Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 17 (1986)
In proposing this toast I thought I would like to look briefly at George Eliot's real children, and before anyone, sensing an even bigger mid-Victorian scandal than she created by Iiving with George Henry Lewes, asks 'Did she have any?', let me define what I mean by 'real'. I do not mean G. H. Lewes's boys, though she was a devoted mother to them in the best sense of the word, writing to them, being caring and concerned at all times, nursing one in his young manhood dedicatedly until his premature death. I do not mean Elma Stuart, whom George Eliot called daughter for some years until her death, and who was proud to claim that title afterwards; nor do I mean Edith Simcox, who was potentially daughter and lover both, and who spent some time, as we know from her letters, trying to see George Eliot alone and falling at her feet whenever the opportunity presented itself. I mean, quite simply, the children in George Eliot's fiction.
The other day, searching Swinburne's poetry for a reference in Tess of the O'Urbervilles, I came across the following title about which I knew nothing. It is called ON THE DEATHS OF THOMAS CARLYLE AND GEORGE ELIOT. I will not present the whole of it, but the last six lines about George Eliot are relevant to what I have to say:
Duty Divine and Thought with eyes of fire
Still following righteousness with deep desire
Shone sole and stern before her and above
Sure stars and sole to steer by; but more sweet
Shone lower the loveliest lamp for earthly feet,
The light of little children and their love.
'The light of little children and their love'. Ponder that line, and think back to the very beginning of George Eliot's fiction. In the first of the Clerical Scenes there is a warm and concentrated focus on children. Consider part of the opening description of the Barton family.
Nearest her mother sits the nine-year old Patty, the eldest child, whose sweet fair face is already rather grave sometimes, and who always wants to run upstairs to save mamma's legs, which get so tired of an evening.'
There is some attempt to make Patty and her smaller brothers and sisters seen and not heard when the Countess Czerlaski occupies their home. But it is the children who make the end of the story so moving, as they are brought in to see their dying mother, and it is Patty who is a mother to them by her mother's wish, and Patty who 'alone remains by her father's side, and makes the evening sunshine of his life.