George Eliot is one of my favourite novelists. She has an eye for character and an ear for voices. Her gaze penetrates, through the fog of custom and commonsense, to the soul of every living thing; for sinner and saint she has the same deeply felt but dispassionate love. Adam Bede, her debut, published when she was forty, is perhaps her most accessible novel: featuring the transcendently beautiful Hetty Sorrel, multiple love triangles, class conflict, abundant comic relief and witty sparring, fistfights, a scandal in a sleepy village, and a murder trial. The characters are finely etched: even the minor characters will leave their voices in their head long afterwards. But Eliot’s best gift is the light of her eyes, which is like the light of an overcast summer day: calm, clear, and even. If you and I can learn to look at the world as she did, we’ll be the better for it.
The novel begins in a fictitious location in south England in 1799: the fertile, agrarian Loamshire, and its neighbouring country, barren Stonyshire. Adam Bede is a skilled young carpenter with his head on his shoulders; his younger brother Seth is softhearted but absentminded. Seth has converted to Methodism: that’s how Dinah Morris enters the story. Dinah is a modern-day Jesus, the novel’s guiding light: her heart has room for all humanity, her vision is clear, and she has no more sense of self than a bird. Dinah’s a preacher, and dedicated to singlehood, much to the distress of Seth, who’s in love with her. Adam meanwhile is in love with Hetty Sorrel, an orphan being raised by the Poysers, her relatives, prosperous tenant farmers. The current landlord is shrivelled, stingy, unpopular Squire Donnithorne. The county hangs its hopes on his successor, his grandson Captain Arthur Donnithorne.
Arthur is generous, candid, and well-educated: concocting ambitious but realistic plans to improve his future tenants’ lives, seeking opportunities to further the wellbeing of individual tenants. His fatal flaw is irresoluteness. He feels himself succumbing to temptation – in the form of Hetty Sorrel, his social inferior – yet a series of accidents and missed opportunities leads him into a liaison of which, in his time and day, the outcome must be infamy at best, tragedy at worst.
Adam, the novel’s protagonist, is arrow-straight in both intention and action. He’s constitutionally incapable of shilly-shallying: “…I don’t remember ever being see-saw in that way, when I’d made my mind up, as you say, that a thing was wrong.” His fatal flaw is hardness: strongwilled himself, he’s harsh towards men with any moral weakness. Towards women he’s more tolerant, and it is this strange chivalrous inconsistency that proves his undoing. The object of his love, Hetty, is a sublimely beautiful but soulless creature. Love blinds Adam just as blinds anyone else; Adam bends backwards to excuse Hetty’s numerous flaws, and arguably precipitates her tragedy.
Adam repeatedly rises to heroism – after his father dies, after he discovers Hetty’s secret, and after the novel’s lightning bolt falls on its world. But it is an earthly heroism, resting for support on a cast of characters each in some way superior to him. At the novel’s crux Adam himself is powerless; action falls upon others: Hayslope’s rector, Mr. Irwine, with his professional connections and self-restraint; Bartle Massey, the schoolteacher who suspends his misogyny and caustic wit to support Adam; Dinah Morris, who gets Hetty to confess her crime; and Arthur Donnithorne, who purchases a partial redemption with relentless action.
If the novel has a hero, it’s Dinah Morris, who knows when to heed the divine voice, and when to yield. Dinah travels the novel like a sleepwalker: her eyes miss earthly details, busy looking past superfices into a person’s soul, the soul of a whole class. She observes, for instance, that material hardship turns people to evangelistic religion: it’s in Stonyshire, not Loamshire, that Methodism is flourishing. Her remarks on the character of strangers and relatives alike, while lacking the verbal brilliance of her sharp-tongued Aunt Poyser’s, have the dual perceptiveness of disinterest and compassion.
Adam Bede is lovingly observed, and Eliot’s debut features long asides – which to the modern reader may read as digressions that slow the pace, and which struck me as so at rereading. Nonetheless they are insightful and memorable:
When Adam’s mother frets him by excess complaining, he holds his tongue, but can’t summon any kinder response for a while. To his tailless mongrel dog however, Adam is invariably kind. Eliot wonders: “We are apt to be kinder to the brutes that love us than to the women that love us. Is it because the brutes are dumb?”
Adam’s father is a drunkard; Adam has inherited his father’s talents, but despises the man; Eliot realises this dislike is more than moral: it is rooted in the paradox of family: “Family likeness has often a deep sadness to it. Nature, that great tragic dramatist, knits us together by bone and muscle, and divides us by the subtler web of our brains… We hear the voice with the very cadence of our own uttering thoughts we despise; we see eyes – ah, so like our mother’s! – averted from us in cold alienation… The father to whom we owe our best heritage… galls us… by his daily errors…”
Arthur has been wrestling manfully with his dangerous passion for Hetty, devising getaways to “It is a favourite stratagem of our passions to sham a retreat, and to turn sharp round upon us at the moment we v made up our minds that the day is our own.”
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