Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 23 (1992)
For a very long time, George Henry Lewes's reputation has centred on the fact that, for the last 25 years of his life, he was George Eliot's partner. Not a vast number of people have cared to know very much about him beyond an idea, perhaps, that he was a rather freewheeling journalist who produced a Life of Goethe, and that he was free-thinking and - at least until he took up with George Eliot - somewhat free-living. It is gratifying, therefore, that this highly intelligent, quick and versatile, immensely fair-minded man who loved science as much as he loved letters, should at last be presented in his own light. Rosemary Ashton is right to reclaim for him, and to reassess, both his actual achievements and his energetic (sometimes almost reckless) thrusts at achievement. Lewes was not a success as the novelist he tried to be, and he showed limited flair as the actor he wanted to be. But he was not entirely a failure as a playwright, and he was an influential, often dazzling theatre reviewer (a sort of model for Shaw) and literary critic. He was also a biographer, an extremely lucid philosophic expositor, an excellent mimic (and anecdotalist, apparently), and a popularising biologist. He died leaving the final two volumes of his five-volume Problems of Life and Mind - 'a comprehensive study of the human organism, physiological and psychological' , as Professor Ashton describes it - for George Eliot to complete. There was a haphazard, reeling element in the remarkable diversity of his prodigious output, though, and for this reason I think it will always remain the case that initial (though no longer, I hope, overwhelming) interest in him will continue to spring from his association with George Eliot: as he anchored her in life, so does she anchor him in history. And so the extent to which his enquiries and enthusiasms parallel hers before they came into each other's lives is striking and enhancing: not only did they work independently on Spinoza, he on an essay, she on a translation - but they were both fervent admirers of George Sand, not for her sexual freedom, but for what they each felt was her spirit of truthfulness. Something of their future response to each other was inherent in their response to Sand's work.