George Eliot's 'Quarries'

ON Wednesday, June 27, 1923, there was at Sotheby’s a sale of books, relics, manuscripts, and portraits of George Eliot. The sale was ‘ by order of the executors of the will of Gertrude, widow of Charles Lee Lewes, being part of the property of George Eliot bequeathed by her to Charles Lee Lewes.’ Among the manuscripts were notebooks containing what George Eliot called her ‘quarries.’ These were jottings, in small beautiful handwriting, on the characters and situations of the proposed novels. The quarry for Middlemarch is perhaps the most interesting of all. The ages and relations and pedigrees of the characters are noted. A little map of Middlemarch carefully marks the houses and their exact distances from each other. The story is placed at the time of the Reform Bill of 1832 and, to guard against anachronisms, the most important events leading to and from the Reform Bill are noted and dated. There are also notes on medical matters that might concern Doctor Lydgate.

There are two quarries for Romola, one of them written entirely in Italian. When George Eliot began to write the novel she was so steeped in Italian that Italian words came more readily to her than English, and not without embarrassment, for her characters would talk Italian, and she had to translate their speeches as she went along.

One of the quarries for Romola fetched £52; that for Middlemarch doubled it, at £105.

Through the kindness of Mrs. Ouvry, granddaughter of George Henry Lewes, I was allowed to see the notebooks and quarries and to read them at leisure. In learning, of course, George Eliot was ‘the heir of all the ages.’ When I got among the notebooks I realized afresh the immense range of her knowledge, equaled only by the discipline by which she kept it in order. I perceived more fully how possessed she was with the scholar’s passion for accuracy, how no detail was too insignificant for her consideration. Her place, I can never doubt, is with the men of massive intellect and imagination, with the peaks which, reaching into the rarer atmosphere of the heavens, do not despise the flowers that grow at their base.

Among the treasures retained by Mrs. Ouvry are a sketch for a new novel and a further fragment, which George Eliot may have intended to weave into the story, but which was more probably, I think, an independent jotting for another possible tale.

The opening paragraph of the fragment shows George Eliot’s characteristic tendency to study man as a branch of natural history. Here it is: —

The transformations of insects — what nature can do in the way of turning a small pulpy grub that you are liable to eat with your salad into a winged creature of marvelous frame and instincts is a worthy theme of wonder, poetry, and science; but so are the metamorphoses of men in their passage from the stage of the pulpy infant in its first cap and nightgown, apparently shutting its eyes hard against the sight of the world and fighting and screaming at existence as a means of improvement which it had never asked for, to the definite and solid form of the county or borough member, the hard-working clown at the circus, the busy lawyer, the ingenious inventor in steel, the remarkably plain householder known to a large public as ‘the portrait of a gentleman,’ the share-compelling swindler, the popular lecturer, the Right Reverend Bishop.

The bishop, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was a beautiful boy of fourteen, under the charge of a clergyman named Dolfus, headmaster of the Kippenham Grammar School. There was a house for the headmaster, but Mr. Dolfus was put into the rectory of the absentee rector, and the ‘trustees let the house built for the headmaster to a flourishing corn-factor, and divided the rent among themselves.’ Also since ‘the townsmen made small use of the Free School, not generally caring that their boys should acquire Mr. Dolfus’ hidden learning,’ the trustees contrived that only a small portion of the school revenue should be given to the master, and managed to pocket the rest.

Indeed, Mr. Simmons, the great woolbuyer, often contended in familiar conversation that Trustees had a ‘natural right’ to be paid for their trusteeship out of such revenue as could be economized — always supposing the trust were of a public nature and not for your own nephews and nieces or your friend’s widow, or suchlike. Mr. Mathers, who was not a trustee, often contradicted him and said that a man had no natural right to anything but air, and water, and bread or a parish allowance in lieu of it. But he never won the assent of the audience to this narrow view, and he was more than once asked where he would get his law from. . . . Quarreling of this sort seemed a function that went with property, filled up men’s leisure, and gave them a point of view on various subjects concerning which they would otherwise have been in the void of neutrality.

There are touches of humor in the description that remind one of Middlemarch. However, I do not think George Eliot finally decided to build a novel out of her fragment. It is more likely that she thought of using it for her Impressions of Theophrastus Such and then dropped it altogether. The name of the headmaster, Dolfus, is in the manner of that work in which her massivity has become a heavy weight, and the humor caustic rather than genial.

The sketch for the novel is much more complete. Cyril Ambrose, the hero, is a man of inventive power in science as well as philosophy. ‘The most fervid yearning of his life is to complete the development of a philosophic system which will make an epoch in the advancing thought; of mankind.’ But he is sadly hampered with poverty, having married young, and finding himself with a family to support. He has invented a destructive warmachine. If he can prevail on the Government to buy his invention for a good sum, he will be able to leave his journalism, by which he keeps his family, and devote his time and energies to his philosophical scheme. But the War Office is dilatory, and he is embittered as the years slip by, and ‘ the researches necessary to give a firm basis to his system are not being made.’

The story is at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Rastin, an agent for a Continental museum, a man of universal accomplishment, and ‘understood to know more than anybody else about the secret springs of European politics,’ has come to England, and has an appointment with Sir Andrew Freemore. The baronet is an ‘ardent patriot, and bitterly indignant at the Continental system, which is ruining the London trade and causing the suicide of distinguished bankers. . . . At the same time, he sees no objection to reducing the harm done to the English trade, by trafficking to supply Napoleon underhand with the English goods which the Emperor wants for his own purposes.’ Sir Andrew believed Rastin to be a secret agent of the English Government and told him about Cyril Ambrose and his invention. The scene takes place in the beautiful gardens at Streatham, where Rastin has already captivated Lady Freemore and promised to procure for her ‘a set of jewels made precisely after the fashion of those worn by the Empress Maria Louisa.’ Rastin’s interest is immediately aroused, and, if Cyril will explain his invention, he proposes to go with him at once to the War Office.

Afterward, at a masquerade, Rastin meets a witty female spy who refuses to unmask. ‘They sup together; she denounces him, after he has bought Cyril’s invention for Napoleon. The formula of the invention is found on Rastin’s person, and Cyril is thus involved in the crime against the English Government.’

‘Enough! ‘ we cry. ‘That is not what we want.’ I have read somewhere that George Eliot wrote one chapter of the new novel, and it was destroyed after her death, because of her known dislike of unfinished work. We can well believe that the whole novel would have been a remarkable product, full of subtle observation, beautiful scenes, and dramatic episodes, but we shall be accused of no detraction from the memory of George Eliot if we say we cannot regret that it remained unwritten.

Let us review her work and her life. To-day it is usual to depreciate the great Victorians, like Tennyson, Browning, Thackeray, Carlyle, George Eliot, and to extol its lesser lights, like Mrs. Gaskell, Matthew Arnold, Coventry Patmore, Anthony Trollope. The nineteenth century was loud in its scorn of the artificial, canting eighteenth. Only in the last few years has it become the thing to admire the cool, detached literature of what is now called the Augustan period. The time for a reversal of our judgments apparently is not yet due.

The reaction against George Eliot has gone very far. She was no artist. She was didactic without the right to be so. She was an overcultured dull woman. She was full of ‘ the cant of skepticism, the goody-goodiness of irreligion.’ There were touches of power in her novels, and much heaviness. The centenary notices were rather more appreciatory, as if the writers felt they must say on the occasion what they could. Mr. Edmund Gosse wrote a brilliant article in the London Mercury and gave an unforgettable sketch of George Eliot driving through London with a Parisian feather in her bonnet. Did Mr. Gosse really remember all the details he gave? It was a very long time ago. That George Eliot did once have an ostrich feather Mr. Gosse has reason to know, for he owned the pencil drawing of George Eliot thus befeathered, made by Mrs. Alma-Tadema, which he afterward presented to the National Gallery. He gave the impression that George Eliot was habitually overdressed; and, with his perfect mastery over words, slyly slipped the word ‘provincial’ into such a place as to give piquancy to his whole picture. The truth is that George Eliot was neglectful and old-fashioned in her dress, except under the urgency of her friends. Thus moved, the material of her dresses became more expensive; their fashion remained unchanged.

The present depreciation of George Eliot, so far as we may consider it seriously, has some excuse. Her works have not been considered apart from herself; and the picture of her presented by Mr. Cross to the world was lacking in all charm or attraction. He told the story of her life by means of her letters, which covered a period of about fortysix years. George Eliot cannot be reckoned among the great letter-writers. Her letters are sympathetic or learned or kind or thoughtful, but they are always restrained, rarely self-revealing or charming. Perhaps to her nearest and dearest she could let herself go. Anyway, judged by those given in her ‘Life,’ her letters are not interesting. The same must be said of her letters to Elma Stuart, published in 1909. The volume has a few charming letters, but they were written by George Henry Lewes. Her own scarcely bear publicity, and when pruned of what gave them character they are apt to become vapid. There is no bridge between her letters and her books or between her letters and herself. A letter was once an escape for ardent women: to George Eliot it was a prison. She found no escape until, late in life, she began imaginative work. Then she was found to be a master of strong, nervous English; under the inspiration of her passionate but disciplined emotions her language frequently attained to great beauty.

The real ‘Life’ of George Eliot remains to be written, and it should be written soon, or it will be too late. Mr. Cross gave the image of a suave, benevolent, uncomfortably self-conscious, cultured woman. He was obliged to keep reserve over the most important action in her life. No authoritative word has been given to the public concerning George Eliot’s long connection with George Henry Lewes. Mr. Cross’s enforced reserve allowed the public to put the worst construction on the meagre allusions, and people resented the hopeless incongruity between the private life of the novelist and the high moral teaching of the novels. No wonder they compared the didactic Sibyl with the line portrait of Charlotte Brontë given by Mrs. Gaskell, and began to think that the work of the passionate, heroic little figure of the lonely Yorkshire moors must of necessity excel the work of the pedantic savante.

The real George Eliot had a tumultuous inner life. Her girlhood was painfully monotonous under the restrictions of her cramped surroundings. Later she achieved some degree of freedom among the advanced set she met in connection with the Westminster Review. Her friendship and union with Lewes, which might be supposed to have satisfied the ardent craving of her passionate nature, was otherwise fruitful. It confirmed her in the faith that there was no happiness in this world until one ceased to make great demands for one’s self, and deepened one’s impersonal interest in people and things and great ideas. Self-sacrifice was the one lesson of life. Her consolation was in books read, to allay her insatiable desire for knowledge, and in books written, by which she escaped into her imaginative world. Her books were the true fruit of her union with Lewes. He loved her with devotion and complete unselfishness. He guarded her tenderly against the morbid diffidence which was a part of her nature. We may say that he made her as happy as her difficult temperament would allow. When he died and she had worked through her store of memories, the imaginative power waned, and we see her a prematurely aged woman, entering with a shiver into her eternal winter. There are gleams of wintry sunshine after she married Mr. Cross, but underneath flows a river of sadness.

It is assumed to-day that George Eliot was essentially of her time, the mid-Victorian; that her novels are occupied with temporary problems, and therefore are doomed. The truth is otherwise. George Eliot’s prime interest was in the unchanging elements of life and character. She began her literary career about the time Darwin published his Origin of Species and paralyzed Europe by his mechanical doctrine of evolution. George Eliot’s friends approved. She, on the contrary, wrote: ‘To me the development theory, and all other explanations of processes by which things came to be, produce a feeble impression compared with the mystery that lies under the processes.’ We feel that to-day; the Victorian scientist did not. George Eliot’s learning was far too deep and thorough to allow her to fall into the one-sidedness of her time. Her mind was positive and concrete. She was not a born Platonist. Always she leaned to what is an equally persistent state — the Aristotelian and realist. Her contemporaries who had surrendered their Christianity generally turned to Spinoza and became pantheists. The alternative for Lewes was positivism. To her also positivism, with its idealization of human relations, seemed better than pantheism. But though she felt the feminine need to agree with Lewes, yet her mental honesty compelled her to consider positivism one-sided, and she looked rather to a time, which would not be in her day, when there should be a formula large enough to include all sides of our complex modern needs, spiritual and mental.

A comparison with Mrs. Humphry Ward illustrates a striking difference in the way the two women used their experience for purposes of the novel. Both were preoccupied with the new knowledge and the eclipse of the old Christianity. Mrs. Ward reproduces all her phases, which arc current phases, in her novels. Robert Elsmere gives the particular views of contemporary German critics. Much later The Case of Richard Meynell gives the criticism as reflected in the Catholic Modernists. George Eliot, on the contrary, with the exception of The Spanish Gypsy and other poems, did not write of the passing phases of her time. Looking for the unchanging element over the whole history of man’s recorded life, she cared greatly to detect it under the mere clothes of opinion and fashion. She loved dearly the great tradition that lies at the heart of the best Evangelicalism, Methodism, Catholicism, Judaism. When she had found the heart she could treat the particular form with reverence. Her presentation of the religious character under different faces is her special glory. Only she could have given us with such perfect comprehension and complete sympathy and truthfulness Mr. Tryan, Mr. Gilfil, Dinah Morris, Dr. Kenn, Rufus Lyon, Mordecai, Savonarola.

It is this universal note in George Eliot’s novels that should give them a permanent place in English literature; still it would not save them were the modern charge that she is no artist true.

George Eliot’s feeling for the beautiful was excelled only by her passion for the good. Her perception of the beautiful awoke in her when she was still a child; it was nourished by a life of long familiarity with the best European art; it was informed by Ruskin’s constant teaching of the absolute importance of truthfulness in art. It is easy to deride Ruskin and ask what art has to do with truth. Yet, if the good, the beautiful, and the true are ultimates, as many affirm to-day, they must be eternally related, and it is our business to see that we do not interpret the true too narrowly. Certainly those in the nineteenth century who believed only in the objective reality of the universe, and rejected all they could not touch and see and handle, reduced truth to a remnant; but George Eliot believed in a world of feeling and of moral values. When her moral passion flamed highest it discovered beauty in all sorts of ordinary men and women. She did not look for the ideal beauty, like the supreme artists, but she reveals a real beauty in everyday life, like the best Dutch and Spanish painters. Her sense of the good and the beautiful was inseparable, and therefore those who separate art from morality are not likely to care for her work.

The most beautiful scenes in her books are those she wrote when her moral feeling was most stirred: Maggie Tulliver discovering Thomas à Kempis, Dinah praying with Hetty in prison, Savonarola sending Romola back to her husband, Dorothea comforting Rosamond; and a score of other scenes are inspired by moral passion, but they are not therefore the less beautiful — it is impossible to see how they could have been more beautiful. Where there is passion there is beauty, and moral passion is no exception to this law.

There were other elements in George Eliot not so favorable to the creative faculty. She was early ‘impassioned with ideas,’ to use her own phrase. Her great danger as a novelist was to begin with an idea and make the story its embodiment. Her first four books escape triumphantly. Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner were constructed on good yarns. The first sign of a too prominent idea was in Romola.

The nineteenth century was much more sanguine than we are that there could be an accurate science of history. George Eliot strove to get a complete knowledge of Florence at the end of the fifteenth century. Florence and its history were to be the background for her imaginary characters. The story, perhaps her best, and one full of possibilities for fine treatment, at first sight seems to have no relation to herself. In reality it grew out of her most intimate life and experience. It is concerned with the idea of rebellion. Her life with Lewes made her brood over the ethics of rebellion more than over other moral problems. The three rebels are Savonarola, Romola, and Tito. Savonarola’s rebellion is treated as obedience to a higher law; Tito’s is lawlessness; Romola’s wavers, and she is finally brought back to obedience by Savonarola. The scenes and situations are vivid, intense, written in blood, and extremely beautiful. But the background of street pageantry, of Florence occupied by French soldiers, is dim to deadness. Obviously George Eliot cares nothing for Charles VIII’s occupation of Florence. She notes his reptilian features and superfluous fingers and, when the most Christian King of the First Nation in the World ogles the Florentine ladies, patiently shrugs her shoulders as one accustomed to such incongruous anomalies in history. There was an opportunity for a splendid treatment of an episode in history full of color and movement. Instead, it is a faded neutral background, strangely enough not spoiling the artistic unity of the book, but serving to throw into relief the intense drama and rich vitality of the chief persons. The faults of the book are plain to everybody; but the scenes that fire the whole of George Eliot’s moral passion are surpassingly beautiful, and are written in sustained language of equal beauty, purged of the epigrammatic smartnesses and polysyllabic pomp of the earlier novels. For these reasons some of us could spare Adam Bede sooner than Romola.

The prominence of the moral idea in Romola was ominous. The next novel, Felix Holt, began as an idea and was helped by memories. The construction is skillful, but betrays sometimes how it is done. Middlemarch, by a happy chance, escapes. At the beginning of her career she had wished to write a story of a young woman married to an elderly clerical pedant, which should be included in the Scenes of Clerical Life. But she closed the series with Janet’s Repentance, because of Blackwood’s want of sympathy for that powerful story. Years later she notes in her Journal, January 1, 1869, ‘I have set myself many tasks for the year — a novel called Middlemarch, a long poem on Timoleon, and several minor poems.’ The name ‘Middlemarch’ she contracted from ‘Middle Mercia,’ which meant to her Coventry, to which she had moved with her father when she was twenty-one. Her first thought was of a young and able doctor, struggling in a provincial town. Coventry brought a rush of memories. On December 2 of the same year she notes: ‘I am experimenting in a story (“Miss Brooke”). . . . It is a subject which has been recorded among my possible themes ever since I began to write fiction.’ Here were two veins of memory; they coalesced in her mind, and the story was conceived before any idea could be fastened on to it. There are signs that people are one by one rediscovering Middlemarch, not without wonder how it got overlooked.

Five years later appeared her last novel, Daniel Deronda. Here the story was made to illustrate ideas. It is the profoundest of the novels, its intellectual breadth is splendid and satisfying, it abounds in beautiful scenes and unexpected triumphs of character-drawing, every paragraph is packed with thought; but the story is made— not created.

Taking George Eliot’s whole output, we may say that she brought to her work a fine imagination, genial humor, wit, satire, unrivaled learning, a magnificent intelligence. If she errs it is by excess. Her most important faculty for producing novels — imagination — fails in the end to do its full work, not so much because it waned as because other mental passions pushed it aside. Preoccupation with myriad ideas took final possession, and the days of her novel-writing were over.