Saturday 1 July 2006

The Sage of Unbelief (2006)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIIII No. 1 Summer  2006

George Eliot and Unorthodox Choices

By Susan Frome

Sometimes, particularly today, it can appear that we live in a world where many of our ideals seem lost and forgotten and a disturbing indifference has settled in. A number of people suffer from either knee-jerk conformity or ironic detachment. As a result we may have at last come to a time when we need reminders that our hard-won personal beliefs are worth rescuing. One way is to return to the lives and work of notable others who have wrestled with many of the same problems and asked some of the same questions. For example: how to live our lives given the society we are in? How to recreate our own moral philosophies and how to live by them? What are the values and consequences of such possibly unorthodox choices? In this vein, let us look at a renowned Victorian author who wrote provocative novels to share her ideas about the meaningful life.

In the mid-19th century, Marian Evans Lewes, also known as George Eliot, was considered a 'Fallen Woman' - 'not a prostitute exactly', but a woman who had become sexually intimate with a man who could not or would not marry her. Cast out from society, her only way of living was quietly and anonymously.

Eliot was thereby unconventional, ostracized, and guilty of making unorthodox choices. Ironically though, in later years she became one of England's greatest novelists, a moralist, and a secular saint of iconic status.

One of the philosophical beliefs that brought her to a kind of sainthood was her answer to that basic question 'How shall we live now?' after her young step-son, Thornie, died a horrible death at home. Her response was that she could not take refuge in the 'easy consolations of orthodox faith', and instead felt one should 'nourish fellow feeling towards the men and women you encounter every day'. Later it was Eliot's combination of intellectual understanding and warm empathy that drew hundreds of people to her home with their religious difficulties and their troubled souls. They had come to believe that she held the secret of how to live a good life. Thus she was known as the 'Sage of Unbelief'. In sum, she left the Church of England in favor of agnosticism, went against the marriage canon, and developed a unique way of living, calling it 'Meliorism', stemming from the word ameliorate, meaning to make or become better. All told, she went counter to custom and society's rules and regulations and in so doing became her nation's greatest novelist of the time (after Dickens death), elevated to 'the rank of the Immortals.' 

To understand how this all came about we have to go back to Eliot's youth on a large estate in Warwickshire, where her father worked as the foreman -- thus her roots in a country ambiance.

She was sent off to a private school where she came under the teaching influence of Maria Lewis, a follower of evangelicalism, a brand of Anglicanism and a wing of the Church of England. Its fundamentalist fervour appealed to the teenage Mary Ann, as she devoted herself to the constant diet of prayer, bible study, and self-scrutiny. However, when her father fell ill, she came home to tend him and began to read extensively from many sources. She eventually enjoyed 'one of the greatest self-educations of the century.'

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

Later in the mid-1850s, Marian Evans, as she called herself upon reaching adulthood, translated the work of Auguste Comte, the French 'Father of Sociology', Spinoza's Ethics, and the German work of Ludwig Feuerbach: The Essence of Christianity.

Spinoza stressed the need for people 'to turn selfishness to social account by means of sympathetic action towards others with whom they have a natural fellow feeling...', as well as that 'the modern state has the responsibility of looking after the common man, and the common man has the responsibility of looking after himself.' Feuerbach focused on the social and moral aspects of human relations rather than on Christian beliefs. In Eliot's subsequent novels she wrote of the 'divine fellowship' between human beings 'rather than between man and God'. Binding men together offered a greater value to their existence.

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

After running away to Geneva with the Brays and wandering by herself as well, she returned to London where she began to work for John Chapman, a publishing friend of the Brays. She and Chapman were lovers for a while even though she lived in his boarding house run by his wife. But Chapman owned the prestigious literary magazine, The Westminster Review, and Eliot became its editor. Through the Review, Marian met exciting and laudable writers (Charles Dickens for one), and intellectuals such as Herbert Spencer, the leader of the new discipline of Sociology. Though their interest in each other developed into a long friendship, (Spencer rejected their marriage partly because of her plain, 'mannish' looks), he introduced her to his friend, George W. Lewes, a journalist and editor of The Leader, another literary publication. And so began their serious love affair, but the problem, of course, was that Lewes was married with five children.

Divorce was impossible. So, Marian and Lewes ran off together in the summer of 1854 to Germany where Lewes was to write a biography of Goethe (which became a noteworthy success). They returned as 'Mr. and Mrs. Lewes,' and, as a 'married' couple, rented a house in London far enough from the center of things. Marian soon discovered the price she would have to pay as a 'fallen woman:' she was shunned by her former friends including the Brays, London literary wives, and ladies of the upper class. Lewes was allowed to socialize but not Marian. As it turned out, she and Lewes lived happily together for 22 years until his death in 1876. It was well known that Lewes had been instrumental in encouraging Marian to write her classic novels and in emotionally supporting her through the hard times.

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

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

All these evolving influences, including Spinoza's advice to give up 'the fantasy of a Divine presence' and focus on caring for others, crystallized in Eliot's personal beliefs and found their way into her novels. Writing fiction was, for her, a moral activity, more like producing philosophy than telling stories, widening our sympathies, creating narratives that were socially and morally useful and reflecting the beliefs listed above. Eliot also believed that individuals and characters should strive 'to improve according to a humanist ethic'.

In her first novel, Adam Bede, the peasants' lives are depicted in genuine and honest ways. One of the lessons Adam Bede learns is to stay with his beloved even under the worst of circumstances. The young and beautiful Hetty Sorrel, Bede's fiancé, is bored with the coarseness of the peasant life around her and strives to marry the rich landowner. Marian herself had felt the same way, but as a mature novelist she realized that the old country rituals actually represented 'ties which for centuries had bound men and women together in mutual obligation.' Hetty suffers a tragic ending to her story. In The Mill on the Floss , Maggie ends up cruelly ostracized for living with a married man as Eliot had, and the author shows how society is quick to condemn behaviour that is not understood. Dorothea, in Middlemarch, like young Mary Ann, is concerned over serious religious issues while her flighty girlfriends are not:
'To Dorothea, the destinies of mankind . . . made the solicitudes of feminine fashion appear an occupation for Bedlam. She could not reconcile the anxieties of a spiritual life. . . with a keen interest in [the] ... artificial protrusions of drapery.'
Dorothea also wishes to build new cottages for the peasants working on her future husband's estate. She says, 'I hope I should be able to get the people well housed in Lowick!...I think we deserve to be beaten out of our beautiful houses with a scourge of small cords - all of us who let tenants live in such sites as we see around us.' The hero of Felix Holt, the Radical, gives an address to the working men:
'[He] lectures the new voters about their 'heavy responsibility', the sanctity of doing work well, the 'dependence of men on each other' the organic, slow-growing nature of society and culture'.
Rosemary Ashton, the author of George Eliot: A Life, concludes that this is a 'sombre piece of secular preaching' by Eliot.

In Daniel Deronda, (her last published novel), Eliot took on a very serious subject: 'the thoughtless but insidious anti-Semitism she had observed.' In a letter to Harriet Beecher Stowe in America in 1876, she expressed her anger over the way English upper classes talked about the Jewish people in her country:
'Can anything be more disgusting than to hear people called 'educatedÇ making small jokes about the people they think themselves witty in insulting?... The best that can be said of it is, that it is a sign of the intellectual narrowness - in plain English, the stupidity, which is still the average mark of our culture.' 
The book is a long and complicated story set in Eliot's own time period in and around London. In due course, the hero, Deronda, is torn between his love for two women - Gwendolyn, a haughty, vain, contemptuous but beautiful girl who will only come down off her high horse when threatened by the odious prospect of having to work as a governess. Deronda's other love is Mirah, a young, poor Jewess who is rescued from drowning by Deronda. He not only comes to her aid but subsequently becomes drawn to Judaic rituals and religious teachings. Morality is at issue here as Gwendolyn becomes confused by her attraction to Deronda and his sensitive, moral integrity, while Mirah becomes a model of ancient ideals as she undauntedly attempts to find her lost mother and brother. At one point, Deronda counsels Gwnedolyn by saying, 'The refuge you are needing from personal trouble is the higher, the religious life, which holds an enthusiasm for something more than our own appetites and vanities'.

Clearly Eliot was stimulated by these moral challenges she presented to her readers. By writing intensely about her characters' inner lives, her readers in turn felt that they knew her and she knew them. She helped them grapple with problems 'that beset thoughtful Victorians, balancing the rights of the individual with the needs of others', and guided them to lead moral lives. In fact, 'her insightful psychological novels paved the way to modern character portrayals', as Dostoevsky was doing during the same period. Eliot believed that fiction could offer the best teaching of these beliefs 'because it deals with life in its highest complexity'.

On balance however, it would be inaccurate to think of Eliot as a consistently 'saintly' person. Like other human beings she had her contradictions and perhaps even hypocrisies. Individualism was a principle she certainly lived by, yet her fictional heroines were usually forced to accept quiet, dependent lives. In Middlemarch, Dorothea is encouraged to support her husband in his worthwhile work while she cares for the children.

Another example of Eliot's inconsistencies would have to be her views about wealth. Her characters come from the middle and peasant classes and some, like Mrs. Cadwallader, openly degrade the rich. But when Eliot started earning a lot of money, she and Lewes turned over their financial business to a friend from America, John Cross, a banker whose investments for them in canal, railway, and gas companies in Britain and America made the Leweses secure for the rest of their lives. Prior to this, Eliot had seen the railroad as an unhappy sign of progress, ruining the quiet country landscape of her youth. In addition, she began to enjoy expensive clothes, furs, hats 'always in the height of the Paris fashion,' and a custom-made landau, the equivalent of a Rolls Royce.

Lewes died in 1878. Eliot could not leave her room even to attend his funeral, but by 1880 she was ready to marry John Cross, twenty years her junior, who had had to propose three times. They were married at the Anglican Church, which some thought an hypocrisy on the part of an agnostic. Eliot passed away in December of 1880, only seven months after their marriage. She was buried in Highgate Cemetary near George Lewes, and a hundred years later a memorial stone was erected in her honour in Westminster Abbey's Poets Corner. Today she seems to have more and more to tell us about orthodoxy and un-orthodoxy, dictatorial authority and virtuous authority. Perhaps it is time, like Eliot, to make unorthodox choices based on a moral philosophy which cares about our fellow women and men at home and around the world. 
Perhaps it is time to return to these classics and this extraordinary woman writer to learn again that we need to make our own choices, orthodox or not, based on beliefs we create or incorporate. Eliot is certainly an example of living paradoxically as an agnostic and a moralist - encouraging us to go back to our roots and decide what is important and worth living for.

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