A Stick on Fire

Gillian Beer

  • Clarkey: A Portrait in Letters of Mary Clarke Mohl 1793-1883 by Margaret Lesser
    Oxford, 235 pp, £15.00, September 1984, ISBN 0 19 211787 4
  • George Eliot and Community: A Study in Social Theory and Fictional Form by Suzanne Graver
    California, 340 pp, £22.70, August 1984, ISBN 0 520 04802 4

In her first public writing after her elopement with George Henry Lewes in 1854, George Eliot compared the position of women in England and in France: ‘in France alone the mind of woman has passed like an electric current through the language, making crisp and definite what is elsewhere heavy and blurred.’ And, writing under cover of anonymity for the Westminster Review, she declared that one reason for the achievement of women in France is ‘laxity of opinion and practice with regard to the marriage-tie ... Gallantry and intrigue are sorry enough things in themselves, but they certainly serve better to arouse the dormant faculties of women than embroidery and domestic drudgery.’ She was then reviewing Victor Cousin’s Madame de Sablé, and Cousin had been briefly the lover of a woman whom Marian Evans (or George Eliot) already knew, and was to know better: Mary Clarke Mohl, whose style of writing and life might epitomise Marian Evans’s trenchant early views of women’s powers. Mary writes in her journal in 1826, when she was turning back from Cousin to her lover, Fauriel:

‘The trouble is,’ I told him, ‘that I have a perpetual need for pleasure.’ He said that I did not know what pleasure was ... that I only understood intellectual pleasures, that I was a stick (but the dearest stick in the world), that kisses only mattered to me because they expressed affection.

  I was astonished to be called a stick. If I am one, it’s a stick which is on fire. ‘That’s true,’ he said, ‘but you are a mass of contradictions.’ I tried to prove to him that it is the excess of passion in my nature that turns me into what he calls a stick; but he did not understand.

Mary Clarke Mohl was not a Frenchwoman. She was English, though of Scottish antecedents, living the 90 years of her life alternately in Paris and at her sister’s aptly named English country house, Cold Overton. Her moves back and forth between the two societies heightened her powers of observation. In English country society, ‘the men talk together; the lady of the house may be addressed once in a way as a duty – but they had rather talk together ... they have no notion that a lady’s conversation is better than a man’s.’ She was not used to such attitudes: ‘For some sixty years she was the centre of a circle – or rather successive circles – which included Stendhal, Mérimée, Hugo, Sainte-Beuve, Tocqueville, Delacroix, Thiers, Renan, Turgenev. Her English friends included not only Mrs Gaskell but George Eliot, Harriet Martineau, the Thackerays, the Brownings, the Trollopes, the Stanleys, the Russells ... To Florence Nightingale she was much more than a friend.’

She did not fall into the trap of identifying women with nature and nurture. To her, women were the measure of civilisation, and in this she shared in an established French intellectual tradition. She lived out her own life among men and women of intelligence, political energy and achievement, in an atmosphere of ‘impassioned friendship’ – an emotion which she held to be so remote from English understanding that they grossly mistook it for love or for infatuation. Whereas a witty blind woman of 78 in France could be an ardent and valued friend of Voltaire, in England ‘a blind old woman is only a pitiable object’ and ‘Horace Walpole was in a ludicrous state of terror lest her letters should be seen, for he fancied people might think she was in love with him, forsooth.’

In 1827 Mary Mohl was projecting ‘a history of women’, and was searching out material on ‘the condition of women’ in ancient Greece and India: ‘I want my book to include India. What was the name which that German, Huber, gave to the study of man? – something like anthropophagy, only it was not about eating. My book will be gynaepophagy.’ The great work, like the great works of her lover Fauriel on the history of stoicism and Provencal civilisation, never came into full life. Much later on, in 1862, she published a disappointingly smoothed-out account of women in French life from the 12th to the 18th century – Madame Récamier. She speaks in that work of ‘the family affections ... so consoling and absorbing, when the conjugal tie is unsatisfactory’. Yet the awful implications of such consoling and absorbing ties are at the same period furiously repudiated in her correspondence with Florence Nightingale about their friend Hilary Bonham Carter, eldest daughter to an ailing mother. Hilary Bonham Carter was a gifted painter whose work and commitment Mary Mohl sought to encourage, just as earlier she had supported and encouraged Florence Nightingale in her fight against her family’s disapproval of her work, and had provided Florence with a cover while Florence visited the hospitals in Paris and received training in nursing. Mary Mohl writes to Mary Senior that Hilary has become a slave to her family and to her own kind heart: ‘She is like someone that has been boned, as meat is. She is like a molluscous animal; she has lost all power of enjoyment – all the sharp and crisp edges of her impressions are so blunted by constantly giving up all for other people that she cares for nothing.’ What could have been ‘crisp and definite’, in George Eliot’s phrase, has been made, by English family demands, ‘heavy and blurred’. The awfulness of people who give up everything for others becomes one of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s key themes, but the fantastic metaphor of boned meat is characteristic of Mary Mohl. (She said of Indian poetry: ‘I think just as they write – all in huge red images.’) When Hilary dies in 1865, worn out by her family’s demands, Florence Nightingale writes to Mary Mohl in outraged confederacy: ‘There is not a single person, except yourself, who does not think that Hilary’s family were quite right in the most monstrous of slow murders ... The fetichism of Family is a worse fetichism than that of Sunday. Because that only rolls its Juggernaut car one day of the week – the other, every day of the week.’

To Mary Mohl, unlike many of her English contemporaries, ‘living’ did not mean family life and duties. She avoided the trap that Elizabeth Barrett Browning described in Aurora Leigh – that of the English wife educated strictly to the level of agreement with her husband.

Their rapid insight and fine aptitude,
Particular worth and missionariness,
As long as they keep quiet by the fire
And never say ‘no’ when the world says ‘ay’,
For that is fatal, – their angelic reach
Of virtue, chiefly used to sit and darn,
And fatten household sinners, – their, in brief,
Potential faculty in everything
Of abdicating power in it.

She admired and helped those who, like Florence Nightingale, made their own path and propelled themselves through the world by the urgency of their own ideas.

Things happened late to Mary Mohl. Her great passion for Fauriel began when she was 29; her satisfying marriage to Mohl at 54; at 57 she found herself foster-mother to Mohl’s two teenage nieces, whose company she seems to have enjoyed. She was strongly bound to her mother and her sister while open-eyed about the limits of that bond. She made her life in conversation and friendship, in politics and radical causes (though her scepticism made her vacillate here). When Mary Senior married, she wrote to her: ‘I hope you won’t give up your translations to keep house; though housekeeping is very laudable, the other’s your best friend. One’s pursuit always is; it sticks so close to one. No disparagement to the connubial tie, which I greatly esteem, but I have observed that that is improved by not being the only occupation in life.’ She had lived through quarrels, particularly with Stendhal, and through recurrent depression; she became a close and supportive friend of Elizabeth Gaskell, who treated her small stuffy dwelling in Paris as an enlarging refuge. She lived through the vicissitudes of French war and revolution, supporting the workers always, though doubtful of the benefits of universal suffrage.

Her ardent championing of women with an occupation, such as Mrs Hugo Reid’s work in founding Bedford College, or her friendship with Bessie Rayner Parkes during the period of her editorship of the feminist English Woman’s Journal, came in part from a sense of waste in her own life. She had never found the single binding pursuit: instead she had ‘spent herself in channels which had no great name on the earth’. But the concluding words of Middlemarch, though apt for her history, do not describe her personality. She was no Dorothea, straining to see what lay far off. Instead, she was vividly preoccupied with the near-at-hand, and sometimes unlovably and irresponsibly grasping – as in her brief adoption of a young girl who is cast aside when she cannot be trained into the woman prodigy she has promised herself. At other times, the ‘electric current’ of her observation, her tonic scepticism about the orthodoxies of both her societies, clarifies and liberates.

Having learnt so much from Margaret Lesser’s discreet assembling of letters, journals, information and linking commentary, it may seem hard to ask for more. But the principles of selection are never made clear and almost all the letter entries include omission marks. It would have been helpful to know whether this is because the sources have omissions at these points, or whether the editor wished to print only the most arresting entries. The references are so brief as to be difficult to interpret, and the biographical notes at the end, though useful, are rather haphazard in what they tell us. Inevitably, there is more to be told: for example, a minor instance, the part that Mary Mohl played in arranging for Barbara Bodichon and Bessie Rayner Parkes to have a house in Paris from the Bellocs – a stay which had the unexpected effect of changing the course of Bessie Parkes’s life from that of commitment to the women’s movement in England to entry into a Catholic family in France, the later outcome of which was her son, Hilaire Belloc. But Mary Mohl is no mere ficelle, in the Jamesian sense. She linked many other people’s lives; she brought about others’ stories; but above all she was herself – a surprising voice directly speaking a woman’s experience: ‘I’m no more fit to die than to command a fleet ... I’m ridiculously and basely fond of living.’

Her private writing allowed her a degree of freedom for which she could find no public voice. Even in George Eliot’s career we can see the difficulty of sustaining a voice undaunted. The acerbic wit of her anonymous early essays is muted in the novels into compunction, though a compunction penetrated with irony. Mrs Cadwallader in Middlemarch pronounces with the dashing directness and exaggeration of the free spirit such as Mary Mohl; the narrative is burdened with the responsibilities of connection. Suzanne Graver’s long, learned and somewhat rambling book illustrates the variety of contexts within which George Eliot was writing and thinking, from Comte to Maine on Ancient Law, from Spencer and Lewes to Feuerbach with his Marxian potential. She returns to and re-orders the novels according to a series of topics: social organicism, art and community, the author as citizen. Each of her chapters has a multitude of subheadings which seek to control leaps in the argument. She has clearly had trouble with the organisation of the book as community. The strength of the work is in the expansion of the social anthropology of George Eliot’s work, and it offers some revealing close reading. It is much more exact in its discussion of ‘social theory’ than of ‘fictional form’ and works better as a broad-ranging resource book than as a sustained argument. It represents the weight of George Eliot’s achievement but not its sinuousness.

‘Incorporation’ is crucial in Middlemarch. One of Donne’s letters, which she read as she worked on the novel, chimes in with George Eliot’s creative activity and with the problems she was creating for her characters: ‘Therefore I would fain do something; but that I cannot tell what, is no wonder. For to choose, is to do: but to be no part of any body is to be nothing. At most, the greatest persons are but great wens, and excrescences ... except they be so incorporated into the body of the world, that they contribute something to the sustenation of the whole.’ Sexual love, the process of writing, and commitment to community, in George Eliot’s work, share the same energy but have diverse aims: ‘contributing something to the sustenation of the whole’ must be a limiting as well as a satisfying endeavour. Lydgate ends by feeling that ‘he had not done what he once meant to do,’ and Dorothea by feeling ‘that there was always something better which she might have done, if she had only been better and known more.’ That sense of how much more there is to be done empowers the writing of both Mary Mohl and George Eliot. Neither of them is content with the ‘potential faculty in everything of abdicating power in it’.