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George Eliot. (1819–1880). The Mill on the Floss.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

IV Criticisms and Interpretations

IV. By Frederic Harrison

AFTER all that has been written about George Eliot’s place as an artist, it may be doubted if attention has been properly directed to her one unique quality. Whatever be her rank amongst the creators of romance (and perhaps the tendency now is to place it too high rather than too low), there can be no doubt that she stands entirely apart and above all writers of fiction, at any rate in England, by her philosophic power and general mental calibre. No other English novelist has ever stood in the foremost rank of the thinkers of his time. Or to put it the other way, no English thinker of the higher quality has ever used romance as an instrument of thought. Our greatest novelists could not be named beside her off the field of novel-writing. Though some of them have been men of wide reading, and even of special learning, they had none of them pretensions to the best philosophy and science of their age. Fielding and Goldsmith, Scott and Thackeray, with all their inexhaustible fertility of mind, were never in the higher philosophy compeers of Hume, Adam Smith, Burke, and Bentham. But George Eliot, before she wrote a tale at all, in mental equipment stood side by side with Mill, Spencer, Lewes, and Carlyle. If she produced nothing in philosophy, moral or mental, quite equal to theirs, she was of their kith and kin, of the same intellectual quality. Her conception of Sociology was quite as profound as that of Mill, and in some ways keener in insight; if Lewes knew more of psychology or biology, she could teach him much in history and in morals. There are in “Silas Marner,” “Adam Bede,” and the “Spanish Gypsy,” volcanic bursts of prophetic teaching which Teufelsdröckh never surpassed. That is to say, George Eliot, who at her death left no living novelist to be mentioned beside her, was all her life in intellectual fellowship with the first philosophic minds of her day. Turn it the other way. None of our English thinkers of the first, second, or even third rank, have resorted to romance as a vehicle of thought. The only possible exceptions that occur to me are Swift, Dr. Johnson, and Miss Martineau; but “Gulliver,” “Rasselas,” and “Deerbrook” are romances only by courtesy for their authors. Abroad there have been examples of men of foremost intellectual force who have written novels. Of these one only—Goethe—has written a true novel in a vein worthy of himself. And it is to “Wilhelm Meister” that we may most aptly go for analogues to the George Eliot cycle of novels. Of course, as poet, as a secular force of European rank, Goethe himself stands apart. But in his “Wilhelm Meister” we have those meditations upon life, human nature, and society, that supreme culture, and a certain Shakespearean way of looking down upon the world as from a vantage-ground afar, which again and again recur in George Eliot and give her the unique impression of tragic mystery amongst modern novelists.

Then again Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot wrote prose fictions which may by a stretch of language be called novels. But the wit of “Candide,” the pathos of “The Religieuse,” the passion of “Héloïse” do not make up a tale fit to be placed beside “Silas Marner,” as a complete gem of art in the true field of romance. Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Goethe, Victor Hugo, Carlyle may take rank above George Eliot in the sum of the intellectual impulse they gave to their time. But none of them, unless it be the author of the “Misérables,” can be said to be her equal in the painting of real life and actual manners.

And here we may find at once the strength and the weakness of George Eliot. With a mental equipment of the first order, her principal instrument was art. And so she played a double part—as the most philosophic artist, or the most artistic philosopher in recent literature. It has been well said that there are flashes of hers which recall Pascal, Dante, Tacitus. There are certainly some which are worthy of Burke, Condorcet, or Vauvenargues. There are single passages which Bacon might have conceived, and others which Montaigne might have written. And again there are thoughts which Coleridge and De Maistre have never surpassed. One need not compare her in the sum with any of these famous thinkers. It is plain that in philosophy she has not produced work that can weight with theirs. But it is the sustained commerce with men like these, the continually recurring sense that we are in contact with a mind of their order, of the same intellectual family, which rouses in us so intense a delight in her novels that we are apt to indulge in hyperbolic language.

But the question comes in, and it must be answered, “Could she play the double part perfectly?” Did her philosophy, culture, moral earnestness, overweight her art? or was her art the complete and easy instrument for interpreting all that her brain and her soul contained? Few are now convinced that her art was always equal to so great a demand. For that reason it may be doubted whether it will ultimately take the very first rank. A few of the greatest sons of men have combined all that their age had attained with supreme creative ease. Milton, Shakespeare, Dante, and Virgil seem to use their vast intellectual power as if poetry were their mother tongue, their natural organ of thought. Alone of the moderns, Goethe wields his panoply of learning with perfect ease, bounding in his full suit of mail on to his charger like some paladin, and careering in it over the field as if it were a robe of tissue. But it is given only to the one or two of the greatest to interpret the profoundest thought, to embody the ripest knowledge, in the inimitable mystery of art.

And thus it comes about we so often feel the art of George Eliot to be short of perfect. The canvas of laborious culture is too often visible through the colouring of the picture. We find so much to think about that we crave a little rest for simple enjoyment. The chorus is very majestic; we are amazed by forked flashes of wisdom, sonorous gnomes, prophetic strains worthy of the immortal Trilogy; but the Chorus is often a little slow; and sometimes slightly senile, goody, prolix. We have come to a tragedy, we know; but we crave more business, incident, light and air.…

Let us who love the art of George Eliot abstain, if only in obedience to her teaching, from all extravagance of eulogy. Certain that she belongs to the foremost intellectual forces of our time, and seeing that she is a novelist (for neither poems nor essays express her genius truly), some are apt to decide that she stands in the very front rank of the artists of the modern world. That is surely to claim a great deal too much. Cervantes, Fielding, Scott, of course, stand immeasurably apart and above, by virtue of their wealth of imagination, their range of insight into manners, and sympathy with character of every type. Goldsmith, Defoe, Richardson, I think too Sterne and Lesage, stand again in another class by virtue of their consummate art in producing, in some more limited field, images of pathos, humour, naïveté, or vitality, worthy in their own sphere of the mightiest master’s hand.

The place of George Eliot will doubtless ultimately be found in the group where we set George Sand, Balzac, Jane Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontés. Judging her purely as artist, we can hardly hope that her ultimate popularity will quite equal theirs. That she is immeasurably superior to them all as thinker, teacher, inspirer of thought and purifier of soul will perhaps be little disputed. As facile creator of types, painter of varied character, veracious chronicler of manners, she has not their range, vivacity, irrepressible energy. In art very much must be given to mass of impression, vividness of enjoyment, fertility of creation. The inexhaustible charm of George Sand, the microscopic vivacity of Jane Austen, the pathetic oddities of Charles Dickens, the terrible Hogarthian pencil of Balzac and Thackeray were all deliberately foregone by a novelist who read so deeply, who looked on life so profoundly, and who meditated so conscientiously as George Eliot.—From a review of Cross’s “Life of George Eliot,” in the “Fortnightly Review” (March, 1885).