October 18, 2017
George Eliot: "The Sage of Unbelief"On this day in 1880 George Eliot died, aged sixty-one. Eliot's last decade was a literary and social triumph, one that she showed every sign of having enjoyed. She had been born on a Midlands farm, she had lived in boarding schools from age five to nineteen, she had taken care of her father in his house for the full decade of her twenties and then roomed in other people's houses for years after that. When she did get her own home few would come to it, or invite her out of it, for fear of offering endorsement to Eliot's notorious agnosticism and her co-habitation with George Lewes, a married man. What a smile it must have brought her now to not only have a house in Regent's Park -- done over by Owen Jones, and staffed by four servants -- but to have high society London (and Europe and America) lined up for invitations to one of her 'Sunday At Home' gatherings. "Lords and Ladies, poets and cabinet ministers, artists and men of science, crowd upon us," wrote Lewes in one proud letter.
And not just the Lords and Ladies. Lewes's letter was to one of Eliot's many devoted reader-correspondents, a man called "The Gusher" by Lewes and Eliot privately but through whom, in 1871, they published a volume of Eliot's Wise, Witty and Tender Sayings. Several years later they followed up with The George Eliot Birthday Book, a calendar of quotations. About this time Eliot also published her only poetry collection, in which there are many heart-felt but heavy reflections. Perhaps feeling that all this was too much for either his star novelist or the market, Eliot's regular publisher, John Blackwood, wrote to delicately inquire if Eliot might have something a little less ponderous to publish -- "lighter pieces written before the sense of what a great author should do for mankind came so strongly upon you."
Eliot herself seems to have sometimes regretted her status as "The Sage of Unbelief" -- this phrase comes from one of a handful of recent biographies, Kathryn Hughes's The Last Victorian (James Tait Prize, 1999). It was one thing to have the novels enshrined -- "What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory?" wrote Emily Dickinson -- but another thing to be personally idolized. One friend remembers Eliot saying, "I am so tired of being set on a pedestal and expected to vent wisdom." But this was somewhat later, after Lewes had died and Eliot, at age sixty (and seven months before her death), had decided to marry Johnnie Cross, a man twenty years younger. The speed and daring of this final leap challenged those devoted to Eliot, as all her earlier leaps -- out of church, into an unholy union with Lewes, from journalism to novel writing -- had challenged the times. She accepted the new scrutiny with her old strength, even when the new husband made his own, unclear leap from their honeymoon bedroom window into Venice's Grand Canal. As biographer Hughes puts it, the new sniggering "was that Cross was so overwhelmed by having to make physical love to an ugly old woman that he preferred death to intercourse."
Though she avoided portraits, Eliot's physical unattractiveness is a matter of famous record. Appreciating that the usual "plain" wouldn't do, Henry James thought her face "magnificently ugly -- deliciously hideous." But James also saw the novels as "deep, masterly pictures of the manifold life of man," and D. H. Lawrence saw Eliot as a pioneer: "It was she who started putting action inside." And when Virginia Woolf gazed back at the Last Victorian in a TLS article in 1919 -- just as she was voyaging out on her first modernist experiments -- she beheld "a memorable figure, inordinately praised and shrinking from her fame, despondent, reserved, shuddering back into the arms of love as if there alone were satisfaction and, it might be, justification...." For Woolf, Eliot was a woman "with every obstacle against her -- sex and health and convention." As she had to battle fame too, "we must lay upon her grave whatever we have it in our power to bestow of laurel and rose."
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