Saturday, April 24, 2004

George Eliot's refusal to go to Church: ethics and the 'truth of feeling'

What follows is a kind of moral reflection. I've just been reading a biography of George Eliot (George Eliot: The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes). All of the details are derived from that source, but all of the writing below is my own except where noted.

"George Eliot" is a pseudonym for a woman who identified herself publicly as Marian Lewes. But she grew up as Mary Ann Evans, in a tightly knit family in Warwickshire, in the 'midlands' region of England. Her family was part of the Evangelical wing of the Church of England, and she was educated by a series of very religious women. People like her former teacher Maria Lewis had a disproportionate in Mary Ann's life after the death of her mother, in 1835.

On January 2, 1842, at the age of 22, Mary Ann Evans told her father she would not be accompanying him to church. This decision was the product of recent revelations and readings she had been doing over the course of the previous year, which had pulled her sharply away from her earlier religious devotion. Her biographer cites particularly a book by Charles Hennell, An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of Christianity, as a turning point. Between Hennell and the personal influence of the freethinkers Charles and Cara Bray, Mary Ann came to believe that Jesus was essentially a very pious man who was murdered for his beliefs, but that none of the miracles or supernatural powers ascribed to him can be proved to have occurred. Thus, any orthodox Christianity which proclaimed the literal truth of the Bible was for her a falsehood.

Her father, Robert Evans, took her refusal extremely poorly, as he felt her lack of exposure to local society would doom her to spinsterhood. Belonging to the Church was not just a sign of respectability, but for a woman like Mary Ann, it represented the best possible access to the outside world. Her father withdrew all support, and even left it ambiguous where May Ann should live, and who would support her financially. She wrote a letter to him in an attempt to explain herself. Kathryn Hughes describes it as follows:

It is an extraordinary document for a girl of twenty-two to write – intellectually cogent, emotionally powerful. She starts by making clear the grounds for her rebellion. She assures him that she has not, contrary to his fears, become a Unitarian. Nor is she rejecting God, simply claiming the right to seek Him without the clutter of manmade dogma and doctrine. As far s the Bible is concerned, 'I regard these writings as histories consisting of mingled truth and fiction, and while I admire and cherish much of what I believe to have been the moral teaching of Jesus himself, I consider the system of doctrines built upon the facts of his life . . . to be most dishonourable to God and most pernicious in its influence on individual and social happiness.' (50-51)

Eventually her brother Isaac and her sister-in-law Sarah interceded on her behalf, and her father reinstated her into the family life.

But that's just the beginning of the story. For several months after her initial refusal, her family was in complete upheaval. Relations amongst the Evans siblings were tense, and her father was extremely agitated. But then in May, having changed none of her beliefs -- Mary Ann's 'freethinking' habits would only strengthen throughout this period in her life -- she agreed to go with her father to Church.

Why did she do this? Was she under direct pressure from her family and friends to soften her stand? Undoubtedly, she was. But she was also a young woman of ferocious commitment to principle, with an awareness of her options in life. When she did have an offer to marry not too much later, she turned it down; only when she was well into her 30s did she find a life-partner, and then it was with a man who was already married and legally unable to divorce (and her decision to move in with George Henry Lewes would lead to an irrevocable break with her family). Contrary to the common-sense understanding of the 19th century as an era where women had to do what fathers and husbands told them to do, it would have been financially possible for Mary Ann to earn her own living as a governess (she had in fact been looking for such a position while in breach with her family). Not desirable, but possible.

In fact, Mary Ann freely chose to end her public display of rejection in favor of a willingness to work within her social framework to accomplish her ends -- she felt she was still able to act ethically and freely even if she did agree to visit the Church on her father's request. She explained herself in a letter that Kathryn Hughes quotes in her biography:

'The first impulse of a young and ingenuous mind is to withold the slightest sanction from all that contains even a mixture of supposed error. When the soul is just liberated from the wretched giant's bed of dogmas on which it has been racked and stretched ever since it began to think there is a feeling of exultation and strong hope.' This soul, continues Mary Ann, believes that its new state of spiritual awareness more than compensates for the old world of error and confusion left behind. What's more, it is determined to spread the good news by proselytizing to all and sundry. A year or two on, however, and the situation appears quite different. 'Speculative truth begins to appear but a shadow of individual minds, agreement between intellects seems unattainable, and we turn to the truth of feeling as the only universal bond of union. We find that the intellectual erros which we once fancied were a mere incrustation have grown into the living body and that we cannot in the majority of causes, wrench them away without destroying vitality.' (54-55)

Mary Ann saw her early action as in fact a failure, but not because her loss of belief was false. Rather, she came to realize that her awareness did not by itself grant her any meaningful freedom because it destroyed the entire social fabric of her life. Expressing herself freely left her, in effect, less free. The only rock-solid truth was for her in the 'truth of feeling' she experienced for other human beings, including ones she disagreed with. This truth of feeling could only be possible if she accepted the beliefs of others as integral, not simply the product of error, backwardness, or stupidity.

The willingness to compromise would be an issue for Mary Ann (later Marian) throughout her life -- whether in her work as a journalist in London, where was the effective editor of a prestigious journal (though her name never appeared on the masthead), or in her later career as one of England's most successful novelists. And a version of the crisis appears in Middlemarch where Dorothea Casaubon decides against a public career as an activist in favor a more private orientation to a husband, and a realization that her impact on society would be measured only by 'unhistoric acts.'

Is it a 'conservative' gesture? It is debatable in Middlemarch, because Dorothea's potential success in politics, at a time where women did not even have the right to vote, is clearly limited by her gender. Gender is also a factor in the context of Mary Ann's early 'holy war,' but it's not the whole story. I think her final agreement to go to Church demonstrates her willingness to allow her personal freedom to be limited in the interest of sustaining a broader social fabric: the truth of a community is more meaningful than the truth of a single individual.