George Eliot wrote this letter to the Swiss artist François D’Albert Durade at the end of 1859. Earlier in the year, she had published her first novel, Adam Bede. In this letter, she explains her attitude towards Christianity and towards religion more generally.
Eliot and Durade had become friends ten years earlier, when she stayed in Geneva with him and his wife, for several months in the winter of 1849-50. This letter is a response to one Eliot had received from Durade, in which he told her that he had read Adam Bede and recognised her in some of its pages but not in others. He observed that, in the years since they had last met, she had changed some of her ideas about ‘the state of the soul’.
In her response, Eliot tells Durade that as a young woman she had been an Evangelical Christian. Aged 22 she lost her faith, and much of her work in the years following focused on arguing against literal interpretations of the Bible. It was during this period of ‘antagonism’ towards Christianity that she first met Durade, and her reference to her ‘argumentative tendencies’ suggests in what terms she must then have spoken of religious faith.
Eliot never returned to Christianity but, as she says in this letter, she developed a ‘sympathy’ with ‘any faith in which human sorrow and human longing for purity have expressed themselves’. This sympathy is clear in Adam Bede, and especially in her portrayal of the Methodist preacher Dinah Morris. Even so, the morality of Adam Bede and of all Eliot’s fiction is essentially secular. As she wrote to Durade, her ‘most rooted conviction’ was that ‘the proper sphere of all our highest emotions are our struggling fellow-men and this earthly existence’, rather than questions of religion or the afterlife.