Gordon Haight’s speech in Westminster Abbey on 21 June, when a memorial stone to George Eliot was unveiled
When George Eliot died in December 1880 no one doubted that England had lost its greatest novelist. It was a reasonable expectation that she would find her place in Poets’ Corner, near the grave of Charles Dickens and the bust of Thackeray. Why has it taken a century to bring this about?
Vol. 2 No. 16 · 21 August 1980
SIR: Gordon Haight’s speech at the service in Westminster Abbey dedicating a memorial stone to George Eliot (LRB, 17 July) reasonably said nothing but good about her, but unreasonably added some bunkum to justify the occasion. Describing the campaign to have her buried there a century ago, Haight alleged that ‘opposition came, strangely’, from T. H. Huxley, and added that Huxley ‘was not without cant in opposing’ it. But Huxley didn’t oppose the campaign; he merely refused to support it, and his argument for this refusal, which was quoted by Haight – and which was later applied to Huxley himself, so that, like George Eliot, he was buried in unconsecrated ground in Highgate Cemetery – was convincing then and is still convincing today. If there was any cant, it was when Huxley approved and attended the burial of Charles Darwin in Westminster Abbey two years later. Huxley was, after all, quite right to say that George Eliot’s ‘life and opinions were in notorious antagonism to Christian practice in regard to marriage, and Christian theory in regard to dogma’. The evidence is fortunately presented by Haight himself in his biography of her and in his edition of her letters, and it is incontrovertible.
For 24 years she lived in sexual union with a man who was married to someone else. Her action was then argued and is now agreed to be entirely admirable, but it was certainly in notorious antagonism to Christian practice in regard to marriage. Indeed, this would have been the case even if Lewes had obtained a divorce, since one of the few Christian doctrines taught both by Jesus in the Gospels and by Paul in the Epistles is that marriage to someone with a divorced spouse still living is adultery.
For 39 years she lived with no belief in Jesus or God or incarnation or atonement or immortality or judgment or salvation or damnation. Again, her position was then argued and is now agreed to be entirely admirable, but it was certainly in notorious antagonism to Christian theory in regard to dogma. No doubt she retained a strong sense of duty partly derived from her Christian upbringing, and no doubt she maintained a strong sense of reverence particularly directed towards the Christian religion: but she remained as far from Christianity as one could publicly be a century ago.
The only proper conclusion is that it is still as incongruous to have a Christian service and memorial for George Eliot as it was for Charles Darwin and Thomas Hardy or as it would be for T. H. Huxley or Virginia Woolf. In fact, it is insulting, since the implication is that the firmly and clearly held views of great writers are somehow irrelevant to their greatness. The very fact emphasised by Haight that ‘the novels of George Eliot provide the most varied and truthful picture we have of English religious life in the 19th century’ is further emphasised when we consider that they were written by a woman who abandoned religious life at the age of 22. To pretend that she was somehow a Christian all the time is not to bestow laurel and rose on her memorial but to betray her memory, and to give her the wrong part in the choir invisible.