1 NOVEMBER 1963, Page 19


A Rhythm of Conviction


GEORGE ELlor has always been something of a monument, to her own time and to ours. From a distance she has sometimes re- sembled that statue of Queen Victoria which broods over Piccadilly Square in Manchester: moral, solemn, and slightly disdaining. In our time she has brooded over the Eng.Lit. courses with a similar majesty and weight. Dr. Leavis has called her `Tolstoyan' and Virginia Woolf spoke of Middlemarch as the only serious novel written for adult people in the entire century.

In these essays* which she wrote for the Westminster Review and the Leader (the maga- zines of Philosophic Radicalism) we come much closer to the monument. It is over fifty years since a previous selection was published, and this is the most complete to date. 'Notes on Form in Art' appears for the first time. They cover a range of subjects which constitute .a survey of intellectual thought in the middle of the nine- teenth century : German philosophy and soci- ology, Evangelical teaching, Tennyson's Maud, Thomas Carlyle, the emancipation of women, the latest translation of the Antigone, 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,' Mrs. Stowe's Dred, the logic of serva.nts, the influence of Rationalism, an address to working men, an introduction to Genesis, and some fifteen others. In them she moves from a hesitant position, in which the work under review predominates, to an out- spoken stafement of her own views.

At first it is George Eliot the radical intel- lectual in a conventional, hidebound society that emerges most tellingly. Her prose crashes against the walls of Victorian timidity with the rhythm of breakers pounding &sand-castle. The voice is never shrill, but its placidity is annihilating. She does not appeal to individual reason so much as to the assent we always give, in some measure, to the rhythm of conviction.

It is in this fashion that she attacks the bland faiths and respectable institutions of her society:

Given, a man with moderate intellect, a moral standard not higher than average, some rhetori- cal affluence and great glibness of speech, what is the career in which, without the aid of birth or money, he may most easily attain power and reputation in English society? Where is that Goshen of mediocrity in which a smattering of science and learning will pass for profound instruction, where platitudes will be accepted as wisdom, bigoted narrowness as holy zeal, unctuous egotism as God-given piety? Let such a man become an evangelical preacher. Dr. Cumming, who inspired this attack, was a well-known preacher insistent on a rigid theo- logical moral code. George Eliot selects what she calls `his perverted moral judgment' as her text. His `perversioh' lay in the application of an abstract, intellectual system to the fluctuating reality of life. In her review of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister (which was a work generally condemned by the Victorians as immoral) * ESSAYS AND REVIEWS OF GEORGE ELIOT. Edited by Thomas Pinney. (RouUedge and Kegan Paul, 45s.)

George Eliot makes her position clear when she states: 'The line between the virtuous and vicious, so far from being a necessary safeguard to morality, is itself an immoral fiction.' What she says about Goethe applies to herself, her life, as well as her writing: 'Morality has a grander orbit than any which can be measured by the calculations of the pulpit and of ordin- ary literature.'

In this respect she resembles Blake, and like him she indulges her irony with a rebellious jubilation. The slaughter of 'ordinary literature' in the essay 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists' was obviously as exhilarating to her as the slaughter of Joshua Reynolds was to Blake. Perhaps only a woman could have read so many women's novels and mowed them down with such relish. It is difficult to imagine Arnold sitting down to an evening with The Enigma: a Leaf front the Archives. of Woichorley House.

Thus' it was an ignorance of life among the people she knew best that led her to German sociology where Riehl was beginning his pioneer work. He had travelled across Germany examin- ing society at first hand and noting with the fidelity of an earlier Hoggart the culture of the people. Her enthusiastic essay on his work forces her to look back at Englind :

How little the real characteristics of the work- ing classes are known to those outside them, how little their natural history has been studied, is sufficiently disclosed by our Art as well as by our political and social theories.

She accuses Dickens of not knowing the work- ing classes in any detail, but it is for the rag- ends of the pastoral tradition that she reserves her full indignation. Her choice of words sug- gests that Wordsworthian raptures are included in the condemnation: 'The only realm of fancy and imagination for the English peasant exists at the bottom of the third quart pot.' And per- haps she was thinking of the thoughts that lie too deep for tears when she wrote:

The selfish instincts are not subdued by the sight of buttercups, nor is integrity in the least established by that classic rural occupation, shedp-washing. To make men moral, something more is requisite than to turn them out to grass.

What she admired about Riehl's work was his patient, exact survey of social life. He ex- amined the individual in the context of his environment and George Eliot, more clearly than any other English novelist of the century, saw the implications of this approach.

In this she can rightly be called progressive, as in her onslaughts on the comfortable asser- tions of her contemporaries she can rightly be called a rebel. But beyond a certain point she would not go, although she often appeared to go further than she actually did. In a small but revealing essay on `Servant's Logic' she wittily chronicles the reasoning powers of maids and cooks on such subjects as bearded oysters, the absolute necessity of squeezing green vegetables

and skimming fat off the soup. She concludes:

The 'moral of all this is, that wise masters and mistresses will not argue with their ser- vants, will not give them reasons, will not con- sult them. A mild yet firm authority which rigorously demands that certain things be done, without urging motives or entering into ex- planations, is both preferred by the servants themselves, and is the best means of educating them into any improvement of their methods and habits. Authority and tradition are the chief, almost the only safe guides of the un- instructed—are the chief means of developing the crude mind, whether childish or adult. Reason about everything with your child, you make him a monster, without reverence, with- out affections. Reason about things with your servants, consult them, give them the suffrage, and you produce no other effect in them than a sense of anarchy in the house, a suspicion of irresoluteness in you. .

This is illustrative of George Eliot's method. What she says about the stupidity of servants was probably largely true for her own time. But she gives her statements the authority and weight of eternity. She habitually judges a temporary and relative situation in the vocabulary of all time. On the one hand she seems sensitive to the changes occurring all about her, and an instru- ment of change herself; on the other she can- not visualise the future nor suggest that one kind of future is preferable to another. She has the nineteenth-century fear of anarchy in her bones. The servants—in spite of her call for greater knowledge of the working classes and her rebuking of Dickens—are a race apart.

Inevitably, she does adhere to a system : Con- servatism. It comes strangely out of the mouth of Felix Holt, the Radical, in his 'Address to Working Men,' but it is finally pure Burkean philosophy. The working men are appealed to in the name of 'the supreme unalterable nature of things' and are implored to 'submit to the great law of inheritance.' It was cold comfort for those workers who read it in Blackwood's that January of 1868, and the unctuous manner in which Felix. Holt pleads with his 'fellows' and plays on his unity with them still carries a smell of duplicity.

The truth is that she was probably less quali- fied to address the working men than Dickens. Felix Holt is even less real than Stephen Blackpool, although both are interesting as mouthpieces. George Eliot's strength lies in a deep trust in subjective experience and where most of the tortuous prose of modern criticism arises from the contortions of a man trying to present a subjective feeling as objective fact, her prose has a rhythm of conviction. In these essays she achieves a unity of tone which is lacking in the novels. For the novels depend largely on her own voice. She and not Dorothea Brooke is the greatest character in Middlemarch. She was never a `Tolstoyan' artist as Dr. Leavis described her; she never released her characters into a wholly fictionalised world. Perhaps she never trusted the novel completely—she began late in life, after these essays were written and after she began living with Lewes in 1854. Fiction was an inevitability, a logical outcome for the tensions and complexities of her thinking. The reviews and essays achieve an impersonality and disinter- estedness which is George Eliot herself. It is obvious that many who imagined they were talk- ing about George Eliot's novels were in fact talking about George Eliot. The essays arc there- fore valuable not only in themselves but for the' introduction they give to the novels and Mr. Pinney deserves our gratitude (with a reser- vation for his finicky footnotes to George Eliot's misquotations) for his fine selection.