Thursday, March 22, 2012

George Eliot – ‘Adam Bede’

I’ve been swithering about whether to write about this together with Scenes of Clerical Life, but by the time I get to the end of that I’ll probably have forgotten too much about Adam Bede. The two do seem to go together, though: George Eliot’s first work of fiction, and her first novel. Both are about village life, the division between labourers and gentry, and the special position of the clergy (with learning and moral weight, but without wealth) within that context. This much is familiar from Barchester Towers, which was published at roughly the same time (1857; Scenes came in 1858, and Adam Bede in 1859). There is a difference in the setting: Barchester’s events take place in the 1850s, whereas Adam Bede begins in 1799, situated very carefully at a time when people could still remember John Wesley (d. 1791), and before the Methodists ruled against women preachers in 1803. This allows the introduction of free spirit Dinah Morris, who preaches a long sermon on the green at Hayslope, Loamshire, which takes up most of chapter two and put me off reading the rest of the book when I first tried (in September 2000, says the receipt, doubling as a bookmark). My mistake was to assume that because the sermon was didactic, the book must be too.

In fact, the reception of Dinah’s doctrine is cordial and interested, if not, for the most part, enthusiastic. People are drawn to her, personally, and seem to overlook the religious content of what she says, because she is incredibly kind and generous. In an early example of this, she stays with Adam’s mother Lisbeth Bede after the drowning of her wastrel husband Thias, gently comforting her and doing the cleaning, preparing the breakfast. Tragedies like this aside, Dinah finds that the people of Hayslope are too contented with their lot, and returns to Snowfield, Stonyshire, where there is a greater availability of suffering to succour (there is a mine and a mill, and nothing grows; it symbolises industrialisation and commercialism, which compares unfavourably with Hayslope’s older squire landowner / farmer tenant economy). Lisbeth complains to both her sons at different times that they could marry her and bring her back. Seth, Adam’s younger brother, does propose, but is rejected in favour of Dinah’s calling. Does this sound like an awful plot yet? I remember, years ago, coming across an objection to Silas Marner as it was (is?) taught in schools, and it was not until then that it occurred to me that, yes, it is a massively clunky plot device to take a miser, to castigate the miser, and then halfway through the book to have his gold all stolen, and an abandoned baby put in its place, the better to bring about his redemption. Reading the book, all this had seemed perfectly fine, effective, affecting. The same is true of Adam Bede – many of its broad strokes are crude, but it makes you care about the characters; the real action is not at the level of plot, but in the beautifully observed relationships, within a rather unsubtle folk tale structure.

Hetty Sorrel is a great name, though. She could be the victim in a murder ballad: it can be no plot spoiler to say that she comes to harm. She is vapid and beautiful, dazzled by trinkets, a character deliberately without depth. Adam pines for her, hopes to marry her when he has sufficient financial wherewithal. She is non-committal, hedges her bets. Old squire Donnithorne’s grandson and heir, Arthur, comes to be besotted by her as well, and starts to meet her in secret. Adam and Arthur, already friends, are bound closer together by the announcement at Arthur’s coming of age party that Adam is to manage the estate to which he is heir. The future looks bright for them both: Arthur is confident that he will be a better, fairer squire than his lofty, penny-pinching grandfather, and Adam is part of this plan, along with tenants such as the Poysers (Hetty is Martin Poyser’s niece, and lives at his farm), whose buildings are much in need of repair. He will be generous, and they will be contented, without forgetting to be grateful. But Arthur’s generosity, while not exactly false, is far from being as disinterested as Dinah’s. He is aware that this is not altogether a good thing:
he had an agreeable confidence that his faults were all of a generous kind – impetuous, warm-blooded, leonine; never crawling, crafty, reptilian. (p. 123)
And Hetty’s faults?
Yes, the actions of a little trivial soul like Hetty’s, struggling amidst the serious, sad destinies of a human being, are strange! So are the motions of a little vessel without ballast tossed about on a stormy sea. How pretty it looked with its particoloured sail in the sunlight, moored in a quiet bay! (p. 340)
And Adam’s?
Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds; and until we know what has been or will be the peculiar combination of outward with inward facts, which constitutes a man’s critical actions, it will be better not to think ourselves wise about his character. (p. 315)
You can see where this is going. Or at least, you can see where it would be going if Thomas Hardy were at the helm – death, disgrace. But Adam Bede is not Tess of the D’Urbervilles, though it shares the theme of society’s condemnation of a fallen woman, and the extremes this can drive her to. It pulls its punches, because punches are too easy, and because
Men’s lives are as thoroughly blended with each other as the air they breathe (p. 425)
Stephen Gill’s excellent introduction to this Penguin edition identifies the extension of sympathy as George Eliot’s primary aim in her fiction, and this sympathy is a far warmer prospect than the pity which is so often what Hardy inspires. It can make for a less perfect story construction (though in Middlemarch, it doesn’t), but it also produces a richer, more human art. And I had forgotten that, because of a silly little thing like a boring sermon.

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