Monday, August 20, 2018

George Eliot's Adam Bede

"With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past. This is what I undertake to do for you, reader."
So begins Adam Bede, the beginning of George Eliot's career as a novelist, in 1859. There's non-fiction, translations from German, and the volume of short stories, Scenes From A Clerical Life, before this, but her career as a novelist, what we know her for now, begins here.

It's astonishingly assured for a debut.

Adam Bede is a master carpenter, working for Jonathan Burge, but destined somehow for larger things. His father's a drunk (and dies soon); his mother's clingy but solid; his younger brother Seth, whom he loves, is a bit dreamy and not nearly as hard-working as Adam himself. Adam falls in love with the beautiful Hetty Sorrel, even though everyone knows she's vain and irresponsible.

(Though one could argue about that: Hetty's irresponsibility is more commented on, including by the narrator, than it's shown; she does adequately well with the children she's set to watch, and is hard-working at the farm tasks she's assigned. Admittedly she buys earrings for herself with what she earns. Horrors!)

Other characters include the Poysers, Hetty's aunt and uncle, the tenant farmers at Hall Farm; Dinah Morris, another niece of the Poysers, who preaches at Methodist revivals; the local schoolmaster Bartle Massey, a crotchety, woman-hating bachelor; Rev. Irwine, the genial Church of England rector, and his family.  And then there's Arthur Donnithorne, the grandson of the current neighborhood squire, handsome, earnest, and completely lacking in willpower. It's a far-reaching, socially integrated novel that looks at all levels of the society where it takes place. It's like Middlemarch in that regard.

The plot has a major event; you can see it coming, partly, but its magnitude is not clear until quite late and it's shocking. If you've read it, you'll know what I mean; if not, then 'Spoilers,' as Dr. River Song might say, before refusing to explain.

I would say that, while it may be George Eliot, it is still a first novel. I read somewhere, the literary agent Janet Reid's blog, I think, that first novelists should almost always cut from the beginning and expand at the end, and really, that's true of Adam Bede as well. We get quite a long picture of local society to start, often in dialog that's in a thick dialect, and the novel's better than halfway over before the main events kick in. The main events do represent a considerable gut punch, however; and Eliot's benevolent sympathy resolves everything very satisfactorily.

With that said, it is great. If I were ranking George Eliot's novels, I'd place this fourth, I think: Middlemarch has to be first, and I'd put Silas Marner second. It's been a while since I've read The Mill On The Floss, but I'd probably rank that ahead of this, too. (After that, Felix Holt, Daniel Deronda, Romola, I think.) In any case it's a great read.

I had two thoughts in reading this, and if I were a better scholar, I'd do some homework on them, but as it is, I'll just throw them out. First, it's George Eliot, and in 1859 that's still George; who the real George Eliot was only began to break after Adam Bede was published. We all know now that George Eliot is a woman, but how would it be to read this novel thinking it was written by a man? I think that would have an enormous effect, and I think it's one that Eliot is playing with in writing this. For example, she talks at one point about speaking with her friend Adam at one point, years after the novel takes place. What we think of that conversation, it seems to me, would change if we thought that friend was a woman.


The second thing that struck me is that the adulterous couple in this is Hester (Hetty) and Arthur, just as it is in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. I tried to build up an argument about what that might mean about Adam Bede, but didn't get there. Wikipedia tells me that George Eliot thought highly of The Scarlet Letter, so I'm sure it's not a coincidence, though the events in each novel are fairly different, with the similarity of the two Arthurs' temperament being the strongest likeness. But a better scholar would be reading George Eliot's letters or something.


As if reading this weren't its own reward, I read it as part of my Classics Club list and for the Karen K.'s Back To The Classics challenge.

Coming soon! Romola. I'm currently about halfway through.

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