, we perceive that they were "friends and aiders of those who live in the spirit" in a more positive and stimulating way than George Eliot. George Eliot had nothing of the mystic; she never ventures beyond the reach of logic and admirable sense; while from these men we receive "intimations of immortality" and hints of another existence than that of patent fact.

But, indeed, this is hardly more than to say that George Eliot is not a poet. In a novelist, perhaps, one should only look for other traits. It is his business to bring together before us the people of our own world, faithfully and typically portrayed, appealing to us by their very naturalness, and then to reveal in the history of their lives the causes of their happiness or misfortune. True, such an aim is didactic; but all art is didactic, though it will teach more effectively by example than by precept. For beauty, which is the earth's great "ensample to godly life," is only the embodiment of human aspiration; is, indeed, only another aspect of goodness. George Eliot, therefore, in drawing all her materials from the life about her in using only the obvious sources of knowledge, in avoiding any supernatural authority for conduct, was true to an artistic instinct as well ass to her personal creed. This unflinching devotion to the truth, as she saw it, a characteristic of hers in common with many disciples of rationalism, was well calculated to aid her in the task of novel-writing. I made her the most eminent of English realists. For, paradox though it be, in this last half century we have come to hold in highest esteem that fiction which is nearest to fact. The Victorian age has had a passion for reality, if not for truth. Its socialistic, democratic drift is bearing it away from the fictitous distinctions of rank and wealth. Character, personal worth, integrity are slowly coming to have more and more weight with men, to be restored (or perhaps we should say elevated) to their proper value in the world's estimation. To insist on the value of character, on the absolute necessity of right conduct, the untainted culture of the heart, as the only aim of life, the only assurance of happiness, is the whole of George Eliot's teaching. And here, with all the limitations of her skepticism, merely finding new sanctions for an old law, reestablishing, as it were, ancient temples to The Good upon foundations but recently discovered, her lessons are at one with the utterances from Olivet and Sinai.


Introduction to Silas Marner, The Weaver of Raveloe (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1895) [back]