Gnawed by rats, burnt at Oxford

Claire Tomalin

  • G.H. Lewes: A Life by Rosemary Ashton
    Oxford, 369 pp, £25.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 19 812827 4

George Henry Lewes was a close contemporary of Dickens, born five years after him, in 1817, and dying eight years after him, in 1878. Both men worked themselves to the limits of their strength and endurance, and probably shortened their lives by doing so; both tend to be seen as prototypical Victorians, whereas they were formed by the Regency period and kept a certain flamboyance, together with a dislike of the insularity and hypocrisy to which they saw England succumbing. Dickens, the idol of the public, grumbled, and was forced into secret strategies; Lewes, with much less at stake, proclaimed his atheism and radicalism and braved out his unorthodox marital situations, though even he finally destroyed the letters and journals that would allow us to understand his private history as we should like to. He is best known as the consort and enabler of George Eliot, for which he deserves our homage. But he was far more than that. Although he has been the subject of earlier biographies, he has not been written about with the depth and sympathy that Rosemary Ashton brings to him.

‘Always at the leading edge of Victorian culture, innovative, even shocking, in some aspects of his life and works, but nevertheless typical of the Victorian age at its progressive, energetic best’: this is Ashton’s introductory claim for Lewes, which she proceeds to justify. She gives a full and entertaining picture of the world of professional writers, publishers and journalists in which he was perpetually active; and although she cannot restore those parts of his story which he and his friends determined to black out, she uses her detailed knowledge of the period to striking effect.

She can be very funny in the process. I particularly like her account of the remarks sent to Lewes by his literary friends on receiving copies of his clearly lamentable novels. John Stuart Mill wrote explaining that he needed to read the book through a second time before making his comments, though meanwhile he liked it ‘on the whole decidedly better than I expected from your own account of it’, Bulwer Lytton pronounced: ‘You have not yet written a Book as clever as the Author.’ And Dickens, who rarely elsewhere gives the impression of a man chewing his pen as he desperately seeks for something to say, ground out: ‘I would I saw more of such sense and philosophy in that kind of Literature – which would make it more what it ought to be.’ He went on: ‘This may not seem much to read, but I mean a great deal by it in the writing.’ On receiving Lewes’s second novel, Dickens explained that the troubles he was having with rehearsals for one of his theatrical enterprises had ‘Swallowed up’ the great many ‘striking things’ he had intended to tell Lewes about the book. Not surprisingly, that was the end of the budding novelist’s career.

Lewes was the grandson of an actor and the illegitimate son of a man who abandoned the families of both his wife and his mistress. He therefore grew up fatherless, though there was a detested stepfather. He learnt French as a boy through periods when his mother lived in Jersey and France; adored and attended the theatre from an early age; went to school in Greenwich, may have been a medical student, and at 20 was a radical and a convinced atheist with Shelley as his idol. Lewes actually wrote a biography of Shelley, encouraged by Leigh Hunt, though not by Mary Shelley. It was never published, he himself soon deciding it was a poor piece of work, and it disappeared. I have always regretted this lost book, but Professor Ashton convinces us that Lewes’s low opinion of it was the right one.

It was, however, a preparation for what is still a highly regarded biography of Goethe, for which Lewes became as conversant with German language and culture as he was already with French. His range and versatility were extraordinary. As a young man he turned out journalism, theatre and book reviews and plays, as well as the ill-fated novels; he translated, he studied philosophy, corresponding with Comte and John Stuart Mill, and produced a standard textbook on the history of philosophy, which continued to be reprinted throughout the century. Without attending a university he took up science, did some original research, and wrote immensely successful popular science books. No wonder he was described as ‘Windmill of the hundred arms’ by a poet attacking him in the belief that he had given her a bad review. In fact, the review was by Marian Evans – and the description seems if anything laudatory. It was certainly apt: in these less heroic times, Lewes’s sheer output can make you feel quite faint.

One of his most interesting ventures was the setting-up, in 1849, of a weekly journal, first planned as the Free Speaker, though it actually appeared as the Leader. It had a political front half, edited by Leigh Hunt’s son Thornton, and a literary back half, which makes it the model for later weeklies such as the New Age and the New Statesman. Various backers put money into it, including the remarkable George Jacob Holyoake, a self-educated working man, journalist, author, Chartist, Owenite and atheist: he boldly named one of his sons Robespierre, which must have made the boy’s life hard. He had been imprisoned for blasphemy before joining forces with Lewes and Hunt, and he formed a lifelong attachment to Lewes. Other backers were less fervent politically-one was a ‘Christian liberal’. But the magazine did get burnt at Oxford, to Lewes’s delight: ‘Our object is Truth, and quite naturally we are burnt at Oxford.’ It set out to be a platform for a wide range of opinions; in its own voice it spoke out for the abolition of hanging, for divorce, for universal suffrage, for abolishing the newspaper tax, and for allowing Roman Catholics to establish their own archbishopric in England. It also reported Chartist meetings and gave its backing to international republican movements. Rather surprisingly, it failed to say much about the condition of women, and Lewes even delivered himself of some frightful nonsense when reviewing Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley: ‘The grand function of woman, it must always be recollected, is, and ever must be, Maternity ... What should we do with a leader of the opposition in the seventh month of her pregnancy? ... or a chief justice with twins?’

There may have been some personal reasons for Lewes’s view of women. The Leader was not the only possession he held in common with Hunt. The other was Mrs Lewes. Like his hero Shelley, Lewes proclaimed his belief in free love and open marriage, and like Shelley found the practice less wonderful than the theory. He married young, at 24, the 18-year-old sister of some boys to whom he acted briefly as tutor. Agnes was well-educated, charming, and so pretty that she was sometimes called Rose for the brightness of her complexion. Her father, Swynfen Jervis, was a country gentleman, a Radical MP and scholar; both Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti knew the family, where their father had also been a tutor. Agnes was the eldest child; she lost her mother young and had two stepmothers. Rossetti, a boy of 12 when he knew her, admired her looks and her good nature; she was also musical, and knew German, and in the early days of her marriage was able to help Lewes with his journalism.

There is a story that Lewes insisted on demonstrating his Shelleyan attitude by seducing his wife’s maidservant on the first night of their honeymoon, and later positively encouraged Thornton, who was also married, to share his wife’s sexual favours. If this is so – and we can’t be sure – it could have confused and depressed Agnes, and finally turned her against Lewes. But initially things went well enough; he was devoted, and she bore him four children in six years, before moving on to bear Thornton another four. After a while, though, Lewes became dejected. Presently he moved out, though Thornton continued to cohabit with his wife, who on one occasion gave birth within a month of Agnes. Later Thornton challenged Lewes to a duel when he complained that he was not paying his share of the upkeep of the children. Lewes remained generous – he wrote a tribute to Thornton at his death, and continued to provide for the children – even though his original complaisance cost him the chance of ever divorcing in order to marry Marian Evans. Agnes herself was cut out of her own father’s will, and Thornton was punished by becoming a mere ‘leader-writing machine’ and, with the whirligig of time, a most improbable editor of the Daily Telegraph.

Rosemary Ashton has gone through the gossip, of which there is an abundance, with great care; there can be no doubt of the basic facts, though we have lost the evidence of the feelings. Her most surprising story is of how, in December 1938, a biographer of George Eliot received a letter from an old lady of 85, Ethel Welsh, née Lewes, confidently asserting that she was the daughter of George Henry Lewes by his wife Agnes, and that any suggestion that her mother had behaved improperly was false: ‘My Mother was a most perfect Mother.’ Ethel had also loved her supposed father very much. ‘All children liked him,’ she wrote, and offered no explanation for his disappearance from the scene when she was four. The implication of her remarks is that George Eliot stole away Ethel’s father from his happy family, which we know to be untrue. Can Ethel really have believed what she wrote, or was she offering the version she thought proper and loyal? Nobody knows what Agnes, the perfect mother, thought about anything, though she outlived her lover and his wife, her husband, her husband’s mistress and several of her own children. The only photograph we have of her, taken in her late sixties, in a lacecap, suggests a once pretty woman, grown comfortably stout, and placid. She died in 1902,aged 80. Perhaps she was a woman of sensations rather than thoughts.

Lewes’s association with George Eliot is the best-known part of his story. Ashton rejects suggestions that it was ever anything but happy, and in particular the unsubstantiated rumour that she discovered evidence of his infidelity after his death. Even if no couple can be expected to be perpetually delighted, they were obviously deeply congenial both intellectually and emotionally. Those who come together later in life can expect to take an interest in each other’s indigestion and headaches, and they were enthusiastic about this as well as supportive towards each other’s work. If he seems to move towards a certain pomposity, it was a small price to pay for transforming Marian Evans into George Eliot.

Lewes was loved and respected by his peers, Trollope in particular, though he never quite escaped the patronising tone doled out to social rebels. Being a small man made him an easy target; he was also always described as extremely ugly, except by Charlotte Brontë, who saw in him the image of her sister Emily. He doesn’t, in fact, look at all bad in pictures. Yet the note of condescension is persistent. He was ‘little Lewes’, vivacious and entertaining perhaps, but in the manner of ‘an old-fashioned French barber or dancing-master’ (this is Charles Eliot Norton in 1869). ‘You expect to see him take up his fiddle and begin to play.’ Henry James found him ‘personally repulsive; (as Mrs Kemble says “He looks as if he had been gnawed by the rats”) but most clever and entertaining’.

He was also good, generous, lacking in either intellectual or personal jealousy, courageous in facing the tragic deaths of two of his adult sons, full of wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and free of cant. Rosemary Ashton’s book makes you feel that he has, at last, been properly placed in context and had justice done to him.