Wednesday, November 16, 2016

G.H. Lewes: A Life IV

After its serialization in Blackwood's Magazine in 1857, Scenes of Clerical Life was published as a book in 1858 and was well-received by the public. This was followed by the novel Adam Bede in 1859, which was extremely popular and immediately placed George Eliot in the ranks of the best living English novelists. Marian continued to write fiction for the remaining twenty-one years of her life, becoming increasingly famous. Soon she and Lewes were prosperous enough to afford a house, and their standard of living improved dramatically. Initially Marian was ostracized socially because of their living arrangement, and even friends from Coventry and family members broke off contact with her. Women would not call at their house, and only Lewes was invited to the homes of others on social occasions. As her fame increased, Marian achieved social acceptance and visitors of both sexes attended gatherings at their house. She and Lewes got into the habit of leaving on trips to the Continent as soon as she had finished each book. Their unmarried state never caused any concerns in Germany, Lewes was very well liked there because of his biography of Goethe, and German higher education suited his method of learning, since he could attend lectures and obtain specimens without being a matriculated student, which facilitated his studies, including the dissection and microscopic examination of animals.

Lewes moved away from literature but continued to write books: Sea-Side Studies, The Physiology of Common LifeStudies in Animal Life, Aristotle, A Chapter from the History of ScienceProblems of Life and Mind, The Foundations of a Creed and several revised editions of his History of Philosophy. He became more prominent as a journalist and served as the editor at Cornhill Magazine and The Fortnightly Review, which were leading journals. As a scientific writer he contributed to early editions of Nature, and as a philosopher he contributed to early editions of Mind. Although he never became quite as influential a thinker as he may have liked, he was an ardent supporter of Darwin, which put him in better graces with Huxley. Even the shy Darwin read his articles with interest and visited him once at his house. He remained at the center of London intellectual life and was probably well-acquainted with anyone you could think of from that period, but he never escaped the perception of him as a journalist and a popularizer. Ashton doesn't say so, but my feeling is that he had adopted the model of a Renaissance man from Goethe just as it was becoming untenable. He was a reasonably good writer and thinker and a perceptive critic at a time when specialization was taking over academia and research. While his range of interests and curiosity seem remarkable today, no one tries to do what he did anymore, and a sensible person like Lewes would now restrict his vocation to journalism in the absence of advanced training in a scientific field. A slightly dilettantish man like Lewes stood little chance of matching the feats either of Charles Darwin or of George Eliot, and to try both, as he did, seems absurd, especially when you consider how kind and egoless he was and how his personal responsibilities and lack of financial resources curtailed his opportunities.

Despite his professional success and Marian's rise as a major author, family problems continued to plague Lewes. When his three biological sons were old enough he sent them to a private school in Switzerland, where they were poor students, and Thornton, the middle son, was particularly rambunctious. For lack of a better idea, Thornton, nicknamed Thornie, and the youngest, Herbert, nicknamed Bertie, moved to Natal, which was then a British colony in what is now South Africa, with the aim of becoming farmers. In 1869 Thornie became very ill and returned to England, where he never recovered and died of spinal tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five. As it happened, Henry James, then a young writer, was paying a visit to George Eliot during one of Thornie's worst episodes. Bertie married in Natal but also became ill and died from bronchitis there in 1875 at the age of twenty-nine. The eldest son, Charles, lived briefly with his father and Marian in London and got a job with the post office; he married in 1865. Ironically, Agnes, the source of many of Lewes's woes, outlived everyone, including Charles; she had been disinherited by her father but nevertheless managed to survive until 1902.

One of my interests in reading this book was to examine how Lewes's outlook influenced George Eliot's. He makes his preference of realism clear in the following statement, which comes from the article "Realism in Art: Recent German Fiction," which was published in 1858:

Realism is thus the basis of all Art, and its antithesis is not Idealism, but Falsism. When our painters represent peasants with regular features and irreproachable linen; when their milkmaids have the air of Keepsake beauties, whose costume is picturesque, and never old or dirty; when Hodge is made to speak fine sentiments in unexceptionable English, and the children utter long speeches of religious and poetic enthusiasm; when the conversation of the parlour and drawing-room is a succession of philosophical remarks, expressed with great clearness and logic, an attempt is made to idealize, but the result is simply falsification and bad art....Either give us true peasants, or leave them untouched; either paint no drapery at all, or paint it with utmost fidelity; either keep your people silent, or make them speak the idiom of their class.

Citing one of Lewes's reviews, Ashton sums up his aesthetics as follows:

Lewes was clear-sighted about his criteria; he was living with a woman who was at that very moment fulfilling his prescriptions for 'true psychology in a novel', namely that it should consist in 'the presentation of the actual emotions, motives, and thoughts at work in the action of the drama'. This was the gift he recognized in Marian, as he had recognized it in Jane Austen, and, partially, in Charlotte Bronte and Mrs Gaskell.

It was exactly this kind of realism that astounded me when I read Middlemarch, and though her writing may seem dated in other respects, George Eliot's realism has, in my opinion, never been surpassed by any writer. Although I am capable of enjoying different kinds of fiction, I find realism to be the most effective and important, and the dearth of it in contemporary fiction signals commercialization and a lack of real insight in today's writers, both popular and literary.

I also chose to read this book in order to make a comparison with Jean-Paul Sartre's relationship with Simone de Beauvoir. At the most fundamental level there are strong similarities. Both couples shared very close worldviews, loved each other and supported each other's work. However, the worldviews of the couples were dissimilar and the personalities and dynamics within the relationships were not the same. Sartre/de Beauvoir were primarily anti-bourgeois when in fact they never escaped the class that they supposedly disliked. Neither of them was a good social observer, and their curiosity seems to have been badly stunted, leading to narrow ideological thinking. Most of de Beauvoir's writing seems to be a transcription from her journals and diaries, and a lack of imagination and an inability to understand people who were not like herself left her with very little material with which to work. Thus her most lasting influence will be in feminism, because her early discontent as a woman is what fueled her entire career. The missing ingredient, I think, is life experience. Although they were not materialistic, their lack of money did not cause them real hardship, because they had no children and no responsibilities. They were able to fashion a lifestyle based on immature sentiments that were never put to the test. Sartre used his money to support as many mistresses as he could afford, and de Beauvoir engaged in adventurism in search of material for her books. With what I've read so far, I find de Beauvoir quite disappointing. All of the education, discussion and collaboration in the world couldn't make either Sartre or de Beauvoir great writers.

In comparison, G.H. Lewes and George Eliot seem vastly more likable, interesting and accomplished. It is unfortunate that Lewes never wrote a magnum opus and is hardly remembered today, but it is a significant achievement to have brought to the world a great voice that would likely have remained silent without him.

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