In an interesting essay on George Eliot here Ernest Payne says
There are a number of references in the correspondence' to Spurgeon. George Eliot shared the general interest in the great preacher. While on holiday in the Scilly Islands in June, 1857, she records that "the excitement we saw in the town was owing to the expectation of Mr. Spurgeon, who was going to preach for the benefit of an indebted chapel." The following year she writes to a friend: 'Your account of Spurgeon tallies with all I had conjectured from newspaper accounts and from one or two of his printed sermons which I have read-also with his portrait. The only thing that shook ,me with a doubt was Ruskin's testimony, but Ruskin is a man of strange whims." Ruskin had become a frequent hearer of Spurgeon at the Surrey Gardens Music Hall and contributed 100 guineas to the building fund for the Metropolitan Tabernacle.
In 1859, John Blackwood, the publisher of George Eliot's novels, wrote a long letter to George Henry Lewes after hearing Spurgeon preach. "His voice and elocution seem to me to explain his popularity," he said. "They· are wonderful. As for his matter, I certainly shall not go to hear him again. As for doctrine, he announced in the most unhesitating terms the miserable hopeless creed of the extreme Calvinists that men are sent into the world preordained to Heaven or t'other place and that no conduct on their part can have the slightest influence on their future fate." But George Eliot continued anxious to hear Spurgeon for herself. No opportunity occurred until November, 1870, at the time of the Franco-German War. She was then fifty-one years of age and in poor health. Spurgeon was still only thirty-six. In writing to a friend afterwards, she expressed her satisfaction at being at last able to satisfy her curiosity, but her verdict was unfavourable.
"My impressions fell below the lowest judgement I ever heard passed upon him," she wrote. "He has the gift of a fine voice, very flexible and various; he is admirably fluent and clear in his language, and every now and then his enunciation is effective. ... And the doctrine. It was a libel on Calvinism, that it should be presented in such a form .... It was the most superficial, grocer's back-parlour view of Calvinistic Christianity; and I was shocked to find how low the mental pitch of our society must be, judged by the standard of this man's celebrity .... Just now, with all Europe stirred by events, that make every conscience tremble after some great principle as a consolation and guide, it was too exasperating to sit and listen to doctrine that seemed to look no farther than the retail Christian's tea and muffins."*
It was hardly likely that Spurgeon would appeal to one who, however sensitive her spirit in certain matters, had renounced the conventional in conduct as well as thought. That her description gives only a partial and prejudiced picture of Spurgeon as a preacher is shown by his influence over a number of outstanding Victorians of shrewd judgement.
*More fully the letter to Miss Sara Hennell, 18th Nov. 1870 reads
Yesterday, for the first time, we went to hear *. I remembered what you had said about his vulgar, false emphasis; but there remained the fact of his celebrity. I was glad of the opportunity. But my impressions fell below the lowest judgement I ever heard passed upon him. He has the gift of a fine voice, very flexible and various; he is admirably fluent and clear in his language, and every now and then his enunciation is effective. But I never heard any pulpit reading and speaking which in its level tone was more utterly common and empty of guiding intelligence or emotion; it was as if the words had been learned by heart and uttered without comprehension by a man who had no instinct of rhythm or music in his soul. And the doctrine! It was a libel on Calvinism that it should be presented in such a form. I never heard any attempt to exhibit the soul's experience that was more destitute of insight. The sermon was against fear, in the elect Christian, as being a distrust of God; but never once did he touch the true ground of fear- the doubt whether the signs of God's choice are present in the soul. We had plenty of anecdotes, but they were all poor and pointless - Tract Society anecdotes of the feeblest kind. It was the most superficial grocer's-back-parlour view of Calvinistic Christianity; and I was shocked to find how low the mental pitch of our society must be, judged by the standard of this man's celebrity. Mr. Lewes was struck with some of his tones as good actor's tones, and was not so wroth as I was. But just now, with all Europe stirred by events that make every conscience tremble after some great principle as a consolation and guide, it was too exasperating to sit and listen to doctrine that seemed to look no further than the retail Christian's tea and muffins. He said "Let us approach the throne of God" very much as he might have invited you to take a chair; and then followed this fine touch - "We feel no love to God because he hears the prayers of others; it is because he hears my prayer that I love him." You see I am relieving myself by pouring out my disgust to you. Oh, how short life - how near death - seems to me! But this is not an uncheerful thought. The only great dread is the protraction of life into imbecility or the visitation of lingering pain. That seems to me the insurmountable calamity, though there is an ignorant affectation in many people of underrating what they call bodily suffering. I systematically abstain from correspondence, yet the number of acquaintances and consequent little appeals so constantly increases that I often find myself inwardly rebelling against the amount of note-writing that I cannot avoid. Have the great events of these months interfered with your freedom of spirit in writing? One has to dwell continually on the permanent, growing influence of ideas in spite of temporary reactions, however violent, in order to get courage and perseverance for any work which lies aloof from the immediate wants of society. You remember Goethe's contempt for the Revolution of '30 compared with the researches on the Vertebrate Structure of the Skull? "My good friend, I was not thinking of those people." But the changes we are seeing cannot be doffed aside in that way.