Monday, October 31, 2016

G.H. Lewes: A Life I

In case you were wondering, I have been distracted by family responsibilities over the last few days and have done little reading and no writing. This book, by Rosemary Ashton, seems to be an appropriate sequel to my investigation of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, because I have stumbled on a new topic: literary couples. I already knew a lot about George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), one of whose better biographies was written by the same Rosemary Ashton, and was interested in taking a closer look at the Eliot-Lewes relationship from a knowledgeable source in order to get a better perspective on the de Beauvoir-Sartre relationship. One doesn't hear much about collaborative literary relationships, but, in the case of George Eliot, her relationship with Lewes was critical: she may never have written fiction if it hadn't been for him. The de Beauvoir-Sartre relationship seems less symbiotic and more fraught with problems for a number of reasons. First, I don't think that de Beauvoir and Sartre were as talented as they saw themselves, and, second, although they consulted each other frequently, their interests and works hardly converged, and they probably could have done their writing individually. So far I am struck by how spoiled and arrogant de Beauvoir and Sartre seem; they started with superior educations and a distorted sense of self-importance. Eliot and Lewes represent a dramatic contrast, with inferior educations, years of struggle and extraordinarily hard work. Observing the couples, de Beauvoir and Sartre seem more imperious and tendentious, while Eliot and Lewes seem comparatively more curious and, in the end, more knowledgeable. One of my theses is that the best fiction requires, besides a certain amount of imagination and a high level of linguistic skill, a depth of understanding of human nature and society, and that understanding seemed somewhat lacking in de Beauvoir and Sartre.

George Henry Lewes was the grandson of Charles Lee Lewes, an irreverent actor in England at a time when acting was not a respectable profession. G.H. Lewes's father, John Lee Lewes, was a minor literary figure who had two families. His wife bore four children, and he abandoned the family in 1811 to start an illegitimate family with Elizabeth Ashweek, with whom he had three sons. The third son, G.H. Lewes, was born in 1817. John Lee Lewes abandoned his second family in 1819 and moved to Bermuda to work as a customs officer. Elizabeth Ashweek married in 1823, and her sons disliked their stepfather. Not much information on Lewes's childhood is available, but apparently his mother faced financial difficulties. They lived in Gloucestershire, Southampton, Jersey, Nantes and Boulogne, and presumably their moves were motivated by a search for lower living costs. Lewes became fluent in French and early on developed the outlook of a freethinker.

By 1837, at the age of twenty, Lewes had become a young Bohemian in London. He sought to emulate Shelley and became acquainted with Shelley's irresponsible surviving friend, Leigh Hunt, the writer. He supported himself through a variety of literary and journalistic pursuits. Leigh Hunt's son, Thornton, became his closest friend. Lewes seems to have been well-suited, despite a spotty education, to a journalistic life. He was able to churn out reviews, articles on Shelley and Goethe and a popular introductory philosophy book. By the time he was in his early thirties he had established friendships with Leigh Hunt, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, John Stuart Mill, Charlotte Brontë, Auguste Comte, George Sand, William Makepeace Thackeray and Herbert Spencer, and later he corresponded with Charles Darwin. He seems to have had a gregarious personality, have been good at telling jokes, producing witticisms and doing imitations, but he also had omnivorous interests and critical acuity.

In 1841, at the age of 23, Lewes married Agnes Jervis. Apparently their first few years together were happy, and they produced four sons, one of whom died young. For reasons not entirely clear the marriage declined, and Agnes bore several children by Thornton Hunt. There are aspects to Lewes's Bohemian proclivities that are not well understood, and I'll discuss them further if they come up later in the book, which I've barely started.

I apologize if this topic doesn't interest you, but it is important to me in that it provides the kind of sociological perspective on literary production that I find most meaningful. It is all too common to read proclamations that some author has produced a "work of genius," but my experience has shown me that nothing occurs in a vacuum, and, more precisely, a great work cannot come into existence if all the right pieces aren't already in place – pieces which predominantly have nothing to do with the particular talents of an author.

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