Gordon Haight’s speech in Westminster Abbey on 21 June, when a memorial stone to George Eliot was unveiled

Gordon Haight

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?

In giving notice of her death her husband, John Walter Cross, who had married her in St George’s, Hanover Square, scarcely eight months before, alluded to her wish to be buried here. Of her many famous friends, Tennyson, Browning and Trollope would certainly have written to Dean Stanley urging it, and there were a score of others who would have been ready to write. The most diligent search has found not a single letter to the Dean on the subject: the whole packet of correspondence has vanished. A copy of John Tyndall’s letter survives among Cross’s papers. ‘Well,’ he wrote to the Dean, ‘I can only say that if you consent to give her shelter, the verdict of the future will be that Dean Stanley has enshrined a woman whose achievements were without parallel in the previous history of womankind.’

Opposition came, strangely, from the liberal scientist Thomas Henry Huxley. In reply to a telegram from Herbert Spencer asking support for the burial, Huxley wrote:

  It can hardly be doubted that the proposal will be bitterly opposed, possibly with the raking up of past histories, which had better be forgotten. With respect to putting pressure on the Dean of Westminster, I have to consider that he has some confidence in me, and before asking him to do something for which he is pretty sure to be violently assailed, I have to ask myself whether I really think it a right thing for a man in his position to do.

  Now I cannot say I do. Westminster Abbey is a Christian Church and not a Pantheon, and the Dean therefore is officially a Christian priest, and we ask him to bestow exceptional Christian honours by this burial. George Eliot is known not only as a great writer, but as a person whose life and opinions were in notorious antagonism to Christian practice in regard to marriage, and Christian theory in regard to dogma. How am I to tell the Dean that I think he ought to read over the body of a person who did not repent of what the Church considers mortal sin, a service not one solitary proposition in which she would have accepted for truth while she was alive? How am I to urge him to do that which, if I were in his place, I should most emphatically refuse to do?

  You tell me that Mrs Cross wished for the funeral in the Abbey. I am very sorry to hear it. One cannot eat one’s cake and have it too. Those who elect to be free in thought and deed must not hanker after the rewards, if they are to be so called, which the world offers to those who put up with its fetters. Thus, however I look at the proposal it seems to me to be a profound mistake, and I can have nothing to do with it.

Nevertheless, Huxley went immediately to call on Dean Stanley and talked with him at length about the proposal, which he was surprised to find the Dean inclined to accept. Describing his conversation, Huxley wrote: ‘A curious revelation of the extraordinary catholicity and undaunted courage of the man it was. He would have done it had it been pressed upon him by a strong representation.’ Stronger representations pressed upon the Dean in Huxley’s long talk with him probably prevented George Eliot’s burial here.

Let us consider first his charge that her ‘life and opinions were in notorious antagonism to Christian practice in regard to marriage’, which refers to her union with George Henry Lewes. In 1841, close by at St Margaret’s, Lewes had married the beautiful Agnes Jervis, by whom he had four sons. Then Agnes bore a fifth son whose father was Lewes’s friend and colleague Thornton Leigh Hunt. Unwilling to stigmatise the child, Lewes forgave the offence and allowed the boy to be registered as Edmund Lewes – perhaps with a wry glance at the bastard in King Lear. But the offence was repeated; and before Agnes bore the second of her four or five children by Hunt, Lewes had ceased to regard her as his wife. Yet, having condoned her adultery, he was precluded from ever asking for a divorce. In this ‘dreary, wasted period’ of his life, his home hopelessly broken up, Lewes first came to know Marian Evans, who was living in the Strand earning at the age of 33 a meagre livelihood editing the Westminster Review. At first she was repelled by his flippant cynicism, until she realised that it was only a mask covering the pain of his shattered life. After thorough consideration of the consequences she agreed to go with him to Germany to help in his pioneer biography of Goethe. And having ascertained that Agnes would never again live with George, Marian joined him in London, calling herself Mrs Lewes. For 24 happy years they lived openly together as man and wife ‘an austere life apart. In virtuous crime’. Without inculpating Agnes, Marian could not refute the malicious gossip that she had lured Lewes away from his wife and family. The truth was quite the contrary. Agnes and her brood were supported by Lewes all his life, and after his death, by royalties from George Eliot’s novels. Cheerfully unrepentant, Agnes lived on until 1902. These are the simple facts of this great Victorian scandal.

Much of the social ostracism Marian suffered could have been avoided had she been willing to live the clandestine life adopted by more discreet contemporaries, some of whom lie honourably interred about us here. But she was too honest for that. Never unmindful of the legal obstacle to their marriage, she considered her union with Lewes a permanent and sacred bond. ‘Women,’ she wrote, ‘who are satisfied with light and easily broken ties do not act as I have done. They obtain what they desire and are still invited to dinner.’ She was prepared to pay the penalty, certain that Lewes was worthy of the sacrifice. And she was not mistaken. To their union the world owes the very existence of the novelist George Eliot, whom we meet to honour today.

Through Lewes’s encouragement alone, at the late age of 37, Marian was enabled to write those great novels which ‘will live to the last syllable of recorded time’. Regard for their achievement eventually wore down the unjust disapproval, and her drawing-room in St John’s Wood was crowded with what Lord Acton called the most remarkable society in London. ‘Poets and philosophers united to honour her,’ he wrote; ‘the aristocracy of letters gathered round the gentle lady, who was justly esteemed the most illustrious figure that has arisen in literature since Goethe died.’ Queen Victoria’s daughters, eager to meet her, even arranged to have the Leweses invited to dinner parties, one of which Dean Stanley himself attended.

What shall we say of Huxley’s second charge: George Eliot’s antagonism to Christian dogma? According to Professor Basil Willey, no English writer ‘more fully epitomises the 19th century; her development is a paradigm, her intellectual biography a graph, of its most decided trend. Starting from evangelical Christianity, the curve passes through doubt to a reinterpreted Christ and a religion of humanity; beginning with God, it ends in Duty.’ The evangelical ardour instilled by a teacher in childhood held Marian in uncommon sway until her 22nd year. The revolution in her belief, long in preparation, was sudden and complete. At the moment when John Henry Newman was being received into the Roman Catholic Church Marian was own pitting her translation of Strauss’s Life of Jesus, applying to the New Testament the Higher Criticism, which had made literal interpretation of Genesis untenable. A rebellious period ensued with pantheistic tendencies nurtured by Wordsworth and Spinoza, culminating in the translation of Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity just before her union with Lewes. Then her new happiness and the calm influence of Goethe moderated her spirit. Though return to the old faith was impossible, she learned to look with reverence on am sincere effort towards a religion in which intellect and feeling could combine, sympathising even with those who sought comfort in the old established forms and ceremonies. It had been no small sacrifice for her to part with belief in a future life. But honesty compelled her to hold a sterner view: that every act, for good or evil, brings its inevitable consequences in this life; postponement of the reckoning to another world can only blunt the edge of remorse. The ‘highest “calling and election”,’ she wrote, ‘is to do without opium and live through all our pain with conscious, clear-eyed endurance.’ Here was no

       light half-believer of our casual creeds,
Who never deeply felt nor clearly willed.

England’s most celebrated agnostic, Thomas Huxley, was not without cant in opposing her burial among her peers in Poets’ Corner.

By their fruits ye shall know them. The novels of George Eliot provide the most varied and truthful picture we have of English religious life in the 19th century; every party in the Church, every movement of those troublous days is faithfully noted. In the rich gallery of clerical portraits, drawn with tenderness and humour, we find no caricatures – no Mr Collins, no Stiggins, no Slope. Dissenters are treated with equal care and sympathy: the Methodist. Dinah Morris; the Independent, Rufus Lyon; the more obscure little sects like those at Lantern Yard or Highbury, where Silas Marner and Nicholas Bulstrode were youthful members. Her treatment of the Jews in Daniel Deronda evoked their fervid gratitude. In her hands the novel, too long a trivial pastime, became a compelling moral force, which has established George Eliot firmly at the heart of the Great Tradition with Jane Austen and Henry James. Today, as her memorial assumes its place between theirs, with the unbeliever Hardy at one side, and the Jesuit Hopkins at the other, let us lay upon it, as Virginia Woolf proposed at the centenary of George Eliot’s birth, ‘whatever we have it in our power to bestow of laurel and rose’.