”THE ‘FAMOUS WOMEN SERIES.’
It may seem singular that, having once drawn a woman of the highest artistic aims and ambitions, George Eliot should imply that what is most valuable in her is not the exceptional gift, but rather that part of her nature which she shares with ordinary humanity. ” And it is this kind of good,” again she says, ” that must reconcile us to life.” And here are five comely volumes of ” Lives of Famous Women,” from which we may receive some impression of what is good in women. What has made them famous ? Is it the ‘exceptional gift’ only, or that, with it, their nature held its share with ordinary humanity ? Four of them were women of great creative genius; while the fifth, Mary Lamb, could hardly be designated as such, and the inclusion of her in this list has been sharply and unreasonably criticised, as though the creative intellect alone should render a woman famous. And what of these five women,— George Eliot, Emily Bronte, George Sand, Mary Lamb, Margaret Fuller ? ‘Tis a five-pointed star, shining in the heavens like that parhelion which drew the exclamation from the friend standing with the three Bronte’ sisters, You are the three suns! All but Mary Lamb belong to this century, telling decisively the ” advancement of woman ” as a fact obtained in the science of sociology. The mind turns from one to the other, grateful for lives so full of heroism. And it is but poetic as well as historic justice that the sex has emerged from a condition of civilization and religion where women had no soul, into this, where they are main supporters in the Christian Church, the fold of all souls, though it so generally yet mistakenly postpones the soul’s concern into another world and a life after this. The writers of these studies assume that, in the only true sense, that of useful living, these were religious women. A smile of incredulity will pass over the face of those who remember George Sand’s introduction to English readers in this country. Nothing so well can be said as is said, in her defence, by Bertha Thomas, in the chapter of her able, well-arranged book, headed ‘Artist and Novelist.’ ‘Her opinions themselves,’ she says, ‘have been widely misapprehended, perhaps because her personality — or rather that imaginary personage, the George Sand of the myths—has caused a confusion in people’s minds between her ideal standard and her individual success in keeping up to it. We would not ignore the importance of personal example in one so famous as herself. We may pass by eccentricities not inviting to imitation ; for, if any of her sex ever thought to raise themselves any nearer to the level of George Sand by smoking or wearing men’s clothes, such puerility does not call for notice. Still, the influence she strenuously exerted for good, as a writer for the public, would have worked more clearly, had she never seemed to swerve from the high principles she expressed, or been led away by the disturbing forces of a nature calm only on the surface. Nothing is more baffling than the incomplete revelations of a very complex order of mind, with its many-sided sympathies and its apparent contradictions. The self-justification she puts forward for her errors is sometimes sophistical, but not for that insincere. She is not trying to make us her dupes: she is the dupe herself of her dangerous eloquence. But her moral worth so infinitely outweighed the alloy as to leave but little call, or even warrant, for dwelling on the latter’ In the union of a rare enthusiasm for moral and spiritual truth with her rare artistic genius lies her distinguishing strength. An artist in whose work the genuine desire to leave those she worked for better than she found them may indeed seem to fail, and she herself affirmed a hundred times it does fail, in its immediate results; but it helps, notwithstanding, to preserve that tradition of good desires and good deeds, without which all would perish.
Where the covering of life’s daily ways and uses shows a glimpse of her nature, it shows a religious one. From the mystical dream of her Cosambe’ to her resolve in the Convent des Anglaises for a conventual life, where she was the Sainte Aurore”, or when, further on, she found herself divorced from the doctrines of Romish infallibility under the teaching of the poet-priest, Lamennais, becoming a Protestant of Protestants, anti-Catholic as for a humanitarian Christianity, and on to her Republican and humane sympathies, even to the end of her protesting life, the religiousness of her nature controls her aims, if it did not secure her, as, says her biographer, ” from sins against the laws of decorum rather than against the principles upon which the laws of decorum are based.” .
Her works are well known, if not well understood. It is to be wished they were less known by translation than in their native tongue. None suffer more by transplanting than they. They scarcely admit of the same sense in English as in French. She embodies the old folk-lore, the superstitions of the wild, lonely, peasant life in the people she brings before us. They inherit in their blood and bones the wonder-fears and dreams and visions of sprites and elves and nixies and fairies, haunting and pursuing them from cradle to grave. They have the weird, wild mystery of Hoffman’s German stories, relieved and made beautiful by their pathetic simplicity and natural grace. Never, in any language, was a more exquisite story than La Petite Fadette, scarcely to be recognized in its dramatization into ” Fanchon.” La Muse au Diable is another of almost, if not quite, equal unsophisticated grace and tenderness. Her Histoire de. ma Vie, that most fascinating of autobiographies, gives the key to what she wrote and what she was.
When we come to George Eliot, we can reach no higher. A great creative genius among men or women ! One is not satisfied to place in counterpoise George Eliot as the greatest realist against George Sand as the greatest idealist. Is there no science of the immaterial as of the material? Is the soul lawless? Is it less imagination among the actualities of existence than among the inventive possibilities or impossibilities of thought? We make large distinctions by big words, but the inviolable unity still preserves itself; and still the real is but the projection of the ideal, and the ideal is the real. What, then, was George Eliot to the world, — the public world? See the friends and acquaintances she has given us. Here come Amos Barton, and Felix Holt and his mother, and Adam Bede and Hetty, and Silas Marner and Dolly Winthrop, and Mrs. Poyser, and Tom and Maggie Tulliver and the aunts, born to prod her on to the boiling waves, which were her final protection. Oh, those aunts, the Dodson sisters! How delicious the enjoyment in many a family of three sisters to find unmistakably in each other Sister Tulliver and Sister Glegg and Sister Pullet I And here are our English provincial friends out of Middlemarch: Dorothea and her uncle and sister, Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy, Casaubon and Ladislaw, Bulstrode, and Caleb and Mary Garth. Here come the . Jews, too, for whom we have no Christian aversion,— Deronda and Myra and the Princess Halm-Eberstein, his mother; and the Gascoignes and Mrs. Davilow and poor, peerless Gwendolen. We have buried Tito away from Romola, and left Grandcourt deep in the sea, out of sight. What has George Eliot done for the world? These are her lessons,— lessons of pitying love toward fellow-men; of sympathy with all human suffering; of unwavering faithfulness toward the social bond, consisting in the claims of race, of country, of family; of unflagging aspiration after that life which is most beneficent to the community,— that life, in short, toward which she herself aspired in the now famous prayer to reach
‘That purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
to join that
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty,—
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense ‘;
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end in self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man’s search
To vaster issues.’
Emily Bronte ‘succeeds George Eliot in the series; and into the story of her life and character the accomplished editor enters with so intense sympathy that Emily Bronte’, the author of Wuthering Heights, who, she says, ‘never saw the brightest things in life ; whose most poignant joys were sisterly love, free solitude, unpraised creation; for whom was no hint of fame, no hours of ease, no laurel shed on the coffined form,— now lives, singing of freedom, the undying soul of courage and loneliness, another voice in the wind, another glory on the mountain-top.’
In this country, certainly, Emily Bronte” were but little known, save for this written life of this series. The very name of Haworth so chills one that one realizes what mean those acquiescent words of the sister Charlotte, when, on the failure of their long attempt for a school, she writes: ‘We have made no alterations in our house. It would be folly to do so, while there is so little likelihood of our ever getting pupils. . . . Depend upon it, if you were to persuade a mamma to bring her child to Haworth, the aspect of the place would frighten her instanter. We are glad we have made the attempt, and we will not be cast down because it has not succeeded.’ ‘There was no more to be said, only to put by, as one puts by the thoughts of an interrupted marriage, all the dreams that had filled so many months; only to lay aside in a drawer the loug-sewn-at garments of a still-born child, the plans drawn out for the builder, the printed cards, the lists of books to get; only to face again a future of separate toil among strangers, to renounce the vision of a home together.’ It is an exceptionally painful story. Even the headings of the chapters forecast it to our excited and alarmed interest as we ask ourselves, How can they overtop and overlive their fate ? ‘Branwell’s Fall’ succeeds ‘Writing Poetry,’ and last ‘Emily’s Death.’
The silenced pride, the thwarted generosity, the contained passion, stilled at last! ‘These are not qualities,’ says her biographer, ‘which touch the world, when it finds them in an obscure and homely woman.’ In Wuthering Heights, the checked and stormy passionateness finds expression. In her poetry, the ‘irk'” of her shattered prison, the yearning through the walls of an aching heart is exchanged for the soul’s freedom in a world of fresher wind and brighter sunshine, where, as she herself expressed it, she was ‘incomparably above and beyond you all.’ We are perhaps, more than we know, indebted to the sympathetic imagination as well as the keen intellectual perception, the artistic skill of Miss Robinson, for our insight into the character of this rare, strange woman. We see how truly it was said of her: ‘ Seldom has any man, much less any woman, owned the inestimable gift of genius, and never once made it an excuse for a weakness, a violence, a failing, which in other mortals we condemn. No deed of hers requires such apology. Therefore, being dead, she persuades us to honor; and not only her works, but the memory of her life shall rise up and praise her, who lived without praise so well.’
Would we deny the ‘exceptional gift’ to Mary Lamb ? But Walter Savage Landor speaks of her as the ‘finest genius that ever descended on the heart of woman.’ At least, Mrs. Gilchrist’s carefully made up record shows for that other part of her nature, which she shares with ordinary humanity. It is made beautiful over all sadness, as the story of a brother and sister’s love, so clean, so sweet, so uncompromising, as to ring on the inward ear like sweet bells,—jangled, out of tune, though they be,— and to ring also a solemn knell over our, so many, kindred relations dead while we live.
‘Polly,’ said her grandmother, ‘what are those poor, crazy, moythered brains of yours thinking of always ?’ Perhaps Mrs. Gilchrist gives as full an answer as we shall ever get. We cannot, if we would, pry into those night and twilight journeyings, hither and yon, of the wandering mind. We see Charles and Mary weeping and walking over the fields to the mad-house, Mary having, doubtless, in her pocket the dreaded straight-jacket. What goodness must there not have been in them, not to be immured, lost to the world in that dark fate! Yet it is a life of multitudinous friendships of the rarest sort, and with the rarest people, in which the ‘Lambs’ likes’ were the same as others’ loves. Doubtless, it is in this loving spirit, unquenched by the world, that we find the law of compensation which made that awful tragedy of her mother’s death truly a weight of sorrow, but no more unbearable to Mary than ordinary and natural death. It may be, in some measure, because of this that among strangers Mary Lamb was a silent woman, though so artlessly expressive among friends. Throughout her writings, innocence and guileless sweetness are the characteristics. ‘Elizabeth Villiers,’ Mrs. Leicester’s School,’ ‘The Father’s Wedding-day,’ her poems, one and all, have this prominently. Of her stories, Coleridge said, ‘They will be in the future not only enjoyed, but acknowledged as a rich jewel in the treasury of our permanent English literature.’ It is only of such a nature it may be said, she hoped all things, and feared nothing. To us, but not to her blessedly clouded mind, this record seems the saddest in her life,— ‘Thirteen years she survived her brother.’ But the relief comes with what follows,— ‘and then was laid in the same grave with him at Edmonton, May 28, 1847.’
Coming to the last volume of the series, Mrs. Howe says, with good point, in her biography of Margaret Fuller, ‘Literature is human, first of all.’ We, reading this book, are anew struck with the fact that human nature is very human, and that literature, last of all, is not of the schools, but is its expression. We have come now to this side of the sea for our ‘Famous Woman.’ Perhaps not one of them, through exceptional environments, surprising training, or inherited trend of nature, could have such strife of idiosyncrasies of disposition against intellectual perceptions, spiritual intuitions, as was the doom of our American Margaret. It is suggested, or rather stated, that the world of her day and place was not kind to her. Evidently, she was not kind to it. Mr. Clarke acknowledges that she not only seemed, but was haughty and supercilious to the multitude. There is no such stumbling-block to the establishment of the point with which we began in our examination of this series —that of the essential religiousness of these women — as this lack of humaneness as the spontaneous ordinary action of the mind. But we must remember that beside that antagonistic and unamiable personality was the extreme radicalness of her thought and opinion, running counter to that of her day, such as now, under present advanced scientific attainment and philosophic adjustment, would be but the stand-point of conservatism. Perhaps we may suggest one more excuse for Margaret, in that she was so little a ‘worldly woman.’ Unworldly, indeed, to such degree that a selfish woman, or one trained in society ways, then as now, would be totally unable fairly to estimate her position toward shams and shows, and do justice to her uncompromising truth.
Let us remember that her friendships were wise and lasting, and that her death proved she could die for and with others. Mrs. Howe was wise and just that she did not by ignoring the fact that Margaret did not attract, but rather repelled the ‘vulgar herd,’ holding it somewhat in disesteem, impair our confidence in the portraiture. She was a woman of positive personal expression, on the attractive as well as repellent side,—a woman of conversation rather than a writer; one to mould her thought in artistic or literary forms. Therefore, her personal influence and effect must largely have made up the social verdict. Her Woman of the Nineteenth Century is her chiefly prominent work. Her life with the Tbibune, with her Providence school, or as editor of the Dial, was but the objective side, and had but a share of her mind’s life. While her soul only truly lived in high regions of thought, she was faithful to her lowliest duty. We need not be ashamed of Margaret Fuller as the American product among “Famous Women.” Let us not find fault with one of whom it is said, ‘Her heart belonged to all of God’s creatures, and most to what is noblest in them.’ The literary structure of this biography does not fall behind the excellence of the remarkably wellwritten volumes that precede it. All are praiseworthy, perhaps this above the others, for its extra painstaking in providing a very perfect index; while, for its skill in arrangement, its gracious tone and temper, its dignity of treatment, it is the peer of them all.”
The Unitarian Review, Vol. 21, by Joseph Hnery Allen, 1884, pages 242-250