English, Department of



John Rignall

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 37 (2006) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019 (37)


One hundred and fifty years ago this year, in June and July 1855, the future George Eliot published two articles in Fraser 's Magazine about her experiences in Weimar with G. H. Lewes between August and November 1854: 'Three Months in Weimar' and 'Liszt, Wagner, and Weimar'. When she had, seemingly out of the blue, left London with Lewes in July 1854 to start their life together, taking a steamer from St Katherine's dock to Antwerp, it was to Weimar that they were heading to collect material for the Life of Goethe that Lewes was writing. Known to most people in Britain simply as the place that Goethe had spent most of his life, Weimar was, and is, a small town in central Germany lying half way between Kassel in the West and Leipzig in the East. In those days it was the seat of the Dukes of Weimar (one of whom, Karl August, had been Goethe's patron and employer), and it was thus the capital of the little Duchy of Saxe-Weimar. This tiny state - if you travelled about twenty miles in any direction from the town of Weimar you would reach its borders - was one of the many principalities that made up Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century. The political unification of Germany under Prussia and Bismarck still lay a few years in the future, so that, when George Eliot and Lewes stayed there, Saxe-Weimar was still autonomous, a feudal, though enlightened and liberal, statelet under an hereditary ruler, with a court, a castle and other princely residences. To offer an English analogy, it was as though Rutland were a separate state with all the panoply of a monarchical system and Oakham as its capital.

The two articles in Fraser's are based on George Eliot's 'Recollections of Weimar' in her journal - the only occasion I believe when she placed material from her journals in the public domain, even though the more intimate passages of the journal entry are omitted - and they are the only examples of what can be called travel-writing in the work that she published in her lifetime. It is a genre to which other writers, like Dickens and Thackeray, made significant contributions, but with this one exception George Eliot avoided it. She did, of course, write accounts in her journal of her later travels - to Berlin, Ilfracombe, Munich and Dresden, Normandy and Brittany, and Italy - but these remained private records of that process of self culture, of personal enlargement that she saw to be the principal aim of her journeys. As she puts it at the beginning of her 'Recollections of Italy. 1860', she had journeyed to Italy 'with the hope of the new elements it would bring to my culture', maintaining that '[t]ravelling can hardly be without a continual current of disappointment if the main object is not the enlargement of one's general life'.' Travel was for George Eliot a private business not an opportunity for the later public display of personal experience. Why, we may ask, was Weimar different? In the first place her visit had a professional rather than a personal purpose: to collect material for Lewes's biography of Goethe, so that the two articles she wrote could be seen as related to his work and part of a shared project. But the exception that her published writing about Weimar represents can mainly be explained in financial terms: she and Lewes, setting out on their life together but still having to support Lewes's family, had to live off their writing, were quite hard up and needed to turn everything to account. The literary associations of Weimar with Goethe and Schiller were of particular assistance in this respect since they provided the peg for articles addressed to a British audience at the time. But looking back from our vantage point, and for our purposes, it is not those associations but the relationship between the Weimar experience and George Eliot's own writing that is of primary interest, and it is that which I aim to explore here.