English, Department of

 

Authors

Graham Handley

Date of this Version

1998

Document Type

Article

Citation

The George Eliot Review 29 (1998) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/

Comments

The George Eliot Review 2018 (29)

Abstract

The first titles in the Eminent Women Series published in 1883 by W. H. Allen included studies of Emily Bronte and George Sand (Margaret Fuller, Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Fry, and Harriet Martineau would be in the next wave) as well as Mathilde Blind's pioneering, sensitive, uneven and sympathetically feminist exposition of George Eliot's life and art. Blind herself deserves a full-length study, and at particular points her own life and works touch those of George Eliot. Born Mathilde Cohen in Mannheim in 1841, she took her stepfather's name when her mother remarried. Dr. Karl Blind was an ardent republican in Baden, was imprisoned, freed, then exiled himself, first to Belgium then to England, the family settling in St John's Wood a couple of years after the European year of Revolutions in 1848. Richard Gamett, in the Memoir prefixed to the Poetical Works of Mathilde Blind (1900) refers to her unpublished autobiographical writings in which he notes her strong attachment to another girl at her school, her love of music and dancing (exemplified in her novel Tarantella, 1885) and her embracing of Christianity in her girlhood as 'this profoundly personal religion'. Her early poetic predilections are seen in her reactions to Swiss scenery, where she describes 'high white clouds changing chameleon-like as the sun and wind touched their ethereal substance. Sometimes they stood on tiptoe on the top of a mountain peak like columbines balancing themselves on the shoulders of a giant'. This was in 1859, ten years after George Eliot's Geneva experience, and just as the emergent novelist was to rehearse her wittily ironic observations of people met in a pension, so Blind rehearsed her natural powers of observation on the elevating and consoling effects of nature. She read avidly, her German inheritance ensuring her admiration of Goethe, while she wrote an ode to celebrate the Schiller centenary in Bradford (1859), and shared with Lewes a fascination for Robespierre, writing a tragedy about him which was praised by Louis Blanc. Blind - dazzlingly beautiful when young - admired Mazzini, but found Gariba1di (c. 1864) lacking in personal magnetism though inspiring nonetheless. She sought the company of famous men: Mazzini prescribed a course of reading for her (as Scott Fitzgerald was to do for Sheila Graham in the 1930s) but, although she hung 'with my whole soul upon his every word', from the mid-l 860s onwards she was concerned with raising the status of women, passionately interested in their education, which she regarded essential if they were to achieve a proper equality with men. She was an enthusiastic admirer of George Eliot, had a more temperate admiration of George Sand, was bowled over by 'Aurora Leigh', was influenced by Carlyle, and more profoundly by Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-62), author of A History of Civilisation in England, only two volumes of which had appeared before his premature death. He adopted a scientific basis for historical investigation and was much admired by Darwin: Blind obviously found this congenial, so much so that one of her later (and greater) poems is called 'The Ascent of Man' and is distinctly Darwinian in its emphasis. In 1866 her brother Ferdinand committed suicide following his failed attempt to assassinate the great German statesman Bismarck, and annual tribute was paid to him by Blind and many sympathizers. In 1867 she published her first poems under the pseudonym of Claude Lake, and soon began to see herself as a lecturer: interestingly Trollope's American friend Kate Field embarked on just that career with some success on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1869 Blind lectured on Shelley at St George's Hall (her beauty winning, her accent difficult), and as a result met John Chapman, her lecture being reproduced in his Westminster Review (July 1870), the periodical George Eliot had edited for Chapman in the early 1850s. Thereafter she travelled much, became interested in another cult of the time, spiritualism, and, in 1873, published her translation of Strauss's final work, The Old Faith and. the New. Visits to Scotland stimulated her sense of history and her poetic impulse: she was to write movingly about the clearances of the Highlands in 'The Heather on Fire' (1886), observing of the glens and the desolated villages that 'it was but yesterday that they were inhabited by a brave, moral, and industrious peasantry, full of poetic instincts and ardent patriotism, ruthlessly expelled their native land to make way for sporting grounds rented by merchant princes and American millionaires' . Bronchial, financially insecure, suffering from bouts of depression, she contributed two biographies to the Eminent Women Series. The first, on Eliot, cost her much labour, even anguish. When she had finished it, she feelingly recorded: 'It was a lovely afternoon. I was too tired to walk, and sat down on a bench in a little garden in front of the house, drinking in the air, the hum of the insects, the colour of flowers and leaves, the glory of the sky'. The second, Madame Roland (1886) had to be cut down by a third ('So Madame Roland was decapitated for the second time', observes Gamett); she produced a series of aphorisms from Goethe for Fraser's Magazine, wrote a preface to a selection from Byron for the Camelot series (1886), and lived for some time with the Madox Browns in Manchester and London. In 1892 she inherited a fortune from her brother Max Cohen, journeyed to Rome and Egypt, and wrote a number of poems before she went into a decline: she spent some time in the company of the Regius Professor of Medicine at Cambridge, Dr. Clifford Allbutt (friend of Eliot and Lewes, thought by some to have provided the germ of Lydgate) and, wishing to benefit women's education practically, left the greater part of her estate to Newnham College, Cambridge, when she died in 1896. A fine monument was erected to her memory in Finchley Cemetery, where she was buried close to the grave of her friends the Madox Browns.

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