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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

"Mary Ann Did Not Go": George Eliot stays away from church

I first gave a version of this lecture in 1992. That year marked the 150th anniversary, little noticed in either the literary or the theological worlds, of what I believe was the great turning point in George Eliot's life: that wintry Sunday morning in 1842 when she took her resolve in both hands, defied conven­tion and her father, and refused to go to church.

Since then, of course, George Eliot has joined the big-time authors, with the television adaptation of Middlemarch. Now you can buy her on station bookstalls for around a pound. The TV Middlemarch might have made a very interesting topic for the 1994 George Eliot Memorial Lecture, for the interplay between the written text of a novel and its reworking for the screen, small or large, is one of the more absorbing topics of media studies. Should we speak of television's Middlemarch, or merely of its `Middlemarch'? In other words, was the screen version the authentic work of George Eliot, albeit collapsed, cut down to size?  Or is the outcome of that process of col­lapsing great literature so distorting in its effects that it should not bear the same name as the original? 
It is probably elitist to say that any reworking of a written text for a visual medium is bound in the end to be a deconstruction, and that any purist should shun it.  Neverthe­less, most reviewers not only praised Middlemarch as good television. There appeared to be a consensus that in an important way it did attempt to be true to the spirit of the novel whose name it bears, even if it took some liberties with its shape. More cynical observers recalled that the BBC had served notice that if this hugely expensive adaptation was not well received by the critics, it would be the last of the big-budget costume dramas to be seen on television. Some would say that this would not have been a disser­vice to litera­ture. For we have all had to reconstruct for ever our mental images of Dorothea and Casaubon, Lydgate and Rosamund, and that is the price you always have to pay for the easy access televi­sion offers to the storylines of classi­cal lit­erature. It is a medium short on imagination, precisely the quality that makes great litera­ture great.

Meanwhile, those of us who live in George Eliot's Mid­lands also had to re-envision the novel's chief character of all, the town itself. Here, there was perhaps more to complain about. Stamford, Lincolnshire, where the film was made, is undoubtedly one of England's most beautiful towns, and I am not going to begrudge it the dividend Middlemarch has earned it in visitor income since the broadcast. Neverthe­less, the town as portrayed did seem a long way from the west midland setting the author had created. Of course, `Middlemarch' is not a geo­graphical place, but a town of the mind. Never­theless, it was unkind for a stage-coach to trundle on to the set boldly bearing the east-Midland names of Grantham and Newark rather than Leamington, Nuneaton or Bir­mingham.

Shortly afterwards, the Observer rang to ask me for a clergyman's quote from the town of Middlemarch-alias-Coventry itself.  Were Coventrians buying the book of the film, I was asked; were they talking about it on street-cor­ners; how was it affecting Coventry's self-aware­ness on the literary map of England; and were there many Casaubons (male or female) left now­adays in the Church of England, and if so, what mythologies are they attempting to discover the key to? My wise and thoughtful answers went unrecorded, apart from my wish to see another Daniel Deronda on screen if the BBC were looking for another of George Eliot's novels to adapt.

Middlemarc­h, as I have said, means middle England, the England of Warwickshire, of Nuneaton, of Coventry.  But the real George Eliot country is the landscape of human life. In Middlemarch, her study of provincial life, we recognise the provincialisms of the worlds we ourselves inhabit, the shift­ing sands of human relationships, the struggles for power and recognition, our quest for value and meaning. George Eliot is one of her century's most brilliant portrayers of the human spirit.  Simon Callow, in his autobi­ography Being an Actor, says that the important thing in acting `is not to feel a lot, but to feel accurate­ly.'[1] That is what George Eliot excels at: not so much tidal waves of emotion, but an uncanny accuracy in her depiction of human life. Hers is an art that is sharply focused, pro­foundly true. She herself embodied in her writing those qualities she so much admired in Dutch painting: what she called `this rare, precious qual­ity of truthfulness'. Her plea for realism in the great 17th chapter of Adam Bede, "In which the Story Pauses a Little", bears quoting again, because it seems to embody the programme George Eliot set herself as a writer:

I turn without shrink­ing, from cloud-borne angels, from prophets, sibyls, and heroic warriors, to an old woman bending over her flower-pot, or eating her soli­tary dinner, while the noonday light, softened perhaps by a screen of leaves, falls on her mob-cap, and just touches the rim of her spinning-wheel, and her stone jug, and all those cheap com­mon things which are the precious necess­ities of life to her....

"Foh!" says my idealistic friend, "what vulgar details! What good is there is taking all these pains to give an exact likeness of old ugly women and clowns?  What a low phase of life! - what clumsy, ugly people!"

But... things may be lovable that are not altogether handsome... human feeling is like the mighty rivers that bless the earth: it does not wait for beauty - it flows with resistless force and brings beauty with it.... Paint us an angel if you can.... paint us yet oftener a Madonna.... but do not impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish from the region of Art those old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands, those heavy clowns taking holiday in a dingy pot-house, those rounded backs and stupid weather-beaten faces that have bent over the spade and done the rough work of the world - those homes with their tin pans, their brown pitchers, their rough curs, and their clusters of onions.... Let
Art always remind us of them: therefore let us always have men ready to give the loving pains of a life to the faithful repre­sentation of commonplace things.


But I want tonight to look at George Eliot's art in the light of that particular event in her early life with which I began. It is appropriate perhaps that a Coventry clergyman should be giving this lec­ture, because it belongs to the Coventry period of her life, when she was living in Bird Grove, Foles­hill.  It was on Sunday, 2 January 1842 that her father wrote a laconic entry in his diary: "Went to Trinity Church in the forenoon.  Miss Lewis went with me.  Mary Ann did not go.  I stopd the sacrement (sic) and Miss Lewis stopd also." Few words to describe a momentous and life-changing deci­sion.  Two weeks later, again: "Went to church in the fore­noon. May Ann did not go to church".[2]

Robert Evans, the fine looking man whose portrait hangs in Nuneaton, was less interested in Marian's inner religious struggles than in making sure that his daughter behaved as was proper for a middle class young woman with eligible prospects.  As so often, religion was not so much a matter of conviction or truth, rather a convenient social tool. We know what grief this wayward act of subversion caused Marian's father. We know that she and her father were barely on speaking terms for two months, communicat­ing only by letter.  One Monday February morning, she wrote about her intellectual difficulties with Christi­anity. 

Such being my very strong convictions, it cannot be a ques­tion with any mind of strict integrity, what­ever judgment may be passed on their truth, that I could not without vile hypoc­risy and a miserable truck­ling to the smile of the world for the sake of my supposed interests, profess to join in worship which I wholly disap­prove.  This, and this alone I will not do even for your sake.

What she called her "holy war" lasted four months. After that, she agreed to conform, resume churchgoing, and restore the status quo.  Robert Evans sighed with relief. But for Marian, nothing had changed.  She had not reverted to ortho­dox Chris­tian belief, and would never do so again.  Far from it.  For this profoundly inward woman had been rocked to her foun­da­tions by a deep spiritual crisis. For her, things could never be the same again.

Now, I suppose that as a clergyman, I am bound to find this little episode particularly fascinating.  After all, most of us clergy spend a great deal of time asking why people don't go to church.  Large sums of money, and an inordinate amount of time, are spent on considering that question. The Decade of Evangelism, which we are in at present, shows that it has not gone away. So when an erstwhile evangelical churchgoer sudden­ly throws it all over and does a dramatic spiritual volte face, well, any ordained admirer of George Eliot will find in that little drama much to ponder.

It is my view, as I have said, that what happened to Marian Evans in Coventry in 1842 was of the pro­foundest importance for the rest of her life: that, together with her meeting George Henry Lewes. I cheekily sug­gest that whereas it was Nuneaton that gave the world the woman, it was Coventry that conceived the writer; after which it was Lewes, as the best literary midwife of the 19th century, who eventually brought the novelist to birth.  For Marian's crisis brought to the surface hitherto repressed energies.  It marked, I think, the beginning of what was to be characteris­tic of her life and her art:  rigorous, relentless questioning of what she took to be a superficial status quo; an upsurge of radical doubt within her as to the validity of any belief or position that she had not ruthlessly made her own.  Hers was a determination to discard for ever what she called "crutches of superstition"; and to be as truthful with herself as it was possible to be, even at the cost of hurting those to whom she felt closest.

At one level, all this can be read as the search of any young man or woman for identity.  Most of us need, in adoles­cence or later, to make our protest, put our mark on things by questioning what was handed down to us, daring to doubt that our parents and grandparents had a monopoly of wisdom. Robert Evans' daughter was always very much a free spirit.  Her various spellings of her name suggest a restless seeking after her own authentic self: first Mary Anne, then Mary Ann, then Marian, and right at the end of her life, Mary Ann once again. Whether we should see the name `George Eliot' as part of this search for self, or simply a literary conveni­ence can be discussed.

But Marian's sitting at home one Sunday morning while the rest of the family went to church is of a piece with the pattern of her life.  The out­rage she caused her domestic circle was repeat­ed, on a far bigger stage, when she chose to live with the married George Henry Lewes.  It is as if she was destined to be a peren­nial thorn in the side of the Victor­ian estab­lishment. We could say that life, for her, was more com­plex, more elusive, more subtle than conven­tional wisdom could see; that her life-choices entailed a difficult balancing act between public morality and private faith. This of course is one of the themes explored in Middlemarch.  When you read George Eliot, you know that like those Dutch interiors she loved, you are touching the experi­ence of someone who has truly lived.

Alice Miller, in her study of infant trauma The Drama of Being a Child, suggests that the world's greatest art often seems to emerge out of struggle of some kind,  mental, emotional, or physical.  Our most searching novel­ists, musicians or artists are often people who stand somewhat on the margins of human life, who are able to look into it from the vantage point of "the dangerous edge of things", to quote Robert Browning's great phrase. They seem to know, so many of them, social ostracism, loneliness or pain.  It is as if struggle sets a man or woman apart, enables a person to see in a new way, inter­pret the life of his or her contempor­aries back to them.  One fashion­able west‑end preacher singled out Bulstrode, he of the "seri­ous Christian beliefs", and described how he shud­dered at the novelist's "awful dissection of a guilty con­science. That is what I mean by the prophetic spirit" he said.  The great novel­ists are the prophets of their day, and perhaps that is because, in Wordsworth's words, their experi­ence leads them to "see into the life of things".

Now, prophets are by nature disturbers, protesters.  We don't always like them, but we need them. It seems to me that only those capable of protest are capable of great art. To give a counter‑example, so much of the art of the Third Reich or Stalinist Russia strikes us now as devoid of inspiration precisely because this astringent element of protest was absent. So we must not think that Marian Evans' little protest in not going to church was unimportant, nor that it was easy, or impulsive, or petulant. Romola has a telling comment:

The law was sacred, yes; but the rebellion might be sacred too.  It flashed upon her mind that the prob­lem before her was .... the problem where the sacredness of obedience ended, and where the sacred­ness of rebellion began.

If I read her aright, it cost her dear to stay at home that January Sunday morning, just as it cost her dear to enter into a relationship with George Henry Lewes and forgo not only the respect of society, but, much more important to her, the love of her brother as well.  It seems to me at least plausible that had Marian Evans gone to church that day, we might never have had George Eliot the novelist whom we cel­ebrate tonight. Instead, we should have had merely a virtuous woman of impec­cable evangelical orthodoxy and irreproach­able habits.  She would have married well and borne seven children.  But she would have left not the slightest trace in history at all.

What was the religious crisis that led Marian Evans to give up going to church in 1842?

The 1840s were a time of seething religious foment in England. The Church of England was racked by bitter disputes that many said would split it apart. The Victorian crisis of faith was a crisis at many levels. The Church of England was already losing its grip on the popula­tion.  There were a number of reasons for this: the rise of nonconformity, the effects of the industrial revolution and the shadow of the dark satanic mills, the growth of cities. But for many thinking people, the diffi­culties with religion were more intellectual. Natural science, in particu­lar, seemed to pose a huge question mark by the revealed truths of scripture.  Charles Darwin (himself once destined for the Anglican priesthood until his conscience got the better of it) was yet to write his Origin of Species that was to bring the science‑and‑religion debate to a head.  But Charles Lyell's Elements of Geology had been pub­lished in the early 1830s.  Its theme was that the evi­dence of geology pointed to the world being far older than the six thousand or so years sug­gested by Genesis. What science was disclosing was that the world around simply didn't seem to fit the narrow categories conven­tional dogma tried to force them into.  The universe was more elusive than that: it had out­grown the tired formulae of organised religion.

And so had many thoughtful men and women of the 1840s. It was not without regret.  Matthew Arnold, born three years after Marian Evans, became the spokesman of this spiritual malaise:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

There is no poem that so perceptively catches the mood of the religious dilemma of the 19th century as Dover Beach: both its despair at ever finding meaning in the new understandings of the universe natural science was opening up, and its incurable nostalgia for the past, when everything seemed secure, and religious faith timeless. Like Matthew Arnold, Marian found herself on Dover Beach, gazing into the void. She probably approved of the sentiment that:

There lives more faith in honest doubt
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

as Tennyson put it in that manifesto of the Victorian search for meaning, In Memoriam.  In 1842, Marian Evans publicly joined the company of honest doubters.

She had Coventry to thank for that.  In 1841, when she had lived at Bird Grove for only a few months, she met Charles and Cara Bray, and Cara's family the Hennells. At the Brays' home at Rosehill, she fell under the influence of free thought. It was said that `everyone who came to Coventry with a queer mission....or was supposed to be a "little cracked" was sent up to Rosehill, where they all sat on a bearskin under an acacia tree, talking endlessly about phrenology, labour co‑operatives, the repeal of the Corn Laws and how the new science of geology had undermined the sanctity of holy writ.

Charles Hennell's book An Inquiry into the Origins of Christi­anity had been published in 1838. This painstakingly researched book was a key influence on the young woman's inquiring mind. So was the epoque-making book by the great German theologian David Friedrich Strauss, Das Leben Jesu. This work was one of the pioneering works of New Testament criticism.  Strauss set to work to rein­terpret Christianity in a non‑supernatural way. He wanted to probe beneath the surface of the gospels, remove the mytho­logical accretions he saw there, so as to discover a historical Jesus modern 19th cen­tury men and women could identify with. It was an influential, and subversive book. In 1839, at Charles Hennell's invi­tation, Marian began to trans­late the book into English, so we can assume that by that year, she was already moving swiftly away from the Calvinism of her youth. 

There was a rigour of thought and argu­ment in this book, published in English in 1846 as The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, that her finely-tuned mind, with its love of detail, could respond to. Her evangeli­cal friends tried to win her back, but in vain. The die had been cast.


It seems to me that there is a strong connection between Marian's religious faith of a few years before, and her rejec­tion of it in 1842.  The link is in her fervour, in the passion with which, one year she is obsessed with Christian­ity, and not long after, is turning her back on it. You remem­ber that, in her letter to her father, she talks about her loathing of hypoc­risy. That letter is as deeply felt as any religious writing can be: there is some­thing evangelical about her rejection of religion, something crusading. And that stems directly from the kind of faith she had practised up to that time at the evangelical school of Mrs Wallington, and the Calvinistic establish­ment of the Misses Franklin. Evangelical belief looked for a personal relationship with God, a radical honesty that refused to hide behind rituals or priests or formulae, but instead called for "truth in the inward parts".  Churchgoing, as such, was of no virtue at all, said the leaders of the evangelical awakening at the end of the 18th century, unless it corresponded to an inner disposition, a heart set free by the love of Christ.  The perennial danger of organised religion was that it so easily led to hypocrisy, literally `play acting'. From this well, with its call to relent­less self-examination of inner motive and disposition, Marian had drunk deep.

What is more, the evangelicals taught that in Christ, every man, woman or child was equal before God, accepted, not on the basis of what they had achieved, but solely because of God's love. In other words, evangelicalism was an emancipation from a dogma‑ridden system of belief.  It taught the primacy of personal value. It stressed the part feeling played in relig­ion. It proclaimed that no‑one else could believe on your behalf, do your thinking for you.  You had to do your spiri­tual work for your­self. This, too, became a hall‑mark of Marian's world view. She wrote of it in the following year in a letter to Sarah Hennell:

Speculative truth begins to appear but a shadow of individual minds, agreement between intellects seems unattain­able, and we turn to the truth of feeling as the only univer­sal bond of union.

It is precisely these same, evangelical instincts that were at work in the 22 year old Marian as she resolved that she could no longer go to church. Organised religion, I think we may say, was just too facile. "Falsehood is so easy, truth is so difficult" writes the novelist in Adam Bede. At Holy Trinity Church, evidently, not enough was demanded of her.  Her evan­gelicalism had taught her that she could find happiness only in thinking her own thoughts and becoming her own person. And that must mean saying farewell to evangelicalism. For her, as for John Henry Newman on the brink of joining the Church of Rome three years later, it was "the parting of friends".

But evangelical belief was still on the agenda some years later. From the portrayal of clergy in Scenes of Clerical Life, it is true, as Graham Handley says, that "fifteen years after her rejection of her faith George Eliot could look back with tolerance, compassion, understanding and irony to what she had left behind".
[5]  But from much the same period of her life comes the piece of writing that first convinced George Henry Lewes of her genius. Here is how it begins:

Given, a man with moderate intellect, a moral stan­dard not higher than the average, some rhetorical affluence and great glibness of speech, what is the career in which, without the aid of birth and money, he may most easily attain power and reputation in English society?  What is the Goshen of medi­ocrity in which a smattering of science and learning will pass for profound instruction, where platitudes will be accepted as wisdom, bigoted narrowness as holy zeal, unctuous egoism as God-given piety? Let such a man become an evangelical preacher; he will then find it possible to reconcile small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the pres­tige of erudition, a middling morale with a high reputa­tion for sanctity.

There is nothing very tolerant here. What occasioned this piece was the writing of Dr John Cumming, a Scottish Presby­terian preacher who drew large crowds at his London chapel through his extravagant and bizarre account of Bible proph­ecy. I myself once possessed a copy of his lectures on the Book of Revelation. Mary Ann Evans is unsparing in her withering condemnation of the rhetoric of what we now call fundamental­ism: its preoccupation with hell, its lack of charity, its superficial notion of truth and its subver­sion of personal responsibility and public morality. But we seem to hear more in the diatribe than the examination and exposure of a kind of religion that fraudulently manipu­lates men and women.  What we overhear is Mary Anne Evans confronting her own past, the convert freethinker disowning, with the same apostolic vehe­mence as in her letter to her father, what she perhaps only half realises will always be a part of herself. The tone of this review is in striking contrast to the sympathy with which she writes of religion in the novels, as we shall see.


What, then, was the faith of the mature Marian Evans?

In her changing attitude to religion, as I have suggested, George Eliot accurately symbolises and embodies the profound changes in society at large as it wrestled with the great religious questions of the 19th cen­tury.  The Victorian crisis of faith was Marian's.  She charts its progress from faith to doubt with uncanny accuracy.

It is difficult to be too precise, however, about the exact nature of her beliefs. On the one hand, there are plenty of indications that she aban­doned all belief in a supernatural God, adopting instead a positivist, Comte-ian `religion of humanity' in which the ethic of Christianity, shorn of its metaphysics, becomes the governing principle. In the article I have just quoted, she writes:

The best minds that accept Christianity as a divinely inspired sys­tem, believe that the great end of the Gospel is not merely the saving but the educating of men's souls, the creating within them of holy dispositions, the subduing of egotistical pretensions, and the perpetual enhancing of the desire that the will of God - a will synonymous with goodness and truth - may be done on earth.

Fatally powerful as relig­ious systems have been, human nature is stronger and wider than religious systems, and though dogmas may ham­per, they cannot absolutely repress its growth: build walls round the living tree as you will, the bricks and mortar have by and by to give way before the slow and sure oper­ation of the sap.... The idea of Go
d is really moral in its influence - it really cherishes all that is best and loveliest in man - only when God is contemplated as sympathizing with the pure elements of human feeling, as possessing infinitely all those attributes which we recognise to be moral in human­ity.  In this light, the idea of God and the sense of His presence intensify all noble feeling, and encourage all noble effort.

In the same decade, she was saying:

I have not returned to dogmatic Christianity - to the accept­ance of any set of doctrines as a creed, and a superhuman revelation of the Unseen - but see I see in it the highest expression of the religious sentiment that has yet found its place in the his­tory of mankind, and I have the profoundest interest in the inward life of sincere Christians of all ages.... where I used to delight in expressing intellectual difference, I now delight in feeling an emotional agreement.

There is the famous story of her meeting Frederic Myers in the garden of Trinity College Cambridge in the rain in 1873.

Taking as her text the three words which have been used so often as the inspiring trumpet calls of men - the words God, Immortality, Duty, pro­nounced, with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable was the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third.... I seemed to be gazing on a sanctuary with no Pres­ence to hallow it, and heaven left empty of a God.

And then there is her discovery of the ideas of Ludwig Feuerbach, whose book The Essence of Christianity influenced her deeply.  Feuerbach believed that the entire edifice of religion could be collapsed into a single truth, that "Love is God himself, and apart from it there is no God". Religion is the consciousness of the infinity of the conscious­ness, and "God" is but the outward projection of the inwardness of human beings. Marian's translation of this book was occupying her in the 1850s, a decade during which her religious convictions were evidently arriving at stability after the foment of the 1840s. Perhaps significantly, this was the only book to bear her own name on the title page - Marian Evans, as if to say that the Feuerbachian version of religion was, so far as she was con­cerned, her final position.

On the other hand, Marian's deep interest in the figure of Jesus is an important clue to her inner self. There is the well known story of how Marian, immersed in Strauss and get­ting bogged down, like Casaubon, in this key to all mythol­ogies, became, in her own words, `Strauss‑sick'. Her antidote was to set up a statue of Christ in her study, and contemplate it. That is of a piece with that contemplative scene in Mill on the Floss, where Maggie, in the aftermath of the crisis that has ruined the Tullivers, goes in search of something, any­thing, to read. Her brother Tom's trunk of school books yields only Latin, Euclid and Logic.  But on the window sill, unnot­iced until now, she finds "a little, old, clumsy book" which turns out to be Thomas à Kem­pis' Imita­tion of Christ.

A strange thrill of awe passed through Maggie while she read, as if she had been wakened in the night by a strain of solemn music, telling of beings whose souls had been astir while hers was in stupor....Here...was a secret of life that would enable her to renounce all other secrets ‑ here was a sublime height to be reached...here was insight and strength.

This is the classic account of evangelical conversion, as Wesley had recounted it when he told of his heart being `strangely warmed' at Aldersgate Street, and as the young Marian Evans had herself experienced it. Maggie's soul, adrift on the chaotic streams of her emotional life, begins to find an anchor. She discovers the strength to renounce Stephen's seduc­tions, to rescue Tom. Religion issues in moral courage, in being good.  In The Mill, George Eliot quotes the text of The Imita­tion of Christ at length. It is said that this well‑thumbed book was found by George Eliot when she died, along with her Bible. She could not worship Christ.  But she could endorse, and cel­ebrate, the moral and spiritual insights she saw in his teach­ing; be drawn to the charisma of the man. You could even say that she longed to imitate him.

Despite the clear autobiographical material in The Mill, we must not assume that Maggie's faith is necessarily that of Marian Evans'. Nevertheless, in the sympathetic light in which per­sonal relig­ion is portrayed in that novel, indeed, in all her novels, "atheism" (John McDade is only the latest commentator to use that word in a recent article on George Eliot's religion) seems too crude to describe her own finely nuanced relig­ious position. The mysticism of "The Choir Invisible", as per­sonal a piece of writing as you could find in her canon, while hardly an orthodox Christian statement, is far removed from the bleak positiv­ism of Auguste Comte and his dis­ciples. Her lifelong inter­est in religion (not, incidentally, shared by Lewes) seems to have been the pursuit of the "essence of Christianity" which she found in Jesus' call to personal responsi­bility, to moral serious­ness. Kierkegaard said that every human being needed to find "that idea for which he can live and die". Marian Evans found it in the solemn word "duty". It was easy for Matthew Arnold to carica­ture that kind of religion as "moral­ity, tinged with emotion". That memorable epithet accurately por­trayed a good deal of Victorian society religion, and the species is not dead yet. But for Marian, the word "duty" connoted the life task of achiev­ing personal authen­ticity. It was a profoundly relig­ious, because inwardly experienced, vocation.

In that sense, you could say that what happened to Marian Evans in 1842 when she `did not go' with her father to church, was as much a conversion, that is a turning-point in life, as it was a rejection of faith. It was, perhaps, a moment of illumination, a discovery of that idea for which she knew she could now live and die. And because I believe that throwing away the "crutches of superstition" is always the prelude to a truer finding of oneself, I want to say that George Eliot is really a profound­ly religious writer.

This, to me, marks her out as very dif­ferent from Charles Dickens, whose novels strike one as remarkably untouched by any spiri­tual vision, despite their marvellous perception of the humour and incon­gruity of so much of life, the agony and ecstasy in the often unobserved for­tunes of men, women and children, the fierce protest against the injustices endured by the London poor.  She is different again from Anthony Trollope, whose own deep interest in religion seems somehow to be the more detached view of the professional clergy-watcher. While cel­ebrating sincerity when he finds it (in Mr. Harding, for example, in The Warden), Trollope's account of Victor­ian relig­ion is so laced with irony that the overall effect, for all his establishment loyalties, is actually far more subvers­ive of traditional values than George Eliot's. Per­haps she is more akin to Thomas Hardy, who, like her, had lost confidence in orthodox religion to provide answers to life's riddles; yet who, from his profoundly pessi­mistic, even tragic, view of things, never abandoned a nostal­gic instinct for religion and the tran­scen­dent element in life ‑ call it God, call it des­tiny ‑ mysteriously at work in the inscrutable changes and chances of the world, "hoping it might be so" as he puts it in his poem `The Oxen'.

Anyone who reads George Eliot will, I think, be struck by this sensitivity to what is spiritual, this openness to life.  That is what makes her novels so generous, so illuminat­ing, so humane.  Let me offer one more example of her insight into the spiritual order of things.  It comes from Adam Bede, and in view of our church going theme this evening, it is all the more significant that the maturing George Eliot, and not the adolescent Marian Evans, should have written it.

But Adam's thoughts of Hetty did not deafen him to the ser­vice; they rather blended with all the other deep feelings for which the church service was a channel to him this after­noon, as a certain consciousness of our entire past and our imagined future blends itself with all our moments of keen sensibil­ity.  And to Adam the church service was the best channel he could have found for his mingled regret, yearn­ing, and resignation; its interchange of beseeching cries for help, with outbursts of faith and praise ‑ its recurrent responses and the familiar rhythm of its collects, seemed to speak for him as no other form of worship could have done.

That passage could only have been written by someone who understood Anglican worship very well indeed, knew it from within, understood the connection between liturgy and living that is basic to religious faith. It is, I suggest, a deeply nostalgic piece of writing, in the same way as the Imita­tion of Christ passage in Mill on the Floss. It is as if the novel­ist is once more in dialogue with her own past, just as she had been in her pol­emics against Dr Cumming and his evan­geli­cal funda­mental­ism. The difference is that in the novels, she is able to affirm and celebrate her religious past which, in the diatribe against Cumming, she is rejecting and disowning. Of course, they are different sides of the past. Her angry rejec­tion of evangeli­calism is a disowning of a more recent and tumultuous relig­ious experience than the gentle village Angli­canism of her childhood. Perhaps in the novels, she found herself returning, if not to the doctrines, then at least to the eirenic temper and ethos of the faith in which she had been brought up before she encountered Calvinism.

So it matters less to me that George Eliot should have severed her links with organised religion than that she learned to read the map of the human heart. In that, the novelist makes common cause with the priest.  The art of both is to invite men and women into an experience of life that is richer and deeper than perhaps they have yet glimpsed, "larger life" as she calls it in Daniel Deronda.  Their common vocation is to explore meanings, make connections, point to the possibil­ity that human life, in the midst of its brokenness and pain, can reach out towards wholeness.

Let me end with a twentieth century tribute to the moral power of George Eliot's writing. Vera Brittain, in Testa­ment of Youth, describes how the novelist helped her make the choice at the start of the Great War to renounce Oxford (an ambition for which, like Marian Evans, she had defied her father) in order to serve as a nurse. She is contrasting the sig­nificance she had hitherto attached to her private life with all its immedi­ate, absorb­ing personal concerns, with the remoteness (as it then seemed to her) of the dramas being played out on the wider stage of current affairs. Sud­denly, with the out­break of war in 1914, her entire world-view was overturned. 

Now, suddenly, the one impinged upon the other, and public events and private lives had become insepar­able.... Uneasily, I read a passage from Daniel Deronda that I had read in comfortable detachment the year before:

"There comes a terrible moment to many souls when the great movements of the world, the larger des­tinies of man­kind, which have lain aloof in newspa­pers and other neglected read­ing, enter like an earthquake into their own lives ‑ where the slow urgency of growing generations turns into the trend of an invading army, or the dire clash of civil war....Then it is that the submission of the soul to the Highest is tested, and....life looks out from the scene of human struggle with the awful face of duty."[9]

Like Maggie Tulliver, like Marian Evans, that writer found the moral courage to do what was required of her and chart a course through life.  She found the idea for which she must live and die, as we all must do. It may not be religion in the conven­tional sense. But there is a fire in the belly that to me is religious in all but name. Our own relig­ious and moral vision of life would be the poorer without her.

October 1994

[1]              Being An Actor, London, 1985, 100.
[2]              Robert Evans' Journal 1842; cited Gordon S. Haight, George Eliot: A Biography (Harmondsworth 1985), 40.
[3]              Letters, I, 128-30; cited ibid., 41-43.
[4]              Letters, I,
[5]              Graham Handley, George Eliot's Midlands: Passion in Exile (London, 1991), 109.
[6]              `Evangelical Teaching: Dr Cumming' (1855) in Selected Critical Writings (ed. R. Ashton), Oxford, 1992, 138 
[7]              Letters, III, 230-1.
[8]              Century Magazine 23, November 1881, 62-3; cited Haight, op. cit., 464.
[9]              cited Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, London, 1933, 98.

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