Friday, November 11, 2016

G.H. Lewes: A Life III

My reading has been further disrupted by the election, yard work and preparation for winter, but I am still making some progress in this book. When Marian Evans's father died in 1849 she began to receive a small income from his estate, and after an extended trip to the Continent she decided to become a London journalist. She had already been exposed to a wide range of intellectuals whom she had met through the family of Charles Bray, a ribbon manufacturer with many interests who lived in Coventry near her father's retirement house. In 1851, at the age of 32, she took up lodging in the house of John Chapman in London. Chapman was a radical who was good at raising money, and he was then in the process of purchasing the Westminister Review. He was a roué, living with his wife and mistress in the same building while starting an affair with a third woman, and apparently he also showed an interest in Marian, setting off a major household row. After that settled down, and having recognized Marian's talent, he called upon her to edit the Westminister Review behind the scenes, since the task was beyond his abilities. Marian was quickly thrust into the midst of London's intelligentsia, and before long Chapman introduced her to Lewes. As with many people, Lewes did not make a favorable first impression on her, and for a time she pursued a friendship with Herbert Spencer, which did not blossom into a romantic relationship as she may have hoped, chiefly, according to him, because he found her physically unattractive. He remained a bachelor for his entire life.

Lewes contributed to the Westminster Review, and over time Marian had greater exposure to him. He was becoming more interested in science at that stage and got into a major spat with Thomas Huxley, who questioned his credentials. He also managed to get into a public disagreement with Dickens over spontaneous combustion. Marian gradually became intimate with Lewes, and their official coming out as a couple occurred in August, 1854, when they traveled together to Germany, where Lewes conducted research for a biography of Goethe. By then they were living together in London, and though Lewes remained on friendly terms with Agnes he had not lived with her for some time. Strangely, his three surviving sons and Hunt's four children all considered Lewes to be their father without raising the question of why he didn't live with Agnes, whom Lewes supported financially until his death. Lewes's Life of Goethe became one of his greatest successes, in terms of both sales and the quality of his writing and research.

I should again stress how significant the obstacles were that Lewes faced, especially when you compare him to the cosseted intellectuals of today. His lack of a university degree, combined with his theatrical flair, tended to cause the better-educated, socially superior class to look down on him as a common hack journalist. With limited financial resources he had to support his estranged wife and her seven children, four of which were not his own. In order to generate sufficient income he had to write articles and books and translate works from French and German at a rate that would be considered preposterous now. And he was doing this in a highly polluted London, where he frequently became ill at a time when medicine resembled witchcraft. No wonder he only lived to the age of sixty-one.

What impresses me the most about Lewes is the nurturing role that he played in the transformation of Marian Evans into George Eliot. Ashton describes this quite well, so I'll quote her directly:

He had early on recognized her extraordinary ability to write trenchant, witty, and thoughtful criticism. From a scrap of descriptive writing she read out to him in Berlin in 1855, he thought she might be able to write novels. When he saw her wonderful comic essay 'Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming' (Westminister Review, October 1855), he knew she had genius rather than just talent. Lewes urged his diffident partner, over and over, to try her hand at fiction. In September 1856 she finally did. Sending off another fine essay to Chapman, the ebullient 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists' with its division of silly novels into such sub-species as 'the mind-and-millinery species', 'the oracular species', and 'the white neck-cloth species', she sat down on 23 September to begin 'The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton', intended as the first story in a series to be called 'Scenes of Clerical Life'.

On 6 November Lewes wrote to Blackwood about an article he proposed to write on sea-anemones to follow 'Sea-side Studies'. He also sent 'A m.s. of "Sketches of Clerical Life" which was submitted to me by a friend who desired my good offices with you'. Lewes is careful not to lead Blackwood to expect too much, but he skilfully drops references to The Vicar of Wakefield and 'Miss Austen' when describing this first of a series of tales 'illustrative of the actual life of our country clergy about a quarter of a century ago; but solely in its human and not at all in its theological aspect'. In his excellent way, Blackwood replied less than a week later: 'I am happy to say that I think your friend's reminiscences of Clerical Life will do.'

From this exchange dates the celebrated partnership of George Eliot – though she did not take this name, chosen for love of Lewes and a good, plain, English-sounding surname, until February 1857 – and Blackwood, with Lewes as indefatigable go-between.

I still haven't finished this biography and will have more to say later.

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