George Eliot in The Road to Character


George Eliot

When I first started audiobooks I decided I wanted to read more novels. A number of people had talked about Middlemarch so I thought I’d give it a try. I made it about half way through but I was impressed by what had given the novel its reputation, the clarity of perception of the author into persons and relationships. I did a bit more research on this author “George Eliot” only to learn that he was a she. It became just another trivia tidbit in my mind until I came across this new sweet in David Brooks’ biographical box of chocolates.

Mary Anne Evans was a remarkable woman living in an important time and space for the development of the culture we now inhabit. Many of the issues that possess our culture were being formed during this time. She makes a terrific subject for a chapter that will tangentially relate to many of today’s hot topics.

Youth Rejecting Christianity

While the exodus of millennials from the church makes headlines today Mary Anne Evans in some ways became prototypical of this rejection of Christianity. Reading her evolution from religious nut to post-Christian secularist makes all of the supposed newness of rejecting Christianity seem positively Victorian.

Mary Anne tried to reopen conversation with her father by writing him a letter. First, she made clear why she could no longer be a Christian. She said she regarded the Gospels 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 dishonorable to God and most pernicious in its influence on individual and social happiness.” It would be rank hypocrisy, she told him, to appear to worship in the home of a doctrine she thought pernicious.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (pp. 158-159). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Her love life was erratic at best finding herself in a number of unconventional relationships often with married men.

Emotionally, though, she was still something of a basket case. By the time she was twenty-two it became a joke in her circle that Mary Anne fell in love with everyone she met. These relationships followed a general pattern. Desperate for affection, she would throw herself at some man, usually a married or otherwise unavailable one. Dazzled by her conversation, he would return her attention. Mistaking his intellectual engagement for romantic love, she would become emotionally embroiled, hoping their love would fill some void in herself. Finally he would reject her or flee, or his wife would force her out of the picture. Mary Anne would be left awash in tears, or crippled by migraines.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 161). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

She would eventually find a more stable relationship with a married man in an unhappy open relationship and this would be her main relationship through her most productive years. She considered herself married to him, even if it could not be by law or society and they lived lived together for 24 years until his death.

Brooks’ pattern has been to focus on one biography and then highlight two other subjects, in this chapter they are agency and love


George Eliot finally achieved what Brooks calls “agency” in her life. The word wasn’t new of course but I find the concept important an intriguing in this context.

This letter represents a pivotal moment in Eliot’s life, with its mixture of pleading vulnerability and strong assertion. After the years of disjointed neediness, the iron was beginning to enter her soul and she became capable of that declaration of her own dignity. You might say that this moment was Eliot’s agency moment, the moment when she began the process by which she would stop being blown about by her voids and begin to live according to her own inner criteria, gradually developing a passionate and steady capacity to initiate action and drive her own life.

The letter didn’t solve her problems. Spencer still rejected her. She remained insecure, especially about her writing. But her energies were roused. She exhibited growing cohesion and at times amazing courage…

Agency is not automatic. It has to be given birth to, with pushing and effort. It’s not just the confidence and drive to act. It’s having engraved inner criteria to guide action. The agency moment can happen at any age, or never. Eliot began to display signs of emotional agency when she was with Spencer, but it came to mature fruition only after she met George Lewes.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (pp. 163-164). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This connects for me the language of David Schnarch in his book Intimacy and Desire. The picture we have from Brooks of George Eliot was that she did not have “a solid self” but was rather incapable of managing a mature relationship.

Normal people depend on others for their sense of identity, self-worth, and security. We do so because we are generally at a common modest level of personal development. A reflected self is the first self we have. Many people never develop much of a solid self and engage in borrowed functioning all their lives.

Schnarch, David (2011-07-01). Intimacy & Desire (p. 46). Beaufort Books. Kindle Edition.

A more solid sense of self gives you more capacity for desire. It may sound strange to think of sexual desire as a capacity you can develop. But think about it in terms of your capacity to love. You wouldn’t think twice if I said your self-development greatly determines your capacity to love. Until you have some degree of solid flexible self, your capacity to love someone—including yourself—is severely limited, as is your tolerance for profound desire. The rigors of mature adult love require an accurate and resilient sense of self, if love is to last. Love, desire, and selfhood are innate human abilities we all need to develop.

Schnarch, David (2011-07-01). Intimacy & Desire (p. 64). Midpoint Trade Books. Kindle Edition.

“Agency” as Brooks calls it seems to be something like Schnarch’s idea of a solid self.

In an interview in the Washington Post Brooks elaborates more on his concept of agency especially with its relationship with Christianity.

Frankly, the thing I struggle with in Christian thought in general is the tension between surrender and agency. Raised as a Jew, I believe that we control our lives, we take action. The Jewish tradition is, God created the earth but human beings complete it. It’s about you doing things and exercising agency. In Christian thought, there’s less emphasis on that. It’s more unique redemptive assistance from God. There’s more surrender. The line between agency and surrender, what we can do on our own and what we can’t is something I just don’t understand. I don’t have an answer to that.

We’ll return to this when we treat Brooks’ next topic, love.

Lewis and Brooks on Love

Brooks’ section on love is filled with some powerful material from a number of sources. Between the time I finished the chapter (I’m keeping myself from reading the subsequent chapter until I finish my blog post on each chapter, otherwise I’ll stumble in this little project) and am writing this I listened to CS Lewis deliver his lecture on the 4 Loves. I wondered if Lewis’ work was cited in this, it isn’t. Some passages out of Lewis on eros are very much tracking with Brooks here.

Eros enters him like an invader, taking over and reorganising, one by one, the institutions of a conquered country. It may have taken over many others before it reaches the sex in him; and it will reorganise that too.

Lewis, C. S. (1971-09-29). The Four Loves (Harvest Book) (pp. 93-94). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Love is like an invading army that reminds you that you are not master of your own house. It conquers you little by little, reorganizing your energy levels, reorganizing your sleep patterns, reorganizing your conversational topics, and, toward the end of the process, rearranging the objects of your sexual desire and even the focus of your attention. When you are in love, you can’t stop thinking about your beloved. You walk through a crowd and think you see her in a vaguely familiar form every few yards. You flip from highs to lows and feel pain at slights that you know are probably trivial or illusory. Love is the strongest kind of army because it generates no resistance. When the invasion is only half complete, the person being invaded longs to be defeated, fearfully, but utterly and hopelessly.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 170). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

There may be those who have first felt mere sexual appetite for a woman and then gone on at a later stage to “fall in love with her.” But I doubt if this is at all common. Very often what comes first is simply a delighted pre-occupation with the Beloved— a general, unspecified pre-occupation with her in her totality. A man in this state really hasn’t leisure to think of sex. He is too busy thinking of a person. The fact that she is a woman is far less important than the fact that she is herself. He is full of desire, but the desire may not be sexually toned. If you asked him what he wanted, the true reply would often be, “To go on thinking of her.” He is love’s contemplative.

Lewis, C. S. (1971-09-29). The Four Loves (Harvest Book) (p. 93). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

There isn’t textual dependence here but there is a lot of overlap between Lewis and Brooks.

Muddled Use of Love

Given that my biggest disappointment about Brooks’ treatment on love is the muddled nature of our usage of “love” in English. Our entire culture could use a reading of Lewis’ book on the Four Loves. It is popular now for people to say “Love is love” or “Religion is my Love” or “Love is God” but Lewis would ask “which love do you mean?”

There is a sense in Brooks’ treatment of Eliot that she is somehow saved by love. This is a very popular idea today, that somehow the love she finds with George Lewes saves her. This isn’t far from Rose’ statement from the movie Titanic of Jack “he saved me in every way a woman can be saved.”

Brooks’ description of the life together between Eliot and Lewes while productive and filled with love.

They chose well. The choice of each redeemed both of their lives. They traveled around Europe together, mostly in Germany, where they were welcomed by the leading writers and intellectuals of the day. Mary Anne loved living openly as Mrs. Lewes: “I am happier every day and find my domesticity more and more delightful and beneficial to me.” 19

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 177). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Eliot was unwavering in her choice. She insisted on being known as Mrs. Lewes because even though her decision to be with Lewes had been an act of rebellion, she believed in the form and institution of traditional marriage. Circumstances had compelled her to do something extreme, but morally and philosophically she believed in the conventional path. They lived as traditional husband and wife. And they complemented each other. She could be gloomy, but he was a bright and funny social presence. They took walks together. They worked together. They read books together. They were exclusive, ardent, self-composed and self-completing. “What greater thing is there for two human souls,” Eliot would later write in Adam Bede, “than to feel they are joined for life— to strengthen each other in all labor, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of last parting.”

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (pp. 177-178). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Yet at other moments pictures of their life together were far from idyllic.

Eliot and Lewes were happy, but they were not content. In the first place, life did not cease happening. One of Lewes’s sons from his earlier marriage came to them, terminally ill, and they nursed him until his death. Their frequent periods of ill health and depression were marked by migraines and dizzy spells. But through it all, they were impelled by their own need to cultivate themselves morally, to be deeper and wiser.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (pp. 180-181). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Mary Anne Evans took a long road to become George Eliot. She had to grow out of self-centeredness into generous sympathy. But it was a satisfying maturation. She never overcame her fits of depression and her anxieties about the quality of her own writing, but she could think and feel her way into other people’s minds and hearts to exercise what she called “the responsibility of tolerance.”

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 185). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Brooks’ treatment of Eliot as an exemplar of love could have been served by some differentiation of the kinds of loves. This lack of differentiation in American culture is the source of much suffering and shallow romanticism. “Lewes” becomes her “soul-mate” according to Brooks and not knowing anything about Eliot beyond the chapter his note early on by her “last husband” peeked my attention. Eliot’s life isn’t a fairy tale of finding her one true “forbidden love” and then living happily ever after. She would marry again and experience tragedy.

On 16 May 1880 Eliot courted controversy once more by marrying a man twenty years younger than herself, and again changing her name, this time to Mary Anne Cross. The legal marriage at least pleased her brother Isaac, who had broken off relations with his sister when she had begun to live with Lewes, but now sent congratulations. While the couple were honeymooning in Venice, John Cross, in a fit of depression, jumped from their hotel balcony into the Grand Canal. Cross survived and the newly-weds returned to England. The couple moved to a new house in Chelsea but Eliot fell ill with a throat infection. This, coupled with the kidney disease she had been afflicted with for the previous few years, led to her death on 22 December 1880 at the age of 61. Wikipedia

As Eliot developed “agency” or a “solid self” she developed a capacity for love, but probably multiple kinds of love. This is vital given her ability to delve into the complexity of intimate relationships in her work as a novelist.


And all the time the grim joke is that this Eros whose voice seems to speak from the eternal realm is not himself necessarily even permanent. He is notoriously the most mortal of our loves. The world rings with complaints of his fickleness. What is baffling is the combination of this fickleness with his protestations of permanency. To be in love is both to intend and to promise lifelong fidelity. Love makes vows unasked; can’t be deterred from making them. “I will be ever true,” are almost the first words he utters. Not hypocritically but sincerely. No experience will cure him of the delusion. We have all heard of people who are in love again every few years; each time sincerely convinced that “this time it’s the real thing,” that their wanderings are over, that they have found their true love and will themselves be true till death.

And yet Eros is in a sense right to make this promise. The event of falling in love is of such a nature that we are right to reject as intolerable the idea that it should be transitory. In one high bound it has overleaped the massive wall of our selfhood; it has made appetite itself altruistic, tossed personal happiness aside as a triviality and planted the interests of another in the centre of our being. Spontaneously and without effort we have fulfilled the law (towards one person) by loving our neighbour as ourselves. It is an image, a foretaste, of what we must become to all if Love Himself rules in us without a rival. It is even (well used) a preparation for that. Simply to relapse from it, merely to “fall out of” love again, is— if I may coin the ugly word— a sort of disredemption. Eros is driven to promise what Eros of himself cannot perform.

Lewis, C. S. (1971-09-29). The Four Loves (Harvest Book) (pp. 113-114). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

What Brooks leave us with is a fickle god. Lewis would correct Brooks (in the audio recording but not in the book Lewis actually mentions George Eliot) in noting that one word “love” in English does us a disservice. It encourages Americans to imagine that they can live in Eros which brings spectacular and miserable calamity. I’d love to see Brooks do better.

One the whole, again, however, the chapter was great fun, filled with great writing and wonderful insight. I’m holding myself back from the next chapter on Augustine which someone has already warned me I will love. Now that I’ve completed this, I’ll get at Augustine next.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in book review and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to George Eliot in The Road to Character

  1. Pingback: David Brooks’ treatment of Augustine in The Road to Character |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s