A Celebration of Women Writers

"George Eliot." by Miss Ida M. Street.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 286-292.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 286] 



Thought flows over the world in waves. These thought-waves have different manifestations in government, society, religion and literature. Indeed, literature may be called their index, giving often a perfect reflection of their manifestations in society and religion. Justin McCarty says that each reform or era of reform has its accompanying wave of writers as well as statesmen. Whipple believes that every change in the habits, opinions, manners, governments, and religions of society calls for and creates a new epoch in literature, and Bascom has made the presence of these literary waves the basis of his philosophical survey of English literature. Moreover, there have been borne on every new flood of thought that has swept over the world, some individuals who have personified the predominant idea of their era; men whose antecedents, education and temperament have made them typical of the mass of their contemporaries; men whose actions or whose words have voiced the peculiar theories of their times. They have not only been prominent for their intrinsic genius but types of their era either in action, in philosophy, or in literature.

The present century has been what the Germans would call a Sturm und Drang period. It began in revolutions, and at times seems likely to end in the same turbulent fashion. The overpowering rush of new ideas has been made manifest by the excitable French in bloody revolutions and the establishment of futile republics, by the phlegmatic and dreamy Germans in new and startling philosophies, by the conservative and practical English in peaceful political reforms and fresh and highly imaginative literature.

At the close of the last century this dogmatic, arbitrary tenor of mind was represented in religion by a lifeless set of mere forms; in statesmanship, by the despotism of the Bourbons in France, and the domination of the aristocracy in England; in literature, by the servile imitation of Boileau and Pope.

The movement peculiar to this century is the exaltation of man and law. This movement might be more accurately compared to a tide than a flood, for it had its ebb and flow, its spring and neap tide, its law of action and reaction. Starting from conventionalism in the eighteenth century, there has not been one grand sweep on to a Utopia of perfect liberty in the close of the nineteenth. Although we have not yet [Page 287]  seen the close of the century we can distinctly trace the ebb and flow of the great idea–liberty–and see that it has limitations and a law of control.

The first political wave appeared in the French revolution in 1792, when the Bourbon dynasty, representing the tyranny of the feudal system, was overthrown. The tide rose to a destructive height in the Reign of Terror. License was found to be a greater tyrant than an absolute monarch. Popular feeling, especially in England, revolted from the new movement. This high tide was followed by an ebb in the emperorship of Napoleon I., and the new movement seemed utterly defeated and conservatism to be again in the ascendency after the battle of Waterloo. It was during this period of reaction when the old dogmatism was again dominant, and the new ideas were fermenting in secret, that George Eliot was born and attained maturity. The new movement broke forth again in the French revolution of 1848. With minor tides of success and defeat, political freedom has since steadily advanced in France, and by reflex action in England also.

The American Revolution of 1776 had shaken England out of some of her old ideas, when by the constitutional monarchy, inaugurated by William III. she had already placed herself one step in advance of other European countries. For this reason and because of the natural conservatism of English people, the danger of bloody political revolutions was not great in England, but her peaceful reforms indicated the growth of the liberating impulse. The labor trouble and plots that were brewing under the arbitrary policy of Castlereagh were counteracted by the liberal policy of Canning. In 1829, England emancipated the Catholics. In 1832 she passed the Reform Bill which gave the large towns representatives in Parliament, and two years later restored to them their right of self-government. This was the most important step in her political reform. In 1833 she abolished slavery, and struck a blow at monopolies in commerce by opening the East-India trade to all merchants. In 1846 the protective corn laws were repealed and the principles of free-trade established. In 1867 the new reform bill and national education made the last steps to political freedom. All these changes were permeated by that spirit of democracy and charity toward one's fellowmen, that is the best element of the nineteenth-century movement.

Lecky says: "Men like Bacon, Descartes, and Locke, have probably done more than any others to set the current of their age. They have formed a certain cast and tone of mind. They have introduced peculiar habits of thought, new modes of reasoning, new tendencies of inquiry. The impulse they have given to higher literature has been by that literature communicated to the more popular writers, and the impress of these master minds is clearly visible in the writings of multitudes who are totally unacquainted with their works."

The minds of men at any one era might be represented by a placid lake, into which the theory of some great thinker, thrown like a pebble, creates ripples, at first small, but gradually widening to the farthest shore. If several pebbles were thrown about the same time, the result would be more or less confusion of ripples upon the water. This was somewhat the condition of thought in the middle of the century.

This religion of humanity is the keynote to the most liberal thought of the century. The ideas expressed by Comte have been, in one form or another, either partially or wholly believed by almost every prominent man during the last fifty years, and published in every popular magazine. Even the conservative element–the mystics, as Hegel would call them–who still held to their belief in a Supreme power outside humanity, dwelt more often than formerly on Christ's second commandment and preached more frequently from the text of "The Good Samaritan."

The bitter contest between science and religion has now settled down into an amiable compromise in which religion has adopted science; but we are principally interested in the Sturm und Drang period when this conflict was one of the straws of the popular current. The great age of the earth, as told by geology, was an agitating missile thrown by science, but probably the largest pebble from that source was Darwin's theory of evolution. This may be considered both as a result and a cause. It [Page 288]  was an outgrowth of the system of investigation and method of thought used by Darwin and his scientific contemporaries. It has been also a great impetus to the growth of the materialistic, as opposed to the spiritualistic, theory of the origin of man. A belief in the law of evolution does not now necessarily imply a disbelief in a Divine Creator, but for a long time it did. The fallacy lay in the supposition that law was itself a creator, and not a method of action. The scientists of the century have done a missionary work in discovering and explaining laws of nature; but they have made the mistake of deifying law, as the positivists have man.

A third pebble was John Henry Newman, and the Oxford movement. The Tractarian gospel was a protest against the formalism of the Established Church. It wished to convince churchmen that they did not belong to a mere national institution, but to a living branch of that great Catholic Church which Christ had founded eighteen centuries ago. They wished to make the dry bones live, to turn formal devotions into joyous acts of faith and piety. Coleridge had partly paved the way for this movement in calling attention to the writings of the earlier Anglican divines and in his transcendental philosophy. Both Newman and Coleridge were as far as possible from the materialists in most points; they only agreed in opposition to the old dogmatism, and belief in a divine element in man. They differed on the source of this divinity–Coleridge and Newman deriving it from God, the materialists from nature. Coleridge, being more of a philosopher, turned to Unitarianism; Newman, a devotionist, to Roman Catholicism. The apparent result of Tractarianism was the rise of Ritualism, and a great revival in the charities which had become a neglected fringe upon the garment of the church. The practical outcome of Positivism and Ritualism was the same–a greater devotion to the needs of humanity.

Another pebble in the pool of English thought was the iconoclast, Thomas Carlyle. He was not the founder of any philosophy, but as a fearless disciple of truth he demolished many idols of dogmatism. He might be called the grand English skeptic. If, like a reckless pioneer, he sometimes blazed the wrong tree, yet he most effectively cleared out the underbrush, and gave those who came after him a chance to see his mistakes and avoid them. He carried with him a healthful mental breeze that has cleared the fogs from the brain of many a young student.

To this period, skeptical in religion, scientific in method, philosophical in thought, fond of prose, drama and the novel in literature, belongs George Eliot. We now wish to show that in antecedents, education, temperament, and in her writings, she represents the mass of her contemporaries–is a type of her era.

Her birthplace was in the Midlands, where the good, old-fashioned agricultural and Tory element was just beginning to feel the encroachments of the manufacturing towns, but had not yet lost the rural characteristics. Mr. Gross says of her: "Her roots were down in the pre-railroad, pre-telegraphic period–the fine old days of leisure–but the fruit was found during an era of extraordinary activity in scientific and mechanical discovery."

Her father was a Tory of the best type–conscientious in his business, thorough in his work, and naturally conservative. She has represented him in Adam Bede and Caleb Garth. And what she says of Caleb Garth was no doubt true of her father: "Though he had never regarded himself as other than an orthodox Christian, and would argue on prevenient grace, if the subject were proposed to him, I think his virtual divinities were good practical schemes, accurate work, and the faithful completion of undertakings; his prince of darkness was a slack workman." Her mother was a shrewd, practical woman of much natural force, and with a dash of Mrs. Poyser's wit.

This love of old and aversion to change, link her with her countrymen. The average Englishman of the middle of the century had his origin in such communities as those described in Adam Bede, Silas Marner, Felix Holt and Mill on the Floss. To fully understand the average man of the century, we must know not only the French influences that worked upon him, but the good English soil from which he sprung; not only the liberal thought of his later life, but the narrow conventionalism of his childhood. [Page 289] 

Her middle-class birth also makes her a representative of a numerous class of Englishmen. The well-to-do farmer, the intelligent artisan and tradesman, form the bulk of her characters. The very aristocratic or the very poor, enter upon her pages but as supernumeraries. In this she is in perfect sympathy with her age. The great struggles of the century have been to emancipate the middle class and place them, socially, mentally, and politically, on a level with the highest. They have become in reality the ruling power in England.

In looking at her life, we see, then, a child of middle-class parents, born and bred in Middle England among a rural old-fashioned people, and surrounded by conservative influences. Upon this foundation of conservatism is engrafted a capability of intense feeling. She says of herself: "I can never live long without enthusiasm in some form or another." This capability for feeling is the main element of a religious character, if, as Adam Bede says, "Religion's something else besides notions and doctrines. It isn't notions set people doing the right thing, it's feelings." With this emotion, there was in her mind, as in Dorothea's, "a current into which all thought and feeling were apt sooner or later to flow–the reaching forward of the whole consciousness toward the fullest truth, the least partial good." "She yearned toward the perfect right, that it might make a throne within her, and rule her errant will. The keystone of the intellectual faculties is the reason, and George Eliot had a thoroughly logical mind. In one of her letters she speaks of a book that is full of "wit" to her. "It gives me that exquisite kind of laughter that comes from the gratification of the reasoning faculties." This book–Mr. Hennel's Inquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity–was the awakener of her skepticism. It expressed the reaction of reason against the arbitrary or miraculous system of explaining the facts in the New Testament. He attempted to show that, leaving out of account miraculous agencies, Christ's life could be explained in a logical way. His proof in detail is not conclusive to us, but its significance lay in the fact that men were beginning to dare to apply reason to the fundamental facts of Christianity. George Eliot expressed this daring when she said "To fear the examination of any proposition appears to me an intellectual and moral palsy, that will ever hinder the firm grasping of any substance whatever. For my part, I wish to be among the ranks of that glorious crusade that is seeking to set Truth's holy Sepulchre free from a usurped domination." Carlyle was the leader in this crusade that fearlessly said: "Two and two make four, in religion and society, as well as mathematics." Her logical faculty is as strong an element in her as her emotions, and her life from this on is a struggle between religious feelings and intellectual skepticism. Of other writers in this era, Tennyson mirrors the same struggle in "In Memoriam," and Matthew Arnold in his futile attempts to be an agnostic. It was truly the, "Strum und Drang" period, and these men and women of the time were tossed about between the buffets of dogmatism and skepticism till their poor weather-beaten boats were almost unseaworthy.

George Eliot's life in London as Mr. Chapman's assistant on the "Westminster Review," and her union with Mr. Lewes strengthened her skepticism, and, at least outwardly, identified her with positivism. Let us next consider how far she agreed with the main ideas of Comte's theory. She believed there was a law governing human society; that nothing came by chance; that every event had its logical cause in preceding events; that every act had its reason in the nature of the individual. Mr. Irwine says in Adam Bede:–"A man can never do anything at variance with his own nature. He carries within him the germ of his most exceptional action; and if we wise people make eminent fools of ourselves on any particular occasion, we must endure the legitimate conclusion that we carry a few grains of folly to our ounce of wisdom."

In the delineation of her principal characters, she follows a natural law and not a false criterion of perfection. "The blessed work of helping the world forward, happily does not wait to be done by perfect men; and I should imagine that neither Luther nor John Bunyan, for example, would have satisfied the modern demand for an ideal hero, who believes nothing but what is true, feels nothing but what is exalted [Page 290]  and does nothing but what is graceful. The real heroes of God's making are quite different; they have their natural heritages of love and conscience, which they drew in with their mothers' milk; they know one or two of those deep spiritual truths which are only to be won by long wrestling with their own sins and their own sorrows; they have earnest faith and strength so far as they have done genuine work, but the rest is dry, barren theory, blank prejudice, vague hearsay."

In her fictitious world the heroes and heroines grow by a series of misfortunes and mistakes to know their weaknesses and conquer them. "No man is matriculated to the art of life till he has been well tempted." Heroism consists in facing the results of mistakes, not succumbing to them.

George Eliot's princes of darkness are not intrinsically bad, but are fallen angels like Tito Melema, Hetty Poyser and Rosamond Vincy–fallen through a persistent course of self-indulgence.

But, as Mr. Farebrother says, "You have not only got the old Adam within yourself against you, but you have got all those descendants of the original Adam, who form the society about you." How to conquer the external Adam is the problem of social regeneration. In solving this problem the positivists have deduced from experience the same law that the Christians have by revelation, that self-interests must be sacrificed where they interfere with the interests of all. We are too closely bound together to have separate interests. "So deeply inherent is it in this life of ours that men have to suffer for each other's sins; so inevitably diffusive is human suffering that even justice makes its victims, and we can conceive no retribution that does not spread beyond its mark in pulsation of unmerited pain."

Our duty, however, is not to extol nor condemn this religion of humanity; simply to ascertain as accurately as we can its place and value as a regenerator. The general theory of monotheism is that there is a Divine being, a God, who created the universe and man. Man is dual, consisting of an earthly or bodily life connecting him with the material universe, and a spiritual or soul life connecting him with his Creator. The generally accepted religion of the Western World–Christianity–has two laws, love thy God and love thy neighbor. These two were meant to be equally binding, but gradually, in the course of centuries, the second fell into disuse. The church imagined it was fulfilling the first law, but it is hard to love a being of whom one has no immediate knowledge. The idea of God became more and more indistinct. Theologians created gods from their own minds, whom they set up for worship, and these became the deities of the Christian Church. This error would have been avoided if the second law had been rigorously obeyed; for man was originally created in his Maker's image, and the love of one's neighbor, and the self-denial necessary thereto, would have taught man some of the most important attributes of divinity. The spark of divinity which God had placed in man–the soul–was smoldering for lack of fuel, and that once out man would be forever alienated from his Creator. Man had lost faith in the divinity within him, and was by his theology putting his God further and further away. Since the time of Luther there had been no widespread reformation among Christian nations, and they had reached such a state of religious torpor that one was necessary. The reformation of the nineteenth century has been to revivify the second commandment, "Love thy neighbor." The folly lay in ignoring the first law, love thy God. Dogmatism said, "There is a God;" and skepticism, reacting from that, said, "How do you know? We know nothing but what we can prove." They denied in toto the Divine authority of both commandments, but deduced the second from human experience.

God has two means of revelation–his material creation and the spiritual nature of his creature, man. Communicating through the spiritual natures of the first races of men, he had by inspiration, so-called, produced a Bible or written law, and afterward, through his special prophet Christ, a more advanced Gospel. This had been accepted by the church as sole authority, and its correlative nature had been ignored. Without this key or safeguard against misinterpretation, God's written law became a [Page 291]  blind guide. In the course of time man so tortured its meaning, so overlaid it with his own misconceptions, that church Christianity became null as a means of regeneration to the average man. The reformers very naturally took the other extreme, and, ignoring God's written law, exalted his natural law. They would believe only in such a good as they could learn from nature. As far as it goes, nature is a more accurate expositor of God than the revealed word, but it is incomplete, since it cannot reveal man's spiritual nature nor its own origin. The Bible and nature were meant to be complements, and by adopting one and denying the other the reformers made themselves liable to error. The natural scientists were the more liable because their investigations ceased at animal nature, and it was easier there to deny a Creator than for the sociologists, who carried their studies on to man's social and higher nature. Thus arose materialism, which would naturally become popular with a large class of people who were ready to accept any religion that released them from obedience to a spiritual law.

Each new thinker in this new movement took a step in advance, and we shall now see how George Eliot advanced upon Comte. She belonged to the class of investigators who were studying the higher nature of man. She believed in its spiritual existence, and in studying and expounding its laws she drew nearer the truth that it must have a Divine origin. She believed in a Divine element in man that had its own laws and could live at least partly independent of material. "Justice is like the kingdom of God–it is not without us as a fact, it is within us as a great yearning."

George Eliot not only had faith in the Divine element in man to help him make this decision: "You must have it inside you that your plan is right;" but she believed in its partial independence of material causes; in this she advanced upon Comte. She believed, also, that this divinity grew, and by its growth became human regeneration. The method of its growth was by sorrow and by love. "It would not be well for us to overleap one grade of joy or suffering; our life would soon lose its completeness and beauty."

She believed in the self-regenerating power of love, not to the recipient, but to the lover. With Romola, Dorothea and Milly Barton, to love was a "Divine necessity;" they had a "sublime capacity" for it. Dempster's love for his mother was the only hope of regeneration in his degraded nature.

The love of the best we know is Carlyle's idea of hero-worship: "We needs must love the highest when we see it." Through the best human love, Browning leads his men up to a Divine love. And George Eliot also, in Adam Bede, says: "Our love at its highest flood rushes beyond its object and loses itself in the sense of Divine mystery!" And: "The growth of higher feeling within us is like the growth of faculty, bringing with it a sense of added strength; we can no more wish to return to a narrower sympathy than a painter or musician can wish to return to his cruder manner, or a philosopher to his less complete formula!"

This belief in the power of human beings, to save each other from soul destruction by leading them to a Divine love, is a great advance upon Comte, because it implies a God and His direct communication with at least some of His creatures. There comes a time in the life of all when the human helpers fail. Janet's last temptation came when she was alone, and it was an impulse rather than a resolution that finally caused her to dash the brandy bottle down. Romola, after she lost faith in Savonarola, fled again from duty, until some unseen power floated her to the pestilence-stricken village, and she learned God's love afresh. To what then has George Eliot's conscientious study of humanity led her, and how far from the materialists and Comte? To a belief in the divinity in man that is directly dependent on a Divine source. That she does not altogether believe her own conclusions seems to be proven by her life. That she had learned to depend on human love, without looking sufficiently at the Divine love beyond, seems to be the secret of her marriage to Mr. Cross. She dreaded loneliness. She felt no companionship with an unseen power, though she might believe in its existence. She had worked out her problem carefully and slowly, but in doing [Page 292]  so she had exhausted her strength and was not sure of her conclusions. Like Amos Barton she could think herself strong but not feel herself so.

Thus George Eliot, living in a period of change and upheaval, represents the conflict. By her antecedents and early surroundings she is joined by the bonds of love to her countrymen, by her intellectual development she is linked to the democratic, active spirit of her mature age. Her innate love of truth, her fearless avowal of it, and her contempt for dogmatism, are common attributes of her contemporaries. By her capability for deep emotion, and by her lingering affection for the old, she more truly represents her countrymen than more skeptical thinkers do. Like the mass of the people through all the conflict she held latent in her the capability of evolving a new religion. In her faith in the truth of feeling she foreshadows the present era, which would guide, not repress emotion by reason. If she had lived after the struggle of opinions were over, and a new peace and joy were lighting the world with promise, we know not how much more perfect her life and philosophy would have been.

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Miss Ida M. Street is a native of Oskaloosa, Ia. Her parents were William B. and Carolina M. Street. To her mother, who was a woman of wise judgment and untiring energy, is due her large intellectual attainments. She took an A. B. Degree at Vassar College in 1880, and won the Western Association of Collegiate Alumniæ Fellowship in 1888. This was the first fellowship given by the association and was placed at Michigan University. She took an A. M. Degree in this university in 1889. She has contributed essays and short poems to the New Englander and other periodicals. The more important of these are an Essay on Coriolanus, a Study of Browning's Dramas, and the Christian Spirit in United States History. She holds high rank as a professional teacher and is a young woman of rare culture and accomplishments. Her present postoffice address is Omaha High School, Omaha, Neb.

* The title of the address as delivered was: "George Eliot as a Representative of Her Time."


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom