Selected Writings of William Sharp, Vol. IV, Literary Geography
THE COUNTRY OF GEORGE ELIOT ONE day last spring, when I was travelling in Touraine, a literary gentleman from Rennes (as I discovered later) entered the compartment of which I was the sole occupant. A few casual words led to the offer on my part of one or two new issues of Parisian literary magazines which had reached me at breakfast; and that accepted offer led in turn to a chat about certain books and writers with which and whom more than one of the magazine articles were vehemently concerned.
After a time my companion politely turned the conversation to the subject of contemporary English poetry, of which he showed a refreshingly complacent ignorance, apart from his acquaintance with Shelley and Mr. Swinburne through the free if sympathetic renderings of M. Rabbe and M. Mourey. Of "living poets he thought Keat" was the nearest in approach to the excellence of Verlaine: but "there was also beauty . . . yes, the unmistakable touch in M. Wilde and in the fine Patérson, whose death so young was a scandal to the gross materialism of the London bourgeoisie." Whether Patérson preceded or succeeded "Keat" I do not know: his name and fame, with his unmerited sufferings and shameful Britannic neglect, are alike unknown to me. I have an idea that my friend had heard of Chatterton, whose name by a mysterious Gallic alchemy had known a resurrection in France as Patérson. I am sorry to confess, however, that I had not the moral courage to admit, then and there, that I was a degree lower even than the average Britannic bourgeois, in so far as I knew nothing either of the name or fate of a bard worthy to be ranked with "Keat."
Naturally, therefore, when my Rennes friend alluded to his admiration for the "Georges Sand of England," and how "George Eliot" had also something of the quality of Balzac, I feared that a Parisian sparrow had but uttered a name on the housetops of Rennes. But no, my friend spoke of Adam Bède and Mid-le-Marche, of Félix 'Oltt and Le Moulin du Floss, of Seelas Marnèr and Romôla, as if intimate with each of these masterpieces. He did really know something of the romances of the "Grand Magicien Sir Scott," and had read several tales of Dickens in their French translation, and a version of Thackeray's Vanity Fair; and this (with his having wept over a prose rendering of In Memoriam), along with his more erudite acquaintance with "Keat" and Patérson, had apparently been his justification (alas! unsuccessful) in a recent application for a Foreign Literature lectureship at Rennes University.
With some of his views I agreed, from others I disagreed. Then I discovered that all these matured results of meditation had been culled from M. Brunetière's interesting study of the famous English novelist, and that the only Rennesesque addition was in the appellation of "the Georges Sand of England," a crudity for which M. Brunetière would not have thanked his Breton colleague. Finally, I asked my companion who were his favourite personages in these fine romances of "Madame Eliot," and to my astonishment he specified Mrs. Poyser, la Tullivère (Maggie), and . . . George Henry Lewes!
Then, to finish my bewilderment, he gave me two Poyserisms in English--one of which was (and is) as mysterious and untraceable as the premature masterpiece and early death of Patérson; while the second I at last disengaged from the maze of a weird originality of pronunication, having by a flash of insight or exacerbated memory discovered "Craig" (the gardener at Donnithorne Chase, in Adam Bede) from "Lecraygue"--and so arrived at "he's welly like a cock as thinks the sun's rose o' purpose to hear him crow."
This witticism, in an Anglo-Franco dialect, was evidently a source of pure happiness to my friend. "Ah, the English humour!" he exclaimed, chuckling.
All this comes back to me when I take up my pen to write on the country of George Eliot. And much else . . . from Charles Reade's dictum that Adam Bede is " the finest thing since Shakespeare," to Mr. Parkinson's, who says it "pulsates from opening to finish." For (the confession must be made) even the Rennes enthusiast as to Mid-le-Marche and Félix 'Oltt would in point of enthusiasm be worthier to write this article. We have all our limitations; and with genuine regret (for I find myself in an embarrassing isolation from the collective opinion of the wise and good) I have to admit my inability to become enthusiastic over the actual country of George Eliot in so far as I know it apart from its literary glamour and associations. Nor, apart from the dairy-passages and a few delightful pages in the earlier novels, am I "transported," as one critic has it, by the George Eliot country of the imagination. Of course, this is not an absolute statement. I have read (and can now read) with keen pleasure much of the descriptive parts of Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss, as, in another respect, I could at any time re-read with pleasure most of Silas Marner, and the whole of Mr. Gilfil''s Love Story. There are pages in Middlemarch which must surely appeal to every mind and every heart. But I can't honestly say much more, and, as Mark Twain suggests, it's better if one is a fool to say so and be done with it, than to leave the remark to others to make. Nothing would tempt me to read Daniel Deronda again, and, like a thundercloud above the vistas of my past, looms the memory of the weary travail through Romola! As for Theophrastus Such . . . well, if repeated perusal of it were introduced as a punishment in a revised penal code, crime among the cultured would certainly decrease.
After all, the point of divergence is not one to interest most people. Abstract points in the eternal controversy as to what is and what is not art are like the diet of John the Baptist in the wilderness delectable, till introduced to the domestic table. "Remove your locust, your wild and sugary honey, and yourself, to the wilderness," is the reception to be expected!
Fortunately, critic and readers, and all who care in any degree for the genius, the humour, the pathos, and the charm of George Eliot, can get over into her country by one bridge at which is no gate where "Art" levies toll. For the rest, I am ready to admit, as Mrs. Poyser remarked of one of her antipathies, that I "ought to be hatched over again and hatched different." As for taking the part of that wilfully perverse creature, the critic with a theory, or his kind, I am of the persuasion of Mr. Gedge, the landlord of the Royal Oak in George Eliot's most popular tale, "Ay, sir, I've said it often, and I'll say it again, they're a poor lot i' this parish--a poor lot, sir; big and little"--and Mr. Gedge, it will be remembered, hardened in his opinion with the change and chance of the unsteady planets, for when, in a dim hope of finding humanity worthy of his regard, he moved from Shepperton to the Saracen's Head in a neighbouring market town, he ceased not in iterating "A poor lot, sir, big and little; and them as comes for a go o' gin are no better than them as comes for a pint o' twopenny--a poor lot."
There are some authors in connection with whom we are more interested to know where they dreamed and thought and wrote than to learn the geography of their imaginative inhabitings and excursions. It is not so with Balzac or Zola, for example. To know where the author of the Comédie Humaine plied his unwearying pen, or where the architect of the House of Rougon Maquart sedulously cemented, day by day, an allotted section of his patient edifice, is a matter of almost no sentimental interest. It is otherwise in the instances of, say, Charlotte Brontë, Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot. One might find it rather difficult to demonstrate the point positively, or to explain the why and wherefore; but probably most of my readers will concur with me in the conclusion. In the instance of George Eliot--the personal interest is exceptionally dominant. Possibly this is because her personality, her strenuous life in the things of the mind and the spirit, the lamp of a continual excellence, win us more to the homes wherein she herself dreamed and thought and worked than to those of her imaginary personages. Perhaps, again, it is because she suffered-- "travailed in the spirit" as an old writer has it--throughout her life, and that every domicile has its memories of things endured in the spirit and weighed with sadness in the mind. Taking it in its whole course, her life was a happy one, in so far as it is possible for us to make a general estimate of what constitutes happiness; but her mind continually played the austere puritan to the very feminine nature, her intellect habitually stood by, throwing shadows across her naturally blithe and ardent temperament.
Mr. Cross has given us a pleasant sketch of the cottage home in Warwickshire, Griff House, on the Arbury estate, near the village of Chilvers Coton and the town of Nuneaton, where Mary Ann Evans, the daughter of a Staffordshire man who had begun the working years of life as a carpenter and risen to be the land-agent of a wealthy Warwickshire county family, lived till she was twenty-one. She was not, however, as sometimes stated, born here: but at South Farm, Arbury, close by--though Mr. Evans moved to Griff House while his little girl was still a baby. Here, in this quiet and rural district of the somewhat grimy coal region of Warwickshire, amid scenes and scenery which indelibly impressed themselves upon her mind, to be afterwards reproduced with a vivid and loving fidelity, Miss Evans grew to womanhood. Life, however, had become somewhat circumscribed and lacking in mental stimulus, and it was with pleasure she went with her father in the spring of 1841--shortly after she had come of age to a semi-rural house in Foleshill Road, outside Coventry. The event was of signal moment in her life, for it was now she formed a delightful acquaintanceship with Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bray of Rosehill, and Mrs. Bray's sister, Miss Sara Hennell--an acquaintanceship which was not only the chief charm and stimulus of her early years of womanhood, but deepened into a friendship of the utmost value and happiness, which lasted nearly forty years. Rosehill House and garden may still be seen in the outskirts of Coventry: the "other house," as she calls it, that from 1841 to 1849 was her "earthly paradise." It was here, apparently, that Mary Ann became "Marian"; and here that the eager intellectual life first quickened in production, and that of a kind remarkable for a young woman in the England of the 'forties--a translation of Strauss's Leben Jesu, a task followed by English renderings of philosophico- religious writings by Spinoza and Feuerbach. It was a happy and fruitful time that came to a vital change with the death of Mr. Evans in 1849. Though the Foleshill Road home was broken up, and Marian Evans went abroad to break the spell of sorrow and prolonged association, she returned to the neighbourhood of Coventry and to her beloved Warwickshire lanes and canals and flat, damp lands, and stayed with her friends the Brays till, at the age of thirty-two, she made her first definite change in life, and removed to London. The occasion was the assistant editorship of the Westminster Review, but it was the beginning of the long and brilliant career in literature whereby the obscure Warwickshire Marian Evans became the world-famous "George Eliot." It will be easy for Londoners who wish to see the early London home of this celebrated novelist, to do so; for it is no farther away than Richmond. Here, in rooms at No. 8 Park Street (close to the beautiful Park George Eliot" so often frequented and so much loved, reminiscent to her as it was of Arbury Park, and of parts of the wooded districts of Warwickshire), were written, during the years of 1855-8, not only The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton, Mr. Gilfil's Love Story, and Janet's Repentance-- collectively republished as Scenes of Clerical Life--but also the most enduring in popularity of all the great writer's books, Adam Bede.
In 1859 George Henry Lewes and George Eliot (for Marian Evans was now not only "George Eliot," but also had wedded her life to that of the brilliant and versatile man of letters to whom personally she owed so much, but also through whose influence her art was so often to know the blight of an essentially uncreative and unimaginative mind) moved to Wandsworth, where, at a house called Holly Lodge, in Wimbledon Park Road, they lived from February 1858 till March 1860, and where perhaps the most beautiful of all George Eliot's books was written, The Mill on the Floss. The next change was to the well-known home at The Priory, North Bank, St. John's Wood, where from November 1863 till after the death of G. H. Lewes and till shortly before her marriage early in 1880 with Mr. J. W. Cross, George Eliot had her London residence. Here she wrote some of her most discussed books--Felix Holt, Middlemarch, and that brave and fine effort in dramatic poetry of one who was neither a dramatist nor a poet, The Spanish Gypsy. Far and away the best portrait of the famous novelist in her prime is that made in 1865 by Sir Frederick Burton, now in the National Portrait Gallery; and friends who knew her well during her last years at The Priory have assured me that the likeness was as admirable then as when it was made. From 1876 till the year of her death George Eliot had also a delightful summer home near Godalming, in Surrey--The Heights, Witley; and here she passed some of her happiest days in late life, though even here not without a longing for the less interesting or beautiful, but more intimate, scenery of "her own country," Warwickshire, North Stafford, and the southlands of Derby. It was neither in her own land, nor at The Heights, nor The Priory that, on December 22, 1880, the great writer died, but at No. 4 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, a few doors from where Rossetti still dreamed and wrote and painted, a few minutes' walk from where Carlyle still worked and brooded.
The country of George Eliot should, in a sense, be called the Four Counties. Of these, Warwickshire and North Staffordshire bulk the largest, in the map of our Imaginative Geography. Derbyshire leans against them from the north; to the east are the winds and floods of Lincolnshire. Conveniently this country may be said to extend from Gainsborough--that old town on the Trent so familiar to readers of The Mill on the Floss as St. Oggs--to Coventry and Nuneaton. In all her years spent in or near London (with her brief residings abroad), George Eliot was never in mind and spirit long away from this country of her early life, love, and imaginative and sympathetic intimacy. She lived a dual mental life: intellectually with the remote and austere minds of the past; reminiscently and recreatively with the people, episodes, and scenery of her beloved "Shepperton" (Chilvers Coton) and "Hayslope" (Ellaston), her ever affectionately regarded "Snowfield" (Wirksworth), "Milby" (Nuneaton), and "St. Oggs" (Gainsborough)--for the most part now dull and uninteresting tracts and localities of the shires of Stafford and Warwick and Lincoln, transferred henceforth by her genius to the more vivid and fascinating "Midlands map" of the Atlas of the Countries of the Imagination. It is rarely we come upon any revelation of "Mrs. Lewes" or "Mrs. Cross" in the domestic capacity of lady of the household--as when she writes to her friend Mrs. Congreve, shortly after settlement at The Priory in St. John's Wood, that she is occupied with no "imaginative work, but is renewing" a mind made up of old carpets fitted in new places, and new carpets suffering from accidents; chairs, tables, and pieces, muslin curtains, and down-draughts in cold places--and this although, "before we began to move, I was swimming in Comte and Euripides and Latin Christianity."
Whatever may have been the drift of opinion in the middle epoch of the nineteenth century, it is probably the all but general opinion to-day that the George Eliot of literature is the George Eliot who is "swimming" in memories of the people and episodes and places known so intimately in her early life and ever recalled so vividly, and not the George Eliot who "swam" with "Comte and Euripides and Latin Christianity," or the abstract thinkers and philosophies for which the phrase may stand as a collective analogue.
Frankly, of what worth are all the stately but unvivified pages of Romola, or the long and wearying digressions in Daniel Deronda, or the meandering and inconclusive speculations of Theophrastus Such, in comparison with the rich human interest and loving and exquisite familiarity of books of a lived actuality such as Adam Bede and Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss. Do we not recall the dairies of Donnithorne Hall Farm (and their presiding genius, Mrs. Poyser--in the roll-call of George Eliot's personages as outstanding a figure as Mr. Micawber or Sam Weller in the roll-call of Dickens's personages, as Baillie Nicol Jarvie in that of Scott's, or Becky Sharp in that of Thackeray's, or Handy Andy in that of Lover's) with far keener pleasure, alike in imaginative realisation and in the sense of perfected and satisfying art, than even the keenest pages of what in its day was considered the masterly philosophic thought of Middlemarch, the perturbing sociological questionings in Felix Holt, or the dignified intellectual display of erudition in Daniel Deronda and Romola? Nor do I think that this change in standpoint is due solely to that contemporary intellectual deterioration in ideals and mental powers of which we hear so much. In some measure, at least, I take it, it is due to an ever developing sense of the true scope and true beauty and true limitations of literature, not as a pastime adaptable to every range of feebleness and capacity, but as an art, an art requiring as scrupulous observance on the part of the jealous reader as on that of the ambitious writer. Let us remember our friend Mr. Gedge, the landlord, and not get into the habit of dismissing our contemporaries "as a poor lot, sir, big and little--a poor lot!"
If one were to take a census as to the literary capital of "George Eliot's Country," it would probably result in the election either of Chilvers Coton, near Nuneaton (the "Shepperton" of the early stories, and the novelist's home till she was of age), or, and the more likely, of Ellaston, the "Hayslope" of Adam Bede. Many years ago the present writer edited a popular periodical for young readers; and on one occasion in the literary page, the question was editorially proclaimed: "Who are the two most famous persons in George Eliot's novels, and what are the two best known localities?" The answers were (for competitions of the kind) exceptionally personal, and by far the greater number declared, on the first count, for Mrs. Poyser and Maggie Tulliver (the latter run close by poor Hetty, by Dinah Morris, and by Adam Bede); and, on the second, for Donnithorne Hall Farm (Hayslope), and "Red Deeps," where Maggie Tulliver used to meet her lover Philip Wakem (though this choice was perhaps due in considerable part to a then recent article in the same periodical on the Griff Hollow of fact and fiction, apropos of Maggie's pathetic story).
And probably this verdict would be returned from any like consensus to-day. It is difficult to imagine any heroine in George Eliot's novels and tales usurping the place of Maggie Tulliver: it is impossible to think of Mrs. Poyser being dethroned from her pre-eminence.
One great charm of George Eliot's Country is that it is real country, loved and understood for itself as well as being the background of the humours and sorrows and joys of human life, loved for its own intimate charm as well for its real and imaginary dramatic associations. There is nothing of more winsome charm in George Eliot's writings than her description of this very real and intimate country of her love and knowledge. True, these are remembered more as one remembers last spring in Devon, or summer in Surrey, or autumn in Wales or the Highlands: as the sum of many lovely arid delightful things, days, and hours. There are few descriptive passages for memory to isolate and recall, for George Eliot had littlepPreoccupation with words for the sake of their own beauty--an artistic lack more obvious, naturally, in her verse than in her prose.* But (perhaps in The Mill on the Floss especially) it would be easy to find many winsome collocations, delightful in themselves apart from the interest or charm of context. Turn to The Mill, and chance perhaps upon:
"The rush of the water, and the booming of the mill, bring a dreamy deafness, which seems to heighten the peacefulness of the scene. They are like a great curtain of sound, shutting one out from the world beyond."
"Maggie could sit in a grassy hollow under the shadow of a branching ash, stooping aslant from the steep above her, and listen to the hum of insects, like tiniest bells on the garment of Silence, or see the sunlight piercing the distant boughs, as if to chase and drive home the truant heavenly blue of the wild hyacinths."
But in all the George Eliot Country of fact there is no locality so fascinating as that immortalised (in Adam Bede) as Hayslope and its neighbourhood. The seeker will easily find it, under its actual name of Ellaston, whether in a map or if he be afoot or acycle in the Midlands on a George Eliot pilgrimage, by looking for the curving stream of the Dove where it divides Loamshire and Stonyshire (as the novelist calls Staffordshire and Derbyshire), near Norbury railway station. Our one quotation from Adam Bede (whence one could delve so many beautiful passages and pages) must be of this Hayslope vicinage:
". . . From his station near the Green he had before him in one view nearly all the other typical features of this pleasant land. High up against the horizon were the huge conical hills, like giant mounds intended to fortify this region of corn and grass against the keen and hungry winds of the north; not distant enough to be clothed in purple mystery, but with sombre greenish sides visibly specked with sheep, whose motion was only revealed by memory, not detected by sight ; wooed from day to day by the changing hours, but responding by no change in themselves--left for ever grim and sullen after the flush of morning, the winged gleams of the April noonday, the parting crimson glory of the ripening summer sun. And directly below him the eye rested on a more advanced line of hanging woods, divided by bright patches of pasture or furrowed crops, and not yet deepened into the uniform leafy curtains of high summer, but still showing the warm tints of the young oak and the tender green of the ash or lime. Then came the valley, where the woods grew thicker, as if they had rolled down and hurried together from the patches left smooth on the slope, that they might take the better care of the tall mansion which lifted its parapets and sent its faint blue summer smoke among them."
Here we have not only typical English scenery of the North Midlands--with heights and uplands, wood and valley, the oak or beech surrounded manor-house . . . and beyond it the hamlet of Hayslope and the grey square tower of the old church--but are in the heart of the country of George Eliot. If, to-day, much of the pastoral quiet of Hayslope, much of the green loveliness of the regions now so intimately associated with Adam Bede and poor Hetty and Mrs. Poyser, with Amos Barton and Silas Marner, with Mr. Gilfil and Maggie Tulliver, exist only in the pages of a great writer, and seem dull and commonplace, fretted by the smoke of mines and the passage of coal-trains and the encroachment of the plague of bricks and stucco, the fault does not lie with George Eliot. We have the land as it is she limned for us the country as it was.