An Obituary of George Henry Lewes

From Fortnightly Review January 1, 1878.1
[p. 15]

George Henry Lewes [1817-78]

by Anthony Trollope

On Wednesday the 4th of December a few loving friends stood over the grave in the Highgate Cemetery which received the body of George Henry Lewes, who was the first Editor of this Review. The papers of the day generously and for the most part correctly recorded the leading incidents of his peculiarly valuable literary life. But as he was our Editor when we first established this periodical, having undertaken the duty in compliance with my urgency, and as he was to me personally a most dear friend and a cherished companion, I purpose to say a few words in these pages as to his life and work.

He was born April, 1817, in London, and was the grandson of Charles Lee Lewes, the well-known comedian. His father, I think, left no special mark in the world. His education was desultory, but wonderfully efficacious for the purposes of his life. Among many schools he was longer at Dr Burney's at Greenwich than at any other. A part of his early years he spent at the Channel Islands, having been at school at Jersey, and a part in Brittany. To the latter was probably due his idiomatic knowledge of French. On leaving school he made various essays in life, going first into a notary's office and then as a clerk into a Russian merchant's house; -- but with no serious intent on his own part to adhere to the work to which he was there expected to apply himself. From the nature of the books which he then bought when he could buy a book, and of the studies to which he really gave himself, it is manifest that philosophical research had fixed itself in his mind as the pursuit which would be dear to hm. But philosophical research does not promise as a profession an early income, and George Lewes took to walking the hospitals with the purpose of joining the studies which he loved with the necessary work of earning his living. But here he was met by a physical weakness which he was unable to overcome. The horrors of the operating-room were too powerful for him, and he found himself able to study anatomy and physiology only as a part of his general education. In 1838 he went to Germany, still teaching himself, still apparently unfixed as to this future career, but with a vague conviction, on his mind that if he would give himself to mental work, mental work would make to him some great return. He was one of those who have been gradually carried up into a career of literature by the tide of their own fitness. The progress of that tide has been certain; but there have been the painfully receding waves which have seemed at the time to deny rather than to promise advance. Nevertehless, the water has run up and has filled its allotted space up to the brim.

As far as I can learn his early work, -- earliest written though [p. 16] by no means the first published, -- was the Tragedy in Three acts called the Noble Heart. This was written as early as 1841, when he was twenty-four years old, and was published in 1850 with a dedication to his friend Mr. Helps. The dedication is remarkable for its indignant protest against those pruderies in literature, which through his whole life were odious to his taste. It was not however acted till 1849, when the author himself took the part of Don Gomez in the theatres at Manchester and Liverpool. I do not know enough of theatrical matters to be aware whether the piece is now held to be useful for stage puropses; but I am sure that it contains much fine poetry; as for instance,

Oh ! yes great glories of our race look down
And bid me not forget from when I sprang!
Ye, who have lived and loved as princes should,
Who never let your passion weaken pride,
But kept, unswerving, on your noble course;
Eagles who never mated with with those
Who could confront the sun!

From this it will be seen that Lewes played on the public stage; but I believe I am right in saying that he never did so except in his own play, and then not for a salary. He played afterwards in Charles Dickens's private troupe, and throughout life was devoted to the stage as a poet and a critic.

Previous to the publication of the Noble Heart, but after the writing of it, he published a volume on the Spanish Drama in 1846, and two novels, -- Ranthorpe in 1847, and Rose, Blanche, and Violet in 1848. In 1848 he also published a Life of Robespierre. In the short space of these few pages it is impossible to offer anything of criticism on all these various works. Within the last day or two I have re-read Ranthorpe, and find it to be a tale, crude indeed with the hitherto unsatisfied ambition of a literary aspirant, but full of strong character. I have heard it spoken of as a failure, -- one of the lost labours of the day. It was translated into German, and re-published by Tauchnitz; two facts which prove that it was not regarded as failure by judges at the time who may be supposed to have known their business.

It might be presumed from these earlier published volumes that Lewes began his literary career with an intention of devoting himself to light literature. Some too may have been led to think so from remembering the success of his comedy, The Game of Speculation, which though published under the name of Slingsby Lawrence was well known to have been written by him. It is probable that many English ladies and gentlemen were intimately acquainted with The Game of Speculation, which first came out in 1851; and were conversant with the author's true name, who had never heard of the [p. 17] Biographical History of Philosophy. It would be natural to suppose that the young poet, the young novelist, the young dramatist was following his chosen avocation. But it was not so. From a period previous to the dates above given he had devoted himself to those philosophical researches on the foundation of which his honour and renown will stand. There was present to him always that necessity of working hard; and beyond that, more powerful even than that, there was a vivacity in the man, an irrepressible ebullition of sarcasm mixed wth drollery, of comic earnestness and purpose-laden fun, which we who knew him never missed in his conversation even when his health was at the lowest and his physical sufferings were almost unbearable. These together, -- the early want of an income and his own love of tragedy, satire and comedy, -- induced those who saw only the palpably visible outside of the man to think that the philosophy of which they heard was, or at any rate in early years had been, only a second part with him. On this point I will quote here a passage form a short notice which appeared in the Academy, immediately after Lewes's death, written by Frederic Harrison: --

"If, as some writers have reminded us, Mr. Lewes began life as a journalist, a critic, a novelist, a dramatist, a biographer, and an essayist, it is as well to remember that he closed his life as a mathematician, a physicist, a chemist, a biologist, a psychologist, and the author of a system of abstract general philosphy."

To speak the whole truth, however, of our friend, it has to be added to this that while he was working as journalist, critic, and novelist, he was becoming the mathematician, the physicist, and the chemist whom the world has since recognised.

From the year 1841, down to 1878, he supplied matter on various topics of general interest, literary, philosophical, historical, and scientific, to a world of magazines and reviews. The Edinburgh knew him, The Foreign Quarterly, The British Quarterly, The Westminster, Knight's Cyclopaedia, Fraser, Blackwood, The Cornhill, The Pall Mall, The Saturday, and our own Fortnightly. From the old-established Buff and Blue coming out at three months' serious interval, down to the light evening sheet, there was no form of literary expression in which he did not delight and instruct. How little do they know, who talk of the padding of our periodicals, how much of the best thought which the nation produces is given to make up the cheap morsel of ephemeral literature which the recurring day puts into their hands with undeviating regularity! From 1851 to 1854 Lewes was editor of The Leader, and devoted hismelf very thoroughly, though not exclusively, to a paper which was thoroughly honest in its intention and deserved a better fate than was accorded to it. It was thus that he was earning his bread while he was doing his great work.

[p. 18] In 1845 and 1846 appeared in its first form, -- in Knight's Cyclopaedia, -- the Biographical History of Philosophy. In 1857, in 1867, and again in 1871, this now appreciated work was again brought out, and at each time with elaborate revision. I annex here, also from the pen of Frederic Harrison, a statement of the effect produced by this great book. Our readers will agree that I could have applied to no fitter writer to speak on subject which I am not able to treat worthily myself.

"Mr Lewes opened his career in speculative thought by the four small volumes originally published by Knight, the 'Biographical History of Philosophy.' This astonishing little work was designed to be popular, to be readable, to be intelligible. It was all of these in a singular degree. It proved to be the most popular account of philosophy of our time; it has been republished, enlarged, and almost rewritten, and each re-issue has found new readers. It did what hardly any previous book on philosophy ever did -- it made philosophy readable, reasonable, lively, almost as exciting as a good novel. Learners who had been tortured over dismal homilies on the pantheism of Spinoza, and yet more dismal expositions of the pan-nihilism of Hegel, seized with eagerness upon a little book which gave an intense reality to 'Spinoza and his thoughts, which threw Hegel's contradictories into epigrams, and made the course of philosophic thought unfold itself naturally with all the life and coherence of a well-considered plot. It was designed, as we have said, to make philosphy intelligible, and this is undoubtedly accomplished. Tiros, learners, the long suffering 'general reader,' even students, began to see that these strange peripeties of human thought -- the fantastic, as it seemed, and perverse 'systems' of so many acute minds 'from Thrales to Comte' -- all meant something, could be explained as most ingenious attempts to answer very formidable problems: nay, that these systems, however, antagonistic, and, it appeared, however disparate, grew out of one another in a reasonable sequence of human thought. It began to be clear what Pyrrho meant, when he said that we can know nothing but appearance, and even how Berkeley came to deny that we have any knowledge of matter. These whims, as it used to be thought, of great minds, all came to have a certain truth in them: and, what is more, they all had a very close relation to each other, a relation in part of cause and effect.

There can be no doubt of the success of this method. Men to whom philosophy had been a wearisome swaying backwards and forwards of meaningless phrases, found something which they could remember and understand. Professors and professed students, of whatever special school, frowned, shook their heads, and were inclined to think that their mysteries were being trifled with and their trade undermined. But in spite of official discouragement and learned doubts, the new book triumphed. Students who forbore to quote it got their real information from it; professors and examiners looked askance, they but they found their subject invested with new interest, and they found in their pupils a new understanding of the matter. For a generation this little, unrecognised, 'entirely popular' book, saturated the minds of the [p. 19] younger readers. It has done as much as any book, perhaps more than any, to give the key to the prevalent thought of our time about the metaphysical problems. We have it on the authority of the Times, an authority not given to defy the dominant opinion of the day, that what cultivated Englishmen know of philosophy and of science is in great part due to the popular treatises of Mr. Lewes.

The question arises -- Was he right? Was his method sound? Was his brilliant explanation of systems in accordance with other judgement and ripe knowledge? As to this, of course, opinions must differ; and it cannot be denied that many stout and learned philosophers indignantly answer, No. It is the settled conviction of this present writer, who has studied these books again and again, now for thirty years that in the true sense of the term the right answer, is, Yes. If he didn't know his books, ancient and modern, if he were merely making light magazine paper of his philosophers, if his amusing tragi-comedy of the metaphysical imbroglio were a jeu d'esprit, or a clever paradox -- then, undoubtedly, the book of Mr. Lewes was worthless, and worse than worthless. But it was not so. It has stood the test of time. Public opinion has accepted the substance of these brilliant analyses. They were based on real, though, of course not specialist knowledge. The method of concatenation was sound. It was the invincible method of the Positive Philosophy. The book may have been an aperçu. and, perhaps, often too lively, too obvious: but it was the aperçu of a man of real genius, thoroughly master of a true method.

That such a book should have such a triumph was a singular literary fact. The opinions frankly expressed as to theology, metaphysics, and many established orthodoxies; its conclusion, glowing in every page, that Metaphysic, as Danton said of the Revolution, was devouring its own chidlren, and led to self-annihilation; its proclamation of Comte as the legitimate issue of all previous philosophy, and Positive Philosophy as its ultimate irenus -- all this, one might thnk would have condemned such a book from its birth. The orthodoxies frowned; the professors sneered; the owls of metaphysic hooted from the gloom of their various jungles; but the public read, the younger students adopted it, the world learned from it the positive method; it held its ground because it made clear what no one else had made clear -- what Philosophy meant, and why Philosophers differ so violently. Profound specialism, continued its mission of making chaos more void and dark than it was from eternity. But the little half-crown book had simply killed Metaphysic. The burial is a long and wearisome ceremony.

The popular treatises on Science did something of the same kind for Science that the 'Biographical History' had done for Philosophy. But there was not a tenth part of the same work to do. And Mr. Lewes was far more eminent in Philosophy than in Science. But there too his work will be memorable, in breaking up superstitions, in co-ordinating ideas, in suggesting new paths. Of his latest and mature work on Philosophy we do not now propoise to speak. It has been in part examined at length in this Review, and we hope to continue the examination in detail. It was in short, the special and mature exposition of the principles of which the [p.20] 'History of Philosophy' had shown the building up in the entire course of human thought. We cannot forget that the work is yet incomplete, nor can we forget that we hope to read it completed, when animated and re-arranged by one to whom he intrusted at his death the great work of his life."

In 1853 Mr Lewes published Comte's Philosophy of the Sciences, and in 1855 the first edition of his Life of Goethe. It is by this biography, perhaps that he is best known to general readers. As a critical biography of one of the great heroes of literature it is almost perfect. It is short, easily understood by common readers, singularly graphic, exhaustive, and altogether devoted to the subject. It is one of those books of which one is tempted to say that he who has it before him to read is to be envied. In 1858 followed the Seaside Studies; in 1859 and 1860, the Philosophy of Common Life, and in 1862 the Studies in Animal Life. These last appeared first in the Cornhill Magazine, -- in 1860, -- running through the six first numbers of that periodical, and they mark the period when I first knew the friend whom I have lost. They were not republished until a year had elapsed. In 1864 he brought out his Aristotle, a chapter from The History of Science. He says in his preface, "I have for many years prepared myself to attempt a sketch of the Embryology of Science, so to speak," -- and did ever a man lay out for himself a more aspiring or more difficult task, - "an exposition of the great Momenta on scientific development, and the present volume is the first portion of such an exposition, which I publish separately, because in itself it forms a monograph, and because I may never live to complete the larger scheme." That larger scheme was afterwards made to give way to the more constructive work to which the latter years of his life were devoted, and which has been published, as yet only partially, under the name of Problems of Life and Mind.

In 1874 came out the first volume, or rather the first series, of the Problems of Life and Mind, -- The Foundations of a Creed -- as the author entitles it. A review of this first volume will be found in our periodical, July, 1874, by Frederic Harrison. The second and third volumes appeared in 1875 and 1877, and the author was engaged on the fourth when he died. He has left it unfinished, but he had long been labouring on it, and it is trusted that it is in a state so far advanced, that far the larger portion may be presented to the public in a form closely accordant with his intentions. For the nature and position of a work of such wonderful scope in philosophical research I must refer our readers to that review in our own pages to which I have alluded.

In 1875 also there was published a volume entitled, Actor and Acting, which was a reprint of articles written in previous years.

[p. 21] I will now come to the connection which George Lewes had with this Review and the work he did for it. Early in the year 1865 a few men, better perhaps acquainted with literature than trade, conceived the idea, -- an idea by no means new, -- of initiating a literary "organ" which should not only be good in its literature, but strictly impartial and absolutely honest. This is not the place to point out what are pehaps sometimes imagined to be defects in other periodicial reviews and magazines; but we were determined to avoid all such defects if such defects existed. We would get the best literature we could, pay well for what we got whether good or bad. We would be thoroughly eclectic, opening our columns to all opinions. We would in all causes require the signature of the author for open publication, and we would think more pf reputation than of profit. The enterprise was to belong to a Company, "Limited," which was duly formed, and was to be published by a publisher whose property in it was to be confined to the share which he might hold. That upon the whole the enterprise succeeded is proved by the existence, position and character of the Review at the present moment. Financially, as a Company, we failed altogether. We spent the few thousands we had collected among us, and then made over the then almost valueless copyright of the Review to the firm of publshers which now owns it. Such failure might have been predicted of our money venture without much sagacity from the first. But yet much was done. While our funds were gradually disappearing, the periodical was obtaining acknowledgment and character. That dream of eclecticism had to pass away. No Review can stand long which shall be colourless. It must be either with, or must be against some recognised set of opinions, either as to religion, politics, philosophy or other subject of commanding interest. It must be admitted of the Review as it now works, that it is very much, and also very much against certain views on matters of commanding interest. Our present Editor is a man of opinions too far settled to admit of eclectic principles in literature. But the determination to produce good steady work, of whatever colour, has I think been recognised, and I think it may be granted that the Review has done very much toward introducing the French system of adding the signature of the authors to magazine writing.

Our first diffculty when we began our work in 1865 was to find an Editor fit for the task which was to be confided to him. Mr Lewes's name was soon adopted by us, but there was much to be done in inducing him to undertake the work. To the proposal he lent all his heart, but he doubted his power to give us sufficient of his stregnth. To me it often been a marvel that he should have lived and worked, and thoroughly enjoyed his life, -- as he did with a relish beyond that of most healthy men, -- when I have observed [p. 22] the frailness of his physical nature. It was for me to persuade him to undertake the office, if it might be so, and, anxious as I was, I could not but shrink from pressing him when he told me that he doubted his health. But at last, having taken a few days for final thought, he yielded, and on 15th of May, 1865, he brought out the first number of the Review. As long as he remained with us, he was indefatigible, enthusiastic, and thoroughly successful as to the matter which he produced for the public. He remained our Editor till the end of 1866, when he was forced to resign, wisely feeling that on behalf of Philosophy he was bound to husband what strength remained to him for higher work than that of even editing the Fortnightly. The Review then went into the hands of the present Editor -- of whose merits it is not becoming that I should speak in his own paper.

But Lewes's connection with the Review was not then brought to an end, -- has been brought to an end indeed only by the hand of death, -- as may be seen by a paper from him on the "Dread and Dislike of Science," which was published in the June number of 1878. Were I to speak of the lucidity of expression shown in the few pages which it fills, I should seem to imply some diminution in his capacity for lucid work as he drew near his end. Nothing could be more untrue of him. For ten days he was ill, painfully dangerously ill; -- but up to that time he was free for his work with no slightest lessening of his brain power.

I have extracted a list of all that he wrote for the Fortnightly; but I do not know that a mere catalogue would serve our readers. There is a series of articles on the Principles of Success in Literature which I hope may be republished as a whole. There is criticism descending form Mr. Grote's Plato to the last new novel. There is biography, free inquiry into philosophical truths and untruths, and there is that pleasant chit chat with which most editors love occasionally to indulge themselves and their readers.

I will allude specifically to a criticism on the works of Charles Dickens which appeared in the July number of 1872, because I think there is to be found the best analysis we have yet had of the genius of that wonderful man, and it displays at its best not only the critical acumen of the writer, but that special lucidity of expression from the want of which critical acumen so often becomes comparatively useless. It may be remembered by those who have read Forster's Life of Dickens, -- and who has not! -- how angry that staunchest of biographers and most loving of friends was made, because the critic pointed out how Dickens by the strength of his imagination so subordinated his readers that they do not perceive, or at any rate do not suffer from, that want of reality which pervades his characters. With Lewes at the time I discussed very fully [p.23] the passage in Forster's biography. He was greatly hurt by the charge made against him, beause it seemed to indicate unfairness towards a fellow-author who was dead. John Forster is dead also. They were two loving honest friendly men, both of them peculiarly devoted to genius wherever they could find it. On behalf of Lewes I find myself bound to say that his was the simple expression of his critical intellect dealing with the work of a man he loved and admired, - work which he thought worthy of the thougtful analysis which he applied to it.

Such is a short record of the work of him whom we have lost, and I think it will be admitted that we have to deplore the end of a career which has been most valuable to the world at large. I am sure that those who knew him personally as I did, will find that a large portion of their life's pleasure has been taken away from them. To me personally Lewes was a great philosopher only because I was told so. When he would accquaint me with some newly found physical phenomenon, as that a frog could act just as well without his brains as with them, -- I would take it all as gospel, though a gospel in which I had no part myself. When he would dilate on the perspicuity or the inaccuracy of this or the other philosoher, -- in my presence, though probably for the advantage and delight of some worthier listener, -- I would be careless as to his subject, though I loved his zeal. But though the philosopher was lost upon me, the humourist was to me a joy for ever. Sure no one man told a story as he did. To see him gradually rise from his chair and take his place standing betweeen two or three of us! He must have known, though he never looked as though he knew it, that he was going to set a great part in mixed comedy and satire. Then by degrees he would pile up little incident on incident, the motion of his fingers assisting the pecular fire of his eye, till in two mintues the point would have been made and the story told with all the finish of a jeweller's finest work. His personal appearance was admirably fitted for such scenes! His velvet coat and his neat slippers and the rest of his outward garniture looked, - -- as a man's clothes alway should look, -- as though were there by chance, there of necessity but not too much to be thought of; but they helped to make him a man peculiarly pleasant to the eye in conversation. No one could say that he was handsome. The long bushy hair, and the thin cheeks, and the heavy moustache, joined as they were, alas! almost always to a look of sickness, were not attributes of beauty. But there was a brilliance in his eye, which was not to be tamed by any sickness, by any suffering, which overcame all other feeling on looking at him. I have a portrait of him, a finished photograph, which he gave me some years since, in which it would seem as though his face had blazed up suddenly, as it [p. 24] often would do, in strong indignation against the vapid vauntings of some literary pseudo-celebrity. But the smile would come again, and before the anger of his sarcasm had had half a minute's play, the natural drollery of the man, the full overflowing love of true humor, would overcome himself, and make us love the poor satirised sinner for the sake of the wit his sin had created.

Perhaps it may be felt that in saying these last words almost over the grave of one so well beloved, and one so glorious for high acquirements and high achievements, I might better have abstained from such memorials of his lighter hours. I must excuse myself by saying that I have wanted to paint George Lewes as I knew him. Nor will those who think of him solely as a student in philosophy, of one who has devoted his life to research at the cost of lighter joys, understand his full character any better than he who shall imagine that, because he began his literary life with a few novels and a few dramas, he found in those the occupation most congenial to his soul. There was never a man so pleasant as he with whom to sit and talk vague literary gossip over a cup of coffee and a cigar. That he was a great philosopher, a great biographer, a great critic there is no doubt; -- and as little that he has left behind here in London no pleasanter companion with whom to while away an hour.


1 Anthony Trollope, "George Henry Lewes," Fortnightly Review, January 1, 1879, pp. 16-24, as reproduced in Miscellaneous Essays and Reviews, introd. Michael Y. Mason. New York: Arno Press, 1981.

George Henry Lewes with Pug, 1859. Photograph by J. C. Watkins

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