From now through until the publication of my anthology Germany: Beyond the Enchanted Forest in April, I'll be offering historical diary entries from writers featured in it, on or near the same date as they wrote their journal. This should have gone out on 12th November, since it was written 158 years ago on that day by George Eliot.
Widely considered one of the best writers in the English language, Eliot was a Germanophile and translated several literary and philosophical works out of German (her first published work was a translation of D. F. Strauss' Das Leben Jesu). In 1854-1855, she took an eight month sojourn to Germany, staying mainly at Weimar and Berlin. On the former, she published an essay, Three Months in Weimar, in which she gives a run-down of the prominent people who had marked the place over the last hundred years; in the latter, she began translating Spinoza's Ethics - the first to render it into English.
In this letter, we hear Eliot's view on Lessing, a very philosophical playwright from the German Enlightenment, which takes her into a wider dicussion of German society and the way in which it seems to function without the need the political freedom the British already considered essential to modern soceity.
George Eliot to Charles Bray, Berlin, 12th November, 1854
Last night we went to see “Nathan der Weise.” You know, or perhaps you do not know that this play is a sort of dramatic apologue the moral of which is religious tolerance. It thrilled me to think that Lessing dared nearly a hundred years ago to write the grand sentiments and profound thoughts which this play contains for the people’s theatre which he dreamed of, but which Germany has never had. In England the words which call down applause here would make the pit rise in horror.
It is amusing to see how very comfortable the Germans are without many of the things England considers the safeguards of society. The Germans eat their Bratwurst and Küchen form house to house in gladness of hear though they have no Episcopal establishment and though the have some things which are though very noxious with us. I think them immensely inferior to us in creative intellect and in the possession of the means of life, but they know better how to use the means they have for the end of enjoyment. One sees everywhere in Germany what is the rarest of all things in England – thorough bien-être, freedom from gnawing cares and ambitions, contentment in inexpensive pleasures with no suspicion that happiness is a vice which we must not only not indulge in ourselves but as far as possible restrain others from giving way to. There are disadvantages, of course. They don’t improve their locks and carriages as we do, and they consider a room furnished when it has a looking glass and an escritoire in it. They put their knives in their mouths, write un-sit-out-able comedies and unreadable books; but they are decidedly happy animals and in spite of Pascal, that is perhaps better than being extremely clever ones – miserable and knowing their misery.
Berlin is a cold place, but the cold is dry and bracing. This morning the roofs are covered with snow, and soon I suppose we shall have the first stratum of snow in the streets which will lie all winter. We work hard in the mornings till our heads are hot, then walk out, dine at three and, if we don’t go out, read diligently aloud in the evenings. I think it is impossible for two human beings to be more happy in each other. All I am anxious about is the certainty of work by which I may get money – and that just now does not present itself.
Best love to all. Forgive all my omissions and commissions and believe ever
Your sincere and affectionate