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29-Jul-2011
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Did George Eliot Write This?

I occasionally get E-mails asking for the sources of quotes attributed to George Eliot. I do my best to track them down on the Internet, with varying success. I decided I might as well start keeping a record of what I and others have found. Corrections are welcome!


[Dinah Maria Craik]

The following quote is widely attributed to George Eliot, but it was actually written by Dinah Maria (Mulock) Craik (1826-1887). Those who get the author correct often get the source wrong, crediting it to a poem, "Friendship". Poem of the Week has the definitive answer: the quote is from Craik's novel, A Life for a Life, published in 1859, but it also appeared - nearly 80 years later - in a collection of poems under the title, "Friendship". (Thanks to Katherine Walker for informing me of the correct author.)

Oh, the comfort --
The inexpressible comfort of feeling
safe with a person,
Having neither to weigh thoughts,
Nor measure words -- but pouring them
All right out -- just as they are --
Chaff and grain together --
Certain that a faithful hand will
Take and sift them --
Keep what is worth keeping --
and with the breath of kindness
Blow the rest away.

And the quote in context from Chapter 16 of the novel:

Thus ended our little talk: yet it left a pleasant impression. True, the subject was strange enough; my sisters might have been shocked at it; and at my freedom in asking and giving opinions. But oh! the blessing it is to have a friend to whom one can speak fearlessly on any subject; with whom one's deepest as well as one's most foolish thoughts come out simply and safely. Oh, the comfort -- the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person -- having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.

Somebody must have done a good deal of the winnowing business this afternoon; for in the course of it I gave him as much nonsense as any reasonable man could stand ...

The strange subject of their little talk was, of all things, capital punishment. The talk took place on a Sunday afternoon after church, at which the minister had spoken out against the death penalty, widely used in England at the time and a controversial topic of discussion in social circles. I can't say more without giving away a plot twist in the book, in case you consider reading the novel, which I highly recommend doing. Mrs. Craik was not quite in George Eliot's class when it came to writing, but she was pretty close.


At the time I write this, I have received 5 queries about the following quote, which appears in various forms:

It is never too late to be the person you could have been.
It is never too late to be what you might have become.
It is never too late to be what you might have been.
It is never too late to be what we might have been.
It is never too late to be who you might have been.
It is never too late to become what you might have been.
It is never too late to become who you might have been.
It's never too late to be what you might have been.

Like my E-mail correspondents, I was unable to track down a source for the quote. However, the fourth query arrived shortly after I had just finished reading a novel, John Halifax, Gentleman, that frequently touched on the theme of the alleged Eliot quote. A search of the on-line text produced the following scrap of conversation:

"You mean, Mr. Halifax, what I might have been. Now it is too late."

The author? None other than Dinah Maria (Mulock) Craik - see the friendship poem above!

Here is the quote in context (Chapter XXXVI), a conversation between Lord Ravenel (a listless and directionless nobleman) and John Halifax (moral, upright, etc.):

(Lord Ravenel)  "I am but as others: I am but what I was born to be."

(John Halifax)  "Do you recognize what you were born to be? Not only a nobleman, but a gentleman; not only a gentleman, but a man -- man, made in the image of God. How can you, how dare you, give the lie to your Creator?"

"What has He given me? What have I to thank Him for?"

"First, manhood; the manhood His Son disdained not to wear; worldly gifts, such as rank, riches, influence, things which others have to spend half an existence in earning; life in its best prime, with much of youth yet remaining -- with grief endured, wisdom learnt, experience won. Would to Heaven, that by any poor word of mine I could make you feel all that you are -- all that you might be!"

A gleam, bright as a boy's hope, wild as a boy's daring, flashed from those listless eyes -- then faded.

"You mean, Mr. Halifax, what I might have been. Now it is too late."

"There is no such word as 'too late,' in the wide world -- nay, not in the universe. What! shall we, whose atom of time is but a fragment out of an ever-present eternity -- shall we, so long as we live, or even at our life's ending, dare to cry out to the Eternal One, 'It is too late!'"

The following quote is by George Eliot and is found in Book V, Chapter 1 of The Mill on the Floss:

It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them.

and here is the quote in context, a conversation between Maggie and Philip:

"I've been a great deal happier," she said, at last, timidly, "since I have given up thinking about what is easy and pleasant, and being discontented because I couldn't have my own will. Our life is determined for us - and it makes the mind very free when we give up wishing and only think of bearing what is laid upon us and doing what is given us to do."

"But I can't give up wishing," said Philip, impatiently. "It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them. How can we ever be satisfied without them until our feelings are deadened? I delight in fine pictures - I long to be able to paint such. I strive and strive, and can't produce what I want. That is pain to me, and always will be pain, until my faculties lose their keenness, like aged eyes. Then, there are many other things I long for" - here Philip hesitated a little, and then said - "things that other men have and that will always be denied me. My life will have nothing great or beautiful in it - I would rather not have lived."

Alex Measday  /  E-mail