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The sage of unbelief: George Eliot and unorthodox choices.

TODAY IT APPEARS that we live in a world where many of our ideals seem lost and forgotten and a disturbing indifference has settled in. A number of people suffer from either knee-jerk conformity or ironic detachment. As a result we may have at last come to a time when we need reminders that our hard-won personal beliefs are worth rescuing. One way is to return to the lives and work of notable others who have wrestled with many of the same problems and asked some of the same questions.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Marian Evans Lewes, also known as George Eliot, was considered a fallen woman--"not a prostitute exactly" writes Kathyrn Hughes in George Eliot: The Last Victorian, "but a woman who had become sexually intimate with a man who could not or would not marry her. Cast out from society, her only way of living was quietly and anonymously." Evans was thereby unconventional, ostracized, and guilty of making unorthodox choices.

Ironically though, in later years she became one of England's greatest novelists, a moralist and a secular saint of iconic status. One of the philosophical beliefs that brought her to a kind of sainthood was her answer to that basic question "How shall we live now?" that emerged after her young stepson, Thornie, died a horrible death at home. Her response was that she couldn't take refuge in the "easy consolations of orthodox faith" writes Hughes, and instead felt one should "nourish fellow feeling towards the men and women you encounter every day." Later it was Evans' combination of intellectual understanding and warm empathy that drew hundreds of people to her home with their religious difficulties and their troubled souls. They had come to believe that she held the secret of how to live a good life. Thus she was known as the "Sage of Unbelief."

In sum, she left the Church of England in favor of agnosticism, went against the marriage canon, and developed a unique way of living, calling it "Meliorism," stemming from the word ameliorate. All told, she went counter to custom and society's rules and regulations and in so doing became one of her nation's greatest novelists of the time, elevated to "the rank of the Immortals."

To understand how this all came about one has to go back to Evans' youth on a large estate in Warwickshire, where her father worked as the foreman (thus her roots in a country ambiance). She was sent off to a private school where she came under the teaching influence of Maria Lewis, a follower of evangelicalism, a brand of Anglicanism and a wing of the Church of England. Its fundamentalist fervor appealed to the teenage Evans, as she devoted herself to the constant diet of prayer, Bible study, and self-scrutiny. However, when her father fell ill, she came home to tend him and began to read extensively from many sources. She eventually enjoyed a great self-education.

Part of that education included a book written by Charles Hennell, the brother of Cara Bray, a close friend who lived near Evans and her father in Coventry, where they had moved from nearby Warwickshire. Cara and her husband Charles Bray were Unitarians, members of the most tolerant, rational, and forward-thinking of the many Protestant sects of the time. To them, Jesus was a great teacher and philosopher but not the son of God, and they felt the individual's duty was to question every new piece of information, a view which in turn greatly influenced Evans. Hennell had written An Inquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity, which separated the known historical facts about Jesus from the later myths and fantasies, claiming that "Everything that happened to him was explicable within 'the known laws of nature.'" Thus, having read Hennell's book, she began questioning her evangelical faith.

In the mid-1850s, Marian Evans, as she called herself upon reaching adulthood (rather than her given name of Mary Ann), translated into English the work of Auguste Comte, the French father of sociology, Benedict Spinoza's Ethics, and the German work of Ludwig Feuerbach's The Es sence of Christianity. In Ethics Spinoza stressed the need for people "to turn selfishness to social account by means of sympathetic action towards others ... with whom they have a natural fellow feeling" and that "the modern state has the responsibility of looking after the common man, and the common man has the responsibility of looking after himself." Feuerbach focused on the social and moral aspects of human relations rather than on Christian beliefs. In Evans' subsequent novels she wrote of the "divine fellowship" between human beings "rather than between man and God." She recognized that binding people together offered a greater value to their existence.

On January 2, 1842, Evans formally renounced orthodox Christianity by refusing to attend church with her father. He responded in "a cold and sullen rage" since this represented a social disgrace in the community. She was, in a sense, "condemning herself to spinsterhood" notes Hughes. Rejecting both her father and the Heavenly Father, Evans rebelled against the notion that a woman must attend church in order to get married and thus relieve her father of future support. She called this "the holy war" period of her life.

After running away to Geneva, Switzerland, with the Brays and spending some time wandering by herself, she returned to England where she began to work in London for John Chapman, a publishing friend of the Brays. She and Chapman became lovers for a while even though she lived in the boarding house run by his wife. But Chapman owned the prestigious literary magazine, Westminster Review, and Evans became its editor. Through the Review, Evans met exciting and laudable writers like Charles Dickens and intellectuals such as Herbert Spencer, the leader of the new discipline of sociology. Though Evans and Spencer's interest in each other developed into a long friendship (Spencer rejected marriage partly because of her plain, mannish looks), he introduced her to his friend, George W. Lewes, a journalist and editor of The Leader, another literary publication. And so began her serious love affair with Lewes, but the problem, of course, was that Lewes was married with five children. Divorce was impossible. So Evans and Lewes ran off together in the summer of 1854 to Germany where Lewes was to write a biography of Goethe (which became a noteworthy success). They returned as "Mr. and Mrs. Lewes" and, as a "married" couple, rented a house in London far enough from the center of things. Evans soon discovered the price she would have to pay as a "fallen woman:" she was shunned by her former friends including the Brays, London literary wives, and ladies of the upper class. Lewes was allowed to socialize but not Evans. As it turned out, she and Lewes lived happily together for twenty-two years until his death in 1876. It was well known that Lewes had been instrumental in encouraging Evans to write her classic novels and in emotionally supporting her through hard times.

Returning to the philosopher Feuerbach, he "included sexual love in his definition of the sacred. What mattered was not the legal forms which contained that love, but the quality of the attachment" clearly a theological justification for Evans' decision to live in an unmarried state with Lewes. Early on, when Adam Bede was about to be published, she decided on the pseudonym of "George Eliot" by using her husband's first name, while the second was chosen because it sounded good with the first. She chose a nom de plume because she was fearful that her novels would be judged on the basis of who she was, "the fallen woman," rather than on the work itself.

By the 1860s, after her great successes, Marian Evans Lewes as George Eliot attained literary status, thus opening the way for single women and wives to come and visit her. "As Marian's celebrity grew it was not snubbing but mobbing which posed the greater threat" says Hughes. "Clergymen were known to quote George Eliot from the pulpit, while Queen Victoria said how much she admired [her] novels."

All these evolving influences, including Spinoza's dictum to give up "the fantasy of a Divine presence" and focus on caring for others, crystallized into Evans' personal beliefs, which in turn found their way into her novels.

Writing fiction was, for her, an activity that concerned morality, more like producing philosophy than telling stories, widening our sympathies, creating narratives that were socially and morally useful. Eliot also believed that individuals and characters should strive "to improve according to a humanist ethic"

In her first novel, Adam Bede, the peasants' lives are depicted in genuine and honest ways. One of the lessons Adam Bede learns is to stay with his beloved even under the worst of circumstances. The young and beautiful Hetty Sorrel, Bede's fiancee, is bored with the coarseness of the peasant life around her and strives to marry the rich landowner. Evans herself had felt the same way, but as a mature novelist she realized that the old country rituals actually represented "ties which for centuries had bound men and women together in mutual obligation."

In The Mill on the Floss, Maggie ends up cruelly ostracized for living with a married man as Eliot had, and the author shows how society is quick to condemn behavior that is not understood. Dorothea, in Middlemarch, like young Mary Ann, is concerned over serious religious issues while her flighty girlfriends are not: "To Dorothea, the destinies of mankind ... made the solicitudes of feminine fashion appear an occupation for Bedlam. She could not reconcile the anxieties of a spiritual life ... with a keen interest in 'guimp' and artificial protrusions of drapery." In Felix Holt, the Radical, which Rosemary Ashton, author of George Eliot: A Life, calls a "somber piece of secular preaching," the hero gives an address to the working men, lecturing the new voters on their "heavy responsibility" the sanctity of work done well, the "dependence of men on each other" and, in Ashton's words, "the organic, slow growing nature of society and culture."

In Daniel Deronda (her last published novel), Evans took on a very serious subject--"the thoughtless but insidious anti-Semitism she had observed" In a letter to American Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1876, she expressed her anger over the way English upper classes talked about the Jewish people in her country: "Can anything be more disgusting than to hear people called 'educated' making small jokes about ... the people they think themselves witty in insulting? ... The best that can be said of it is, that it is a sign of the intellectual narrowness--in plain English, the stupidity, which is still the average mark of our culture."

In due course, our hero Deronda is torn between his love for two women--Gwendolyn, a haughty, vain, contemptuous but beautiful girl who will only come down off her high horse when threatened by the odious prospect of having q to work as a governess, and Mirah, a poor I young Jew who is res cued from drowning by Deronda. He not only comes to her aid but subsequently becomes drawn to Judaic rituals and religious teachings. Morality is at issue here as Gwendolyn becomes confused by her attraction to Deronda and his sensitive, moral integrity while Mirah becomes a model of ancient ideals as she undauntedly attempts to find her lost mother and brother. At one point, Deronda counsels Gwnedolyn by saying, "The refuge you are needing from personal trouble is the higher, the religious life, which holds an enthusiasm for something more than our own appetites and vanities" Clearly Evans was stimulated by these moral challenges as she presented them to her readers.

By writing intensely about her characters' inner lives, her readers in turn felt that they knew her and she knew them. She helped them grapple with problems "that beset thoughtful Victorians, balancing the rights of the individual with the needs of others," and guided them to lead moral lives. In fact, "her insightful psychological novels paved the way to modern character portrayals," comments Hughes. Evans believed that fiction could offer the best teaching of these beliefs "because it deals with life in its highest complexity."

On balance however, it would be inaccurate to think of Evans as a consistently saintly person. Like other human beings she had her contradictions and perhaps even hypocrisies. Individualism was a principle she certainly lived by, yet her fictional heroines were usually forced to accept quiet, dependent lives. In Middlemarch, Dorothea is encouraged to support her husband in his worthwhile work while she cares for the children. Another example of Evans' inconsistencies was her view about wealth. Her characters come from the middle and peasant classes and some, like Mrs. Cadwallader in Middlemarch, openly denegrate the rich. But when Evans started earning a lot of money, she and Lewes turned over their financial business to a friend from America, John Cross, a banker whose investments in canal, railway, and gas companies in Britain and America made the Leweses secure for the rest of their lives. Before, Evans had seen the railroad as an unhappy sign of progress, ruining the quiet country landscape of her youth. In addition, she began to enjoy expensive clothes, furs, hats "always in the height of the Paris fashion," and a custom-made landau, the equivalent of a Rolls Royce.

When Lewes died in 1878, Evans couldn't leave her room even to attend his funeral. But by 1880 she was ready to marry John Cross, twenty years her junior, who had had to propose three times. They were married at an Anglican Church, which some thought hypocrisy on the part of an agnostic. Eliot died in December of 1880, only seven months after their marriage. She was buried in Highgate Cemetery near George Lewes, and a hundred years later a memorial stone was erected in her honor in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner.

Today she seems to have more and more to tell us about orthodoxy and un-orthodoxy, dictatorial authority and virtuous authority. Perhaps it is time, like Evans, to make unorthodox choices based on a moral philosophy, one that cares about our fellow women and men at home and around the world. Perhaps it is time to return to these classics and this extraordinary woman writer to learn again that we need to make our own choices, orthodox or not, based on beliefs we create or incorporate. Evans is certainly an example of living paradoxically--as an agnostic and a moralist-encouraging us to go back to our roots and decide what is important and worth living for.

Susan Frome is an essayist and also a features writer and film reviewer for the arts magazine The Country and Abroad published in New York State, the Berkshires, and Connecticut's Litchfield County. Her latest essay on Henry David Thoreau was recently published in periodicals in the U.S. and the U.K.
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Author:Frome, Susan
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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