SELECTED SOJOURNS ON THE ISLE OF WIGHT

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 12:41

When researching the life of Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), an aspect of it about which the investigator would like more documentation concerns the degree of intimacy in her relationships with certain married men prior to her enduring love affair with G. H. Lewes, the man with whom she lived in harmony until his death at the age of sixty-one in 1878. Presumably because the information does not exist, we are left only with knowledge which indicates either that her behaviour was reprehensibly indiscreet or incredibly naïve.

Let us consider her association with Dr Herbert Brabant, M.A. to whom she was introduced by his daughter, Elizabeth Rebecca, whose red hair caused her to be known as Rufa. Having been invited to stay with the Brabants, she was constantly in the doctor’s company, ostensibly to read Greek with him. Regarding her as a second daughter, he called her Deutera. Mischief made by his blind wife’s sister, Miss Hughes, resulted in Miss Evans’ precipitate departure.

Another man with whom she read Greek was John Eibree, a scholar who, having lost faith, abandoned Holy Orders – an act for which Mary Ann Evans was accused of being responsible.

A third man with whom her conduct might not have been comme il faut was the publisher of the Westminster Review, John Chapman, who, although married to Susanna Brewitt, the daughter of a lace manufacturer, retained his mistress, Miss Elizabeth Tilley, in the family home. Contact with Chapman began when Mary Ann’s literary work for him included a critical review of Robert William Mackay’s The Progress of the Intellect, as Exemplified in the Religious Development of the Greeks and Hebrews – a critique which gave evidence of her superb mental powers – and a revision of James Nesbitt’s three-volume work The Siege of Damascus. In 1855, after an eight-month sojourn on the Continent, she reviewed twenty-three other books – work for which she received twelve pounds twelve shillings (twelve guineas). This collection in English, French, and German, included Guillaume Guizot’s Ménandre and Gautier’s Militonia.

Suspecting that she might be superseded, Elizabeth Tilley resented the fact that Miss Evans gave Chapman lessons in German and Latin at what she thought were ‘strange times’.

In his biography, Gordon S. Haight relates how Susanna caught her husband and Mary Ann holding hands, and how certain pages from Chapman’s diary are missing. Haight gives Mary’s earnings for 1855 as £119.8s.0d.

Circa 1850 Mary Ann Evans when on the Continent stayed at Plongeon, at the home of an artist, Francois D’Albert Durade, and his wife. When she returned to London Durade accompanied her and remained in England for approximately three months. He was fifteen years older than Mary Ann. Ten years elapsed before their next meeting, but they corresponded using, apparently with Madame Durade’s approval, the intimate ‘tu’. Significantly he burnt her letters.

In 1845 she refused an artist (name unknown) who proposed marriage.

Another relationship about which the whole truth is unknown was that with Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). Spencer, the son of a Derbyshire schoolmaster was, according to Pears Cylopaedia, a civil engineer who became the editor of the Economist and the author of Principles of Psychology and The System of Synthetic Philosophy – the latter a ten-volume work the writing of which took him from 1860 to 1896. The former apparently anticipated Darwin’s theory. Gordon Haight states that he was extraordinarily conceited, a failing which did not deter Mary Ann Evans from often being in his company and possibly at one time being prepared to marry him. When she went to Broadstairs for a holiday, Spencer followed her. It has been said that he was attracted by her intelligence and repelled by her lack of beauty. He died a bachelor.

At a time when travelling could be not only uncomfortable but hazardous, Mary Ann covered many miles in this country and in Europe. The precise number of her visits to the Isle of Wight has eluded me, for in the latter years when she and Lewes were searching for a place in which to settle they occasionally thought of making a home here, and doubtless came to inspect various sites. That she came to stay five times has been recorded – the first time in 1847 when she brought her father to recuperate from illness. In April 1859 she and Lewes were here for three days before going to Wales. When in 1866 Lewes was unwell the couple went to Spain where he recovered his health. But on his return to England he had a relapse, and they spent a fortnight in Niton. March 1870 found Lewes again suffering, and this time Herbert Spencer brought him to the Island. In view of the fact that, although unwell, Lewes could always travel, we can assume his malady was not too serious. Their last recorded visit was in December 1871 when they were the guests of Barbara Bodichon (née Leigh Smith) the daughter of the abolitionist, William Smith, an advocate for women’s rights. Barbara’s home was the Swanmore Parsonage. The vicar of St Michael’s Church, Haight tells us, was a high churchman who kept a scourge in his study.

A review of Mary Ann’s long list of friends would confirm that her personality was one which inspired respect, affection, and in some cases devotion. Among several other women who experienced the latter feeling for her was Elma Stuart (née Elvorilda Maria Fraser) a wood-carver who sent carvings as gifts, who called her ‘spiritual mother’, and who would have kissed the hem of her gown. Edith Jemima Simcox, a scholarly writer, used to kiss her feet, and wrote in her diary of her adoration. This must not be interpreted as perversion. The Victorians viewed love between women in a different light. The object of her devotion preferred the friendship of men.

Early in her life Mary Ann was influenced by Charles Bray and his wife, Cara (née Caroline Hennell) both of whom were freethinkers. They, however, were not entirely responsible for her abandoning orthodox religion and a belief in God. At twenty-one her books had taught her that morality and religion were not inter-dependent. At the Brays, where many notable people were entertained, she was introduced to that superb essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, of whom a critic in the Times Literary Supplement wrote, ‘He did not evade the problem of evil – rather he saw the means by which it might be transcended’, and who himself wrote, ‘The religion which is to guide and fulfil the present and coming ages, whatever else it be, must be intellectual’ – a philosophy with which the future George Eliot undoubtedly would have concurred.

T. C. Hudson
© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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