George Eliot: The Emergent Self By Ruby V. Redinger
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1975
SHE PRODUCED A SIMILAR AND LASTING IMPRESSION UPON THE hypersensitive William Hale White (his pseudonym was Mark Rutherford), who came to work for Chapman and to lodge in 142 Strand sometime in the fall of 1852. Very much like George Eliot herself, although twelve years her junior, White had experienced the painful change from orthodox belief to a kind of spiritualized agnosticism which cannot easily be summed up in words, but which essentially places the traditional responsibility of God upon the shoulders of living human beings. White too was to be a novelist. Not destined to become as well known as she, he was in his writing, again like George Eliot, to draw the line between subjectively determined personal beliefs and the inexorable nonpersonal laws of nature (including psychological ones). Also by coincidence or not, he was to follow her in translating Spinoza. Possibly he sensed his own future and more cohesive self in her. For whatever reason, he was magnetically attracted to her from, so it seems, his first sight of and faltering talk with her.
When White came to the Strand, he was more adrift than she was by then. In fact his position was, in a figurative way, not unlike what hers had been in 1849 after the death of her father. Only a few months before coming to Chapman, he had been expelled from New College, London,
a Noncomformist theological school-on a charge of heresy. This experience marked the great spiritual watershed of his life. On the one side of the event lay his early life in the Calvinistic Dissenting society of Bedford and Chestnut [sic] College; on the other lay an uncharted country he was to spend the rest of his life exploring.
In search of employment, White was led to Chapman, not only because of the latter's general reputation for supporting free thought but because he had published the translation of Strauss's Life of Jesus, which White, along with many others older and more sophisticated in the New Rationalism, thought the most significant, controversial book of the mid-century (only the Origin of the Species in 1859 could be said to supplant it). Chapman accepted White as a publisher's canvasser, but only after subjecting him to a rigorous catechism concerning his belief in miracles. To this White responded much as George Eliot might have done, saying, in effect, that although he did not believe in the literal truth of so-called miracles, he did believe in their symbolic value. Chapman was only partially satisfied, as White records:
"This reply was allowed to pass although my scepticism would have been more satisfactory and more useful if it had been a little more thorough." This is some indication of Chapman's personal and staunch espousal of the atheistic literature that he published-a fact which has since been overshadowed by the more sensational details of his relationships with women.
White was soon disenchanted by what he considered the "cold negativism" of Chapman's publications, although there is no evidence that he lost respect for Chapman as an individual. Very soon after his arrival at the Strand, he wrote his father about his reawakened appreciation of the Gospels:
No literary world here full of attempts at book and sentence making, no writing for the sake of writing, no thought of publishing here, no vain empty cleverness. . . . Oh, after all the soul rests only in calm satisfaction on the soul nothing short of this - and if you feel in a book that the writer's heart, his own real truest thought is not present, there is no rest but a vague dissatisfaction and disquiet.
George Eliot might well have written this herself after her struggle with Strauss. In fact, there might be an echo of the real George Eliot In White's words, for very soon after meeting her as a fellow lodger the Strand, he was "entirely overcome with unhesitating absorbing love for her." She played for him on the piano that Chapman had
bought for her use, and they exchanged confessions, he describing a
mild but compulsive wine-drinking habit of which he had by then cured himself through rigorous self-discipline. She showed sympathetic interest
in his most trifling remarks, and in her presence White cast off his excessive shyness and felt release from the morbid anxiety that tormented him when he was left to himself. In fervent tribute he was to say of her: "Blessed are they who heal us of self-despisings."
In White's many direct and indirect references to George Eliot, there is little if any indication that he was aware of an emotionally tinged relationship between her and Chapman. However, it may be want that in the Autobiography of Mark Rutherford - White's thinly disguised fictional account of his earliest years, including his stay at the Strand - Chapman (as Wollaston) and George Eliot (as Theresa) are presented as uncle and niece, thus rendering their physical and intellectual closeness a family relationship. Certainly he gives no evidence (as Eliza Lynn appears to have done) of being repulsed by any word, tone, or gesture he may have observed in either Chapman or George Eliot. To the contrary, his love for her remained with him throughout his long life. Assuredly this was an idealistic love, for at the time he was also (much to his perplexity) still in love with the young woman who was to become his first wife. Unlike Prufrock, he dared to ask the question but, according to his own admission, not to the right woman: "Oh! when I look back now over my life and call to mind what I might have had simply for taking and did not take, my heart is like to break. The curse for me has not been plucking forbidden fruit, but the refusal of divine fruit offered me by heavenly angels." Although he did not accept the proffered love according to his own account, and one can only guess to what extent George Eliot actually offered it, Wilfred Stone points out that "throughout his writings we are shown middle-aged men who in second marriages find the opportunity to rectify their earlier mistakes, to marry their George Eliots, and to find the real happiness their youthful inhibitions had lost for them."
The extant records disclose only two attempts on White's part to communicate with George Eliot after their separate departures from the Strand. Almost a quarter of a century later, he wrote to ask her help in finding remunerative work as a translator for William Maccall, whom both had known at the Chapmans'. If he had hoped that his letter would elicit a personal reply he was disappointed, for as she was then (in May 1876) under the exhausting strain of finishing Daniel Deronda, Lewes had taken over all correspondence except that to her most personal friends. Lewes did fulfill his promise to do what he could for Maccall by talking to Chapman about him. Apparently his talk led to something substantial, for White wrote to thank Lewes. In acknowledging this, Lewes in turn thanked White for "the very acceptable present you have sent Mrs. Lewes, with the graceful letter which preceded it. She is much touched at your having thought of gratifying her by the portrait of her old favorite. . . ." (Presumably the acceptable present was a portrait of Maccall, although "her old favorite" is a somewhat mystifying description. However, she had thought highly enough of Maccall to observe in March 1852 that he was "too good a man to write otherwise than sincerely. . . ." ) So again White was cheated of a message from her own hand. She and Lewes had found his letter waiting when they returned from a pleasant but tiring trip to France and Switzerland. A more drastic strain for her was the fact that although the final part of Daniel Deronda had at last appeared in print, the sale of the novel had decreased. Or was it that she was reluctant to risk reopening what had been, although long ago, a very personal relationship?
There is no way of knowing how much White understood of the possible reasons for her not writing to him herself. If he was hurt by her avoidance of a direct exchange of letters with him, he gave no outward sign, nor did his references to her diminish in respect or ardor. The letter he sent to the Athenaeum on the publication of Cross's Life in 1885 could have served, had it been more widely read and heeded, as a very much needed corrective to the unfortunate legend about to be perpetrated by George Eliot's best-meaning friends. On the whole, these friends were younger people, intimate with her only during the last years of her life; White too was younger than she, but old enough to have known her best before she had become an image which belonged more to the literate public than to herself. He remembered and valued her as a person who was avant-garde in her thinking and perhaps in her actions too. Even more important to White personally was the memory of her physical appearance, which - so one senses-had merged in his mind with the lingering recollection of the spell cast upon him by her presence. Thus in his later years he reminisced about the marvel of her intellectual attainments, and also her "particularly beautiful" hair and the "curiously shifting light" of her gray eyes-eyes which were generally soft and tender, but convertible into the keenest flash." White's second wife noted: "Of George Eliot he spoke with such devotion, such humility, such peace. He said she was a sweet, gentle creature; he said: 'I could worship that woman.'"
Unknowingly, White was testifying to the existence of the woman Herbert Spencer had discovered. She was, despite an appealing unconventionality, dignified, calm, self-possessed, and compassionately interested in others to the extent of effacing the more aggressive elements of her personality. Conventionally determined beauty had little to do with her appeal to the men who came within her emotional ken. White had been so receptive to that powerful yet gently persuasive personality perhaps because he was younger than Spencer, less warily accepting of a proffered strength outside himself directed toward his own ego. Spencer was well aware of this peculiar strength but backed away from it, feeling it a threat to his own carefully constructed inner defenses. Chapman too knew that strength and came to rely upon it, but could not resist discovering its vulnerability and toying with it. The Brays and Hennells had also experienced the impact of the power that was within her, but by 1852 they had become accustomed to it, taking it for granted until it exploded once more in their midst when she eloped with Lewes.
White's testimony makes it clear that the forces which had long brought havoc to George Eliot's inner life were at last being manifested in an outward way constructive both for herself and the recipients. White could also have testified to what was to be felt by 'almost everyone who knew her during her days of fame - that the novels, no matter how impressive, seemed insignificant when set against her living presence.