“May I reach
That purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty–
Be the good presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense.
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.”
Warwickshire gave to the world William Shakespeare. It also gave Mary Ann Evans. No one will question that Shakespeare’s is the greatest name in English literature; and among writers living or dead, in England or out of it, no woman has ever shown us power equal to that of George Eliot, in the subtle clairvoyance which divines the inmost play of passions, the experience that shows human capacity for contradiction, and the indulgence that is merciful because it understands.
Shakespeare lived three hundred years ago. According to the records, his father, in Fifteen Hundred Sixty-three, owned a certain house in Henley Street, Stratford-on-Avon. Hence we infer that William Shakespeare was born there. And in all our knowledge of Shakespeare’s early life (or later) we prefix the words, “Hence we infer.”
That the man knew all the sciences of his day, and had such a knowledge of each of the learned professions that all have claimed him as their own, we realize.
He evidently was acquainted with five different languages, and the range of his intellect was worldwide; but where did he get this vast erudition? We do not know, and we excuse ourselves by saying that he lived three hundred years ago.
George Eliot lived–yesterday, and we know no more about her youthful days than we do of that other child of Warwickshire.
One biographer tells us that she was born in Eighteen Hundred Nineteen, another in Eighteen Hundred Twenty, and neither state the day; whereas a recent writer in the “Pall Mall Budget” graciously bestows on us the useful information that “William Shakespeare was born on the Twenty-first day of April, Fifteen Hundred Sixty-three, at fifteen minutes of two on a stormy morning.”
Concise statements of facts are always valuable, but we have none such concerning the early life of George Eliot. There is even a shadow over her parentage, for no less an authority than the “American Cyclopedia Annual,” for Eighteen Hundred Eighty, boldly proclaims that she was not a foundling and, moreover, that she was not adopted by a rich retired clergyman who gave her a splendid schooling. Then the writer dives into obscurity, but presently reappears and adds that he does not know where she got her education. For all of which we are very grateful.
Shakespeare left five signatures, each written in a different way, and now there is a goodly crew who spell it “Bacon.”
And likewise we do not know whether it is Mary Ann Evans, Mary Anne Evans or Marian Evans, for she herself is said to have used each form at various times. William Winter–gentle critic, poet, scholar–tells us that the Sonnets show a dark spot in Shakespeare’s moral record. And if I remember rightly, similar things have been hinted at in sewing-circles concerning George Eliot. Then they each found the dew and sunshine in London that caused the flowers of genius to blossom. The early productions of both were published anonymously, and lastly they both knew how to transmute thought into gold, for they died rich.
Lady Godiva rode through the streets of Coventry, but I walked–walked all the way from Stratford, by way of Warwick (call it Warrick, please) and Kenilworth Castle.
I stopped overnight at that quaint and curious little inn just across from the castle entrance. The good landlady gave me the same apartment that was occupied by Sir Walter Scott when he came here and wrote the first chapter of “Kenilworth.”
The little room had pretty, white chintz curtains tied with blue ribbon, and similar stuff draped the mirror. The bed was a big canopy affair–I had to stand on a chair in order to dive off into its feathery depths–everything was very neat and clean, and the dainty linen had a sweet smell of lavender. I took one parting look out through the open window at the ivy-mantled towers of the old castle, which were all sprinkled with silver by the rising moon, and then I fell into gentlest sleep.