This remarkable observation was recorded on this date, Nov. 1, in 1888. I share the speaker’s admiration for Eliot, of course. A lifetime of reading tells me she, Tolstoy and Henry James eclipse all others in the nineteenth century, the century of the novel. But even the most charitable or gentlemanly of observers might question the speaker’s description of her as “the cutest of all women.” Given the date and the sheer weirdness of the sentiment, make an educated guess: Who said this of the author of Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda? The answer is Walt Whitman, a well-known connoisseur of feminine beauty, as recorded by Horace Traubel in With Walt Whitman in Camden, Vol. 4 (1953), one of nine volumes of the poet’s conversation in his later years.
Elsewhere in Traubel’s recollections, Whitman is recorded saying Eliot is “a woman of genius.” Five days after the passage quoted at the top, Whitman says: “Have you ever seen a portrait of George Eliot that impressed you as being adequate? I never have. I have seen portraits but they don’t look probable: they are heavy, torpid, inert.” A devoted follower of phrenology and other crackpot vogues, Whitman seems to be suggesting that a woman’s physiognomy corresponds to her moral or imaginative qualities. To put it crudely, the outside ought to look as good as the inside.
An all together more reliable American observer of Eliot is Henry James. On May 10, 1869, at the age of twenty-six, James visited Eliot, then fifty years old, in London. In a letter to his father, James reports, in a small masterpiece of portraiture, that “she is magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous.” The budding novelist adds:
“. . . in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her . . . I don’t know in what the charm lies, but it is thoroughly potent. An admirable physiognomy—a delightful expression, a voice soft and rich as that of a counseling angel -- a mingled sagacity and sweetness – a broad hint of a great underlying world of reserve, knowledge, pride and power – a great feminine dignity and character in these massively plain features – a hundred conflicting shades of consciousness and simpleness – shyness and frankness – graciousness and remote indifference – these are some of the more definite elements of her personality. Her manner is extremely good tho’ rather too intense and her speech, in the way of accent and syntax peculiarly agreeable. Altogether, she has a larger circumference than any woman I have ever seen.”
We can be certain James in his final sentence refers to Eliot’s intellectual and emotional qualities, not her anatomical dimensions.