Read CHAPTER VII - THEORY OF THE NOVEL of George Eliot A Critical Study of Her Life‚ Writings & Philosophy, free online book, by George Willis Cooke, on

Before George Eliot began her career as a novelist she had already turned her attention to what is good and bad in fiction-writing, and had given expression to her own theory of the novel. What she wrote on this subject is excellent in itself, but it now has an additional interest in view of her success as a novelist, and as throwing light on her conception of the purposes to be followed in the writing of fiction. In what she wrote on this subject two ideas stand out distinctly, that women are to find in novel-writing a literary field peculiarly adapted to their capacities, and that the novel should be a true portraiture of life.

She was a zealous advocate of woman’s capacity to excel as a novelist, and she saw in this form of literature a field especially adapted to her greater powers of emotion and sympathy. Very generous and appreciative are her references to the lady novelists whom she defends, the excellence of whose work she maintains entitles them to the highest places as literary artists. In the article on “Lady Novelists” she has drawn attention both to those qualities in which woman may excel and to those in which she may fail. In writing later of “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” she criticised unsparingly those women who write novels without comprehending life or any of its problems, and who write in a merely artificial manner. The width of her own culture, the vigor of her critical talent, the largeness of her conception of life and its interests, are well expressed in these essays. Only a large mind could have so truly conceived the real nature of woman’s relations to literature, and expressed them in a spirit so intelligent and comprehensive. She would have the whole of life portrayed, and she believes only a woman can truly speak for women. But her faith in woman seems not to have been of the revolutionary character. She rather preferred that women should achieve a higher social condition by deeds than by words. A great intellectual career like her own, which places a woman in the front rank of literary creators, does more to elevate the position of women than any amount of agitation in favor of suffrage. That she sought for the highest intellectual achievement, and that she labored to attain the widest results of scholarship, is greatly to her credit; but more to her credit is it, that she made no claim upon the public as a woman, but only as a literary artist. She asked that her work should be judged on its literary merits, as the product of intellect, and not with reference to her sex. While believing that woman can do her work best by being true to the instincts, sympathies and capacities of her sex, yet she would have the same standard of literary judgment applied to women as to men. Its truthfulness, its reality, its power to widen our sympathies and enlarge our culture, its measure of genius and moral power, is the true test to be applied to any literary work. Such being her conception of the manner in which women should be judged when becoming literary creators, she had no excuses to offer for those who make use of prejudices and a false culture in their own behalf. She says that

The most mischievous form of feminine silliness is the literary form,
because it tends to confirm the popular prejudice against the solid
education of women.

That she believed in the solid education of women is apparent in her own efforts towards obtaining it for herself, and her conception of what is to be done with it was large and generous. Mere learning she did not hold to be an adornment in a woman. The culture must be transmuted into life-power, and be poured forth, not as oracular wisdom in silly novels, but as sympathy and enlarged comprehension of the daily duties of life. When educated women “mistake vagueness for depth, bombast for eloquence, and affectation for originality,” she is not surprised that men regard rhodomontade as the native accent of woman’s intellect, or that they come to the conclusion that “the average nature of women is too shallow and feeble a soil to bear much tillage.”

It is true that the men who come to such a decision on such very superficial and imperfect observation may not be among the wisest in the world; but we have not now to contest their opinion we are only pointing out how it is unconsciously encouraged by many women who have volunteered themselves as representatives of the feminine intellect. We do not believe that a man was ever strengthened in such an opinion by associating with a woman of true culture, whose mind had absorbed her knowledge instead of being absorbed by it. A really cultured woman, like a really cultured man, is all the simpler and the less obtrusive for her knowledge; it has made her see herself and her opinions in something like just proportions; she does not make it a pedestal from which she flatters herself that she commands a complete view of men and things, but makes it a point of observation from which to form a right estimate of herself.... She does not write books to confound philosophers, perhaps because she is able to write books that delight them, in conversation she is the least formidable of women, because she understands you, without wanting to make you aware that you can’t understand her. She does not give you information, which is the raw material of culture, she gives you sympathy, which is its subtlest essence.

After this estimate of the value of culture to women, it is interesting to turn to George Eliot’s words concerning the legitimate work which women can perform in literature. What she says on this subject shows that she not only had culture, but also the wisdom which is its highest result. She saw that while a woman is to ask for no leniency towards her work because she is a woman, yet that she is not to imitate men or to ignore her sex. She is to portray life as a woman sees it, with a woman’s sympathies and experiences. To interpret the feminine side of life is her legitimate province as a literary artist.

If we regard literature as the expression of the emotions, the whims, the caprices, the enthusiasms, the fluctuating idealisms which move each epoch, we shall not be far wrong; and inasmuch as women necessarily take part in these things, they ought to give them their expression. And this leads us to the heart of the question, what does the literature of women mean? It means this: while it is impossible for men to express life otherwise than as they know it and they can only know it profoundly according to their own experience the advent of female literature promises woman’s view of life, woman’s experience; in other words, a new element. Make what distinctions you please in the social world, it still remains true that men and women have different organizations, consequently different experiences. To know life you must have both sides depicted. Let him paint what he knows. And if you limit woman’s sphere to the domestic circle, you must still recognize the concurrent necessity of domestic life finding its homeliest and truest expression in the woman who lives it.

Keeping to the abstract heights we have chosen, too abstract and general to be affected by exceptions, we may further say that the masculine mind is characterized by the predominance of the intellect, and the feminine by the predominance of the emotions. According to this rough division, the regions of philosophy would be assigned to men, those of literature to women. We need scarcely warn the reader against too rigorous an interpretation of this statement, which is purposely exaggerated the better to serve as a signpost. It is quite true that no such absolute distinction will be found in authorship. There is no man whose mind is shrivelled up into pure intellect; there is no woman whose intellect is completely absorbed by her emotions. But in most men the intellect does not move in such inseparable alliance with the emotions as in most women, and hence, although often not so great as in women, yet the intellect is more commonly dominant. In poets, artists, and men of letters, par excellence, we observe this feminine trait, that their intellect habitually moves in alliance with their emotions; and one of the best descriptions of poetry was that given by Professor Wilson, as the “intellect colored by the feelings.”

Woman, by her greater affectionateness, her greater range and depth of emotional experience, is well fitted to give expression to the emotional facts of life, and demands a place in literature corresponding to that she occupies in society; and that literature must be greatly benefited thereby, follows from the definition we have given of literature.

But hitherto, in spite of illustrations, the literature of woman has fallen short of its function, owing to a very natural and a very explicable weakness it has been too much a literature of imitation. To write as men write, is the aim and besetting sin of women; to write as women, is the real office they have to perform. Our definition of literature includes this necessity. If writers are bound to express what they have really known, felt and suffered, that very obligation imperiously declares they shall not quit their own point of view for the point of view of others. To imitate is to abdicate. We are in no need of more male writers; we are in need of genuine female experience. The prejudices, notions, passions and conventionalisms of men are amply illustrated; let us have the same fulness with respect to women. Unhappily the literature of women may be compared with that of Rome: no amount of graceful talent can disguise the internal defect. Virgil, Ovid and Catullus were assuredly gifted with delicate and poetic sensibility; but their light is, after all, the light of moons reflected from the Grecian suns, and such as brings little life with its rays, To speak in Greek, to think in Greek, was the ambition of all cultivated Romans, who could not see that it would be a grander thing to utter their pure Roman natures in sincere originality. So of women. The throne of intellect has so long been occupied by men, that women naturally deem themselves bound to attend the court. Greece domineered over Rome; its intellectual supremacy was recognized, and the only way of rivalling it seemed to be imitation. Yet not so did Rome vanquish Pyrrhus and his elephants; not by employing elephants to match his, but by Roman valor.

Of all departments of literature, fiction is the one to which, by nature and by circumstance, women are best adapted. Exceptional women will of course be found competent to the highest success in other departments; but speaking generally, novels are their forte. The domestic experiences which form the bulk of woman’s knowledge finds an appropriate form in novels; while the very nature of fiction calls for that predominance of sentiment which we have already attributed to the feminine mind. Love is the staple of fiction, for it “forms the story of a woman’s life.” The joys and sorrows of affection, the incidents of domestic life, the aspirations and fluctuations of emotional life, assume typical forms in the novel. Hence we may be prepared to find women succeeding better in finesse of detail, in pathos and sentiment, while men generally succeed better in the construction of plots and the delineation of character. Such a novel as Tom Jones or Vanity Fair we shall not get from a woman, nor such an effort of imaginative history as Ivanhoe or Old Mortality; but Fielding, Thackeray and Scott are equally excluded from such perfection in its kind as Pride and Prejudice, Indiana or Jane Eyre. As an artist Jane Austen surpasses all the male novelists that ever lived; and for eloquence and depth of feeling no man approaches George Sand.

We are here led to another curious point in our subject, viz., the influence of sorrow upon female literature. It may be said without exaggeration that almost all literature has some remote connection with suffering. “Speculation,” said Novalis, “is disease.” It certainly springs from a vague disquiet. Poetry is analogous to the pearl which the oyster secretes in its malady.

“Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong,
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.”

What Shelley says of poets, applies with greater force to women. If they turn their thoughts to literature, it is when not purely an imitative act always to solace by some intellectual activity the sorrow that in silence wastes their lives, and by a withdrawal of the intellect from the contemplation of their pain, or by a transmutation of their secret anxieties into types, they escape from the pressure of that burden. If the accidents of her position make her solitary and inactive, or if her thwarted affections shut her somewhat from that sweet domestic and maternal sphere to which her whole being spontaneously moves, she turns to literature as to another sphere. We do not here simply refer to those notorious cases where literature was taken up with the avowed and conscious purpose of withdrawing thoughts from painful subjects; but to the unconscious, unavowed influence of domestic disquiet and unfulfilled expectations, in determining the sufferer to intellectual activity. The happy wife and busy mother are only forced into literature by some hereditary organic tendency, stronger even than the domestic; and hence it is that the cleverest women are not those who have written books.

In the later essay on “Silly Novels” her powers of sarcasm were fully displayed. It showed keen critical powers, and a clear insight into the defects inherent in most novel-writing. She spared no faults, had no mercy for presumption, and condemned unsparingly the pretence of culture. She described four kinds of silly novels, classing them as being of the mind-and-millinery, the oracular, the white-neck-cloth_, and the modern-antique varieties. All her powers of analysis and insight shown in her novels appeared in this article.

Severe as her criticism is, it is always just. It aims at the presentation of a truer conception of the purpose of novel-writing, and women are judged simply as literary workers. This criticism is based on the clearest apprehension of why it is that women fail as novel-writers; that it is not because they are women, but because they are false to nature and to the simplest conditions of literary art. These women write poor novels because they aim at fine writing, and believe they must be learned and grandiloquent. They ignore what they see about them every day, and which, if they were to describe it in simple language, would give them real power. It is this falsity in thought, method and purpose which is so severely condemned. And it is the very justness of the criticism which makes it severe, which gives to a true description of these novels the nature of a stinging sarcasm. That these women are praised by the critics she justly regards as a sure indication of their incapacity, or a sign of man’s chivalry towards the other sex, which does not permit him to speak the truth about what he knows to be so false and immature. She also sees that what women need is to be told the truth, and to be compelled to accept the just consequences of their work,

The standing apology for women who become writers without any special qualification is, that society shuts them out from other spheres of occupation. Society is a very culpable entity, and has to answer for the manufacture of many unwholesome commodities, from bad pickles to bad poetry. But society, like “matter” and her Majesty’s Government, and other lofty abstractions, has its share of excessive blame as well as excessive praise. Where there is one woman who writes from necessity, we believe there are three who write from vanity; and besides, there is something so antiseptic in the mere healthy fact of working for one’s bread, that the most trashy and rotten kind of literature is not likely to have been produced under such circumstances. “In all labor there is profit;” but ladies’ silly novels, we imagine, are less the result of labor than of busy idleness.

Happily we are not dependent on argument to prove that fiction is a department of literature in which women can, after their kind, fully equal men. A cluster of great names, both living and dead, rush to our memories in evidence that women can produce novels not only fine, but among the very finest; novels, too, that have a precious specialty, lying quite apart from masculine aptitudes and experience. No educational restrictions can shut women out from the materials of fiction, and there is no species of art which is so free from rigid requirements. Like crystalline masses, it may take any form and yet be beautiful; we have only to pour in the right elements genuine observation, humor and passion. But it is precisely this absence of rigid requirement which constitutes the fatal seduction of novel-writing to incompetent women. Ladies are not wont to be very grossly deceived as to their power of playing on the piano; here certain positive difficulties of execution have to be conquered, and incompetence inevitably breaks down. Every art which has its absolute technique is, to a certain extent, guarded from the intrusions of mere left-handed imbecility. But in novel-writing there are no barriers for incapacity to stumble against, no external criteria to prevent a writer from mistaking foolish facility for mastery. And so we have again and again the old story of La Fontaine’s ass, who puts his nose to the flute, and, finding that he elicits some sound, exclaims, “Moi, aussi, je joue de la flute;” a fable which we commend, at parting, to the consideration of any feminine reader who is in danger of adding to the number of “silly novels by lady novelists.”

Her praise of the great novelists is as enthusiastic as her condemnation of the silly ones is severe. It is interesting to note that in the first of these papers she selects Jane Austen and George Sand as the chiefest among women novelists, and that she praises them for the truthfulness of their portraitures of life, nor is she any the less aware of the defects of these masters than of the deficiencies of silly women who write novels. She finds that Jane Austen never penetrates into the deeper spiritual experiences of life, and that George Sand lacks in that moral poise and purity which is so necessary to the finest literary effort. Her sketches of these women are as truthful as they are interesting.

First and foremost let Jane Austen be named, the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end. There are heights and depths in human nature Miss Austen has never scaled nor fathomed, there are worlds of passionate existence into which she has never set foot; but although this is obvious to every reader, it is equally obvious that she has risked no failures by attempting to delineate that which she has not seen. Her circle may be restricted, but it is complete. Her world is a perfect orb and vital. Life, as it appears to an English gentlewoman peacefully yet actively engaged in her quiet village, is mirrored in her works with a purity and fidelity that must endow them with interest for all time. To read one of her books is like an actual experience of life; you know the people as if you had lived with them, and you feel something of personal affection towards them. The marvellous reality and subtle distinctive traits noticeable in her portraits has led Macaulay to call her a prose Shakspere. If the whole force of the distinction which lies in that epithet prose be fairly appreciated, no one, we think, will dispute the compliment; for out of Shakspere it would be difficult to find characters so typical yet so nicely demarcated within the limits of their kind. We do not find such profound psychological insight as may be found in George Sand (not to mention male writers), but taking the type to which the characters belong, we see the most intimate and accurate knowledge in all Miss Austen’s creations.

Only cultivated minds fairly appreciate the exquisite art of Miss Austen. Those who demand the stimulus of effects, those who can only see by strong lights and shadows, will find her tame and uninteresting. We may illustrate this by one detail. Lucy Steele’s bad English, so delicately and truthfully indicated, would in the hands of another have been more obvious, more “effective” in its exaggeration, but the loss of this comic effect is more than replaced to the cultivated reader by his relish of the nice discrimination visible in its truthfulness. And so of the rest. Strong lights are unnecessary, true lights being at command. The incidents, the characters, the dialogue all are of every-day life, and so truthfully presented that to appreciate the art we must try to imitate it, or carefully compare it with that of others.

We are but echoing an universal note of praise in speaking thus highly of her works, and it is from no desire of simply swelling that chorus of praise that we name her here, but to call attention to the peculiar excellence, at once womanly and literary, which has earned this reputation. Of all imaginative writers she is the most real. Never does she transcend her own actual experience, never does her pen trace a line that does not touch the experience of others. Herein we recognize the first quality of literature. We recognize the second and more special quality of womanliness in the tone and point of view; they are novels written by a woman, an Englishwoman, a gentlewoman; no signature could disguise that fact; and because she has so faithfully (although unconsciously) kept to her own womanly point of view, her works are durable. There is nothing of the doctrinaire in Jane Austen; not a trace of woman’s “mission;” but as the most truthful, charming, humorous, pure-minded, quick-witted and unexaggerated of writers, female literature has reason to be proud of her.

And this is her suggestive portrait of the other, drawn with that skill which is only displayed when one genius interprets another through community of feeling and purpose.

Of greater genius, and incomparably deeper experience, George Sand represents woman’s literature more illustriously and more obviously. In her, quite apart from the magnificent gifts of nature, we see the influence of sorrow as a determining impulse to write, and the abiding consciousness of the womanly point of view as the subject matter of her writings. In vain has she chosen the mask of a man: the features of a woman are everywhere visible. Since Goethe no one has been able to say with so much truth, “My writings are my confessions.” Her biography lies there, presented, indeed, in a fragmentary shape and under wayward disguises, but nevertheless giving to the motley groups the strong and uumistakable charm of reality. Her grandmother, by whom she was brought up, disgusted at her not being a boy, resolved to remedy the misfortune as far as possible by educating her like a boy. We may say of this, as of all the other irregularities of her strange and exceptional life, that whatever unhappiness and error may be traceable thereto, its influence on her writings has been beneficial, by giving a greater range to her experience. It may be selfish to rejoice over the malady which secretes a pearl, but the possessor of the pearl may at least congratulate himself that at any rate the pearl has been produced; and so of the unhappiness of genius. Certainly few women have had such profound and varied experience as George Sand; none have turned it to more account. Her writings contain many passages that her warmest admirers would wish unwritten; but although severe criticism may detect the weak places, the severest criticism must conclude with the admission of her standing among the highest minds of literature. In the matter of eloquence, she surpasses everything France has yet produced. There has been no style at once so large, so harmonious, so expressive, and so unaffected: like a light shining through an alabaster vase, the ideas shine through her diction; while as regards rhythmic melody of phrase, it is a style such as Beethoven might have written had he uttered in words the melodious passion that was in him. But deeper than all eloquence, grander than all grandeur of phrase, is that forlorn splendor of a life of passionate experience painted in her works. There is no man so wise but he may learn from them, for they are the utterances of a soul in pain, a soul that has been tried. No man could have written her books, for no man could have had her experience, even with a genius equal to her own. The philosopher may smile sometimes at her philosophy, for that is only the reflex of some man whose ideas she has adopted; the critic may smile sometimes at her failure in delineating men; but both philosopher and critic must perceive that those writings of hers are original and genuine, are transcripts of experience, and as such fulfil the primary condition of all literature.

This clear, intellectual apprehension of what woman can effect in literature, had much to do with George Eliot’s own success. Yet it is doubtful if she was so true, in some directions, to the instincts of her sex as was George Sand, Mrs. Browning or Charlotte Bronte. Hers was in large measure an intellect without sex; and though she was a woman in all the instincts of her heart, yet intellectually she occupied the human rather than the woman’s point of view. With a marvellous insight into the heart of woman, and great skill in portraying womanly natures, she had a man’s way, the logical and impersonal manner, of viewing, the greater problems of human existence. Charlotte Bronte more truly represents the woman’s way of viewing life; the trustful way of one educated in the conventional views of religion. She has given a corrector interpretation of the meaning of love to woman than George Eliot has been able to present, and simply because she thought and lived more nearly as other women think and live. Hers was the genius of spontaneous insight and emotion, that vibrated to every experience and was moved by every sentiment. Life played upon her heart like the wind upon an Aescolian harp, and she reflected its every movement of joy and sorrow. George Eliot studied life, probed into it, cut it in pieces, constructed a theory of it, and then told us what it means. In this she was unlike other women who have made a deep impression on literature. Mrs. Browning had nearly as much culture, was as thoughtful as she, but more genuinely feminine at the heart-core. Love she painted in a purer and happier fashion than that adopted by George Eliot, and she had the warmer impulses of a woman’s tenderness. Her account of life is the truer, because it is the more ideal; and this may be said for Charlotte Bronte also. George Eliot had the larger intellect, the keener mind, was a profounder thinker; but her realism held her back from that instinctive conception of life which realizes its larger ideal meanings. It is not enough to see what is; man desires to know what ought to be. The poet is the seer, the one who apprehends, who has that finer eye for facts by which he is able to behold what the facts give promise of. This ideal vision Mrs. Browning had, and in so far she was the superior of George Eliot. The same may be said for George Sand, who, with all her wildness and impurity, was a woman through and through. She was all heart, all impulse, lived in her instincts and emotions. She had the abandon, enthusiasm and spontaneity which George Eliot lacked. If the one represents the head, the other expresses the heart of woman. George Eliot, as a woman, thought, reasoned, philosophized; George Sand felt, gave every emotion reign, lived out all her impulses. What the one lacks the other had; where one was weak the other was strong. With somewhat of George Sand’s idealism and emotional zeal for wider and freer life, George Eliot would have been a greater writer. Could she have moulded Dorothea with what is best in Consuelo, she would have been the rival of the greatest literary artists among men. Yet, with her limitations, it must be said that George Eliot is the superior of all other women in her literary accomplishments. If others are her superiors in some directions, in the totality of her powers she surpasses all. Even as an interpreter of woman’s nature and the feminine side of life, she does not fail to keep well ahead of the best of feminine writers. She is more thoroughly the master of her powers, is more self-centred, looks out upon human experience more calmly and with a more penetrating gaze. Foremost of the half-dozen women who during the present century have sought to interpret the feminine side of life, she has done much for her sex. Daring more than others, she has given a greater promise than any other of what woman is to accomplish when her nature blossoms out into all its possibilities.

The chief rule for novel-writing laid down by George Eliot in these essays is, that the novel shall be the result of experience and true to nature. She emphasizes the importance of this condition, and says that the novelist is bound to use actual experience as his material, and that alone, or else keep silent. Weak and silly novels are the result of an effort to break away from this rule; but the writer who ventures to disregard it never can be other than silly or weak. Novelists, she says, may either portray experience outwardly through observation, or inwardly through sentiment, or through a combination of both.

Observation without sentiment usually leads to humor or satire; sentiment without observation to rhetoric and long-drawn lachrymosity. The extreme fault of the one is flippant superficiality, that of the other is what is called sickly sentimentality.

All true literature, she says, is based on fact, describes life as it is lived by men and women, touches and is fragrant with reality. This cardinal principle of literary art she has defined and illustrated in her own strong and expressive manner in this Review article.

All poetry, all fiction, all comedy, all belles-lettres, even to the playful caprices of fancy, are but the expression of experiences and emotions; and these expressions are the avenues through which we reach the sacred adytum of humanity, and learn better to understand our fellows and ourselves. In proportion as these expressions are the forms of universal truths, of facts common to all nations or appreciable by all intellects, the literature which sets them forth is permanently good and true. Hence the universality and immortality of Homer, Shakspere, Cervantes, Moliere. But in proportion as these expressions are the forms of individual, peculiar truths, such as fleeting fashions or idiosyncrasies, the literature is ephemeral. Hence tragedy never grows old, for it arises from elemental experience; but comedy soon ages, for it arises from peculiarities. Nevertheless, even idiosyncrasies are valuable as side glances; they are aberrations that bring the natural orbit into more prominent distinctness.

It follows from what has been said, that literature, being essentially the expression of experience and emotion of what we have seen, felt and thought that only that literature is effective, and to be prized accordingly, which has reality for its basis (needless to say that emotion is as real as the three-per-cents), and effective in proportion to the depth and breadth of that basis.

In writing? of the authors of Jane Eyre and Mary Barton, she shows how important to her mind it is that the novel should have its basis in actual experience, and that it should be an expression of reality.

They have both given imaginative expression to actual experience they have not invented, but reproduced; they have preferred the truth, such as their own experience testified, to the vague, false, conventional notions current in circulating libraries. Whatever of weakness may be pointed out in their works will, we are positive, be mostly in those parts where experience is deserted, and the supposed requirements of fiction have been listened to; whatever has really affected the public mind is, we are equally, certain, the transcript of some actual incident, character or emotion. Note, moreover, that beyond this basis of actuality these writers have the further advantage of deep feeling united to keen observation.

Especially severe is her condemnation of the tendency to introduce only fashionable or learned people into novels. She says the silly novelists rarely make us acquainted with “any other than very lofty and fashionable society,” and very often the authors know nothing of such society except from the reading of other such novels.

It is true that we are constantly struck with the want of verisimilitude in their representations of the high society in which they seem to live; but then they betray no closer acquaintance with any other form of life. If their peers and peeresses are improbable, their literary men, tradespeople and cottagers are impossible; and their intellect seems to have the peculiar impartiality of reproducing both what they have seen and heard, and what they have not seen and heard, with equal faithfulness.

What is simple, natural, unaffected, she pleads for as the true material of fiction. How she would apply this idea may be seen in her condemnation of a novelist who devoted her pages to a defence of Evangelicalism. This writer is “tame and feeble” because she attempts to depict a form of society with which she is not familiar. That the common phases of religious life are capable of affording the richest material for the novelist, George Eliot has abundantly shown, and what she says of their value in this discussion of “Silly Novelists” is of great interest in view of her own success in this kind of portraiture. What she suggested as a fine field for the novelist was to be the one she herself was so well to occupy. Her success proved how clearly she comprehended the nature of novel-writing, and how well she understood the character of the material with which the best results can be attained.

It is less excusable in an Evangelical novelist than any other, gratuitously to seek her subjects among titles and carriages. The real drama of Evangelicalism and it has abundance of fine drama for any one who has genius enough to discern and reproduce it lies among the middle and lower classes; and are not Evangelical opinions understood to give an especial interest in the weak things of the earth, rather than in the mighty? Why, then, cannot our Evangelical novelists show us the operation of their religious views among people (there really are many such in the world) who keep no carriage, “not so much as a brass-bound gig,” who even manage to eat their dinner without a silver fork, and in whose mouths the authoress’s questionable English would be strictly consistent? Why can we not have pictures of religious life among the industrial classes in England as interesting as Mrs. Stowe’s pictures of religious life among the negroes?

Was this question a prophecy? It indicates that the writer’s attention had already been directed to the richness of this material for the purposes of the novelist. After reading these words we see why she took up the common life of the English village as she had herself been familiar with it from childhood. In order to be true to her own conception of the novel, there was no other field she could occupy. That she understood the picturesqueness of this form of life no reader of her novels will doubt, or that she saw and understood its capacities for artistic delineation. The opening paragraphs of her Westminster Review article on the “Natural History of German Life” afford further evidence of her insight and wisdom on this subject. They also afford evidence of her hatred of the conventional and the artificial in art, literature and life. The spirit of imitation and mannerism common to the eighteenth century was in every way repugnant to her. She could have had only contempt for the literary art of a Pope or a Boileau. The nature of her realism, and the conception she had of its importance, may be understood from these paragraphs, for in them she has unfolded her theory more clearly than in anything else she has written, and with that genius for sympathetic description which is so marked in her novels.

How little the real characteristics of the working-classes are known to those who are 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. Where, in our picture exhibitions, shall we find a group of true peasantry? What English artist even attempts to rival in truthfulness such studies of popular life as the pictures of Teniers or the ragged boys of Murillo? Even one of the greatest painters of the pre-eminently realistic school, while in his picture of “The Hireling Shepherd” he gave us a landscape of marvellous truthfulness, placed a pair of peasants in the foreground who were not much more real than the idyllic swains and damsels of our chimney ornaments. Only a total absence of acquaintance and sympathy with our peasantry could give a moment’s popularity to such a picture as “Cross Purposes,” where we have a peasant girl who looks as if she knew L.E.L.’s poems by heart, and English rustics whose costumes seem to indicate that they are meant for ploughmen with exotic features that remind us of a handsome primo tenore. Rather than such cockney sentimentality as this as an education for the taste and sympathies, we prefer the most crapulous group of boors that Teniers ever painted. But even those among our painters who aim at giving the rustic type of features, who are far above the effeminate feebleness of the “Keepsake” style, treat their subjects under the influence of traditions and prepossessions rather than of direct observation. The notion that peasants are joyous, that the typical moment to represent a man in a smock-frock is when he is cracking a joke and showing a row of sound teeth, that cottage matrons are usually buxom, and village children necessarily rosy and merry, are prejudices difficult to dislodge from the artistic mind, which looks for its subjects into literature instead of life. The painter is still under the influence of idyllic literature, which has always expressed the imagination of the cultivated and town-bred, rather than the truth of rustic life. Idyllic ploughmen are jocund when they drive their team afield; idyllic shepherds make bashful love under hawthorn bushes; idyllic villagers dance in the chequered shade, and refresh themselves, not immoderately, with spicy nut-brown ale. But no one who has seen much of actual ploughmen thinks them jocund; no one who is well acquainted with the English peasantry can pronounce them merry. The slow gaze, in which no sense of beauty beams, no humor twinkles,-the slow utterance and the heavy slouching walk, remind one rather of that melancholy animal, the camel, than of the sturdy countryman with striped stockings, red waist coat and hat aside, who represents the traditional English peasant. Observe a company of haymakers, when you see them at a distance, tossing up the forkfuls of hay in the golden light, while the wagon creeps slowly with its increasing burthen over the meadow, and the bright green space which tells of work done gets larger and larger, you pronounce the scene “smiling,” and you think that these companions in labor must be as bright and cheerful as the picture to which they give animation. Approach nearer, and you will certainly find that haymaking time is a time of joking, especially it there are women among the laborers; but the coarse laugh that bursts out every now and then, and expresses the triumphant taunt, is as far as possible from your idyllic conception of idyllic merriment. That delicious effervescence of the mind which we call fun has no equivalent for the northern peasant, except tipsy revelry; the only realm of fancy and imagination for the English clown exists at the bottom of the third quart-pot.

The conventional countryman of the stage, who picks up pocket books and never looks into them, and who is too simple even to know that honesty has its opposite, represents the still lingering mistake that an unintelligible dialect is a guarantee for ingenuousness, and that slouching shoulders indicate an upright disposition. It is quite true that a thresher is likely to be innocent of any adroit arithmetical cheating, but he is not the less likely to carry home his master’s corn in his shoes and pocket; a reaper is not given to writing begging letters, but he is quite capable of cajoling the dairy-maid into filling his small-beer bottle with ale. The selfish instincts are not subdued by the sight of buttercups, nor is integrity in the least established by that classic rural occupation, sheep-washing. To make men moral, something more is requisite than to turn them out to grass.

Opera peasants, whose unreality excites Mr. Ruskin’s indignation, are surely too frank an idealization to be misleading; and since popular chorus is one of the most effective elements of the opera, we can hardly object to lyric rustics in elegant laced bodices and picturesque motley, unless we are prepared to advocate a chorus of colliers in their pit costume, or a ballet of charwomen and stocking-weavers. But our social novels profess to represent the people as they are, and the unreality of their representations is a grave evil. The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment. When Scott takes us into Luckie Mucklebackit’s cottage, or tells the story of The Two Drovers, when Wordsworth sings to us the reverie of Poor Susan, when Kingsley shows us Alton Locke gazing yearningly over the gate which leads from the highway into the first wood he ever saw, when Harnung paints a group of chimney-sweepers, more is done towards linking the higher classes with the lower, towards obliterating the vulgarity of exclusiveness, than by hundreds of sermons and philosophical dissertations. Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot. All the more sacred is the task of the artist when he undertakes to paint the life of the people. Falsification here is far more pernicious than in the more artificial aspects of life. It is not so very serious that we should have false ideas about evanescent fashions about the manners and conversation of beaux and duchesses; but it is serious that our sympathy with the perennial joys and struggles, the toil, the tragedy and the humor in the life of our more heavily laden fellow-men, should be perverted, and turned towards a false object instead of the true one.

This perversion is not the less fatal because the misrepresentation which gives rise to it has what the artist considers a moral end. The thing for mankind to know is, not what are the motives and influences which the moralist thinks ought to act on the laborer or the artisan, but what are the motives and influences which do act on him. We want to be taught to feel, not for the heroic artisan or the sentimental peasant, but for the peasant in all his coarse apathy, and the artisan in all his suspicious selfishness.

We have one great novelist who is gifted with the utmost power of rendering the external traits of our town population; and if he could give us their psychological character their conceptions of life, and their emotions with the same truth as their idiom and manners, his books would be the greatest contribution art has ever made to the awakening of social sympathies. But while he can copy Mrs. Plornish’s colloquial style with the delicate accuracy of a sun-picture, while there is the same startling inspiration in his description of the gestures and phrases of “Boots,” as in the speeches of Shakspere’s mobs or numskulls, he scarcely ever passes from the humorous and external to the emotional and tragic, without becoming as transcendent in his unreality as he was a moment before in his artistic truthfulness. But for the precious salt of his humor, which compels him to reproduce external traits that serve, in some degree, as a corrective to his frequently false psychology, his preternaturally virtuous poor children and artisans, his melodramatic bootmen and courtesans, would be as noxious as Eugene Sue’s idealized prolétaires in encouraging the miserable fallacy that high morality and refined sentiment can grow out of harsh social relations, ignorance and want; or that the working-classes are in a condition to enter at once into a millennial state of altruism, wherein every one is caring for every one else, and no one for himself.

If we need a true conception of the popular character to guide our sympathies rightly, we need it equally to check our theories, and direct us in their application. The tendency created by the splendid conquests of modern generalization, to believe that all social questions are merged in economical science, and that the relations of men to their neighbors may be settled by algebraic equations, the dream that the uncultured classes are prepared for a condition which appeals principally to their moral sensibilities, the aristocratic dilettantism which attempts to restore the “good old times” by a sort of idyllic masquerading, and to grow feudal fidelity and veneration as we grow prize turnips, by an artificial system of culture, none of these diverging mistakes can co-exist with a real knowledge of the people, with a thorough study of their habits, their ideas, their motives. The landholder, the clergyman, the mill-owner, the mining agent, have each an opportunity for making precious observations on different sections of the working-class, but unfortunately their experience is too often not registered at all, or its results are too scattered to be available as a source of information and stimulus to the public mind generally. If any man of sufficient moral and intellectual breadth, whose observations would not be vitiated by a foregone conclusion, or by a professional point of view, would devote himself to studying the natural history of our social classes, especially of the small shop-keepers, artisans and peasantry, the degree in which they are influenced by local conditions, their maxims and habits, the points of view from which they regard their religious teachers, and the degree in which they are influenced by religious doctrines, the interaction of the various classes on each other, and what are the tendencies in their position towards disintegration or towards development, and if, after all this study, he would give us the result of his observations in a book well nourished with specific facts, his work would be a valuable aid to the social and political reformer.

The estimates given in these essays of the writings of Jane Austen, George Sand, Charlotte Bronte and Thackeray, show the soundness of George Eliot’s critical judgment. She fully appreciated Jane Austen’s artistic skill, as she did George Sand’s impassioned love of liberty and naturalness. She also saw how tame are Miss Austen’s scenes, how humanly imperfect are Thackeray’s characters. Her own work is wanting in Jane Austen’s artistic skill and finish, but there is far more of originality and character in her books, more of thought and purpose. Miss Austen tells her story wonderfully well, but her books are all on the same level of social mediocrity and flatness. No fresh, strong, natural, aspiring life is to be found in one of them. George Eliot has not Jane Austen’s artistic skill, but she has thought, depth of purpose, originality of expression and conception, and a marvellous creative insight into character. She is less passionate and bold than George Sand, not the same daring innovator, more rational and sensible. She is not so much a poet, has little of George Sand’s power of improvisation, much less of eloquence and abandon. She has more literary skill than Charlotte Bronte, less originality, but none of her crudeness. She has not so much of the subtle element of genius, but more of solidity and thought.

Her theories concerning the novel place George Eliot fully in sympathy with what may very properly be called the British school of fiction. The natural history of man is the subject matter used by this school; and to describe accurately, minutely, some portion of the human race, some social community, is its main object. Richardson, Fielding, Miss Austen and Thackeray are the masters in this school, who have given direction to its aims and methods. They have sought to accomplish in novel-writing somewhat the same results as those aimed at by Wordsworth and Browning in poetry, to follow the natural, to make much of the common, to describe things as they are. They are realists both in method and philosophy, though differing widely from the minuteness and coarseness of Tourguenief and Zola, in that they show a large element of the ideal interfused with the real. This school is seldom coarse, vulgar or sensuous, does not mistake the depraved and beastly for the natural. Its members delight in simple scenes, plain life, common joys; the scenes, life and joys which are open to every Englishman. They have made use of the facts lying immediately about them, those with which they were the most familiar. They have broken away from the traditional theories of life, the manners of books of etiquette and the rules of fashionable society, for the life which is natural and instinct with impulses of its own. The life of the professions is described, local dialects and provincialisms appear, places and scenery are carefully painted, and the disagreeable and painful become elements in these novels, because common to humanity.

To this special theory of the novel, as it had been worked out by the English masters of prose-poetry, George Eliot added nothing essential. Thackeray, Mrs. Gaskell, Miss Austen, Miss Mitford, Fielding and Richardson had preceded her along the way she was to follow. Their methods became hers, she accepted their influence, and her work was done in the spirit they had so ably illustrated. In one direction, however, she far surpassed any one of her masters, and gave to the novel a richness of power and fulness of aim it had not attained to with any of her predecessors. George Eliot combined other methods with that of naturalism, not adhering rigidly to the purpose of painting life as it appears on the surface. Not only from the pre-Raphaelites, but from such romanticists as Scott, did she learn much. Past scenes became natural, and history was discovered to be a vast element in the thought of the present. Scott’s power of reviving the past in all its romantic and picturesque features, which gave him such capacity for re-creating the life that had once passed away, was not possessed by George Eliot. Still, if not a romancist, she realized how mighty is the shaping power of the past over the present. For this reason, she endeavored to recast old scenes, to revive in living shapes the times that had gone by. The living movements of the present, its efforts at reform, its cries for liberty, its searchings after a freer and purer life, also became a prominent element in her novels. If in this tendency she somewhat enlarged upon the methods of her masters, yet she was quite in sympathy with many who came just before her, and with many more who were her contemporaries. In another direction she kept along the way followed by many of her co-workers, and brought philosophy and socialistic speculation to the aid of the naturalistic method. Indeed, she so far departed from that method, and from the soundest theories of art, as to become to some extent a doctrinaire.

Her novels, like much of the poetry of the same period, are eclectic in spirit, combining with the naturalistic methods those of the historic, socialistic, culture and speculative schools. Art and culture for their own sake combined in her novels with the purpose to use history and social life obedient to a distinct conception of their meanings. To describe life accurately there must be a clear conception of what life means. Genius never works aimlessly; and in seeing life as it is, always sees that it has a tendency and direction. A mind so thoughtful as George Eliot’s, with so strong a love of speculative interest in it, was likely to give to novel-writing done by her a large philosophic element. Yet her philosophy is nearly always subject to her imagination and to her naturalism. Her love of nature, her intimate interest in life and its elemental problems, her passionate sympathy with all human passions and experiences, saves her from becoming a mere doctrinaire, and gives to her speculations a pathetic, living interest. The poetic elements of her novels are so many as to subordinate the philosophic to the true purposes of art.

In one direction George Eliot departed from the methods of her predecessors, and to so great an extent as to be herself the originator of a new school of fiction. She followed the bent of her time for analysis and psychologic interpretation. It is here more than anywhere else she differs from Charlotte Bronte and George Sand. These two great novelists create character by direct representation, by making their persons live and act. George Eliot shows her characters to the reader by analyzing their motives and by giving the history of their development. The disadvantages of the analytic method are apparent when George Eliot is compared with Scott. Unique, personal and human are his creations, instinct with all human emotions, and profoundly real. It is only the poetic side of life which he sees, not its philosophic. George Eliot wanted to know the meanings of things, and this very desire brings a largeness into her books which is not found in Scott’s. She was much the more thoughtful of the two, the one who tried to realize to the intellect what life means. Yet her method of doing this is not always the best one for the poet or the novelist. Scott was no realist, and yet George Eliot has not been more accurate than he. Indeed, he is far more truly accurate in so far as he paints the soul as well as the body of life. The sad endings of her novels grew out of a false theory, and from her inability to see anything of spiritual reality beyond the little round of man’s earthly destiny. She did not accept the doctrine that art is to be cultivated only for art’s sake, for art was always to her the vehicle of moral or philosophic teaching. The limitations of her art largely lay in the direction of her agnosticism. Scott and George Sand gain for their work a great power and effect by their acceptance of the spiritual as real. There is a light, a subtle aroma, a width of vision, a sense of reality, in their work from this source, which is wanting in George Eliot’s. The illimitable mystery beyond the region of the real is the greatest fact man has presented to him, and that region is a reality in all the effects it works on humanity. No poet can ignore it or try to limit it to humanity without a loss to his work. It is this subtle, penetrative, aromatic and mystic power of the ideal which is most to be felt as lacking in the works of George Eliot. Much as we may praise her, we can but feel this limitation. Great as is our admiration, we can but feel that there is a higher range of poetic and artistic creation than any she reached.

The quotations presented from her early writings prove that George Eliot began her career as a novelist with a fully elaborated conception of the purposes of the novel and of the methods to be followed in its production. She had thoroughly studied the subject, had read many of the best works of the best writers, and had formed a carefully digested theory of the novel. That she could do this is rather an indication of critical than of creative power. Her novels everywhere betray the greatness of her reasoning powers, that she was a thinker, that she had strong powers of intellectual analysis, and that she had a logical, accurate mind. Had her mind taken no other direction than this, however, she never could have become a great novelist. These essays indicated something beside powers of reasoning and psychological analysis. They also indicated her capacity for imaginative insight into the motives and impulses of human nature, and an intuitive comprehension of what is most natural to human thought and action. They showed appreciation of sympathy and feeling, and delicate perception of the finer cravings and tendencies of even the commonest souls. They gave promise of so much creative power, her friends saw that in novel-writing she was to find the true expression of her large qualities of mind and heart. The person who could so skilfully point out the faults in the poor novels rapidly issuing from the press, and realize the true indications of a master’s power in the creations of the literary artists, might herself possess the genius necessary to original work of her own. Her early essays are now chiefly of value for this promise they give of larger powers than those which could be fully expressed in such work. They prophesied the future, and made her friends zealous to overcome her own reluctance to enter upon a larger work. She doubted her own genius, but it was not destined to remain unfruitful.