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Circle of Friends
by George Donaldson

The Pleasure of your Company is Requested by Mr. and Mrs. George Henry Lewes this Sunday between Two o'clock and Five o'clock at their Home, The Priory, Regent's Park, London. Other Guests may include Mr. Anthony Trollope, Mr. George Meredith, Mr. Wilkie Collins, and Mr. Charles Dickens, as well as Mr. Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. We will be welcoming Mr. Herbert Spencer, Mr. Charles Darwin, Mr. Charles Eliot Norton and his Wife accompanied by their young friend Mr. Henry James, Mrs. Barbara Bodichon (née Leigh-Smith), Mr. John Stuart Mill, Mr. Thomas Henry Huxley, as well as Sundry Others.

Well, I'd certainly go. Wouldn't you?
By 1870, these weekly Sunday afternoon gatherings at The Priory were legendary. An invitation of the sort I have invented here was prized by the intelligentsia and would assume pride of place even on such aristocratic mantelpieces as those in the drawing rooms of Lord and Lady Houghton, Viscount and Viscountess Amberley, and the former Liberal prime minister, John, First Earl Russell (whose grandson Bertrand was also to make something of a name for himself). For George Henry Lewes and his partner Marian Evans, better known by the name "George Eliot", these were not formal occasions to be gone through in order to return social obligations. Though Eliot in later life was at times venerated as a moral authority in a world from which God had departed-there were many who were unable to resist too obvious puns on the name of her house-nonetheless, these wonderfully cosmopolitan events were really gatherings of friends. News and gossip no doubt played their usual part in conversations, but what I'd most eagerly look forward to, having opened my invitation, would be the exchange of ideas. The Priory's public rooms were regularly filled with leading researchers and thinkers from almost every field of enquiry. And they actually spoke to one another. No-one thought it odd that a biologist would be hashing out his work with a poet, or that the poet might later write verse in the light of what the biologist had said about evolution. Looking back at such Sunday afternoons now, they seem Edenic, for then the lion and lamb really did lie down together.
It is easy to imagine that a diet of Sunday afternoons such as this one would enlarge the girth of one's intellect. Yet, long before Marian Evans and George Henry Lewes met-appropriately enough in a bookshop in Piccadilly, in October 1851-they both had startlingly varied interests.
A decade before he met Marian Evans, Lewes earned a living by writing magazine articles of a sort that today one might be hard-pressed to publish at all and which, if published, could scarcely support a family of four, such as he had at the time. The number of magazines he could write for gives almost as revealing a glimpse of the condition of early Victorian intellectual life, as do the range and variety of subjects on which he could write. For the Westminster Review, he wrote about Shelley and about Spinoza. For the British and Foreign Review, he wrote on Hegel's Aesthetics, on Goethe, on recent developments in French philosophy and science, and on what was taking place in French criticism. For the Foreign Quarterly Review, he wrote about George Sand. For the Edinburgh Review, he wrote on Gotthold Lessing. In the British Quarterly Review, he wrote articles on Alexandre Dumas, on Charles Lamb, on the essayist and historian T. B. Macaulay and on Disraeli. And he reviewed Jane Eyre for Fraser's Magazine, Vanity Fair for the Morning Chronicle, and Shirley for the Edinburgh Review. In 1850, with his friend Thornton Hunt he began a magazine of his own called the Leader, presumably thinking that there was room in the market for yet another source of intellectual discussion for interested readers. As it turned out, he was right. As well as being the literary editor of the Leader, Lewes published regular theatre reviews there under the name "Vivian".
In these same years, 1841 to 1850, he also published a massive four-volume work called A Biographical History of Philosophy, a book on theatre in Spain called The Spanish Drama: Lope de Vega and Calderon, two novels, Ranthorpe and Rose, Blanche, and Violet, a tragedy, The Noble Heart (in which he himself acted in Manchester), as well as a life of Robespierre. He also managed to give a lecture one evening to a university audience on the history of philosophy and then play Shylock in a theatre the following evening with the then unusual interpretation that the money-lender is not a monster.
The energy of the early Victorians is axiomatic. Perhaps the range of their interests is less frequently remarked upon. Yet, looking at Lewes's work over nine not untypical years, it is hard to imagine that the Renaissance had a more Renaissance Man than G. H. Lewes. However odd or enviable these Sundays may look now, to Lewes the variety of his guests' interests could hardly exceed his own for, like other early Victorians, he looked upon knowledge promiscuously, rather as Shelley looked at love. In Epipsychidion, Shelley fashions a defence of sexual adventurism by distinguishing love from anything material: "True Love in this differs from gold and clay / That to divide is not to take away." The poet's witty arithmetic is perhaps too self-serving to be wholly convincing. Yet his image of monogamous love as a journey "With one chained friend, perhaps a jealous foe," may serve as one explanation of Lewes's flight from the intellectual monogamy of specialization.
We have now long come to equate knowledge with specialized knowledge, yet the English word "educate" comes from the Latin educere which means "to lead or draw forth, to bring out". In those senses, Lewes is not only an educated man but he is also an educator to anyone who now follows his mind down such diverse alleyways. He leads one from German philosophy to Spanish theatre to English novelists and then to French criticism. Herbert Spencer said that it was Lewes's work that prompted his own interest in psychology and in philosophy. Later, the Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov said that it was Lewes's The Physiology of Common Life (1859-1860) which stirred his interest in physiology.
In the 1850s Lewes, along with John Stuart Mill, was among the first to champion and to disseminate the work of the pioneering French sociologist Auguste Comte. In 1853, Lewes published Comte's Philosophy of the Sciences. Characteristically, he saw Comte in a large context: Comte was to the nineteenth century what Francis Bacon had been to the Renaissance. Lewes held that Bacon had introduced the scientific method to philosophy, abandoning Aristotelian deductive logic as an epistemology and favouring, instead, experimentation and the careful gathering of evidence about nature. Thus, Comte was the new Bacon, because his newly created science of sociology sought to investigate social relations by scientific means.
This comparison between the Renaissance and the nineteenth century is suggestive, I think. Both periods excite me because polymaths like G. H. Lewes abound, for then it was not only possible but actually desirable to see knowledge as unenclosed land where one might freely wander unhampered by the fences that often surround modern scholarly disciplines. It seems a world without chain fences as much as one without chained friends. For example, the astronomical work of Copernicus quickly furnishes metaphors for poets such as John Donne, who ingeniously flatters a lover by figuring their bed as the centre of the Ptolemaic universe in "The Sun Rising". Equally, Donne uses mathematical compasses to solace the pain of parting between lovers in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning", while in "Elegy XIX", eroticism and erudition couple to express the excitement of the first exploration of a lover's body by using the language of recent voyages of discovery:

O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my empery,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!

This is education in its etymological sense and one sees it again in the writing, interests, and friendships of Lewes and his better-known partner. The last chapter of George Eliot's most celebrated novel, Middlemarch, opens with a paradoxical sentence: "Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending." At the end of her greatest work, she eschews any sense of completion. One reason she does so, I think, is because like Lewes her frames of reference are so wide. In 1830, the geologist Sir Charles Lyell published Principles of Geology, in which he convincingly argued that the forces which determine the Earth's geology are neither occasional-in the sense that the Flood was thought to be a unique event-nor teleological. Instead, he contended, they are forever at work without any final purposive destination and are indifferent to humanity, for they have no ethical link to human conduct, nor do they distinguish human life from other forms. Lyell was one of Darwin's teachers at Cambridge-indeed the two men became friends-and his model of Nature as a process of endless formation opened the way to Darwin's theory of evolution, in which life forms are represented, not as destinations achieved, but as stopping points along the way.
Lewes was one of Darwin's earliest supporters after The Origin of Species was published in 1859, and wrote a series of articles about him in the Fortnightly Review. Eliot's own attitude towards Darwin is more ambiguous, but his thinking certainly informs her later writing. That paradoxical opening to the finale of Middlemarch hints at the level of cross-fertilization in nineteenth-century intellectual circles fostered on occasions such as the Eliot-Lewes Sunday afternoons, for if the evolutionary forces in geology and biology are not end-directed but instead act continually, then this has clear, if alarming, implications for novelists presenting narratives of human experience. If there are no endings in nature, then what is natural about the place where novels end? From her knowledge of Lyell and Darwin, Eliot concluded that the sense of an ending is paradoxical, for it might as easily be seen as a beginning if one alters one's perspective. Nature has no endings, only fictions do.
Where are today's equivalents of Lewes and Eliot? To read the work of most thinkers now is to mine an ever narrowing seam, whose connection to the rest of experience becomes ever more obscure in the deepening, subterranean gloom. Just as a good deal of political activity has shrivelled into intemperate single-issue activism, so too many thinkers eschew the sort of leading out and drawing forth beyond one's own particular domain which readers of Lewes's work and Eliot's fiction experience. There are exceptions, of course, such as Stephen J. Gould and Richard Dawkins, who combine scholarship with writing for a general educated audience. But cosmopolitan intellects such as that of George Henry Lewes are now rare and perhaps no longer even admired. In recent times Jacob Bronowski is one who comes to mind, a man trained in the physical sciences who later switched to biology and who, when bored posing for his portrait, was given a book of Blake's poetry to read by the painter. Bronowski went on to write a book on Blake himself and to make the best series of television programmes ever produced, The Ascent of Man, for a general audience.
To say that the diminishing number of people like Eliot and Lewes is regrettable is no more than a truism. I think it a loss that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is likely to be as obscure to a sociologist, as the distinction between a Shakespearean and a Petrarchan sonnet is likely to be to a biologist. In relation to knowledge, at least, e pluribus unum still seems not a bad goal. How exciting it must have been to be present on so intellectually fecund an occasion as the one my hypothetical initial invitation promises. How difficult it would be now to assemble so diverse a group of friends ready to share their different specialties and familiar enough with the present state of thinking in geology, biology, Spanish theatre, German philosophy, and English poetry and fiction.
Shall we share a cab on our way to The Priory?

George Donaldson teaches English at the University of Western Ontario. He is a new contributor.


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