Charles Grant, a Literary Mediator: With Three Unpublished Letters to George Eliot

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In his biography of John Sterling, (1) Thomas Carlyle sums up the life of his subject in these words:

All that remains, in palpable shape, of John Sterling's activities in this world are those Two poor Volumes; scattered fragments gathered from the general waste of forgotten ephemera by the piety of a friend: an inconsiderable memorial; not pretending to have achieved greatness; only disclosing, mournfully, to the more observant, that a promise of greatness was there. Like other such lives, like all lives, this is a tragedy; high hopes, noble efforts; under thickening difficulties and impediments, ever-new nobleness of valiant effort;--and the result death, with conquests by no means corresponding. (p. 235)

With some modest modification this paragraph may be a suitable motto for the obscure, even pathetic life of Charles Grant, an enthusiast for both the German and the English literatures of his time and himself an aspiring writer and critic, but an abject failure if judged by conventional standards of worldly success. He is one of those somewhat nebulous marginal figures who, without any great claims to distinction in his own right, found recognition and acceptance among a number of exceptional individuals who seem on the one hand to have taken pity upon his unworldly rootlessness, while at the same time obviously finding him pleasant and even intellectually stimulating company.

Knowledge of the details of his life is largely second-hand, sketchy and consequentially often contradictory. (2) It is known that his parents first met in West Africa, where his Scottish father was engaged in business. His mother was the widow of a Wesleyan missionary there who, together with their children, perished in an epidemic. They married on their return to this country and Charles, the first of their two children, was born in Hackney on 25 March 1841. After his father's death in 1848 Charles was privately educated, and at the age of eighteen, on the advice of the Revd Frederick Denison Maurice, he went to Jena for the purpose of learning German, supporting himself by teaching English at the Stoysche Lehranstalt, which he supplemented by private coaching and lecturing on English literature.

His intention of returning to England to take up a career in teaching was repeatedly postponed as he became increasingly absorbed in his pursuit of German art and literature, and with time he came to see his role principally as that of mediator between the two cultures. His first major publication was a literary history, The Last-Hundred Years of English Literature, published in Jena in 1866, in which for the first time he advanced his enthusiastic claim for the literary merits of George Eliot: 'George Eliot is in my opinion the greatest English novelist, the greatest writer that England has in our age produced,' an admiration that eventually led to his establishing personal contact with the author by means of the letters reproduced below in the Appendix. An unpublished manuscript in his Nachlass in my own possession contains a fuller attempt to analyse the reasons for her success:

Since the death of Thackeray the position of George Eliot as the greatest English novelist of the day has been all but undisputed, and it is probable that the literary historian of the future will look upon her as the chief representative of the period; for the task she succeeded in performing was that which many of the most gifted of her contemporaries were endeavouring to perform. She was in perfect sympathy with the spiritual life of her age, and so her work was gladly nay eagerly accepted by it. This tended to lend her writings the breadth, certainty and freedom which is always wanting in the productions of those who feel that they are addressing an indifferent or an unfriendly audience. There is nothing sectarian, clannish in her manner, nothing merely tentative in her mature novels. She wrote with the consciousness that her work was part of the nation's work, her thought part of its thought, and so she wrote 'as one having authority'. …