The Victorian novelist Margaret Oliphant knew she was second-rate in comparison, “No one even will mention me in the same breath with George Eliot. And that is just.” But, she added, “It is a little justification to myself to think how much better off she was – no trouble in her life as far as appears…” Mrs Oliphant was left, aged 30, a widow with 3 children, £1000 in debt, and a hard-pressed living to make out of her writing. In comparison, she thought, George Eliot lived luxuriously in “a mental greenhouse” protected by her bohemian common-law husband, George Henry Lewes, “a caretaker and a worshipper.” She did not have to try to live any more: in her second life, on becoming a writer at 37 in 1856, she could simply write, with all the unearned gifts of a genius.
It was only half true. True that Marian Evans who became George Eliot suffered no great tragedy. But what she did suffer disproportionately was the inability to live well: over-intelligent, over-emotional, this young woman who felt herself ugly and ego-bound, was humiliated by clumsy attempts to find adult love, unable to replace her first family with anything like a second, or her religious background with a secure secular equivalent. “What shall I be without my Father?” she wrote at his death in 1849, even after their quarrels, “It will seem as if a part of my moral nature were gone. I had a horrid vision of myself last night becoming earthly sensual and devilish…” She had begun a series of rather desperately clumsy love-affairs with older teachers, married men, intellectuals, and female-substitutes. For years she seemed messily unable to put together any number of desired two-somes: intellect and emotion, life and work, psychology and morality, the conflict of needs between sexual love and conscience. Mrs Oliphant was right: the woman who became George Eliot could not live as an ordinary woman; but then Mrs Oliphant was also wrong: George Eliot used not being able to live for the sake of those “experiments in life” she called her novels. As she was to write of herself as Maggie Tulliver: “The great problem of the shifting relation between passion and duty is clear to no man who is capable of apprehending it…We have no master-key that will fit all cases”
“All people of broad, strong sense have an instinctive repugnance to the men of maxims; because such people early discern that the mysterious complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy. And the man of maxims is the popular representative of the minds that are guided in their moral judgment solely by general rules, thinking that these will lead them to justice by a ready-made patent method, without the trouble of exerting patience, discrimination, impartiality,– without any care to assure themselves whether they have the insight that comes from a hardly earned estimate of temptation, or from a life vivid and intense enough to have created a wide fellow-feeling with all that is human.” (The Mill on the Floss, book 7 chapter 2)
What she could not solve in her first life went into her second life as a realist novelist. There the realist novel became a creative holding ground for the human predicament of those who, without ready-made maxims, systems and formulas, knew that everything depended upon an intensely individual working out of the relation of the general and the particular. Hence the complication of George Eliot’s long, serious sentences in the struggle for integration, to try to hold together two-or-more competing and conflicting thoughts in one mentally syntactic relationship. That is still the deep use of the psychological novel which George Eliot re-founded, especially for those who did not know how to live in the first place; who needed what William James said religion had once stood for in the history of human feeling: “help! help! The first condition of human goodness is something to love.” (“Janet’s Repentance,” chapter 10).
The later nineteenth century she represents is not an historical period we have simply left behind. What it stands for psychologically, again and again, for sundry lost individuals is the arena of transition from a religious to a modern secular life: an in-between world of seriousness that many people still do not, cannot or will not wholly get over. The Victorian critic John Morley said that reading George Eliot was like inadvertently entering a confessional. There, within her characters and in relation to them, she could see your secret thoughts and needs, your stupidity and your struggling value. In her books she upped the demand made upon human beings till it was almost like “hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat” in an almost unbearable hyper-reality that was still ordinary life. Like her characters, her readers know what she called the terror of morality and yet the necessity of it, the fear of being judged and yet the need to be understood. It is not by being a woman of maxims but by her radical experiments in art, that “George Eliot” embodies what it means to work between fiction and life, to make books reach out of themselves even from within their very own midst.
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