Read CHAPTER IV - CAREER AS AN AUTHOR of George Eliot A Critical Study of Her Life‚ Writings & Philosophy, free online book, by George Willis Cooke, on

Until she was thirty-six years old Mrs. Lewes had given no hint that she was likely to become a great novelist. She had shown evidence of large learning and critical ability, but not of decided capacity for imaginative or poetic creation. The critic and the creator are seldom combined in one person; and while she might have been expected to become a philosophical writer of large reputation, there was little promise that she would become a great novelist. Before she began the Scenes of Clerical Life, she had written but very little of an original character. She was not drawn irresistibly to the career for which she was best fitted, and others had to discover her gift and urge her to its use. Mr. Lewes saw that the person who could write so admirably of what a novel ought to be, and who could so skilfully point out the defects in the lady novelists of the day, was herself capable of writing much better ones than those she criticised. It was at his suggestion, and through his encouragement, she made her first attempt at novel-writing. Her love of learning, her relish for literary and philosophical studies, led her to believe that she could accomplish the largest results in the line of the work she had already begun. Yet Lewes had learned from her conversational powers, from her keen appreciation of the dramatic elements of daily life, and from her fine humor and sarcasm, that other work was within the range of her powers. Reluctantly she consented to turn aside from the results of scholarship she had hoped to accomplish, and with many doubts concerning her ability to become a writer of fiction. The history of the publication of her first work, Scenes of Clerical Life, has been fully told, and is helpful towards an understanding of her career as an author.

In the autumn of 1856, William Blackwood received from Lewes a short story bearing the title of “The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton,” which he sent as the work of an anonymous friend. His nephew has described the results that followed on the reception of this novel by Blackwood, and its publication in Blackwood’s Magazine. “The story was offered as the first instalment of a series; and though the editor pronounced that ‘Amos’ would ‘do,’ he wished to satisfy himself that it was no chance hit, and requested a sight of the other tales before coming to a decision. Criticisms on the plot and studies of character in ‘Amos Barton’ were frankly put forward, and the editor wound up his letter by saying,’ If the author is a new writer, I beg to congratulate him on being worthy of the honors of print and pay. I shall be very glad to hear from him or you soon.’ At this time the remaining Scenes of Clerical Life were unwritten, and the criticisms upon ‘Amos’ had rather a disheartening effect upon the author, which the editor hastened to remove as soon as he became sensible of them, by offering to accept the tale. He wrote to Mr. Lewes, ’If you think it would stimulate the author to go on with the other tales, I shall publish ‘Amos’ at once;’ expressing also his ‘sanguineness’ that he would be able to approve of the contributions to follow, as ‘Amos’ gave indications of great freshness of style. Some natural curiosity had been expressed as to the unknown writer, and a hint had been thrown out that he was ’a clergyman,’ a device which, since it has the great sanction of Sir Walter Scott, we must regard as perfectly consistent with the ethics of anonymous literature.

“‘Amos Barton’ occupied the first place in the magazine for January, 1857, and was completed in the following number. By that time ’Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story’ was ready, and the Scenes of Clerical Life appeared month by month, until they ended with ‘Janet’s Repentance’ in November of that year. As fresh instalments of the manuscript were received, the editor’s conviction of the power, and even genius, of his new contributor steadily increased. In his first letter to the author after the appearance of ’Amos Barton,’ he wrote, ’It is a long time since I have read anything so fresh, so humorous and so touching. The style is capital, conveying so much in so few words.’ In another letter, addressed ‘My dear Amos,’ for lack of any more distinct appellation, the editor remarks, ’I forgot whether I told you or Lewes that I had shown part of the MS. to Thackeray. He was staying with me, and having been out at dinner, came in about eleven o’clock, when I had just finished reading it. I said to him, ’Do you know that I think I have lighted upon a new author who is uncommonly like a first-class passenger?’ I showed him a page or two I think the passage where the curate returns home and Milly is first introduced. He would not pronounce whether it came up to my ideas, but remarked afterwards that he would have liked to have read more, which I thought a good sign.’

“From the first the Scenes of Clerical Life arrested public attention. Critics were, however, by no means unanimous as to their merits. They had so much individuality stood so far apart from the standards of contemporary fiction that there was considerable difficulty in applying the usual tests in their case. The terse, condensed style, the exactitude of expression, and the constant use of illustration, naturally suggested to some the notion that the new writer must be a man of science relaxing himself in the walks of fiction. The editor’s own suspicions had once been directed towards Professor Owen by a similarity of handwriting. Guesses were freely hazarded as to the author’s personality, and among other conjectures was one that Lord Lyttoll, whose ‘Caxton’ novels were about the same period delighting the readers of this magazine, had again struck a new vein of fiction. Probably Dickens was among the first to divine that the author must be a woman; but the reasons upon which he based this opinion might readily have been met by equally cogent deductions from the Scenes that the writer must be of the male sex. Dickens, on the conclusion of the Scenes, wrote a letter of most generous appreciation, which, when sent through the editor, afforded the unknown author very hearty gratification.

“While ‘Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story’ was passing through the magazine, the editor was informed that he was to know the author as ‘George Eliot.’ It was at this time, then, that a name so famous in our literature was invented. We have no reason to suppose that it had been thought of when the series was commenced. It was probably assumed from the impossibility of a nameless shadow maintaining frequent communication with the editor of a magazine; possibly the recollection of George Sand entered into the idea; but the designation was euphonious and impressive.

“Before the conclusion of the Scenes, Mr. Blackwood felt satisfied that he had to do with a master mind, and that a great career as a novelist lay open to George Eliot; and his frequent communications urged her warmly to persevere in her efforts. When ‘Janet’s Repentance’ was drawing to a close, and arrangements were being made for re-issuing the sketches as a separate publication, he wrote to Mr. Lewes, ’George Eliot is too diffident of his own powers and prospects of success. Very few men, indeed, have more reason to be satisfied as far as the experiment has gone. The following should be a practical cheerer,’ and then he proceeded to say how the Messrs, Blackwood had seen reason to make a large increase in the forthcoming reprint of the Scenes. The volumes did not appear until after the New Year of 1858; and their success was such that the editor was able, before the end of the month, to write as follows to Lewes: ’George Eliot has fairly achieved a literary reputation among judges, and the public must follow, although it may take time. Dickens’s letter was very handsome, and truly kind. I sent him an extract from George Eliot’s letter to me, and I have a note from him, saying that ‘he has been much interested by it,’ and that ‘it has given him the greatest pleasure.’ Dickens adheres to his theory that the writer must be a woman.’ To George Eliot herself he wrote in February, 1858, ’You will recollect, when we proposed to reprint, my impression was that the series had not lasted long enough in the magazine to give you a hold on the general public, although long enough to make your literary reputation. Unless in exceptional cases, a very long time often elapses between the two stages of reputation, the literary and the public. Your progress will be sure, if not so quick as we could wish.’”

The success of the Clerical Scenes determined the literary career of Mrs. Lewes. She began at once an elaborate novel, which was largely written in Germany. It was sent to Blackwood for publication, and his nephew has given a full account of the reception of the manuscript and the details of giving the work to the public.

Adam Bede was begun almost as soon as the Scenes were finished, and had already made considerable progress before their appearance in the reprint. In February, 1858, the editor, writing to Mr. Lewes, says, ’I am delighted to hear from George Eliot that I might soon hope to see something like a volume of the new tale. I am very sanguine.’ In a few weeks after, the manuscript of the opening chapters of Adam Bede was put into his hands, and he writes thus to Lewes after the first perusal: ’Tell George Eliot that I think Adam Bede all right most lifelike and real. I shall read the MS. quietly over again before writing in detail about it.... For the first reading it did not signify how many things I had to think of; I would have hurried through it with eager pleasure. I write this note to allay all anxiety on the part of George Eliot as to my appreciation of the merits of this most promising opening of a picture of life. In spite of all injunctions, I began Adam Bede in the railway, and felt very savage when the waning light stopped me as we neared the Scottish border.’ A few weeks later, when he had received further chapters, and had reperused the manuscript from the beginning, Mr. Blackwood wrote to George Eliot, ’The story is altogether very novel, and I cannot recollect anything at all like it. I find myself constantly thinking of the characters as real personages, which is a capital sign.’ After he had read yet a little further he remarks, ’There is an atmosphere of genuine religion and purity that fears no evil, about the whole opening of the story.’ George Eliot made an expedition to Germany in the spring of 1858, and the bulk of the second volume was sent home from Munich. Acknowledging the receipt of the manuscript, the editor wrote to Lewes, ’There can be no mistake about the merits, and I am not sure whether I expressed myself sufficiently warmly. But you know that I am not equal to the abandon of expression which distinguishes the large-hearted school of critics.’ Adam Bede was completed in the end of October, 1858, and Mr. Blackwood read the conclusion at once, and sent his opinions. He says, ’I am happy to tell you that I think it is capital. I never saw such wonderful efforts worked out by such a succession of simple and yet delicate and minute touches. Hetty’s night in the fields is marvellous. I positively shuddered for her, poor creature; and I do not think the most thoughtless lad could read that terrible picture of her feelings and hopeless misery without being deeply moved. Adam going to support her at the trial is a noble touch. You really make him a gentleman by that act. It is like giving him his spurs. The way poor Hetty leans upon and clings to Dinah is beautiful. Mr. Irwine is always good; so are the Poysers, lifelike as possible. Dinah is a very striking and original character, always perfectly supported, and never obtrusive in her piety. Very early in the book I took it into my head that it would be ‘borne in upon her’ to fall in love with Adam. Arthur is the least satisfactory character, but he is true too. The picture of his happy, complacent feelings before the bombshell bursts upon him is very good.’

Adam Bede was published in the last week of January, 1859. The author was desirous on this occasion to test her strength by appealing directly to the public; and the editor, though quite prepared to accept Adam Bede for the magazine, willingly gratified her. Sending George Eliot an early copy, before Adam Bede had reached the public, he says, ’Whatever the subscription may be, I am confident of success great success. The book is so novel and so true, that the whole story remains in my mind like a succession of incidents in the lives of people I know. Adam Bede can certainly never come under the class of popular agreeable stories; but those who love power, real humor, and true natural description, will stand by the sturdy carpenter and the living groups you have painted in and about Hayslope.’

Adam Bede did not immediately command that signal success which, looking back to it now, we might have expected for it. As the editor had warned the author, the Scenes had secured for her a reputation with the higher order of readers and with men of letters, but had not established her popularity with the public in general. The reviewers, too, were somewhat divided. Many of them recognized the merits of the work, but more committed the blunder of endeavoring to fix the position of the book by contrasting the author with the popular novelists of the time, and by endeavoring to determine from which of them she had drawn her inspiration. In 1859 a review of Adam Bede from the pen of one of the oldest and ablest of our contributors was published in this magazine, and on its appearance George Eliot wrote the editor, ’I should like you to convey my gratitude to your reviewer. I see well he is a man whose experience and study enabled him to relish parts of my book which I should despair of seeing recognized by critics in London back drawing-rooms. He has gratified me keenly by laying his fingers on passages which I wrote either from strong feeling or from intimate knowledge, but which I had prepared myself to find passed over by reviewers.’ Soon after, The Times followed with an appreciative notice of the book which sounded its real merits, and did justice to the author’s originality of genius; and by the month of April the book was steadily running through a second edition. Readers were beginning to realize that the Scenes of Clerical Life was not a mere chance success, but the work of a writer capable of greater and better things.”

It was Mrs. Lewes’s desire not to be known to the public in her own personality, hence her adoption of a nom de plume. She shrank from the consequences of a literary fame, had none of George Sand’s love of notoriety or desire to impress herself upon the world. It was her hope that George Eliot and Mrs. Lewes would lead distinct lives so far as either was known outside her own household; that the two should not be joined together even in the minds of her most intimate friends. When her friend, the editor of the Westminster Review, detected the authorship of Adam Bede, and wrote to her in its praise, congratulating her on the success she had attained, Lewes wrote to him denying positively that Mrs. Lewes was the author. Charles Dickens also saw through the disguise, and wrote to the publisher declaring his opinion that Adam Bede was written by a woman. When this was denied, he still persisted in his conviction, detecting the womanly insight into character, her failure adequately to portray men, while of women “she seemed to know their very hearts.”

The vividness with which scenes and persons about her childhood home were depicted, speedily led to the breaking of this disguise. One of her school-fellows, as soon as she had read Adam Bede, said, “George Eliot is Marian Evans;” but others were only confident that the author must be some Nuncaton resident, and began to look about them for the author. Some portions of the Scenes of Clerical Life had already been discovered to have a very strong local coloring, and now there was much curiosity as to the personality of the writer. A dilapidated gentleman of the neighborhood, who had run through with a fortune at Cambridge, was selected for the honor. While the Scenes were being published, an Isle of Man newspaper attributed the authorship to this man, whose name was Liggins, but he at once repudiated it. On the appearance of Adam Bede this claim was again put forward, and a local clergyman became the medium of its announcement to the public. The London Times printed the following letter in its issue of April 15, 1859: “Sir, The author of Scenes of Clerical Life and Adam Bede is Mr. Joseph Liggins, of Nuncaton, Warwickshire. You may easily satisfy yourself of my correctness by inquiring of any one in that neighborhood. Mr. Liggins himself and the characters whom he paints are as familiar there as the twin spires of Coventry. Yours obediently, H. ANDERS, Rector of Kirkby.”

The next day the following was printed by the same paper:

Sir, The Rev. H. Anders has with questionable delicacy and unquestionable inaccuracy assured the world through your columns that the author of Scenes of Clerical Life and Adam Bede is Mr. Joseph Liggins, of Nuncaton. I beg distinctly to deny that statement. I declare on my honor that that gentleman never saw a line of those works until they were printed, nor had he any knowledge of them whatever. Allow me to ask whether the act of publishing a book deprives a man of all claim to the courtesies usual among gentlemen? If not, the attempt to pry into what is obviously meant to be withheld my name and to publish the rumors which such prying may give rise to, seems to me quite indefensible, still more so to state these rumors as ascertained facts. I am, sir. Yours, &c., GEORGE ELIOT.

Liggins found his ardent supporters, and he explained the letter repudiating the authorship of the Scenes of Clerical Life as being written to further his own interests. He obtained money on the plea that he was being deprived of his rights, by showing portions of a manuscript which he had copied from the printed book. Neighboring clergymen zealously espoused his cause, and a warm controversy raged for a little time concerning his claim. Very curiously, it became a question of high and low church, his own fellow-believers defending Liggins with zeal, while the other party easily detected his imposition. Finally, Blackwood published a letter in The Times denying his claims, accompanied by one from George Eliot expressing entire satisfaction with her publisher. A consequence of this discussion was, that the real name of the author was soon known to the public.

The curiosity excited about the authorship of Adam Bede, the Liggins controversy, and the fresh, original character of the book itself, soon drew attention to its merits. It was referred to in a Parliamentary debate, and it became the general topic of literary conversation. Its success was soon assured, and it was not long before it was recognized that a new novelist of the first order had appeared.

It is as amusing as interesting now to look back upon the reception given to Adam Bede by the critics. It is not every critic who can detect a great writer in his first unheralded book, and some very stupid blunders were made in regard to this one. It was reviewed in The Spectator for February 12, 1859, in this unappreciative manner: “George Eliot’s three-volume novel of Adam Bede is a story of humble life, where religious conscientiousness is the main characteristic of the hero and heroine, as well as of some of the other persons. Its literary feature partakes, we fear, too much of that Northern trait which, by minutely describing things and delineating individuals as matters of substantive importance in themselves, rather than as subordinate to general interest, has a tendency to induce a feeling of sluggishness in the reader.”

Not all the critics were so blundering as this one, however, and in the middle of April, The Times said there was no mistake about the character of Adam Bede, that it was a first-rate novel, and that its author would take rank at once among the masters of the craft. In April, also, Blackwood’s Magazine gave the book a hearty welcome. The natural, genuine descriptions of village life were commended, and the boot was praised for its “hearty, manly sympathy with weakness, not inconsistent with hatred of vice.” Throughout this notice the author is spoken of as “Mr. Eliot.” The critic of the Westminster Review, in an appreciative and favorable notice, expressed a doubt if the author could be a man. He cited Hetty as proof that only a woman could have written the book, and said this character could “only be delineated as it is by an author combining the intense feelings and sympathies of a woman with the conceptive power of artistic genius.” The woman theory was pronounced to be beset with serious difficulties, however, and the notice concluded with these words: “But while pronouncing no decisive opinion on this point, we may remark that the union of the best qualities of the masculine and feminine intellect is as rare as it is admirable; that it is a distinguishing characteristic of the most gifted artists and poets, and that to ascribe it to the author of Adam Bede is to accord the highest praise we can bestow.”

With the writing of Adam Bede, George Eliot accepted her career as a novelist, and henceforth her life was devoted to literary creation. Even before Adam Bede was completed, her attention was directed to Savonarola as the subject for a novel. Though this subject was in her mind, yet it was not made use of until later. As soon as Adam Bede was completed, she at once began another novel of English life, and drawn even more fully than its predecessors from her own experience. Of this new work a greater portion of the manuscript was in the hands of the publishers with the beginning of 1860. She called it Sister Maggie, from the name of the leading character. This title did not please the publisher, and on the 6th of January, Blackwood wrote to her suggesting that it be called The Mill on the Floss. This title was accepted by George Eliot, and the new work appeared in three volumes at the beginning of April, 1860.

In July, 1859, there appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine a short story from George Eliot bearing the title of “The Lifted Veil.” This was followed by another, in 1864, called “Brother Jacob.” Both were printed anonymously and are the only short stories she wrote after the Clerical Scenes. They attracted attention, but were not reprinted until 1880, when they appeared in the volume with Silas Marner, in Blackwood’s “cabinet edition” of her works. In March, 1861, Silas Marner, the Weaver of Raveloe, her only one-volume novel, was given to the public by Blackwood.

Having carefully studied the life and surroundings of Savonarola, she now took up this subject, and embodied it in her Romola. This novel appeared in the Cornhill Magazine from July, 1862, to July, 1863. It has been reported that it was offered to Blackwood for publication, who rejected it because it was not likely to be popular with the public. The probable reason of its publication in the Cornhill Magazine was that a large sum was paid for its first appearance in that periodical. In a letter written July 5, 1862, Lewes gave the true explanation. “My main object in persuading her to consent to serial publication was not the unheard-of magnificence of the offer, but the advantage to such a work of being read slowly and deliberately, instead of being galloped through in three volumes. I think it quite unique, and so will the public when it gets over the first feeling of surprise and disappointment at the book not being English and like its predecessor.” The success it met with while under way in the pages of the magazine may be seen from a letter written by Lewes on December 18. “Marian lives entirely in the fifteenth century, and is much cheered every now and then by hearing indirectly how her book is appreciated by the higher class of minds, and some of the highest, though it is not, and cannot be, popular. In Florence we hear they are wild with delight and surprise at such a work being executed by a foreigner, as if an Italian had ever done anything of the kind.” Romola was illustrated in the Cornhill Magazine, and on its completion was reprinted by Smith, Elder & Co., the publishers of that periodical.

The success of Romola was such as to lead George Eliot to begin on another historical subject, though she was probably induced to do this much more by its fitness to her purposes than by the public reception of the novel. This time she gave her work a poetical and dramatic form. The Spanish Gypsy was written in the winter of 1864-5, but was laid aside for more thorough study of the subject and for careful revision. She had previously, in 1863, written a short story in verse, founded on the pages of Bocaccio, entitled “How Lisa Loved the King.” Probably other poems had also been written, but poetry had not occupied much of her attention. As a school-girl, and even after she had gone to London, she had written verses. Among these earlier attempts, it may not be unsafe to conjecture, may have been the undated poems which she has published in connection with The Legend of Jubal. These are “Self and Life,” “Sweet Evenings come and go, Love,” and “The Death of Moses.”

After laying aside The Spanish Gypsy she began on another novel of English life, and Felix Holt: the Radical was printed in three volumes by Blackwood, in June, 1866. Shortly after, she printed in Blackwood’s Magazine an “Address to workmen, by Felix Holt,” in which she gave some wholesome and admirable advice to the operative classes who had been enfranchised by the Reform Bill. In the same magazine, “How Lisa Loved the King” was printed in May, 1869. This was the last of her contributions to its pages. Its publisher gave her many encouragements in her literary career, and was devoted to her interests. After his death she gave expression to her appreciation of his valuable aid in reaching the public, through a letter addressed to his successor.

I feel that his death was an irreparable loss to my mental life for nowhere else is it possible that I can find the same long-tried genuineness of sympathy and unmixed impartial gladness in anything I might happen to do well. To have had a publisher who was in the fullest sense of the word a gentleman, and at the same time a man of excellent moral judgment, has been an invaluable stimulus and comfort to me. Your uncle had retained that fruit of experience which makes a man of the world, as opposed to the narrow man of literature. He judged well of writing, because he had learned to judge well of men and things, not merely through quickness of observation and insight, but with the illumination of a heart in the right place a thorough integrity and rare tenderness of feeling.

After a visit to Spain in the summer of 1867, The Spanish Gypsy was re-written and published by Blackwood, in June, 1868. During several years, at this period of her life, her pen was busy with poetical subjects. “A Minor Prophet” was written in 1865, “Two Lovers” in 1866, and “Oh may I join the Choir Invisible” in 1867. “Agatha” was written in 1868, and was published in the Atlantic Monthly for August, 1869. The Legend of Jubal was written in 1869 and was printed in Macmillan’s Magazine for May, 1870. In 1869 were also written the series of sonnets entitled “Brother and Sister.” “Armgart” was written in 1870, and appeared in Macmillan’s Magazine in July, 1871. “Arion” and “Stradivarius” were written in 1873. “A College Breakfast Party” was written in April, 1874, and was printed in Macmillan’s Magazine for July, 1878. The Legend of Jubal and other Poems was published by Blackwood in 1874, and contained all the poems just named, except the last. A new edition was published in 1879 as The Legend of Jubal and other Poems, Old and New. The “new” poems in this edition are “The College Breakfast Party,” “Self and Life,” “Sweet Evenings come and go, Love,” and “The Death of Moses.”

To the longer of these poetical studies succeeded another novel of English Life. Middlemarch: a Study of Provincial Life was printed in twelve monthly parts by Blackwood, beginning in December, 1871. Five years later, Daniel Deronda was printed in eight monthly parts by the same publisher, beginning with February, 1876. This method of publication was probably adopted for the same reason assigned by Lewes for the serial appearance of Romola. Both novels attracted much attention, and were eagerly devoured and discussed as the successive numbers appeared, the first because of its remarkable character as a study of English life, the other because of its peculiar ideas, and its defence of the Jewish race. Her last book, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, a series of essays on moral and literary subjects, written the year before, was published by Blackwood in June, 1879. Its reception by the public was somewhat unfavorable, and it added nothing of immediate enlargement to her reputation.

Of miscellaneous writing George Eliot did but very little. While Mr. Lewes was the editor of The Leader newspaper, from 1849 to 1854, she was an occasional contributor of anonymous articles to its columns. When he founded The Fortnightly Review she contributed to its first number, published in May, 1865, an article on “The Influence of Rationalism,” in which she reviewed Lecky’s Rationalism in Europe. These occasional efforts of her pen, together with the two short stories and the poems already mentioned, constituted all her work outside her series of great novels. She concentrated her efforts as few authors have done; and having found, albeit slowly and reluctantly, what she could best accomplish, she seldom strayed aside. When her pen had found its proper place it was not often idle; and though she did not write rapidly, yet she continued steadily at her work and accomplished much. Within twenty years she wrote eight great works of fiction, including The Spanish Gypsy; works that are destined to an immortality of fame. From almost entire obscurity her name appeared, with the publication of the Scenes of Clerical Life, to attract attention among a few most appreciative readers, and it was destined then to rise suddenly to the highest place of literary reputation with the publication of Adam Bede. Her genius blazed clearly out upon the world in the fulness of its powers, and each new work added to her fame, and revealed some new capacity in the delineation of character. Her literary career shows throughout the steady triumph of genius and of persistent labor.