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The Letters of George Henry Lewes, 2 vols.

'I am delighted with what you write about my husband's books. Imagine a man as objectively absorbed as it is possible to be in the work he is doing for its own sake, quite free from oblique glances at minor results, knowing nothing of jealousy, and open as day to sympathy in the work of others: you have then imagined my husband', wrote George Eliot in 1875 (Letters, ed. Haight, VI, 109). Until Rosemary Ashton's George Henry Lewes: A Life (1991), comparatively little had been researched about the remarkable man whose sympathetic and discerning criticism had stimulated George Eliot to produce her finest writing, though critics from Basil Willey (Nineteenth Century Studies) to Gillian Beer (Darwin's Plots) had recognized his influence in Eliot's fascination with contemporary scientific thought and philosophical debate, in particular with the findings of Lyell, Spencer, T. H. Huxley, Tyndall, and Darwin and with controversial doctrines such as those of Auguste Comte, Strauss, and Feuerbach. Equally readers of George Eliot's letters in the nine-volume Yale edition edited by Gordon S. Haight (1954-78) had been familiar with the selection of Lewes's correspondence offered there, but this of course dates after 1853, the year in which his relationship with George Eliot probably began and which lasted for twenty-four years, ending only with his death in 1878. As the editor of the volumes under review here notes, however, some of that correspondence was incorrectly transcribed by Haight or taken from earlier, inaccurate published versions such as the extracts from Arthur Paterson's George Eliot's Family Life and Letters (1928).

The present collection, containing nearly five hundred letters, is intended not only as a correction of and companion to Haight's monumental work but also as a valuable supplement to Ashton's biography of Lewes. It spans Lewes's correspondence between 1834 and 1878, from the early years as a young journalist to his achievement as a Victorian man of letters whose scholarly publications ranged from the scientific and intellectual interests expressed in Comte's Philosophy of the Sciences, The Physiology of Common Life, History of Philosophy, Problems of Life and Mind, to works chronicling his lifelong interest in drama and literature, culminating in the highly accomplished and successful Life of Goethe. Similarly the list of his correspondents includes many of the most distinguished thinkers and eminent figures of the period: J. S. Mill, Varnheger von Ense, Napier, Comte; Bulwer Lytton, Dickens, Trollope, the publishers Blackwood and George Smith, and many others. But the letters reveal much more than the intellectual and the man of business who nourished George Eliot's genius. 'my private critic' as she called him (Letters, III, 41). In this correspondence we also find Lewes the family man, the devoted husband and father, the best of travelling companions; the correspondence reveals not only intimate details of the private lives of these two highly individual writers but also offers us insights into the domestic life of Victorian England.

William Baker's selection of Lewes's letters is scrupulously edited and impeccably researched, presented in a scholarly and readable format with useful biographical material prefacing each of the ten sections and supplemented with full and accurate notes. It amply fulfils the aims set out in the editor's preface to illuminate the intellectual quality and achievement of Lewes's life in association with that of George Eliot and to bring the reader to a greater understanding of Victorian life and letters.

MARA KALNINS Corpus Christi, Cambridge
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Author:Kalnins, Mara
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1996
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