Vicarious Sages

Michael Mason

  • John Forster: A Literary Life by James Davies
    Leicester University Press, 318 pp, £25.00, June 1983, ISBN 0 7185 1164 6
  • Mr George Eliot: A Biography of George Henry Lewes by David Williams
    Hodder, 288 pp, £12.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 340 25717 2
  • Johnnie Cross by Terence de Vere White
    Gollancz, 153 pp, £7.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 575 03333 9

By a considerable coincidence there are now published within a short interval the first biographies of two substantial Victorian literary figures, over a hundred years after the death of either man. The coincidence is made more striking by the similarities between George Henry Lewes and John Forster. They were two of the stars of Victorian literary journalism: much in demand as editors, and absolutely reliable in their capacity to produce essays and reviews of first-rate quality on a huge range of topics at an intimidating speed. They both fulfilled unusual roles as advisers on the design and publication of work by more famous writers. Both strove for recognition as contributors in their own right to serious branches of study. Both made an adequate living at first by their prodigious writing efforts, but came to wealth at the end through their marriages, after they had more or less abandoned journalism. They were sociable men, fraternising widely and vigorously with the élite of the day. But no one was on a footing of unreserved friendship with either of them; both had enemies and detractors even among their close acquaintance.

Some of this helps to explain why Lewes and Forster have been jointly neglected. From the biographer’s point of view, both men did too much, and too little. This is particularly the case with Lewes. His range is such (to speak only of his book-length productions) that he cannot be properly assessed except by someone who is familiar with German literature, elementary human anatomy and physiology and certain branches of zoology, the major European philosophers, and 19th-century epistemology. A large though not impossible requirement. But is it worth trying to satisfy? Surely not, if Lewes’s writings on these subjects turn out to be less than significant in the light of an arduously achieved polymathism. And the idea has always been in the air that Lewes’s philosophising and scientific research, at least, were more eager than penetrating. If these endeavours, or Forster’s (he wrote ten volumes on the lives of 17th-century English politicians), do not amount to what they promise, the biographer is left in both cases with an achievement that is certainly impressive, but which may seem too vicarious to justify a great deal of attention. It included remarkable services to the fiction of Dickens and George Eliot, but also decades of much more routine editing and reviewing for the periodicals. Finally, the personal impressions of Lewes and Forster recorded in their day can leave a bad taste, however vitiated by prejudice and ill-will one may suspect them to be. There is a tenacity in Lewes as ‘an old-fashioned French barber or dancing master’, or Forster as ‘the toady of Sir E.L. Bulwer and Mr Macready’, which has not made the difficult project of embracing their careers any more attractive.

The two books which have taken up these long-standing biographical challenges do so in very different ways. Dr Davies has written the more orthodox book for the situation: it puts the presenting of a full range of information on a new subject (and this is a carefully researched study) before the achievement of a controversial or intriguing statement about it. Mr Williams’s book is completely popular in its approach: with no index, no footnotes, no reading-list, masses of colloquialisms, and eye-catching, tendentious judgments at every turn. One reason for the difference is no doubt that, while it is technically true that no biography of Lewes has been published before, a great deal of scholarly detail about his life is available in works on George Eliot. Another reason is probably the rather greater intellectual challenge Lewes represents compared with Forster. Mr Williams has, with some wisdom, shunned a compromise here: not choosing to venture on the wide seas of science, philosophy and literature that a full account of Lewes requires, he has adopted a frankly unacademic treatment.

And there are certain rewards. Admittedly the book contains stunning vulgarities: ‘by 1854-5 Marian Evans, Warwickshire’s second volcanic genius, was ripe to erupt,’ or ‘Marian, born 135 years on, would, to judge from outward appearances, have been going along to the National Health Service to inquire about the possibilities of a sex change.’ The context of the second remark is an essentially prurient speculation – or rather, unfounded assertion – about the sex-life of Lewes and Marian. But the ban on footnotes has the effect of bringing the author’s sources, and to some extent their credibility, onto the page. It is not unknown for the serried forces of three-digit footnote references that parade past the eye in scholarly books to conceal uncritically treated, if assiduously accumulated, materials. Mr Williams is good, for instance, on J.S. Mill as an authority on Lewes’s first wife, Agnes.

Because it is not directed at a captive audience, this study also has the interest that flows from the need to recommend its subject. Mr Williams keeps before him the question of Lewes’s claim on our attention. The reader will get a lively sense of how unpretentious but durable were Lewes’s achievements in popularising philosophical history and Goethe (the popular science of The Physiology of Common Life is not noticed), and of how sparkling and wide-ranging he was in his reviewing (he is not assessed for his contributions to literary aesthetics, which would have disappointed him, except in Mr Williams’s overpraising of Principles of Success in Literature). The philosophy as such is played down (it was mainly significant as a symptom of the 19th-century reception of science), and so are the many, many hours of zoological collection and examination. This may be less fair. Lewes was often a poor scientist, but to this day he is to be found cited, once a year or so, in journals of psychology and marine biology.

On the actions for which Lewes is chiefly known – as the book’s title implies – Mr Williams takes a tortuous line. His case is that Lewes had a greater influence on George Eliot’s fiction than is usually conceded, and indeed was sometimes a co-author. Partly this is urged from the record which survives of very full, if unspecified discussions between Lewes and Marian on several of the novels at various stages in their writing. Mr Williams also has a more general, and oddly self-defeating, argument. He proposes as evidence of this collaboration the badness of the result: for example, the ‘tedium’ of Daniel Deronda reflects Lewes’s influence. It hardly needs to be pointed out that this is a very treacherous way of claiming importance for your biographical subject. Mr Williams seems only once to sense the problem he has made for himself by seeking to praise Lewes for assisting in the formation of an overvalued body of fiction, in this Irish passage: ‘Does insistence of this kind on the importance of Lewes’s role in the creating of an oeuvre as weighty and important as Marian’s diminish her achievement? If Middlemarch and the rest were the wholly incomparable masterpieces which so much recent criticism says they are, it would.’ This theme is such a clear blemish in the book’s logic that it should have rung alarms even at the copy-editing level. But the copy-editing is wretched throughout, and imparts to an interesting attempt at a popular tone on this subject a much stronger taint of negligence than the author deserved. Here is a fairly diverting example. Lewes ‘tells his readers that “new plays are to be produced by Jerrold, Marston, Lovell, Slous and Boucicault ... ”(Boucicault was only 29 years old at the time and just beginning, so Lewes can’t be blamed for getting his name wrong).’

John Forster’s reputation rests even more than Lewes’s on his obstetric relationship to Victorian literature. Dr Davies’s book is subtitled ‘A Literary Life’, and several of its sections are set out according to the authors whom Forster assisted: Leigh Hunt, Lamb, Bulwer, Tennyson, Longfellow, Mrs Gaskell, Browning, Landor, Dickens, Carlyle. The jobs which both he and Lewes did for authors were partly ones opened up by two new features of the Victorian literary scene: the multiplication of periodicals with a literary component, and the elaboration of the legal relationship between author and publisher. As Dr Davies shows, Forster deliberately arranged review coverage for his friends’ books – much of it written by himself, though by no means as mere puffing – and he advised on or actually negotiated contracts for Bulwer, Douglas Jerrold, Hood, Mrs Gaskell, Landor and, of course, Dickens.

Like Lewes, Forster also did what it would have been open to him to do at any period: he intervened in the productions of other writers. While Lewes’s practical influence on George Eliot’s novels cannot be estimated (for all Mr Williams has to say on the subject), in Forster’s case some remarkable initiatives are on record. He not only persuaded Tennyson to put his ‘Half a league, half a league onward ... ’ stanza at the beginning of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, but proposed the whole idea of the death of Little Nell to Dickens. One starts to see what an exceptional phenomenon John Forster was: a man who devised the very touchstone for the sentimentality of Dickens’s fiction, and in that sense affected the whole world’s perception of him. It would be ridiculous to claim very much for Forster’s direct agency in the formation of the morality of Victorian literature, but whenever he saw a tendency to a ‘higher’ rather than a ‘lower’ view of things in a book, as a reviewer or literary friend he urged it on. His verdict on Mrs Gaskell’s Ruth is characteristic: ‘It is a true book ... and will do infinite good to all who by such means are capable of receiving it.’ Of Forster’s moralistic exertions in relation to a rather different author his friend Procter wrote, without apparent sarcasm: ‘You must be so tired and perplexed with your labour, in trying to make out a good character for Mr Jonathan Swift.’

This, of course, is part of what Dickens seized on and twisted into ‘Podsnappery’. (Dr Davies has made the beautiful discovery – first published by him in the Dickensian a few years ago – that in Forster’s very first review, of 1829, he adjured his author: ‘does he consider that such passages...would be apt to raise a blush on the cheek of a young English female?’) Ideologically, Podsnap is a prude, a blinkered patriot and a philistine, and temperamentally he is a bully. The malicious remarks about Forster which have come down divide into those which see the ‘toady’, the upstart ‘Butcher’s boy’ who betrayed that he wasn’t a gentleman even in his manner of being drunkenly sick (he did it into Talfourd’s pocket at the Garrick), and those which see a bully: there is a good story of how Forster’s butler ‘when told that his home was on fire, served dinner in nervous silence before asking Forster for permission to leave’. (The grounds for men’s dislike of Lewes, on the other hand, are never this clearcut.) Dickens called Forster ‘the Mogul’, and sometimes celebrated his physical appearance in his most devastating vein: ‘Forster ... sitting ... with a touzled head, a dirty blouse, and extraordinarily dishevelled pantaloons ... his eyebrows ... just visible above a dirty sea of proofs’, ‘Forster, in a languid state of rheumatico-calchico-hiccoughy-frowsy-aperient-medical mystery’. It is probably fanciful to say that Dickens has roughed out the physical equivalents of Podsnappery here, but insofar as the image is hairy, dingy and stern it is that of the Victorian worthy. The pictures in Dr Davies’s book tell the dispiriting story of the rapid, wholesale Victorian takeover of male dress and demeanour. In 1830 and even 1840 Maclise has Forster as a nonchalant but sensuous young man, dressed in the bright and physically-revealing fashions of the Regency. After the middle of the century he is transformed into a Dundrearyish figure in thick, dark, baggy (calico/calchico?) clothes, glowering in a photographer’s studio. The pictorial record of any of Forster’s contemporaries – Browning, Tennyson, Dickens – is the same.

‘The Mogul’ and ‘Podsnap’ are cruel simplifications. Forster was an altruistic, honest man, devoted to literature, who cultivated his literary superiors but also loved them. His description of Carlyle is loving:

Carlyle came – sat some time. Grand, good old man, kindest & best – Described being blown down the Embankment, like an egg-shell – so frail, yet so little susceptible of the bleak bitter cold.

Dickens makes out that Podsnappery is founded in ignorance and narrowness. Mr Podsnap simply disregards that part of life which is not ‘getting up at eight, shaving close at a quarter-past, breakfasting at nine, going to the City at ten, coming home at half-past five, and dining at seven’. But men like Forster, with their piousness and their attachment to sexual purity and the British political system, were perfectly aware that their values were not universal. They recognised that monogamy and sexual restraint outside marriage were far from the rule in other countries, and at other periods. But they also saw a Britain which was more powerful and prosperous than any other nation, and they attributed this to personal moral standards. Perhaps the most important single passage in Dr Davies’s book concerns the vexed question of Forster’s treatment of Dickens in the Life: Dr Davies argues that Forster felt Dickens’s failure to maintain personal moral respectability as a bitter tragedy for the cause of literature.

It is hard for a reader in the mid-20th century to grasp that Podsnappish views could have been held in an open-eyed spirit by intelligent men and women in the Victorian period. The 20th century has a way of foisting its own kind of view on those Victorians who are perceived as intelligent. Hence the extremely improbable speculation that in Middlemarch George Eliot intimates by some sort of code that Casaubon is impotent has in recent years acquired almost the status of elementary fact, and seems to be taught routinely to A-level students of English. Mr Williams is so much a victim of this manner of thinking that he is able to assure the reader on several occasions that Lewes and Marian had a vigorous and merry sex life, and that ‘Marian was sexually demanding’. Claims of this sort may have a place in fiction, however: Mr de Vere White’s entertaining new novel, Johnnie Cross, is about George Eliot’s ‘strong passions’, and the correspondingly weak ones of the man she married at the end of her life.

Mr Williams finds it ‘extraordinary that Lewes didn’t find the time to sit down and write a book telling ... how the sexes should set about the business of getting along together.’ Perhaps this astonishing omission in Lewes’s oeuvre occurs because nothing was further from his wishes. He condoned the adultery of his first wife, and was not legally married to Marian, but this is the extent of any sexual licence we know about. All the signs are that Lewes accepted the Victorian ideal of sexually-loyal monogamy. He was, however, no Podsnap. Nor was Forster.