The extracts from George Henry Lewes’s The Life and Works of Goethe are primarily meant to illustrate his claim to recognition in his own right. Nevertheless, it is impossible to exclude completely his relationship with George Eliot, and the possible mutual support it provided.

The Westminster Review published George Eliot’s (then Marian Evans) review of Carlyle’s Life of John Sterling in its January issue, 1852, more than a year before she and Lewes became lovers, though after they had got to know each other well. She may, therefore, have had Lewes’s planned biography of Goethe in mind when she wrote:

We have often wished that genius would incline itself more frequently to the task of the biographer — that when some great or good personage dies, instead of the dreary three or five volumed compilations of letter, and diary, and detail, little to the purpose, which two thirds of the reading public have not the chance, nor the other third the inclination, to read, we could have a real “Life,” setting forth briefly and vividly the man’s inward and outward struggles, aims, and achievements, so as to make clear the meaning which his experience has for his fellows. A few such lives (chiefly, indeed, autobiographies) the world possesses, and they have, perhaps, been more influential on the formation of character than any other kind of reading. But the conditions required for the perfection of life writing — personal intimacy, a loving and poetic nature which sees the beauty and the depth of familiar things, and the artistic power which seizes characteristic points and renders them with lifelike effect — are seldom found in combination. [49]

In the Preface to the revised 1864 edition, Lewes states: “I have sought to acquire and reproduce a definite image of the living man, and not simply of the man as he appeared in all the reticences (sic) of print.” (Preface, xvii). I would add, and with great success too, Mr Lewes! His relatively frank depictions of Goethe’s relationships with women, for example, were close to and sometimes crossed the border between delicacy and what Mrs Anna Jameson called “some vulgarity of style” in a letter to Ottillie von Goethe, Goethe’s daughter-in-law, with whom Lewes had spoken in Weimar (Eliot Letters 2.131) Furthermore, he buoyantly regretted his “uncritical acceptance of the ‘Weimar Gossip’” in a letter for attention of Georg Kestner, 28th July 1863 (Goethe Schiller Archives 01/106). Eliot and Lewes visited Weimar in 1854 expressly to enable Lewes to speak with people who had known Goethe personally, to collect oral and anecdotal evidence. And his candor which is ultimately legitimate, does indeed both contribute to the readability of The Life, and also enhances the vividness of the portrayal of the man.

In hindsight, Eliot’s general comments in her review of Carlyle have an uncannily prophetic quality when related specifically to Lewes’s biography, which arguably fulfills Eliot’s “conditions required for the perfection of life writing”. This assessment receives indirect support from Nicholas Boyle, who, after well over a century of further Goethe scholarship in Germany and elsewhere, wrote what is generally regarded as the best biography of Goethe in English. In the Preface to the 1991 edition of his Goethe, the Poet and the Age he pays tribute to “G. H. Lewes’s great monograph of 1855, a most remarkable work of scholarship for its time, and one of the first Goethe biographies in any language” (x).

Similarly, in his short but practical introduction to the Everyman edition Havelock Ellis provides specific evidence to substantiate the validity of Lewes’s research. He briefly reviews a number of works on Goethe’s life, including a systematic, “chapter by chapter” comparison of the then most recent major biography of Goethe by Albert Bielschowsky with Lewes’s, coming to the conclusion that: “While Bielschowsky, whose work is on a larger scale, inevitably gives more information, new and old, both about Goethe and his friends, it can scarcely be said that at any critical point he overthrows Lewes’s presentment of the matter, or even that he reveals the existence of any misleading personal bias in his predecessor” (ix).

One extract is the complete Chapter 1 of Book the Fourth, “Weimar in the Eighteenth Century” It is possible to see or at least suppose the influence of Macaulay’s enormously popular History of England, especially the famous third chapter of Volume 1, England in 1685 on Lewes, who reviewed volumes 1 and 2 of Macaulay’s History for the British Quarterly Review (1849), while he was still researching for his Goethe biography. In 1856, a year after publication of his own book, he reviewed volumes 3 and 4 of Macaulay’s History, again for the Quarterly Review. (See Rosemary Ashton’s Introduction to her Versatile Victorian, Selected Critical Writings of George Henry Lewes p. 10). To what extent Macaulay’s classic influenced Lewes as a biographer is an open question, but there is no doubt that he was very well acquainted with Macaulay’s History, and was, characteristically, deeply impressed by its commercial success and immense popularity. Eliot, sometimes together with Lewes, began reading Macaulay in 4th Feb 1855 in Berlin, and she finished it Jan 4th 1857. Volumes 3 and 4 of Macaulay’s History were published December 1855, by which time Lewes’s Life had already been published.

In addition to the somewhat speculative question of Macaulay’s influence on Lewes, there is also the more practical question as to Eliot’s involvement in the “Weimar in the Eighteenth Century” chapter as more than a second opinion. On 14th September 1854, Eliot entered in her journal: “We had a delicious walk in the open fields, came home, and finished the Ms. of Goethe’s life.” She cannot have meant the whole manuscript because they spent a further five months in Berlin, collecting material. The biography was probably finally completed soon after their return to England in March 1855. It was certainly still incomplete while they were in Berlin, as shown by two entries in the journal:

Feb 14 (15th). Read G.’s M. S. of Friendship between Schiller and Goethe. February 25th 1855 “This evening I have been reading aloud G.’s M. S. of his last book so far as he has done it” [Journals]

So presumably she meant the part on which she was actively collaborating, most likely the Weimar chapters. In any case, it is significant that she writes “We ….., (we) and finished the M. S. on Goethe’s life.”

While in Berlin, Eliot wrote Recollections of Weimar (Journal pp. 218-37), which later became Three Months in Weimar, and was originally published in Fraser’s Magazine (June 1855) and is in Pinney’s collection of the George Eliot Essays (82-95). Parts of the Recollections are incorporated, albeit in abbreviated and altered form, in the chapter in Lewes’s Life on Weimar in the Eighteenth Century. Readers will decide for themselves to what extent and with what significance the respective pieces amount to collaboration.


Boyle, Nicholas. Goethe, The Poet and the Age. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Eliot, George. The Essays of George Eliot. Ed. George Pinney. Funk & Wagnalls. 1883. Web version by Nathan Sheppard at eBooks@Adelaide. Web. 7 May 2017.

Eliot, George. The Letters. Ed. Gordon Haight. New Haven: Yale University Press, xxxx).

The Journals of George Eliot. Ed. Margaret Harris and Judith Johnston. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lewes, George Henry. The Life and Works of Goethe. Ed. Havelock Ellis. London: Everyman’s Library, 1908.

London, Chapman and Hall, 1849. Hathi Digital Library Trust online version of a copy in the Harvard University Library. Web. 25 April 2017.

Last modified 22 April 2017