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George Eliot: The Last Victorian
by kathryn hughes
farrar, straus & giroux. 400 pp. $30

On the second day of January 1842, in a mild corner of the English Midlands, a young woman of twenty-two named Mary Ann Evans refused to attend church with her father. “Robert Evans’ response,” writes the young woman’s most recent biographer, “was to withdraw into a cold and sullen rage.” Thus began what Mary Ann called a “holy war.”

The conflict had been coming for some time. Robert Evans—the agent of a large estate in Warwickshire, near Coventry—had raised his children as middle-of-the-road Anglicans, but some of his daughter’s teachers, in the “ladies’ seminaries” she attended from age nine, were more enthusiastic. Their evangelical piety appealed to Mary Ann, but she had not been in their world for too long before she began to perceive a dissonance between that piety and her already impressive reading in literature, theology, and science. An inner tension mounted, and culminated in a decisive recognition that she was no longer a Christian. What remained was to summon the courage to make this recognition public”which is to say, reveal it to her father. And this is what she did on the second day of January 1842.

Because of her father’s silence, Mary Ann felt that she had to explain herself in a letter to him. Of the Bible she wrote, “I regard these writings as histories consisting of mingled truth and fiction, and while I admire and cherish much of what I believe to have been the moral teaching of Jesus himself, I consider the system of doctrines built upon the facts of his life . . . to be most dishonorable to God and most pernicious in its influence on individual and social happiness.” This was scarcely calculated to assuage Robert Evans’s anger, but it had the singular merit of honesty.

Nearly two years later—after father and daughter had come to imperfect but sustainable terms of peace—Mary Ann was able to write to a friend explaining what she had learned from the “holy war” and sketching the outlines of what had come to replace the traditional faith she rejected. “Speculative truth begins to appear but a shadow of individual minds,” she wrote, “agreement between intellects seems unattainable, and we turn to the truth of feeling as the only universal bond of union.” And this would remain her view. Thirty years later—after Mary Ann Evans had come to London and become Marian Evans, then (in her mind, though not in English law, since the man with whom she lived was married to another) Marian Lewes, and ultimately the great and famous novelist George Eliot”she wrote in very similar terms to Harriet Beecher Stowe: for the good of humankind, orthodox Christianity must be replaced by an ethical religion that would instill in us “a more deeply awing sense of responsibility to man, springing from sympathy with the difficulty of the human lot.” Likewise, in commenting on her Silas Marner, she would say that it “sets . . . in a strong light the remedial influences of pure, natural, human relations.”

The story, told in this way, is a remarkably familiar one: the “Victorian crisis of faith” and its resultant emphasis on the “spirit of human brotherhood” as an unarguably nonsectarian substitute for a failed religion. Why, then, must we tell it so often? Kathryn Hughes’s biography is the most recent in what has become, it appears, an annual series: Rosemary Ashton’s life of Eliot appeared in 1997, Rosemarie Bodenheimer’s in 1996, Frederick Karl’s in 1995. Do we need so many lives of Eliot? Of course not, and it is largely an accident of publishing that we now have all of these. No doubt each of them was commissioned by editors ignorant of the existence of the other projects—editors aware that no significant full biography of Eliot had appeared since Gordon Haight’s authoritative volume of 1968, and that her ever—increasing stature in the pantheon of English writers certainly merited renewed biographical activity.

What is noteworthy is the relatively insignificant degree to which these biographies differ from one another. Karl’s is lengthy and ponderous, Bodenheimer’s critical rather than strictly biographical (and organized thematically rather than chronologically), Ashton’s direct and scholarly, and Hughes’s colloquial to the point of breeziness, but all of them tell more or less the same story in more or less the same terms. For (and this may be the chief lesson to be learned from these biographies) George Eliot is perhaps the signal figure for those who maintain that we can be good without God, indeed, that belief in the Christian God is a great impediment to the achievement of “individual and social happiness.” For literary people who want to have moral standards, or at least the feeling of having moral standards, without accruing any metaphysical baggage, Eliot’s story warrants continual regard.

One way to understand what Eliot represents is to look at her first and in some respects most beautiful novel, Adam Bede (1859). Near the end of the book the Methodist lay preacher Dinah Morris mistrusts her love for the carpenter Adam Bede because she cannot reconcile it with her almost lifelong sense of calling to ministry:

Since my affections have been set above measure on you, I have had less peace and joy in God; I have felt as it were a division in my heart. And think how it is with me, Adam: that life I have led is like a land I have trodden in blessedness since my childhood; and if I long for a moment to follow the voice which calls me to another land that I know not, I cannot but fear that my soul might hereafter yearn for that early blessedness which I had forsaken; and where doubt enters, there is not perfect love. . . . We are sometimes required to lay our natural, lawful affections on the altar.

Note that Dinah does not believe her love for Adam, even if strong “above measure,” to be intrinsically sinful; it is a “natural, lawful affection.” And yet she feels that she may be called upon to forgo that love for the sake of a specific calling from God, for the sake, then, of a higher love—including the love of her neighbors, who might also be displaced by the avariciousness of eros: “I fear I should forget to rejoice and weep with others; nay, I fear I should forget the Divine presence, and seek no love but yours.” Adam’s reply to these concerns is eloquent:

I don’t believe your loving me could shut up your heart; it’s only adding to what you’ve been before, not taking away from it; for it seems to me it’s the same with love and happiness as with sorrow—the more we know of it the better we can feel what other people’s lives are or might be, and so we shall only be more tender to ’em, and wishful to help ’em. The more knowledge a man has the better he’ll do ’s work; and feeling’s a sort o’ knowledge.

In other words, Dinah’s love of Adam and her love of God need not compete with one another: they can be complementary forces in the expansion of Dinah’s character, the strengthening of the affections that bind our lives and our neighbors’ in mutual help and regard. Conversely, were Dinah to “shut up her heart” to the love of Adam, she would be sealing off one entrance for knowledge—that is to say, wisdom—and this could scarcely be pleasing to God.

One would think that Adam here speaks for Eliot herself; and in some respects, though not all, this is true. A few years earlier, before inventing George Eliot, Marian Evans had written a series of brilliant articles for London’s Westminster Review, one of which (in October 1855) discussed a recent book by a Calvinist preacher in London, Dr. John Cumming. (Among the recent biographers Ashton best recognizes the importance of this essay, while Hughes almost ignores it.) Perhaps the angriest moment in a luminously angry essay comes when Marian Evans evaluates what she thinks of as Cumming’s key claim:

Dr. Cumming’s theory . . . is that actions are good or evil according as they are prompted or not prompted by an exclusive reference to the “glory of God.” God, then, in Dr. Cumming’s conception, is a being who has no pleasure in the exercise of love and truthfulness and justice, considered as effecting the well-being of His creatures; He has satisfaction in us only in so far as we exhaust our motives and dispositions of all relation to our fellow-beings, and replace sympathy with men by anxiety for the “glory of God.”

Then follows a witty, indeed a gleefully malicious, catalogue of brave and noble deeds that in Dr. Cumming’s scheme could give no pleasure to God. And one item in this list bears a close affinity to the dilemma of Dinah Morris, which George Eliot would delineate just three years later:

A wife is not to devote herself to her husband out of love to him and a sense of the duties implied by a close relation—she is to be a faithful wife for the glory of God; if she feels her natural affections welling up too strongly, she is to repress them; it will not do to act from natural affection—she must think of the glory of God.

When Dinah Morris ultimately does agree to marry Adam Bede, then, she refuses the Cumming-like divorce between a supposedly meritorious love of God (coupled with an abstract love of one’s neighbor) and a supposedly dangerous love for particular other people. That is, she rejects the picture of human affection that Marian Evans believed typical of the evangelicalism she had embraced as an adolescent and from which she felt she had been rescued by modern theology and philosophy, especially the work of David Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach (both of whom she had translated into English). Indeed, the words with which Dinah accepts Adam’s proposal explicitly join eros and agape: “My soul is so knit with yours that it is but a divided life I live without you. And this moment, now you are with me, and I feel that our hearts are filled with the same love, I have a fulness of strength to bear and do our heavenly Father’s will, that I had lost before.”

This is very beautiful, but the Epilogue to the novel, set seven years after the conclusion of the main narrative, reveals an interesting complication. In his wooing of Dinah, Adam had explicitly said that she need not think of marriage as an impediment to her career as a preacher, but now we find that she has after all ceased to preach. Now, this is not Adam’s doing, but the doing of the Methodist Conference, which in 1803 (really, not just in the novel) forbade women from preaching. But Adam enthusiastically endorses Dinah’s decision to obey the conference rather than join another denomination and continue preaching, which Adam’s brother Seth believes she should have done. It is not clear that devotion to God and devotion to Adam have proved utterly compatible after all. It may well be that Dinah’s former quest for divine love has simply been absorbed into the concerns and affections of everyday life; that, faced with the joyful obligation to love Adam and their children, she has found less need to project a God as the ideal and source of love.

The word “project” inevitably and rightly calls to mind Feuerbach’s “projection theory” of religion. Marian Evans’ critique of Dr. Cumming is conducted on purely Feuerbachian principles, and the closing paragraphs of her essay are almost a précis of The Essence of Christianity :

The idea of God is really moral in its influence—it really cherishes all that is best and loveliest in man—only when God is contemplated as sympathizing with the pure elements of human feeling, as possessing infinitely all those attributes which we recognize to be moral in humanity. . . . The idea of a God who not only sympathizes with all we feel and endure for our fellow men, but who will pour new life into our too languid love, and give firmness to our vacillating purpose, is an extension and multiplication of the effects produced by human sympathy.

To this useful image Marian Evans contrasts Dr. Cumming’s God, who “instead of sharing and aiding our human sympathies is directly in collision with them; who instead of strengthening the bond between man and man, by encouraging the sense that they are both alike the objects of His love and care, thrusts himself between them and forbids them to feel for each other except as they have relation to Him.”

Perhaps, then, the Epilogue to Adam Bede is to be read as documenting Dinah’s escape from the clutches of this ugly and dangerous notion of God. If Dinah gives up preaching in order better to love her husband, children, and friends, she has simply demonstrated the moral self-sufficiency and maturity that Feuerbach and Marian Evans envision as the future of the human race. We can now see how this view differs quite distinctly from that of Adam Bede himself: for Adam, the love of God and the love of others are mutually reinforcing, while for Marian Evans the love of God, or rather the whole notion of God, has a strictly instrumental function and can safely be abandoned when it is no longer needed as a stimulus to the love of one’s fellow humans.

I believe Adam’s position on this issue to be superior to that of the mature Marian Evans—though earlier in her life, when she was still Mary Ann Evans, she had still thought orthodox Christian doctrine to be “dishonorable to God” as well as injurious to people. But in any case, one consequence of the view Marian Evans came to articulate is that, for all the broad human sympathy for which she became justly famous, in one respect her sphere of sympathetic engagement contracted—namely, in the realm of religious experience.

The pious evangelicals whom she had represented so faithfully and with such warmth in her early work disappear from her later fiction. In Felix Holt (1866) the evangelical world makes something of a return, but with notably less success. In Middlemarch (1872), its only representative is the wretched Mr. Bulstrode with his secret past of vice—a touch too predictable for the creator of Dinah Morris. Even in Eliot’s last novel, Daniel Deronda, with its remarkable and unprecedented portrayal of Jews in England, it is the ethics of Judaism that she—like Matthew Arnold with his notion of the Hebraic “strictness of conscience”—admires, not its metaphysics. In a letter she tells a friend that Christians owe Jews respect because of their “professed principles,” principles she hoped would someday be embodied in a Palestinian Jewish state. A Zionism born of haskalah (the Jewish enlightenment) comprises Eliot’s portrait of excellent Judaism; the beliefs and worship of Jews are but exotic window dressing.

This waning of sympathy for religious experience is vividly evident in her comments on Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua: the book was “the revelation of a life—how different in form from one’s own, yet with how close a fellowship in its needs and burthens.” One would think the book was the autobiography of a Melanesian, so loftily distant is her response; it is the response of a person who knows certain moral stirrings (stemming from “needs and burthens”) but who knows better than to project a God from them. I am tempted, when confronted by this attitude, to invoke Nietzsche’s scathing comment, in Twilight of the Idols, on the difference between the English and the Germans:

G. Eliot.—They have got rid of the Christian God, and now feel obliged to cling all the more firmly to Christian morality: that is English consistency, let us not blame it on little bluestockings la Eliot. In England, in response to every little emancipation from theology one has to reassert one’s position in a fear“inspiring manner as a moral fanatic. That is the penance one pays there. With us it is different. When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality.

This is, like most of what Nietzsche wrote, unfair: Eliot was neither a “little bluestocking” nor a “moral fanatic,” and moreover drew almost all of her ideas about how to sustain Christian morality without Christian belief from reading Germans like Strauss and Feuerbach. More important, Nietzsche underrates the courage required to make even the effort to sustain moral commitment on such terms. It is Eliot’s unwavering earnestness in that effort that leads Hughes to call her “the last Victorian,” that is, the last person to believe wholly in the Victorian project of public and private virtue. Faced with the widening cracks in the social and personal foundations of her world, “George Eliot was the last Victorian who believed that it was possible to face these kinds of crises without shattering into shards.”

But while Nietzsche’s comment is unfair it is also deeply perceptive: Eliot does become ever more passionate about the moral life as her belief in anything transcendent evaporates. Yet events since Eliot’s death have revealed with excessive clarity the impossibility of sustaining Christian morality without Christian belief. Nietzsche was indeed prophetic on this score: early in his career he wrote an essay on Strauss that remains to this day an unmatched evisceration of liberal Protestantism, its easy conscience and unfounded cheerfulness.

Perhaps, though, we should not end by noting that Eliot had less foresight than Nietzsche. Would that her hopes had been better justified! And there will always remain something lovely about the earnestness with which her characters pursue their vision of goodness. One thinks of the beautiful but frivolous Gwendolen Harleth at the moment she realizes that Daniel Deronda will marry someone else:

The world seemed getting larger round poor Gwendolen, and she more solitary and helpless in the midst. . . . That was the sort of crisis which was at this moment beginning in Gwendolen’s small life: she was for the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement, for the first time being dislodged from her supremacy in her own world. . . . Here had come a shock that went deeper than personal jealousy—something spiritual and vaguely tremendous that thrust her away, and yet quelled all anger into self-humiliation.

For all in our spiritual lives that Eliot came to be blind to, she has few equals as a discerner—and a celebrator—of the small and large mutations of our moral lives. This is much to be grateful for, though the cause of that gratitude can be seen more clearly in Eliot’s novels than in the stories her biographers (competent though they be) have woven. As long as even a handful of scholars continue to find her pursuit of goodness attractive, there is hope even for the nearly blighted groves of academe.

Alan Jacobs is Professor of English at Wheaton College.