My brother-in-law invited the doctor to remain to dinner, and when my sister and I entered the drawing-room after finishing our household duties, we saw the doctor seated alone in a chair before a table on which lay a book I had been reading. When he saw us enter he rose, but my sister urged him to be seated again.
"What were you reading so attentively?" she asked. "Middlemarch? I hope we are not disturbing you."
The doctor resumed his seat after seeing us seated. He smiled, and bending slightly forward looked steadily at us. He was a handsome man, his features were of a fine and intellectual type. His complexion was delicate, slightly olive-coloured, and a soft glossy beard covered his chin and cheeks. A pair of gold-rimmed eye-glasses fastened by a gold chain enhanced his scholarly appearance.
"Pardon me," he replied gently, "whenever I find one of George Eliot's novels, I cannot help going through it, it is a great weakness of mine. I have read this very book several times, and still I thought I was reading a new book, I fancied myself discovering new truths. You have read it, no doubt?"
"I read it years ago," replied my sister. "It impressed me as being a good book, but there are too many long conversations in it. They oppressed my mind."
"That is true," replied the doctor. "They may be somewhat tedious, but the ideal of the author is grasped by them. Whenever I read George Eliot, I, do not like to omit a single line. Whatever chapter, whatever page I may read, I feel my heart touched by a living sympathy. I am then aware of myself only as a spark in an ocean of consciousness, and am happy in drowning my individuality in the great sea of existence."
"I cannot quite accept your sentiment," replied my sister, "the heroine in Middlemarch married twice. Surely this is not a high ideal of self-sacrifice."
A gentle smile played round his lips, and passed away quickly. He answered softly, "You forget, perhaps, that the moralist and the novelist are not the same person. The latter does indeed convey some moral lessons, but his main object is to portray life as he finds it, aiming ever at the ideal for which life should stand. It is for him to place before the public the different phases of human nature, the differences of character formed by circumstances, the influences of fate or the rules and laws of Society, all of which are again controlled by the laws of the Universe. George Eliot, who understands the mission of an author, does not want to change human nature, does not want to create either gods or demons. She only expresses life as she finds it, and awakens in her reader love and sympathy. Dorothea lives in the ideal, her hopes and aspirations are utopian, and yet what blunders do not such people often commit in this world of ours. This fact the writer has made plain in her character. Is there not a deep pathos in this failure of a life?"
"We pity her, but at the same time we must lose patience with her, because she loved such an unworthy man in the end."
"Some say," I remarked, "that Dorothea and Maggie are but portraits of the author's own character."
"Yes," replied the doctor, "there is no doubt about it. As she was disappointed in her ideals and crossed in her highest hopes and aspirations——"
He could not finish as my brother-in-law entered.
"Why are you so late?" enquired my sister.
"I could not dismiss my client, however hard I tried. What is the discussion about, George Eliot? Oh, she is a great woman, we must admit that, I am sorry to say."
"That is a very reluctant admission. Do you not as a man glory in such a genius in woman? She had a truly grand intellect combined with the sympathetic heart and subtle instinct of a true woman. Think of the masterly way in which she shows that every act of man, small or great, springs from a deeper motive, a finer sense of the inner nature. Has any writer of the stronger sex been able to equal her in that?"
"I disagree with you," said my brother-in-law. "Do you mean to say she is as great as Shakespeare, for instance?"
"Of course," was the doctor's warm reply. "Why not? I have not the slightest hesitation in pronouncing her as great in her sphere as Shakespeare was in his."
This seemed to be too bold an assertion for my brother-in-law. He was half angry as he replied, "What a monstrous assertion; it sounds almost like blasphemy. I never heard such a ridiculous comparison. She is no more a Shakespeare than you are, my dear fellow, however cleverly she may have written her novels."
"No, she is not a Shakespeare, nor did I mean to indicate that she was. Perhaps I did not express myself clearly. What I meant to say was that George Eliot is as great in her own line as any author in England, dead or alive."
"That comes to about the same thing. However, prove it to me that she has as great a creative genius as Shakespeare."
"The burden of the proof lies with you, my friend."
To our great relief we heard the dinner bell ring, for my sister and I had become anxious about the outcome of this heated discussion. She therefore remarked smilingly,
"We might perhaps adjourn the controversy. We are being called to dinner."
The men followed our example in rising, but they did not give up their controversy, it clung to them like an evil spirit.
"You must back up your assertion by good reason, my dear fellow, or admit that George Eliot was not a Shakespeare," continued my brother-in-law.
"That I will gladly admit," laughed the doctor. "She was a woman, and although she called herself by a man's name, it did not necessarily follow that this made a man of her, whether it be a Shakespeare or any other."
My brother-in-law joined in the laugh and said, "The premises being granted the conclusion must follow as night follows day. Since, as you admit, she was not a Shakespeare her genius could not be on a par with his either. Now let us shake hands in the name of Shakespeare, the cause of our heated discussion, which seems, however, to have ended satisfactorily all round. Long live Shakespeare, the great man."
The doctor shook my brother-in-law's proffered hand and replied, "And long live George Eliot, the great woman."
"All right," was my brother-in-law's cheerful answer, "I have no further objections to make. Long live Shakespeare, long live George Eliot."
And they became hilarious and both shouted "Hurrah!"
"Are there no cheers for our own writers?" I asked.
"You are right," replied my sister, "why should we forget them? Honour to Bankim Chandra first of all!"
"Honour to every lady," put in my brother-in-law. "Honour to every man, three cheers for India."
And so the heated discussion ended happily, to every one's relief. My sister and I laughed, but our laughter was drowned in the chorus of their cheers.