The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 21. George Eliot; Her early years
In far different fashion from the reflection, in the writings of Mrs. Gaskell, of her calm life, happy in itself and in the home where it was led, the experiences of the woman of genius who consistently signed her writings with the pseudonym George Eliot send their often refracted rays across the pages of her chief prose fictions. She was too thorough an artist to copy out into them either her own personality or that of any of her kinsfolk, friends or acquaintances; “there is,” she wrote about Adam Bede, “not a single portrait in the book, nor will there be in any future book of mine.” Moreover, her spirit, like that of her favourite heroines, was too lofty to allow her to complain of troubles or exult in happiness which she was conscious of owing, in part at least, to herself. And it was with her life’s work, rather than with its outward events, that her mind was occupied, as she looked backward or forward during its course; “the only thing,” she told her husband when urged by him to write her autobiography, “I should care much to dwell on would be the absolute despair I suffered from of ever being able to achieve anything.”
The first twenty-one years of Mary Ann Evans’s life—she was born 22 November, 1819—were spent in the commonplace surroundings (on the border, though, of Shakespeare’s forest of Arden) of a rather remote half manor, half farmhouse, on a great Warwickshire estate of which her father was agent. He must have been a notable man, and of his strong character some features are held to have passed into both Adam Bede and the high-minded and humorous Caleb Garth in Middlemarch. At Griff house, the companion of Mary Ann’s childhood, before “school parted them,” was her brother Isaac, just as Tom was Maggie’s in the golden hours which never came back till the very last. To the associations of her early youth she steadfastly clung, true to her belief in the formative influence of such remembrances upon the active, as well as the contemplative, passages of life. By her elder sister’s marriage, she became, at an early age, the head of her widowed father’s house, and thus soon acquired a self-reliance which had been fostered by her acknowledged superiority over her school-fellows and companions. Though her reading seemed to her fragmentary, it was already assuming proportions which, in the end, were to make her a kind of Acton among Englishwomen of letters. In the meantime, she passed, alone, through the phase of absorption in religious and even ascetic ideas—which was intensified by the example of an aunt whose self-sacrificing devotion afterwards suggested that of Dinah Morris in Adam Bede—and then reached a recognition of the claims of the individual intellect to freedom of enquiry. The liberating influence, in her case, had been that of Charles Bray, a manufacturer at Coventry, into the immediate neighbourhood of which she had now removed with her father, and of his wife. Bray had recently (1841) published The Philosophy of Necessity, and his brother-in-law, Charles Hennell, was author of An Inquiry concerning the Origin of Christianity (1838), to the German translation of which a preface had been contributed by Strauss. It was thus that Mary Ann Evans was led to take over from Mrs. Hennell the laborious undertaking of an English translation of the celebrated Leben Jesu, which utlimately appeared, early in 1846, with a preface by the author.
The ethics of her inner life, as disclosed by her correspondence about this date, are those to which she afterwards gave repeated expression in her maturest works. There is nothing paradoxical in her description of herself, working at her desk till she felt “Strauss-sick,” with a crucifix placed before her eyes, more familiar to them than it was to Romola’s in her younger days. Her purpose was not to spread doubts and difficulties—she detested what she called “the quackery of infidelity,” and even in Buckle she found only a mixture of irreligion and conceit. The ground was to be “good,” i.e. well-prepared, into which she desired to “sow good seed, instead of rooting up tares where we must inevitably gather up the wheat with them.” Yet, for freedom of enquiry, no effort, no struggle seemed sufficient to her. Such she was when, shortly after she had passed her thirtieth year, she may be said to have begun her literary life. After death had ended her father’s long illness, during which she had been his devoted nurse, finding time, however, occasionally to work at her translation of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, she rested, for a time, at Geneva, and, in 1850, took up her abode in London. Few men or women have ever entered upon a life of letters better fitted for it than she was. Enthusiastic—enthusiasm, she said, is necessary “even for pouring out breakfast”; sympathetic—it was in her “wonderful sympathy,” the two men to whom she was in succession most closely united agreed that “her power lay”; sincerely religious, though she had left both the creeds and practices of religion behind her; equipped like very few writers laden with learning either of the schools or self-acquired; and possessed of a power of work such as only belongs to a lifelong student: so she set herself to her task.
Though she was to become one of the foremost of Victorian novelists, it was still some years before she essayed, or probably thought of essaying, a work of fiction. The political or politico-social novel was then, as has been seen, in the ascendant, and, in problems directly affecting the political life of the nation, her own experience and training had not hitherto been such as to awaken in her a special interest. The Reform bill agitation and its consequences were only impressions of her girlhood; in the party contentions which followed on the close of the whig régime she had no concern, and, on this aspect of politics, as even her latest novels show, she always looked coldly and quite from the outside. She had no sympathy with “young Englandism” except in so far as she loved and respected the movement “as an effort on behalf of the people,” and, curiously enough, the future authoress of Daniel Deronda sternly averted her eyes from “everything specifically Jewish.” But Carlyle’s French Revolution had not failed to appeal to her very strongly, and when, in London, the horizon of her intellectual interests widened and her powers of sympathy, which knew no distinction of class but were most at home with her own, had full play. She was much attracted by the novels of Kingsley, between whose genius and his faults she drew a drastic contrast.