English, Department of



Date of this Version


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The George Eliot Review 31 (2000) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019


This helpful, clearly edited supplement to the original two-volume Letters of George Henry Lewes, which appeared in 1995, actually contains more letters by George Eliot than from Lewes: 79 by her and 54 by him, of which 92 (47 by him and 45 by her) are published for the first time. As William Baker says in his introduction, the letters cover each phase of their lives: her work with the Westminster Review, his with the Leader, their meeting and life together, his death and its devastating impact upon her. There are no dramatic discoveries, but the thirteen letters Lewes wrote to Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton, friend from childhood, minor poet and Viceroy of India from 1876-80, recently discovered at the India Office Library, shed fresh light on Lewes's later years. Baker claims that these letters reveal Lewes's 'wit' and 'erudition' along with 'the nature of his comradely relationship with Lytton'. The new George Eliot letters provide more details of her even more impressive clarity of mind both in her dealings with John Chapman over the Westminster and in her comments on her own work.

Lewes's letters to Lytton are certainly crammed with jokes. Lewes seems to have felt it his duty to lighten the burdens of office in India by lacing each letter with racy (and quite often racial) stories. Some of these, to be fair, are genuinely funny, for instance the Zulu translator of the Bible, groping for a word for God, who settles on the word for 'meat in a state of decomposition', an over-literal rendering of 'the most High', or the difference between Universalists and Unitarians: 'the first believe God is too good to damn them the second they are too good to be damned'. Lewes shows an endearing ability to laugh at himself, whether resisting being taught Hebrew by Eliot or acknowledging of Napoleon, 'I wish I had his power of silence'. At other times his garrulousness and self-confidence can be annoying, typified in his report of Darwin thinking 'my fundamental criticism of his theory ... true and of great importance' .

Eliot's letters, as one might expect, contain fewer jokes. But they do give additional insights into her way of working, particularly those written while she was involved with the Westminster Review. She can be seen defending George Lewes's translation of Comte's Philosophy of the Sciences against Thomas Huxley's review, which she tries to persuade John Chapman not to publish, and attacking an article sent to her as 'feminist rant of the worst kind' , 'bombastic ... trash'. To 'accept articles of this calibre,' she tells Chapman, 'would be the damnation of the Review. Pray admit nothing that touches on the Position of Woman, that is not sober, well thought out, and expressed in good English', advice that retains a certain validity.