George Eliot is the greatest of the novelists in the delineation of feeling and the analysis of motives. In “uncovering certain human lots, and seeing how they are woven and interwoven,” some marvellous work has been done by this master in the two arts of rhetoric and fiction.
If you say the telling of a story is her forte, you put her below Wilkie Collins or Mrs. Oliphant; if you say her object is to give a picture of English society, she is surpassed by Bulwer and Trollope; if she be called a satirist of society, Thackeray is her superior; if she intends to illustrate the absurdity of behavior, she is eclipsed by Dickens; but if the analysis of human motives be her forte and art, she stands first, and it is very doubtful whether any artist in fiction is entitled to stand second. She reaches clear in and touches the most secret and the most delicate spring of human action. She has done this so well, so apart from the doing of everything else, and so, in spite of doing some other things indifferently, that she works on a line quite her own, and quite alone, as a creative artist in fiction. Others have done this incidentally and occasionally, as Charlotte Brontë and Walter Scott, but George Eliot does it elaborately, with laborious painstaking, with purpose aforethought. Scott said of Richardson: “In his survey of the heart he left neither head, bay, nor inlet behind him until he had traced its soundings, and laid it down in his chart with all its minute sinuosities, its depths and its shallows.”
This is too much to say of Richardson, but it is not too much to say of George Eliot. She has sounded depths and explored sinuosities of the human heart which were utterly unknown to the author of “Clarissa Harlowe.” It is like looking into the translucent brook — you see the wriggling tad, the darting minnow, the leisurely trout, the motionless pike, while in the bays and inlets you see the infusoria and animalculæ as well.
George Eliot belongs to and is the greatest of the school of artists in fiction who write fiction as a means to an end, instead of as an end. And, while she certainly is not a story-teller of the first order, considered simply as a story-teller, her novels are a striking illustration of the power of fiction as a means to an end. They remind us, as few other stories do, of the fact that however inferior the story may be considered simply as a story, it is indispensable to the delineation of character. No other form of composition, no discourse, or essay, or series of independent sketches, however successful, could succeed in bringing out character equal to the novel. Herein is at once the justification of the power of fiction. “He spake a parable,” with an “end” in view which could not be so expeditiously attained by any other form of address.
A story of the first-class, with the story as end in itself, and a story of the first class told as a means to an end, has never been, and it is not likely ever will be, found together. The novel with a purpose is fatal to the novel written simply to excite by a plot, or divert by pictures of scenery, or entertain as a mere panorama of social life. So intense is George Eliot’s desire to dissect the human heart and discover its motives, that plot, diction, situations, and even consistency in the vocabulary of the characters, are all made subservient to it. With her it is not so much that the characters do thus and so, but why they do thus and so. Dickens portrays the behavior, George Eliot dissects the motive of the behavior. Here comes the human creature, says Dickens, now let us see how he will behave. Here comes the human creature, says George Eliot, now let us see why he behaves.
“Suppose,” she says, “suppose we turn from outside estimates of a man, to wonder with keener interest what is the report of his own consciousness about his doings, with what hindrances he is carrying on his daily labors, and with what spirit he wrestles against universal pressure, which may one day be too heavy for him and bring his heart to a final pause.” The outside estimate is the work of Dickens and Thackeray, the inside estimate is the work of George Eliot.
Observe in the opening pages of the great novel of “Middlemarch” how soon we pass from the outside dress to the inside reasons for it, from the costume to the motives which control it and color it. It was “only to close observers that Celia’s dress differed from her sister’s,” and had “a shade of coquetry in its arrangements.” Dorothea’s “plain dressing was due to mixed conditions, in most of which her sister shared.” They were both influenced by “the pride of being ladies,” of belonging to a stock not exactly aristocratic, but unquestionably “good.” The very quotation of the word good is significant and suggestive. There were “no parcel-tying forefathers” in the Brooke pedigree. A Puritan forefather, “who served under Cromwell, but afterward conformed and managed to come out of all political troubles as the proprietor of a respectable family estate,” had a hand in Dorothea’s “plain” wardrobe. “She could not reconcile the anxieties of a spiritual life involving eternal consequences with a keen interest in gimp and artificial protrusions of drapery,” but Celia “had that common-sense which is able to accept momentous doctrines without any eccentric agitation.” Both were examples of “reversion.” Then, as an instance of heredity working itself out in character “in Mr. Brooke, the hereditary strain of Puritan energy was clearly in abeyance, but in his niece Dorothea it glowed alike through faults and virtues.”
Could anything be more natural than for a woman with this passion for, and skill in, “unravelling certain human lots,” to lay herself out upon the human lot of woman, with all her “passionate patience of genius?” One would say this was inevitable. And, for a delineation of what that lot of woman really is, as made for her, there is nothing in all literature equal to what we find in “Middlemarch,” “Romola,” “Daniel Deronda,” and “Janet’s Repentance.” “She was a woman, and could not make her own lot.” Never before, indeed, was so much got out of the word “lot.” Never was that little word so hard worked, or well worked. “We women,” says Gwendolen Harleth, “must stay where we grow, or where the gardeners like to transplant us. We are brought up like the flowers, to look as pretty as we can, and be dull without complaining. That is my notion about the plants, and that is the reason why some of them have got poisonous.” To appreciate the work that George Eliot has done you must read her with the determination of finding out the reason why Gwendolen Harleth “became poisonous,” and Dorothea, with all her brains and “plans,” a failure; why “the many Theresas find for themselves no epic life, only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity.” You must search these marvellous studies in motives for the key to the blunders of “the blundering lives” of woman which “some have felt are due to the inconvenient indefiniteness with which the Supreme power has fashioned the natures of women.” But as there is not “one level of feminine incompetence as strict as the ability to count three and no more, the social lot of woman cannot be treated with scientific certitude.” It is treated with a dissective delineation in the women of George Eliot unequalled in the pages of fiction.
And then woman’s lot, as respects her “social promotion” in matrimony, so much sought, and so necessary for her to seek, even in spite of her conscience, and at the expense of her happiness — the unravelling of that lot would also come very natural to this expert unraveller. And never have we had the causes of woman’s “blunders” in match-making, and man’s blunders in love-making, told with such analytic acumen, or with such pathetic and sarcastic eloquence. It is not far from the question of woman’s social lot to the question of questions of human life, the question which has so tremendous an influence upon the fortunes of mankind and womankind, the question which it is so easy for one party to “pop” and so difficult for the other party to answer intelligently or sagaciously.
Why does the young man fall in love with the young woman who is most unfit for him of all the young women of his acquaintance, and why does the young woman accept the young man, or the old man, who is better adapted to making her life unendurable than any other man of her circle of acquaintances? Why does the stalwart Adam Bede fall in love with Hetty Sorrel, “who had nothing more than her beauty to recommend her?” The delineator of his motives “respects him none the less.” She thinks that “the deep love he had for that sweet, rounded, dark-eyed Hetty, of whose inward self he was really very ignorant, came out of the very strength of his nature, and not out of any inconsistent weakness. Is it any weakness, pray, to be wrought upon by exquisite music? To feel its wondrous harmonies searching the subtlest windings of your soul, the delicate fibres of life which no memory can penetrate, and binding together your whole being, past and present, in one unspeakable vibration? If not, then neither is it a weakness to be so wrought upon by the exquisite curves of a woman’s cheek, and neck, and arms; by the liquid depth of her beseeching eyes, or the sweet girlish pout of her lips. For the beauty of a lovely woman is like music — what can one say more?” And so “the noblest nature is often blinded to the character of the woman’s soul that beauty clothes.” Hence “the tragedy of human life is likely to continue for a long time to come, in spite of mental philosophers who are ready with the best receipts for avoiding all mistakes of the kind.”
How simple the motive of the Rev. Edward Casaubon in popping the question to Dorothea Brooke, bow complex her motives in answering the question! He wanted an amanuensis to “love, honor, and obey” him. She wanted a husband who would be “a sort of father, and could teach you even Hebrew if you wished it.” The matrimonial motives are worked to draw out the character of Dorothea, and nowhere does the method of George Eliot show to greater advantage than in probing the motives of this fine, strong, conscientious, blundering young woman, whose voice “was like the voice of a soul that once lived in an Æolian harp.” She had a theoretic cast of mind. She was “enamored of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing what seemed to her to have those aspects.” The awful divine had those aspects, and she embraced him. “Certainly such elements in the character of a marriageable girl tended to interfere with her lot, and hinder it from being decided, according to custom, by good looks, vanity, and merely canine affection.” That’s a George Eliot stroke. If the reader does not see from that what she is driving at he may as well abandon all hope of ever appreciating her great forte and art. Dorothea’s goodness and sincerity did not save her from the worst blunder that a woman can make, while her conscientiousness only made it inevitable. “With all her eagerness to know the truths of life she retained very childlike ideas about marriage.” A little of the goose as well as the child in her conscientious simplicity, perhaps. She “felt sure she would have accepted the judicious Hooker if she had been born in time to save him from that wretched mistake he made in matrimony, or John Milton, when his blindness had come on, or any other great man whose odd habits it would be glorious piety to endure.”
True to life, our author furnishes the “great man,” and the “odd habits,” and the miserable years of “glorious” endurance. “Dorothea looked deep into the ungauged reservoir of Mr. Casaubon’s mind, seeing reflected there every quality she herself brought.” They exchanged experiences — he his desire to have an amanuensis, and she hers, to be one. He told her in the billy-cooing of their courtship that “his notes made a formidable range of volumes, but the crowning task would be to condense these voluminous, still accumulating results, and bring them, like the earlier vintage of Hippocratic books, to fit a little shelf.” Dorothea was altogether captivated by the wide embrace of this conception. Here was something beyond the shallows of ladies’ school literature. Here was a modern Augustine who united the glories of doctor and saint. Dorothea said to herself: “His feeling, his experience, what a lake compared to my little pool!” The little pool runs into the great reservoir.
Will you take this reservoir to be your husband, and will you promise to be unto him a fetcher of slippers, a dotter of I’s and crosser of T’s and a copier and condenser of manuscripts; until death doth you part? I will.
They spend their honeymoon in Rome, and on page 211 of Vol. I. we find poor Dorothea “alone in her apartments, sobbing bitterly, with such an abandonment to this relief of an oppressed heart as a woman habitually controlled by pride will sometimes allow herself when she feels securely alone.” What was she crying about? “She thought her feeling of desolation was the fault of her own spiritual poverty.” A characteristic George Eliot probe. Why does not Dorothea give the real reason for her desolateness? Because she does not know what the real reason is — conscience makes blunderers of us all. “How was it that in the weeks since their marriage Dorothea had not distinctly observed, but felt, with a stifling depression, that the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband’s mind were replaced by anterooms and winding passages which seemed to lead no whither? I suppose it was because in courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. But, the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. Having once embarked on your marital voyage, you may become aware that you make no way, and that the sea is not within sight — that in fact you are exploring an inclosed basin.” So the ungauged reservoir turns out to be an inclosed basin, but Dorothea was prevented by her social lot, and perverse goodness, and puritanical “reversion,” from foreseeing that. She might have been saved from her gloomy marital voyage “if she could have fed her affection with those childlike caresses which are the bent of every sweet woman who has begun by showering kisses on the hard pate of her bald doll, creating a happy soul within that woodenness from the wealth of her own love.” Then, perhaps, Ladislaw would have been her first husband instead of her second, as he certainly was her first and only love. Such are the chances and mischances in the lottery of matrimony.
Equally admirable is the diagnosis of Gwendolen Harleth’s motives in “drifting toward the tremendous decision,” and finally landing in it. “We became poor, and I was tempted.” Marriage came to her as it comes to many, as a temptation, and like the deadening drug or the maddening bowl, to keep off the demon of remorse or the cloud of sorrow, like the forgery or the robbery to save from want. “The brilliant position she had longed for, the imagined freedom she would create for herself in marriage”— these “had come to her hunger like food, with the taint of sacrilege upon it,” which she “snatched with terror.” Grandcourt “fulfilled his side of the bargain by giving her the rank and luxuries she coveted.” Matrimony as a bargain never had and never will have but one result. “She had a root of conscience in her, and the process of purgatory had begun for her on earth.” Without the root of conscience it would have been purgatory all the same. So much for resorting to marriage for deliverance from poverty or old maidhood. Better be an old maid than an old fool. But how are we to be guaranteed against “one of those convulsive motiveless actions by which wretched men and women leap from a temporary sorrow into a lifelong misery?” Rosamond Lydgate says, “Marriage stays with us like a murder.” Yes, if she could only have found that out before instead of after her own marriage!
But “what greater thing,” exclaims our novelist, “is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined for life, to strengthen each other in all labor, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent, unspeakable memories at the last parting?”
While a large proportion of her work in the analysis of motives is confined to woman, she has done nothing more skilful or memorable than the “unravelling” of Bulstrode’s mental processes by which he “explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with his beliefs.” If there were no Dorothea in “Middlemarch” the character of Bulstrode would give that novel a place by itself among the masterpieces of fiction. The Bulstrode wound was never probed in fiction with more scientific precision. The pious villain finally finds himself so near discovery that he becomes conscientious. “His equivocation now turns venomously upon him with the full-grown fang of a discovered lie.” The past came back to make the present unendurable. “The terror of being judged sharpens the memory.” Once more “he saw himself the banker’s clerk, as clever in figures as he was fluent in speech, and fond of theological definition. He had striking experience in conviction and sense of pardon; spoke in prayer-meeting and on religious platforms. That was the time he would have chosen now to awake in and find the rest of dream. He remembered his first moments of shrinking. They were private and were filled with arguments — some of these taking the form of prayer.”
Private prayer — but “is private prayer necessarily candid? Does it necessarily go to the roots of action? Private prayer is inaudible speech, and speech is representative. Who can represent himself just as he is, even in his own reflections?”
Bulstrode’s course up to the time of his being suspected “had, he thought, been sanctioned by remarkable providences, appearing to point the way for him to be the agent in making the best use of a large property.” Providence would have him use for the glory of God the money he had stolen. “Could it be for God’s service that this fortune should go to” its rightful owners, when its rightful owners were “a young woman and her husband who were given up to the lightest pursuits, and might scatter it abroad in triviality — people who seemed to lie outside the path of remarkable providences?”
Bulstrode felt at times “that his action was unrighteous, but how could he go back? He had mental exercises calling himself naught, laid hold on redemption and went on in his course of instrumentality.” He was “carrying on two distinct lives”— a religious one and a wicked one. “His religious activity could not be incompatible with his wicked business as soon as he had argued himself into not feeling it incompatible.”
“The spiritual kind of rescue was a genuine need with him. There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs.”
And now Providence seemed to be taking sides against him. “A threatening Providence — in other words, a public exposure — urged him to a kind of propitiation which was not a doctrinal transaction. The divine tribunal had changed its aspect to him. Self-prostration was no longer enough. He must bring restitution in his hand. By what sacrifice could he stay the rod? He believed that if he did something right God would stay the rod, and save him from the consequences of his wrong-doing.” His religion was “the religion of personal fear,” which “remains nearly at the level of the savage.” The exposure comes, and the explosion. Society shudders with hypocritical horror, especially in the presence of poor Mrs. Bulstrode, who “should have some hint given her, that if she knew the truth she would have less complacency in her bonnet.” Society when it is very candid, and very conscientious, and very scrupulous, cannot “allow a wife to remain ignorant long that the town holds a bad opinion of her husband.” The photograph of the Middlemarch gossips sitting upon the case of Mrs. Bulstrode is taken accurately. Equally accurate, and far more impressive, is the narrative of circumstantial evidence gathering against the innocent Lydgate and the guilty Bulstrode — circumstances that will sometimes weave into one tableau of public odium the purest and the blackest characters. From this tableau you may turn to that one in “Adam Bede,” and see how circumstances are made to crush the weak woman and clear the wicked man. And then you can go to “Romola,” or indeed to almost any of these novels, and see how wrong-doing may come of an indulged infirmity of purpose, that unconscious weakness and conscious wickedness may bring about the same disastrous results, and that repentance has no more effect in averting or altering the consequences in one case than the other. Tito’s ruin comes of a feeble, Felix Holt’s victory of an unconquerable, will. Nothing is more characteristic of George Eliot than her tracking of Tito through all the motives and counter motives from which he acted. “Because he tried to slip away from everything that was unpleasant, and cared for nothing so much as his own safety, he came at last to commit such deeds as make a man infamous.” So poor Romola tells her son, as a warning, and adds: “If you make it the rule of your life to escape from what is disagreeable, calamity may come just the same, and it would be calamity falling on a base mind, which is the one form of sorrow that has no balm in it.”
Out of this passion for the analysis of motives comes the strong character, slightly gnarled and knotted by natural circumstances, as trees that are twisted and misshapen by storms and floods — or characters gnarled by some interior force working in conjunction with or in opposition to outward circumstances. She draws no monstrosities, or monsters, thus avoiding on the one side romance and on the other burlesque. She keeps to life — the life that fails from “the meanness of opportunity,” or is “dispersed among hindrances” or “wrestles” unavailingly “with universal pressure.”
Why had Mr. Gilfil in those late years of his beneficent life “more of the knots and ruggedness of poor human nature than there lay any clear hint of it in the open-eyed, loving” young Maynard? Because “it is with men as with trees: if you lop off their finest branches into which they were pouring their young life-juice, the wounds will be healed over with some rough boss, some odd excrescence, and what might have been a grand tree, expanding into liberal shade, is but a whimsical, misshapen trunk. Many an irritating fault, many an unlovely oddity, has come of a hard sorrow which has crushed and maimed the nature just when it was expanding into plenteous beauty; and the trivial, erring life, which we visit with our harsh blame, may be but as the unsteady motion of a man whose best limb is withered. The dear old Vicar had been sketched out by nature as a noble tree. The heart of him was sound, the grain was of the finest, and in the gray-haired man, with his slipshod talk and caustic tongue, there was the main trunk of the same brave, faithful, tender nature that had poured out the finest, freshest forces of its life-current in a first and only love.”
Her style is influenced by her purpose — may be said, indeed, to be created by it. The excellences and the blemishes of the diction come of the end sought to be attained by it. Its subtleties and obscurities were equally inevitable. Analytical thinking takes on an analytical phraseology. It is a striking instance of a mental habit creating a vocabulary. The method of thought produces the form of rhetoric. Some of the sentences are mental landscapes. The meaning seems to be in motion on the page. It is elusive from its very subtlety. It is more our analyst than her character of Rufus Lyon, who “would fain find language subtle enough to follow the utmost intricacies of the soul’s pathways.” Mrs. Transome’s “lancet-edged epigrams” are dull in comparison with her own. She uses them with startling success in dissecting motive and analyzing feeling. They deserve as great renown as “Nélaton’s probe.”
For example: “Examine your words well, and you will find that even when you have no motive to be false, it is a very hard thing to say the exact truth, especially about your own feelings — much harder than to say something fine about them which is not the exact truth.” That ought to make such a revelation of the religious diary-keeper to himself as to make him ashamed of himself. And this will fit in here: “Our consciences are not of the same pattern, an inner deliverance of fixed laws — they are the voice of sensibilities as various as our memories;” and this: “Every strong feeling makes to itself a conscience of its own — has its own piety.”
Who can say that the joints of his armor are not open to this thrust? “The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened is in the logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent. A man will tell you that he worked in a mine for forty years unhurt by an accident as a reason why he should apprehend no danger, though the roof is beginning to sink.” Silas Marner lost his money through his “sense of security,” which “more frequently springs from habit than conviction.” He went unrobbed for fifteen years, which supplied the only needed condition for his being robbed now. A compensation for stupidity: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar that lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.” Who does not at once recognize “that mixture of pushing forward and being pushed forward” as “the brief history of most human beings?” Who has not seen “advancement hindered by impetuous candor?” or “private grudges christened by the name of public zeal?” or “a church built with an exuberance of faith and a deficiency of funds?” or a man “who would march determinedly along the road he thought best, but who was easily convinced which was best?” or a preacher “whose oratory was like a Belgian railway horn, which shows praiseworthy intentions inadequately fulfilled?”
There is something chemical about such an analysis as this of Rosamond: “Every nerve and muscle was adjusted to the consciousness that she was being looked at. She was by nature an actress of parts that entered into her physique. She even acted her own character, and so well that she did not know it to be precisely her own!” Nor is the exactness of this any less cruel: “We may handle extreme opinions with impunity, while our furniture and our dinner-giving link us to the established order.” Why not own that “the emptiness of all things is never so striking to us as when we fail in them?” Is it not better to avoid “following great reformers beyond the threshold of their own homes?” Does not “our moral sense learn the manners of good society?”
The lancet works impartially, because the hand that holds it is the hand of a conscientious artist. She will endure the severest test you can apply to an artist in fiction. She does not betray any religious bias in her novels, which is all the more remarkable now that we find it in these essays. Nor is it at all remarkable that this bias is so very easily discovered in the novels by those who have found it in her essays! Whatever opinions she may have expressed in her critical reviews, she is not the Evangelical, or the Puritan, or the Jew, or the Methodist, or the Dissenting Minister, or the Churchman, any more than she is the Radical, the Liberal, or the Tory, who talks in the pages of her fiction.
Every side has its say, every prejudice its voice, and every prejudice and side and vagary even has the philosophical reason given for it, and the charitable explanation applied to it. She analyzes the religious motives without obtrusive criticism or acrid cynicism or nauseous cant — whether of the orthodox or heretical form.
The art of fiction has nothing more elevated, or more touching, or fairer to every variety of religious experience, than the delineation of the motives that actuated Dinah Morris the Methodist preacher, Deronda the Jew, Dorothea the Puritan, Adam and Seth Bede, and Janet Dempster.
Who can object to this? “Religious ideas have the fate of melodies, which, once set afloat in the world, are taken up by all sorts of instruments, some of them woefully coarse, feeble, or out of tune, until people are in danger of crying out that the melody itself is detestable.” Is it not one of the “mixed results of revivals” that “some gain a religious vocabulary rather than a religious experience?” Is there a descendant of the Puritans who will not relish the fair play of this? “They might give the name of piety to much that was only Puritanic egoism; they might call many things sin that were not sin, but they had at least the feeling that sin was to be avoided and resisted, and color-blindness, which may mistake drab for scarlet, is better than total blindness, which sees no distinction of color at all.” Is not Adam Bede justified in saying that “to hear some preachers you’d think a man must be doing nothing all his life but shutting his eyes and looking at what’s going on in the inside of him,” or that “the doctrines are like finding names for your feelings so that you can talk of them when you’ve never known them?” Read all she has said before you object to anything she has said. Then see whether you will find fault with her for delineating the motives of those with whom “great illusions” are mistaken for “great faith;” of those “whose celestial intimacies do not improve their domestic manners,” however “holy” they may claim to be; of those who “contrive to conciliate the consciousness of filthy rags with the best damask;” of those “whose imitative piety and native worldliness is equally sincere;” of those who “think the invisible powers will be soothed by a bland parenthesis here and there, coming from a man of property”— parenthetical recognition of the Almighty! May not “religious scruples be like spilled needles, making one afraid of treading or sitting down, or even eating?”
But if this is a great mind fascinated with the insoluble enigma of human motives, it is a mind profoundly in sympathy with those who are puzzling hopelessly over the riddle or are struggling hopelessly in its toils. She is “on a level and in the press with them as they struggle their way along the stony road through the crowd of unloving fellow-men.” She says “the only true knowledge of our fellows is that which enables us to feel with them, which gives us a finer ear for the heart-pulses that are beating under the mere clothes of circumstance and opinion.” No artist in fiction ever had a finer ear or a more human sympathy for the straggler who “pushes manfully on” and “falls at last,” leaving “the crowd to close over the space he has left.” Her extraordinary skill in disclosing “the peculiar combination of outward with inward facts which constitute a man’s critical actions,” only makes her the more charitable in judging them. “Until we know what this combination has been, or will be, it will be better not to think ourselves wise about” the character that results. “There is a terrible coercion in our deeds which may first turn the honest man into a deceiver, and then reconcile him to the change. And for this reason the second wrong presents itself to him in the guise of the only practicable right.” There is nothing of the spirit of “served him right,” or “just what she deserved,” or “they ought to have known better,” in George Eliot. That is not in her line. The opposite of that is exactly in her line. This is characteristic of her: “In this world there are so many of these common, coarse people, who have no picturesque or sentimental wretchedness! And it is so needful we should remember their existence, else we may happen to leave them quite out of our religion and philosophy, and frame lofty theories which only fit a world of extremes.” She does not leave them out. Her books are full of them, and of a Christly charity and plea for them. Who can ever forget little Tiny, “hidden and uncared for as the pulse of anguish in the breast of the bird that has fluttered down to its nest with the long-sought food, and has found the nest torn and empty?” There is nothing in fiction to surpass in pathos the picture of the death of Mrs. Amos Barton. George Eliot’s fellow-feeling comes of the habit she ascribes to Daniel Deronda, “the habit of thinking herself imaginatively into the experience of others.” That is the reason why her novels come home so pitilessly to those who have had a deep experience of human life. These are the men and women whom she fascinates and alienates. I know strong men and brave women who are afraid of her books, and say so. It is because of her realness, her unrelenting fidelity to human nature and human life. It is because the analysis is so delicate, subtle, and far-in. Hence the atmosphere of sadness that pervades her pages. It was unavoidable. To see only the behavior, as Dickens did, amuses us; to study only the motive at the root of the behavior, as George Eliot does, saddens us. The humor of Mrs. Poyser and the wit of Mrs. Transome only deepen the pathos by relieving it. There is hardly a sarcasm in these books but has its pensive undertone.
It is all in the key of “Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon,” and that would be an appropriate key for a requiem over the grave of George Eliot.
All her writings are now before the world, and are accessible to all. They have taken their place, and will keep their place, high among the writings of those of our age who have made that age illustrious in the history of the English tongue.
As soon as the closing of the Great Exhibition afforded a reasonable hope that there would once more be a reading public, “The Life of Sterling” appeared. A new work by Carlyle must always be among the literary births eagerly chronicled by the journals and greeted by the public. In a book of such parentage we care less about the subject than about its treatment, just as we think the “Portrait of a Lord” worth studying if it come from the pencil of a Vandyck. The life of John Sterling, however, has intrinsic interest, even if it be viewed simply as the struggle of a restless aspiring soul, yearning to leave a distinct impress of itself on the spiritual development of humanity, with that fell disease which, with a refinement of torture, heightens the susceptibility and activity of the faculties, while it undermines their creative force. Sterling, moreover, was a man thoroughly in earnest, to whom poetry and philosophy were not merely another form of paper currency or a ladder to fame, but an end in themselves — one of those finer spirits with whom, amid the jar and hubbub of our daily life,
“The melodies abide
Of the everlasting chime.”
But his intellect was active and rapid, rather than powerful, and in all his writings we feel the want of a stronger electric current to give that vigor of conception and felicity of expression, by which we distinguish the undefinable something called genius; while his moral nature, though refined and elevated, seems to have been subordinate to his intellectual tendencies and social qualities, and to have had itself little determining influence on his life. His career was less exceptional than his character: a youth marked by delicate health and studious tastes, a short-lived and not very successful share in the management of the Athenæum, a fever of sympathy with Spanish patriots, arrested before it reached a dangerous crisis by an early love affair ending in marriage, a fifteen months’ residence in the West Indies, eight months of curate’s duty at Herstmonceux, relinquished on the ground of failing health, and through his remaining years a succession of migrations to the South in search of a friendly climate, with the occasional publication of an “article,” a tale, or a poem in Blackwood or elsewhere — this, on the prosaic background of an easy competence, was what made up the outer tissue of Sterling’s existence. The impression of his intellectual power on his personal friends seems to have been produced chiefly by the eloquence and brilliancy of his conversation; but the mere reader of his works and letters would augur from them neither the wit nor the curiosa felicitas of epithet and imagery, which would rank him with the men whose sayings are thought worthy of perpetuation in books of table-talk and “ana.” The public, then, since it is content to do without biographies of much more remarkable men, cannot be supposed to have felt any pressing demand even for a single life of Sterling; still less, it might be thought, when so distinguished a writer as Archdeacon Hare had furnished this, could there be any need for another. But, in opposition to the majority of Mr. Carlyle’s critics, we agree with him that the first life is properly the justification of the second. Even among the readers personally unacquainted with Sterling, those who sympathized with his ultimate alienation from the Church, rather than with his transient conformity, were likely to be dissatisfied with the entirely apologetic tone of Hare’s life, which, indeed, is confessedly an incomplete presentation of Sterling’s mental course after his opinions diverged from those of his clerical biographer; while those attached friends (and Sterling possessed the happy magic that secures many such) who knew him best during this latter part of his career, would naturally be pained to have it represented, though only by implication, as a sort of deepening declension ending in a virtual retraction. Of such friends Carlyle was the most eminent, and perhaps the most highly valued, and, as cotrustee with Archdeacon Hare of Sterling’s literary character and writings, he felt a kind of responsibility that no mistaken idea of his departed friend should remain before the world without correction. Evidently, however, his “Life of Sterling” was not so much the conscientious discharge of a trust as a labor of love, and to this is owing its strong charm. Carlyle here shows us his “sunny side.” We no longer see him breathing out threatenings and slaughter as in the Latter–Day Pamphlets, but moving among the charities and amenities of life, loving and beloved — a Teufelsdröckh still, but humanized by a Blumine worthy of him. We have often wished that genius would incline itself more frequently to the task of the biographer — that when some great or good personage dies, instead of the dreary three or five volumed compilations of letter, and diary, and detail, little to the purpose, which two thirds of the reading public have not the chance, nor the other third the inclination, to read, we could have a real “Life,” setting forth briefly and vividly the man’s inward and outward struggles, aims, and achievements, so as to make clear the meaning which his experience has for his fellows. A few such lives (chiefly, indeed, autobiographies) the world possesses, and they have, perhaps, been more influential on the formation of character than any other kind of reading. But the conditions required for the perfection of life writing — personal intimacy, a loving and poetic nature which sees the beauty and the depth of familiar things, and the artistic power which seizes characteristic points and renders them with lifelike effect — are seldom found in combination. “The Life of Sterling” is an instance of this rare conjunction. Its comparatively tame scenes and incidents gather picturesqueness and interest under the rich lights of Carlyle’s mind. We are told neither too little nor too much; the facts noted, the letters selected, are all such as serve to give the liveliest conception of what Sterling was and what he did; and though the book speaks much of other persons, this collateral matter is all a kind of scene-painting, and is accessory to the main purpose. The portrait of Coleridge, for example, is precisely adapted to bring before us the intellectual region in which Sterling lived for some time before entering the Church. Almost every review has extracted this admirable description, in which genial veneration and compassion struggle with irresistible satire; but the emphasis of quotation cannot be too often given to the following pregnant paragraph:
“The truth is, I now see Coleridge’s talk and speculation was the emblem of himself. In it, as in him, a ray of heavenly inspiration struggled, in a tragically ineffectual degree, with the weakness of flesh and blood. He says once, he ‘had skirted the howling deserts of infidelity.’ This was evident enough; but he had not had the courage, in defiance of pain and terror, to press resolutely across said deserts to the new firm lands of faith beyond; he preferred to create logical fata-morganas for himself on this hither side, and laboriously solace himself with these.”
The above mentioned step of Sterling — his entering the Church — is the point on which Carlyle is most decidedly at issue with Archdeacon Hare. The latter holds that had Sterling’s health permitted him to remain in the Church, he would have escaped those aberrations from orthodoxy, which, in the clerical view, are to be regarded as the failure and shipwreck of his career, apparently thinking, like that friend of Arnold’s who recommended a curacy as the best means of clearing up Trinitarian difficulties, that “orders” are a sort of spiritual backboard, which, by dint of obliging a man to look as if he were strait, end by making him so. According to Carlyle, on the contrary, the real “aberration” of Sterling was his choice of the clerical profession, which was simply a mistake as to his true vocation:
“Sterling,” he says, “was not intrinsically, nor had ever been in the highest or chief degree, a devotional mind. Of course all excellence in man, and worship as the supreme excellence, was part of the inheritance of this gifted man; but if called to define him, I should say artist, not saint, was the real bent of his being.”
“No man of Sterling’s veracity, had he clearly consulted his own heart, or had his own heart been capable of clearly responding, and not been bewildered by transient fantasies and theosophic moonshine, could have undertaken this function. His heart would have answered, ‘No, thou canst not. What is incredible to thee, thou shalt not, at thy soul’s peril, attempt to believe! Elsewhither for a refuge, or die here. Go to perdition if thou must, but not with a lie in thy mouth; by the eternal Maker, no!’”
From the period when Carlyle’s own acquaintance with Sterling commenced, the Life has a double interest, from the glimpses it gives us of the writer, as well as of his hero. We are made present at their first introduction to each other; we get a lively idea of their colloquies and walks together, and in this easy way, without any heavy disquisition or narrative, we obtain a clear insight into Sterling’s character and mental progress. Above all, we are gladdened with a perception of the affinity that exists between noble souls, in spite of diversity in ideas — in what Carlyle calls “the logical outcome” of the faculties. This “Life of Sterling” is a touching monument of the capability human nature possesses of the highest love, the love of the good and beautiful in character, which is, after all, the essence of piety. The style of the work, too, is for the most part at once pure and rich; there are passages of deep pathos which come upon the reader like a strain of solemn music, and others which show that aptness of epithet, that masterly power of close delineation, in which, perhaps, no writer has excelled Carlyle.
We have said that we think this second “Life of Sterling” justified by the first; but were it not so, the book would justify itself.
In 1847, a certain Count Leopold Ferri died at Padua, leaving a library entirely composed of works written by women, in various languages, and this library amounted to nearly 32,000 volumes. We will not hazard any conjecture as to the proportion of these volumes which a severe judge, like the priest in Don Quixote, would deliver to the flames, but for our own part, most of these we should care to rescue would be the works of French women. With a few remarkable exceptions, our own feminine literature is made up of books which could have been better written by men — books which have the same relation to literature in general, as academic prize poems have to poetry: when not a feeble imitation, they are usually an absurd exaggeration of the masculine style, like the swaggering gait of a bad actress in male attire. Few English women have written so much like a woman as Richardson’s Lady G. Now we think it an immense mistake to maintain that there is no sex in literature. Science has no sex: the mere knowing and reasoning faculties, if they act correctly, must go through the same process, and arrive at the same result. But in art and literature, which imply the action of the entire being, in which every fibre of the nature is engaged, in which every peculiar modification of the individual makes itself felt, woman has something specific to contribute. Under every imaginable social condition, she will necessarily have a class of sensations and emotions — the maternal ones — which must remain unknown to man; and the fact of her comparative physical weakness, which, however it may have been exaggerated by a vicious civilization, can never be cancelled, introduces a distinctively feminine condition into the wondrous chemistry of the affections and sentiments, which inevitably gives rise to distinctive forms and combinations. A certain amount of psychological difference between man and woman necessarily arises out of the difference of sex, and instead of being destined to vanish before a complete development of woman’s intellectual and moral nature, will be a permanent source of variety and beauty as long as the tender light and dewy freshness of morning affect us differently from the strength and brilliancy of the midday sun. And those delightful women of France, who from the beginning of the seventeenth to the close of the eighteenth century, formed some of the brightest threads in the web of political and literary history, wrote under circumstances which left the feminine character of their minds uncramped by timidity, and unstrained by mistaken effort. They were not trying to make a career for themselves; they thought little, in many cases not at all, of the public; they wrote letters to their lovers and friends, memoirs of their every-day lives, romances in which they gave portraits of their familiar acquaintances, and described the tragedy or comedy which was going on before their eyes. Always refined and graceful, often witty, sometimes judicious, they wrote what they saw, thought, and felt in their habitual language, without proposing any model to themselves, without any intention to prove that women could write as well as men, without affecting manly views or suppressing womanly ones. One may say, at least with regard to the women of the seventeenth century, that their writings were but a charming accident of their more charming lives, like the petals which the wind shakes from the rose in its bloom. And it is but a twin fact with this, that in France alone woman has had a vital influence on the development of literature; in France alone the mind of woman has passed like an electric current through the language, making crisp and definite what is elsewhere heavy and blurred; in France alone, if the writings of women were swept away, a serious gap would be made in the national history.
Patriotic gallantry may perhaps contend that English women could, if they had liked, have written as well as their neighbors; but we will leave the consideration of that question to the reviewers of the literature that might have been. In the literature that actually is, we must turn to France for the highest examples of womanly achievement in almost every department. We confess ourselves unacquainted with the productions of those awful women of Italy, who held professorial chairs, and were great in civil and canon law; we have made no researches into the catacombs of female literature, but we think we may safely conclude that they would yield no rivals to that which is still unburied; and here, we suppose, the question of preeminence can only lie between England and France. And to this day, Madame de Sévigné remains the single instance of a woman who is supreme in a class of literature which has engaged the ambition of men; Madame Dacier still reigns the queen of blue stockings, though women have long studied Greek without shame; 2 Madame de Staël’s name still rises first to the lips when we are asked to mention a woman of great intellectual power; Madame Roland is still the unrivalled type of the sagacious and sternly heroic, yet lovable woman; George Sand is the unapproached artist who, to Jean Jacques’ eloquence and deep sense of external nature, unites the clear delineation of character and the tragic depth of passion. These great names, which mark different epochs, soar like tall pines amidst a forest of less conspicuous, but not less fascinating, female writers; and beneath these, again, are spread, like a thicket of hawthorns, eglantines, and honey-suckles, the women who are known rather by what they stimulated men to write, than by what they wrote themselves — the women whose tact, wit, and personal radiance created the atmosphere of the Salon, where literature, philosophy, and science, emancipated from the trammels of pedantry and technicality, entered on a brighter stage of existence.
What were the causes of this earlier development and more abundant manifestation of womanly intellect in France? The primary one, perhaps, lies in the physiological characteristics of the Gallic race — the small brain and vivacious temperament which permit the fragile system of woman to sustain the superlative activity requisite for intellectual creativeness; while, on the other hand, the larger brain and slower temperament of the English and Germans are, in the womanly organization, generally dreamy and passive. The type of humanity in the latter may be grander, but it requires a larger sum of conditions to produce a perfect specimen. Throughout the animal world, the higher the organization, the more frequent is the departure from the normal form; we do not often see imperfectly developed or ill-made insects, but we rarely see a perfectly developed, well-made man. And thus the physique of a woman may suffice as the substratum for a superior Gallic mind, but is too thin a soil for a superior Teutonic one. Our theory is borne out by the fact that among our own country-women those who distinguish themselves by literary production more frequently approach the Gallic than the Teutonic type; they are intense and rapid rather than comprehensive. The woman of large capacity can seldom rise beyond the absorption of ideas; her physical conditions refuse to support the energy required for spontaneous activity; the voltaic-pile is not strong enough to produce crystallizations; phantasms of great ideas float through her mind, but she has not the spell which will arrest them, and give them fixity. This, more than unfavorable external circumstances, is, we think, the reason why woman has not yet contributed any new form to art, any discovery in science, any deep-searching inquiry in philosophy. The necessary physiological conditions are not present in her. That under more favorable circumstances in the future, these conditions may prove compatible with the feminine organization, it would be rash to deny. For the present, we are only concerned with our theory so far as it presents a physiological basis for the intellectual effectiveness of French women.
A secondary cause was probably the laxity of opinion and practice with regard to the marriage-tie. Heaven forbid that we should enter on a defence of French morals, most of all in relation to marriage! But it is undeniable that unions formed in the maturity of thought and feeling, and grounded only on inherent fitness and mutual attraction, tended to bring women into more intelligent sympathy with men, and to heighten and complicate their share in the political drama. The quiescence and security of the conjugal relation are doubtless favorable to the manifestation of the highest qualities by persons who have already attained a high standard of culture, but rarely foster a passion sufficient to rouse all the faculties to aid in winning or retaining its beloved object — to convert indolence into activity, indifference into ardent partisanship, dulness into perspicuity. Gallantry and intrigue are sorry enough things in themselves, but they certainly serve better to arouse the dormant faculties of woman than embroidery and domestic drudgery, especially when, as in the high society of France in the seventeenth century, they are refined by the influence of Spanish chivalry, and controlled by the spirit of Italian causticity. The dreamy and fantastic girl was awakened to reality by the experience of wifehood and maternity, and became capable of loving, not a mere phantom of her own imagination, but a living man, struggling with the hatreds and rivalries of the political arena; she espoused his quarrels, she made herself, her fortune, and her influence, the stepping-stones of his ambition; and the languid beauty, who had formerly seemed ready to “die of a rose,” was seen to become the heroine of an insurrection. The vivid interest in affairs which was thus excited in woman must obviously have tended to quicken her intellect, and give it a practical application; and the very sorrows — the heart-pangs and regrets which are inseparable from a life of passion — deepened her nature by the questioning of self and destiny which they occasioned, and by the energy demanded to surmount them and live on. No wise person, we imagine, wishes to restore the social condition of France in the seventeenth century, or considers the ideal programme of woman’s life to be a marriage de convenance at fifteen, a career of gallantry from twenty to eight-and-thirty, and penitence and piety for the rest of her days. Nevertheless, that social condition has its good results, as much as the madly superstitious Crusades had theirs.
But the most indisputable source of feminine culture and development in France was the influence of the salons, which, as all the world knows, were réunions of both sexes, where conversation ran along the whole gamut of subjects, from the frothiest vers de société to the philosophy of Descartes. Richelieu had set the fashion of uniting a taste for letters with the habits of polite society and the pursuits of ambition; and in the first quarter of the seventeenth century there were already several hôtels in Paris, varying in social position from the closest proximity of the Court to the debatable ground of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, which served as a rendezvous for different circles of people, bent on entertaining themselves either by showing talent or admiring it. The most celebrated of these rendezvous was the Hôtel de Rambouillet, which was at the culmination of its glory in 1630, and did not become quite extinct until 1648, when the troubles of the Fronde commencing, its habitués were dispersed or absorbed by political interests. The presiding genius of this salon, the Marquise de Rambouillet, was the very model of the woman who can act as anamalgam to the most incongruous elements; beautiful, but not preoccupied by coquetry, or passion; an enthusiastic admirer of talent, but with no pretensions to talent on her own part; exquisitely refined in language and manners, but warm and generous withal; not given to entertain her guests with her own compositions, or to paralyze them by her universal knowledge. She had once meant to learn Latin, but had been prevented by an illness; perhaps she was all the better acquainted with Italian and Spanish productions, which, in default of a national literature, were then the intellectual pabulum of all cultivated persons in France who are unable to read the classics. In her mild, agreeable presence was accomplished that blending of the high-toned chivalry of Spain with the caustic wit and refined irony of Italy, which issued in the creation of a new standard of taste — the combination of the utmost exaltation in sentiment with the utmost simplicity of language. Women are peculiarly fitted to further such a combination — first, from their greater tendency to mingle affection and imagination with passion, and thus subtilize it into sentiment; and next, from that dread of what overtaxes their intellectual energies, either by difficulty, or monotony, which gives them an instinctive fondness for lightness of treatment and airiness of expression, thus making them cut short all prolixity and reject all heaviness. When these womanly characteristics were brought into conversational contact with the materials furnished by such minds as those of Richelieu, Corneille, the Great Condé, Balzac, and Bossuet, it is no wonder that the result was something piquant and charming. Those famous habitués of the Hôtel de Rambouillet did not, apparently, first lay themselves out to entertain the ladies with grimacing “small-talk,” and then take each other by the sword-knot to discuss matters of real interest in a corner; they rather sought to present their best ideas in the guise most acceptable to intelligent and accomplished women. And the conversation was not of literature only: war, politics, religion, the lightest details of daily news — everything was admissible, if only it were treated with refinement and intelligence. The Hôtel de Rambouillet was no mere literary réunion; it included hommes d’affaires and soldiers as well as authors, and in such a circle women would not become bas bleus or dreamy moralizers, ignorant of the world and of human nature, but intelligent observers of character and events. It is easy to understand, however, that with the herd of imitators who, in Paris and the provinces, aped the style of this famous salon, simplicity degenerated into affectation, and nobility of sentiment was replaced by an inflated effort to outstrip nature, so that the genre précieux drew down the satire, which reached its climax in the Précieuses Ridicules and Les Femmes Savantes, the former of which appeared in 1660, and the latter in 1673. But Madelon and Caltros are the lineal descendants of Mademoiselle Scudery and her satellites, quite as much as of the Hôtel de Rambouillet. The society which assembled every Saturday in her salon was exclusively literary, and although occasionally visited by a few persons of high birth, bourgeois in its tone, and enamored of madrigals, sonnets, stanzas, and bouts rimés. The affectation that decks trivial things in fine language belongs essentially to a class which sees another above it, and is uneasy in the sense of its inferiority; and this affectation is precisely the opposite of the original genre précieux.
Another centre from which feminine influence radiated into the national literature was the Palais du Luxembourg, where Mademoiselle d’Orleans, in disgrace at court on account of her share in the Fronde, held a little court of her own, and for want of anything else to employ her active spirit busied herself with literature. One fine morning it occurred to this princess to ask all the persons who frequented her court, among whom were Madame de Sévigné, Madame de la Fayette, and La Rochefoucauld, to write their own portraits, and she at once set the example. It was understood that defects and virtues were to be spoken of with like candor. The idea was carried out; those who were not clever or bold enough to write for themselves employing the pen of a friend.
“Such,” says M. Cousin, “was the pastime of Mademoiselle and her friends during the years 1657 and 1658: from this pastime proceeded a complete literature. In 1659 Ségrais revised these portraits, added a considerable number in prose and even in verse, and published the whole in a handsome quarto volume, admirably printed, and now become very rare, under the title, ‘Divers Portraits.’ Only thirty copies were printed, not for sale, but to be given as presents by Mademoiselle. The work had a prodigious success. That which had made the fortune of Mademoiselle de Scudéry’s romances — the pleasure of seeing one’s portrait a little flattered, curiosity to see that of others, the passion which the middle class always have had and will have for knowing what goes on in the aristocratic world (at that time not very easy of access), the names of the illustrious persons who were here for the first time described physically and morally with the utmost detail, great ladies transformed all at once into writers, and unconsciously inventing a new manner of writing, of which no book gave the slightest idea, and which was the ordinary manner of speaking of the aristocracy; this undefinable mixture of the natural, the easy, and at the same time of the agreeable, and supremely distinguished — all this charmed the court and the town, and very early in the year 1659 permission was asked of Mademoiselle to give a new edition of the privileged book for the use of the public in general.”
The fashion thus set, portraits multiplied throughout France, until in 1688 La Bruyère adopted the form in his “Characters,” and ennobled it by divesting it of personality. We shall presently see that a still greater work than La Bruyère’s also owed its suggestion to a woman, whose salon was hardly a less fascinating resort than the Hôtel de Rambouillet itself.
In proportion as the literature of a country is enriched and culture becomes more generally diffused, personal influence is less effective in the formation of taste and in the furtherance of social advancement. It is no longer the coterie which acts on literature, but literature which acts on the coterie; the circle represented by the word public is ever widening, and ambition, poising itself in order to hit a more distant mark, neglects the successes of the salon. What was once lavished prodigally in conversation is reserved for the volume or the “article,” and the effort is not to betray originality rather than to communicate it. As the old coach-roads have sunk into disuse through the creation of railways, so journalism tends more and more to divert information from the channel of conversation into the channel of the Press; no one is satisfied with a more circumscribed audience than that very indeterminate abstraction “the public,” and men find a vent for their opinions not in talk, but in “copy.” We read the Athenæum askance at the tea-table, and take notes from the Philosophical Journal at a soirée; we invite our friends that we may thrust a book into their hands, and presuppose an exclusive desire in the “ladies” to discuss their own matters, “that we may crackle the Times” at our ease. In fact, the evident tendency of things to contract personal communication within the narrowest limits makes us tremble lest some further development of the electric telegraph should reduce us to a society of mutes, or to a sort of insects communicating by ingenious antenna of our own invention. Things were far from having reached this pass in the last century; but even then literature and society had outgrown the nursing of coteries, and although many salons of that period were worthy successors of the Hôtel de Rambouillet, they were simply a recreation, not an influence. Enviable evenings, no doubt, were passed in them; and if we could be carried back to any of them at will, we should hardly know whether to choose the Wednesday dinner at Madame Geoffrin’s, with d’Alembert, Mademoiselle de l’Espinasse, Grimm, and the rest, or the graver society which, thirty years later, gathered round Condorcet and his lovely young wife. The salon retained its attractions, but its power was gone: the stream of life had become too broad and deep for such small rills to affect it.
A fair comparison between the French women of the seventeenth century and those of the eighteenth would, perhaps, have a balanced result, though it is common to be a partisan on this subject. The former have more exaltation, perhaps more nobility of sentiment, and less consciousness in their intellectual activity — less of the femme auteur, which was Rousseau’s horror in Madame d’Epinay; but the latter have a richer fund of ideas — not more ingenuity, but the materials of an additional century for their ingenuity to work upon. The women of the seventeenth century, when love was on the wane, took to devotion, at first mildly and by halves, as English women take to caps, and finally without compromise; with the women of the eighteenth century, Bossuet and Massillon had given way to Voltaire and Rousseau; and when youth and beauty failed, then they were thrown on their own moral strength.
M. Cousin is especially enamored of the women of the seventeenth century, and relieves himself from his labors in philosophy by making researches into the original documents which throw light upon their lives. Last year he gave us some results of these researches in a volume on the youth of the Duchess de Longueville; and he has just followed it up with a second volume, in which he further illustrates her career by tracing it in connection with that of her friend, Madame de Sablé. The materials to which he has had recourse for this purpose are chiefly two celebrated collections of manuscript: that of Conrart, the first secretary to the French Academy, one of those universally curious people who seem made for the annoyance of contemporaries and the benefit of posterity; and that of Valant, who was at once the physician, the secretary, and general steward of Madame de Sablé, and who, with or without her permission, possessed himself of the letters addressed to her by her numerous correspondents during the latter part of her life, and of various papers having some personal or literary interest attached to them. From these stores M. Cousin has selected many documents previously unedited; and though he often leaves us something to desire in the arrangement of his materials, this volume of his on Madame de Sablé is very acceptable to us, for she interests us quite enough to carry us through more than three hundred pages of rather scattered narrative, and through an appendix of correspondence in small type. M. Cousin justly appreciates her character as “un heureux mélange de raison, d’esprit, d’agrément, et de bonté;” and perhaps there are few better specimens of the woman who is extreme in nothing but sympathetic in all things; who affects us by no special quality, but by her entire being; whose nature has no tons criards, but is like those textures which, from their harmonious blending of all colors, give repose to the eye, and do not weary us though we see them every day. Madame de Sablé is also a striking example of the one order of influence which woman has exercised over literature in France; and on this ground, as well as intrinsically, she is worth studying. If the reader agrees with us he will perhaps be inclined, as we are, to dwell a little on the chief points in her life and character.
Madeline de Souvré, daughter of the Marquis of Courtenvaux, a nobleman distinguished enough to be chosen as governor of Louis XIII., was born in 1599, on the threshold of that seventeenth century, the brilliant genius of which is mildly reflected in her mind and history. Thus, when in 1635 her more celebrated friend, Mademoiselle de Bourbon, afterward the Duchess de Longueville, made her appearance at the Hôtel de Rambouillet, Madame de Sablé had nearly crossed that tableland of maturity which precedes a woman’s descent toward old age. She had been married in 1614, to Philippe Emanuel de Laval–Montmorency, Seigneur de Bois–Dauphin, and Marquis de Sablé, of whom nothing further is known than that he died in 1640, leaving her the richer by four children, but with a fortune considerably embarrassed. With beauty and high rank added to the mental attractions of which we have abundant evidence, we may well believe that Madame de Sablé’s youth was brilliant. For her beauty, we have the testimony of sober Madame de Motteville, who also speaks of her as having “beaucoup de lumière et de sincérité;” and in the following passage very graphically indicates one phase of Madame de Sablé’s character:
“The Marquise de Sablé was one of those whose beauty made the most noise when the Queen came into France. But if she was amiable, she was still more desirous of appearing so; this lady’s self-love rendered her too sensitive to the regard which men exhibited toward her. There yet existed in France some remains of the politeness which Catherine de Medici had introduced from Italy, and the new dramas, with all the other works in prose and verse, which came from Madrid, were thought to have such great delicacy, that she (Madame de Sablé) had conceived a high idea of the gallantry which the Spaniards had learned from the Moors.
“She was persuaded that men can, without crime, have tender sentiments for women — that the desire of pleasing them led men to the greatest and finest actions — roused their intelligence, and inspired them with liberality, and all sorts of virtues; but, on the other hand, women, who were the ornament of the world, and made to be served and adored, ought not to admit anything from them but their respectful attentions. As this lady supported her views with much talent and great beauty, she had given them authority in her time, and the number and consideration of those who continued to associate with her have caused to subsist in our day what the Spaniards call finezas.”
Here is the grand element of the original femme précieuse, and it appears farther, in a detail also reported by Madame de Motteville, that Madame de Sablé had a passionate admirer in the accomplished Duc de Montmorency, and apparently reciprocated his regard; but discovering (at what period of their attachment is unknown) that he was raising a lover’s eyes toward the queen, she broke with him at once. “I have heard her say,” tells Madame de Motteville, “that her pride was such with regard to the Duc de Montmorency, that at the first demonstrations which he gave of his change, she refused to see him any more, being unable to receive with satisfaction attentions which she had to share with the greatest princess in the world.” There is no evidence except the untrustworthy assertion of Tallement de Réaux, that Madame de Sablé had any other liaison than this; and the probability of the negative is increased by the ardor of her friendships. The strongest of these was formed early in life with Mademoiselle Dona d’Attichy, afterward Comtesse de Maure; it survived the effervescence of youth, and the closest intimacy of middle age, and was only terminated by the death of the latter in 1663. A little incident in this friendship is so characteristic in the transcendentalism which was then carried into all the affections, that it is worth relating at length. Mademoiselle d’Attichy, in her grief and indignation at Richelieu’s treatment of her relative, quitted Paris, and was about to join her friend at Sablé, when she suddenly discovered that Madame de Sablé, in a letter to Madame de Rambouillet, had said that her greatest happiness would be to pass her life with Julie de Rambouillet, afterward Madame de Montausier. To Anne d’Attichy this appears nothing less than the crime of lèse-amitié. No explanations will appease her: she refuses to accept the assurance that the offensive expression was used simply out of unreflecting conformity to the style of the Hôtel de Rambouillet — that it was mere “galimatias.” She gives up her journey, and writes a letter, which is the only one Madame de Sablé chose to preserve, when, in her period of devotion, she sacrificed the records of her youth. Here it is:
“I have seen this letter in which you tell me there is so much galimatias, and I assure you that I have not found any at all. On the contrary, I find everything very plainly expressed, and among others, one which is too explicit for my satisfaction — namely, what you have said to Madame de Rambouillet, that if you tried to imagine a perfectly happy life for yourself, it would be to pass it all alone with Mademoiselle de Rambouillet. You know whether any one can be more persuaded than I am of her merit; but I confess to you that that has not prevented me from being surprised that you could entertain a thought which did so great an injury to our friendship. As to believing that you said this to one, and wrote it to the other, simply for the sake of paying them an agreeable compliment, I have too high an esteem for your courage to be able to imagine that complaisance would cause you thus to betray the sentiments of your heart, especially on a subject in which, as they were unfavorable to me, I think you would have the more reason for concealing them, the affection which I have for you being so well known to every one, and especially to Mademoiselle de Rambouillet, so that I doubt whether she will not have been more sensible of the wrong you have done me, than of the advantage you have given her. The circumstance of this letter falling into my hands has forcibly reminded me of these lines of Bertaut:
“‘Malheureuse est l’ignorance
Et plus malheureux le savoir.”
“Having through this lost a confidence which alone rendered life supportable to me, it is impossible for me to take the journey so much thought of. For would there be any propriety in travelling sixty miles in this season, in order to burden you with a person so little suited to you, that after years of a passion without parallel, you cannot help thinking that the greatest pleasure of your life would be to pass it without her? I return, then, into my solitude, to examine the defects which cause me so much unhappiness, and unless I can correct them, I should have less joy than confusion in seeing you.”
It speaks strongly for the charm of Madame de Sablé’s nature that she was able to retain so susceptible a friend as Mademoiselle d’Attichy in spite of numerous other friendships, some of which, especially that with Madame de Longueville, were far from lukewarm — in spite too of a tendency in herself to distrust the affection of others toward her, and to wait for advances rather than to make them. We find many traces of this tendency in the affectionate remonstrances addressed to her by Madame de Longueville, now for shutting herself up from her friends, now for doubting that her letters are acceptable. Here is a little passage from one of these remonstrances which indicates a trait of Madame de Sablé, and is in itself a bit of excellent sense, worthy the consideration of lovers and friends in general: “I am very much afraid that if I leave to you the care of letting me know when I can see you, I shall be a long time without having that pleasure, and that nothing will incline you to procure it me, for I have always observed a certain lukewarmness in your friendship after our explanations, from which I have never seen you thoroughly recover; and that is why I dread explanations, for however good they may be in themselves, since they serve to reconcile people, it must always be admitted, to their shame, that they are at least the effect of a bad cause, and that if they remove it for a time they sometimes leave a certain facility in getting angry again, which, without diminishing friendship, renders its intercourse less agreeable. It seems to me that I find all this in your behavior to me; so I am not wrong in sending to know if you wish to have me today.” It is clear that Madame de Sablé was far from having what Sainte–Beuve calls the one fault of Madame Necker — absolute perfection. A certain exquisiteness in her physical and moral nature was, as we shall see, the source of more than one weakness, but the perception of these weaknesses, which is indicated in Madame de Longueville’s letters, heightens our idea of the attractive qualities which notwithstanding drew from her, at the sober age of forty, such expressions as these: “I assure you that you are the person in all the world whom it would be most agreeable to me to see, and there is no one whose intercourse is a ground of truer satisfaction to me. It is admirable that at all times, and amidst all changes, the taste for your society remains in me; and, if one ought to thank God for the joys which do not tend to salvation, I should thank him with all my heart for having preserved that to me at a time in which he has taken away from me all others.”
Since we have entered on the chapter of Madame de Sablé’s weaknesses, this is the place to mention what was the subject of endless raillery from her friends — her elaborate precaution about her health, and her dread of infection, even from diseases the least communicable. Perhaps this anxiety was founded as much on æsthetic as on physical grounds, on disgust at the details of illness as much as on dread of suffering: with a cold in the head or a bilious complaint, the exquisite précieuse must have been considerably less conscious of being “the ornament of the world,” and “made to be adored.” Even her friendship, strong as it was, was not strong enough to overcome her horror of contagion; for when Mademoiselle de Bourbon, recently become Madame de Longueville, was attacked by small-pox, Madame de Sablé for some time had not courage to visit her, or even to see Mademoiselle de Rambouillet, who was assiduous in her attendance on the patient. A little correspondence à propos of these circumstances so well exhibits the graceful badinage in which the great ladies of that day were adepts, that we are attempted to quote one short letter.
“Mlle. de Rambouillet to the Marquise de Sablé.”
“Mlle, de Chalais (dame de compagnie to the Marquise) will please to read this letter to Mme. la Marquise, out of a draught.
“Madame, I do not think it possible to begin my treaty with you too early, for I am convinced that between the first proposition made to me that I should see you, and the conclusion, you will have so many reflections to make, so many physicians to consult, and so many fears to surmount, that I shall have full leisure to air myself. The conditions which I offer to fulfil for this purpose are, not to visit you until I have been three days absent from the Hôtel de Condé (where Mme. de Longueville was ill), to choose a frosty day, not to approach you within four paces, not to sit down on more than one seat. You may also have a great fire in your room, burn juniper in the four corners, surround yourself with imperial vinegar, with rue and wormwood. If you can feel yourself safe under these conditions, without my cutting off my hair, I swear to you to execute them religiously; and if you want examples to fortify you, I can tell you that the Queen consented to see M. Chaudebonne, when he had come directly from Mme. de Bourbon’s room, and that Mme. d’Aiguillon, who has good taste in such matters, and is free from reproach on these points, has just sent me word that if I did not go to see her she would come to me.”
Madame de Sablé betrays in her reply that she winces under this raillery, and thus provokes a rather severe though polite rejoinder, which, added to the fact that Madame de Longueville is convalescent, rouses her courage to the pitch of paying the formidable visit. Mademoiselle de Rambouillet, made aware through their mutual friend Voiture, that her sarcasm has cut rather too deep, winds up the matter by writing that very difficult production a perfectly conciliatory yet dignified apology. Peculiarities like this always deepen with age, and accordingly, fifteen years later, we find Madame D’Orleans in her “Princesse de Paphlagonia”— a romance in which she describes her court, with the little quarrels and other affairs that agitated it — giving the following amusing picture, or rather caricature, of the extent to which Madame de Sablé carried her pathological mania, which seems to have been shared by her friend the Countess de Maure (Mademoiselle d’Attichy). In the romance, these two ladies appear under the names of Princesse Parthénie and the Reine de Mionie.
“There was not an hour in the day in which they did not confer together on the means of avoiding death, and on the art of rendering themselves immortal. Their conferences did not take place like those of other people; the fear of breathing an air which was too cold or top warm, the dread lest the wind should be too dry or too moist — in short, the imagination that the weather might not be as temperate as they thought necessary for the preservation of their health, caused them to write letters from one room to the other. It would be extremely fortunate if these notes could be found, and formed into a collection. I am convinced that they would contain rules for the regimen of life, precautions even as to the proper time for applying remedies, and also remedies which Hippocrates and Galen, with all their science, never heard of. Such a collection would be very useful to the public, and would be highly profitable to the faculties of Paris and Montpellier. If these letters were discovered, great advantages of all kinds might be derived from them, for they were princesses who had nothing mortal about them but the knowledge that they were mortal. In their writings might be learned all politeness in style, and the most delicate manner of speaking on all subjects. There is nothing with which they were not acquainted; they knew the affairs of all the States in the world, through the share they had in all the intrigues of its private members, either in matters of gallantry, as in other things, on which their advice was necessary; either to adjust embroilments and quarrels, or to excite them, for the sake of the advantages which their friends could derive from them; — in a word, they were persons through whose hands the secrets of the whole world had to pass. The Princess Parthénie (Mme. de Sablé) had a palate as delicate as her mind; nothing could equal the magnificence of the entertainments she gave; all the dishes were exquisite, and her cleanliness was beyond all that could be imagined. It was in their time that writing came into use; previously nothing was written but marriage contracts, and letters were never heard of; thus it is to them that we owe a practice so convenient in intercourse.”
Still later in 1669, when the most uncompromising of the Port Royalists seemed to tax Madame de Sablé with lukewarmness that she did not join them at Port–Royal-desChamps, we find her writing to the stern M. de Sévigny: “En vérité, je crois que je ne pourrois mieux faire que de tout quitter et de m’en aller là. Mais que deviendroient ces frayeurs de n’avoir pas de médicines à choisir, ni de chirurgien pour me saigner?”
Mademoiselle, as we have seen, hints at the love of delicate eating, which many of Madame de Sablé’s friends numbered among her foibles, especially after her religious career had commenced. She had a genius in friandise, and knew how to gratify the palate without offending the highest sense of refinement. Her sympathetic nature showed itself in this as in other things; she was always sending bonnes bouches to her friends, and trying to communicate to them her science and taste in the affairs of the table. Madame de Longueville, who had not the luxurious tendencies of her friend, writes: “Je vous demande au nom de Dieu, que vous ne me prépariez aucun ragoût. Surtout ne me donnez point de festin. Au nom de Dieu, qu’il n’y ait rien que ce qu’on peut manger, car vous savez que c’est inutile pour moi; de plus j’en ai scrupule.” But other friends had more appreciation of her niceties. Voiture thanks her for her melons, and assures her that they are better than those of yesterday; Madame de Choisy hopes that her ridicule of Jansenism will not provoke Madame de Sablé to refuse her the receipt for salad; and La Rochefoucauld writes: “You cannot do me a greater charity than to permit the bearer of this letter to enter into the mysteries of your marmalade and your genuine preserves, and I humbly entreat you to do everything you can in his favor. If I could hope for two dishes of those preserves, which I did not deserve to eat before, I should be indebted to you all my life.” For our own part, being as far as possible from fraternizing with those spiritual people who convert a deficiency into a principle, and pique themselves on an obtuse palate as a point of superiority, we are not inclined to number Madame de Sablé’s friandise among her defects. M. Cousin, too, is apologetic on this point. He says:
“It was only the excess of a delicacy which can be really understood, and a sort of fidelity to the character of précieuse. As the précieuse did nothing according to common usage, she could not dine like another. We have cited a passage from Mme. de Motteville, where Mme. de Sablé is represented in her first youth at the Hôtel de Rambouillet, maintaining that woman is born to be an ornament to the world, and to receive the adoration of men. The woman worthy of the name ought always to appear above material wants, and retain, even in the most vulgar details of life, something distinguished and purified. Eating is a very necessary operation, but one which is not agreeable to the eye. Mme. de Sablé insisted on its being conducted with a peculiar cleanliness. According to her it was not every woman who could with impunity be at table in the presence of a lover; the first distortion of the face, she said, would be enough to spoil all. Gross meals made for the body merely ought to be abandoned to bourgeoises, and the refined woman should appear to take a little nourishment merely to sustain her, and even to divert her, as one takes refreshments and ices. Wealth did not suffice for this: a particular talent was required. Mme. de Sablé was a mistress in this art. She had transported the aristocratic spirit, and the genre précieux, good breeding and good taste, even into cookery. Her dinners, without any opulence, were celebrated and sought after.”
It is quite in accordance with all this that Madame de Sablé should delight in fine scents, and we find that she did; for being threatened, in her Port Royal days, when she was at an advanced age, with the loss of smell, and writing for sympathy and information to Mère Agnès, who had lost that sense early in life, she receives this admonition from the stern saint: “You would gain by this loss, my very dear sister, if you made use of it as a satisfaction to God, for having had too much pleasure in delicious scents.” Scarron describes her as
“La non pareille Bois–Dauphine,
Entre dames perle très fine,”
and the superlative delicacy implied by this epithet seems to have belonged equally to her personal habits, her affections, and her intellect.
Madame de Sablé’s life, for anything we know, flowed on evenly enough until 1640, when the death of her husband threw upon her the care of an embarrassed fortune. She found a friend in Réné de Longueil, Seigneur de Maisons, of whom we are content to know no more than that he helped Madame de Sablé to arrange her affairs, though only by means of alienating from her family the estate of Sablé, that his house was her refuge during the blockade of Paris in 1649, and that she was not unmindful of her obligations to him, when, subsequently, her credit could be serviceable to him at court. In the midst of these pecuniary troubles came a more terrible trial — the loss of her favorite son, the brave and handsome Guy de Laval, who, after a brilliant career in the campaigns of Condé, was killed at the siege of Dunkirk, in 1646, when scarcely four-and-twenty. The fine qualities of this young man had endeared him to the whole army, and especially to Condé, had won him the hand of the Chancellor Séguire’s daughter, and had thus opened to him the prospect of the highest honors. His loss seems to have been the most real sorrow of Madame de Sablé’s life. Soon after followed the commotions of the Fronde, which put a stop to social intercourse, and threw the closest friends into opposite ranks. According to Lenet, who relies on the authority of Gourville, Madame de Sablé was under strong obligations to the court, being in the receipt of a pension of 2000 crowns; at all events, she adhered throughout to the Queen and Mazarin, but being as far as possible from a fierce partisan, and given both by disposition and judgment to hear both sides of the question, she acted as a conciliator, and retained her friends of both parties. The Countess de Maure, whose husband was the most obstinate of frondeurs, remained throughout her most cherished friend, and she kept up a constant correspondence with the lovely and intrepid heroine of the Fronde, Madame de Longueville. Her activity was directed to the extinction of animosities, by bringing about marriages between the Montagues and Capulets of the Fronde — between the Prince de Condé, or his brother, and the niece of Mazarin, or between the three nieces of Mazarin and the sons of three noblemen who were distinguished leaders of the Fronde. Though her projects were not realized, her conciliatory position enabled her to preserve all her friendships intact, and when the political tempest was over, she could assemble around her in her residence, in the Place Royal, the same society as before. Madame de Sablé was now approaching her twelfth lustrum, and though the charms of her mind and character made her more sought after than most younger women, it is not surprising that, sharing as she did in the religious ideas of her time, the concerns of “salvation” seemed to become pressing. A religious retirement, which did not exclude the reception of literary friends or the care for personal comforts, made the most becoming frame for age and diminished fortune. Jansenism was then to ordinary Catholicism what Puseyism is to ordinary Church of Englandism in these days — it was a récherché form of piety unshared by the vulgar; and one sees at once that it must have special attractions for the précieuse. Madame de Sablé, then, probably about 1655 or ’56, determined to retire to Port Royal, not because she was already devout, but because she hoped to become so; as, however, she wished to retain the pleasure of intercourse with friends who were still worldly, she built for herself a set of apartments at once distinct from the monastery and attached to it. Here, with a comfortable establishment, consisting of her secretary, Dr. Valant, Mademoiselle de Chalais, formerly her dame de compagnie, and now become her friend; an excellent cook; a few other servants, and for a considerable time a carriage and coachman; with her best friends within a moderate distance, she could, as M. Cousin says, be out of the noise of the world without altogether forsaking it, preserve her dearest friendships, and have before her eyes edifying examples —“vaquer enfin à son aise aux soins de son salut et à ceux de sa santé.”
We have hitherto looked only at one phase of Madame de Sablé’s character and influence — that of the précieuse. But she was much more than this: she was the valuable, trusted friend of noble women and distinguished men; she was the animating spirit of a society, whence issued a new form of French literature; she was the woman of large capacity and large heart, whom Pascal sought to please, to whom Arnauld submitted the Discourse prefixed to his “Logic,” and to whom La Rochefoucauld writes: “Vous savez que je ne crois que vous êtes sur de certains chapitres, et surtout sur les replis da cœur.” The papers preserved by her secretary, Valant, show that she maintained an extensive correspondence with persons of various rank and character; that her pen was untiring in the interest of others; that men made her the depositary of their thoughts, women of their sorrows; that her friends were as impatient, when she secluded herself, as if they had been rival lovers and she a youthful beauty. It is into her ear that Madame de Longueville pours her troubles and difficulties, and that Madame de la Fayette communicates her little alarms, lest young Count de St. Paul should have detected her intimacy with La Rochefoucauld. 3
544 pages; ISBN 9780141958729
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Title: Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings
Author: A. S. Byatt; George Eliot