So far I’ve been reading George Eliot’s work in a reverse-chronological order. For my third experience I’ve chosen Adam Bede, her first novel. I didn’t realize this until I read the introduction after finishing the book. In hindsight, I can see how her style is less polished than her later works; however, at the time, I was captivated by all the hallmarks of Eliot’s writing that make her my favourite Victorian novelist.
The plot of Adam Bede really is one of the simplest of all time (though it takes a while to become evident). The titular character is an upright and eligible young carpenter. He is a paragon of responsibility and moral propinquity. A major incident early in the book concerns Adam having to make up work left unfinished by his ailing father, who has succumbed to alcoholism in his later years. Adam’s plainspoken attitude, amplified by Eliot’s use of a strong dialect, casts him as someone who views life in very plain, black-and-white terms. He is not someone I’d like to disappoint. Throughout the novel, Eliot uses him as a pillar of stability during trying times in the village. It’s only when Adam himself undergoes a crisis that we get to glimpse the more flawed side of his character.
This crisis is personified in Hetty Sorel, the love interest. She’s a young, impoverished girl living with her aunt and uncle, the Poysers. Eliot talks up her appearance as the kind of beauty that only comes along once or twice in a generation. It’s not a beauty striking so much as it is innocent and, as Eliot describes Hetty, kittenish. It’s the type of beauty that makes other people feel sorry for her and do things for her. And all this goes to Hetty’s otherwise empty head, creating a small pocket of vanity that blossoms under the tender ministrations of the carefree Arthur Donnithorne. Hers and Arthur’s romance is of the flirtatious yet forbidden variety, for they are separated by too wide a class divide to make marriage practicable in those times. Yet it is Hetty’s relationship with Arthur that ultimately scuttles Adam’s hopes for happiness with her as his bride.
The advantage of using such a time-worn plot, of course, is that it allows Eliot to sit back and focus on developing her characters and her setting. The reader, whether contemporary or modern, knows what to expect of the roles the characters will play. But this very expectation heightens the enjoyment of the story: we know Arthur is going to lead Hetty towards a bad end; we know Hetty will end up dashing Adam’s hopes at the last minute in a desperate, selfish bid for a freedom that can never be hers. It’s this very foreknowledge that keeps us on the edge of our seats in happy anticipation as we watch these people spiral towards the inevitable climax around Hetty’s trial.
Even in her first novel, Eliot demonstrates the deft ability for description that won me over in Middlemarch. She has such a way with words, an ability to capture not just descriptions of external environments but also the hearts and minds of people. She writes with a keen awareness of that the sensibilities of her time are fleeting and prone to change; her narration takes on a perspective that is, in some senses, archaeological, as it attempts to chronicle and capture the emotions of a past era. (This is perhaps aided by the fact that, technically, Eliot is engaged in writing historical fiction here, and so she too has the benefit of hindsight, albeit at less of a remove than us.) Eliot presents the contours of rural English life at the height of the Napoleonic wars, mixing news of distant world events with the slow turn of the wheel on a more local level. These distant events intersect the characters’ lives—Arthur is in the military; Seth would have had to serve had Adam not paid a significant amount of money in his stead—but for the most part, there is a sense of isolation impossible to achieve in the burgeoning cities that were then in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. This isolation is especially evident in those moments when someone like Adam or Hetty is walking for a distance alone. Having now lived in England for some time, I appreciate how things here are much closer together than they might be in, say, Canada … yet I still don’t think I’m all that interested in walking for several miles now that I have access to cars and buses and trains. Oh, how spoiled we are….
Much like the scenery and setting, Eliot’s characters are themselves delightful studies of the sort I love finding in Victorian works. Adam himself, alas, is a rather flat character. He doesn’t actually do much, and I find his love for Hetty rather perfunctorily developed, as if Eliot is more concerned with the consequences of this plot than its inception. More interesting are the supporting characters—they make the novel. Mr Irwine, the local pastor and magistrate, is a magnificent combination of wisdom and fallibility. During his tense conversation with Arthur, who desires to make a confession about his dealings with Hetty but isn’t sure how he can broach it, Irwine bungles the job by being far too forward and prodding. Once again, Eliot’s masterful ability to penetrate the thoughts of her characters and portray, in parallel, two people’s thinking processes is put to good use here. We see simultaneously Irwine’s deductions about why Arthur might have visited and Arthur’s struggle with whether to turn the conversation to more personal matters.
Arthur is perhaps the “villain” of Adam Bede, so much as it is possible for the novel to have a villain. I appreciate how Eliot goes to lengths to make none of her characters caricatures. Yes, Arthur behaves recklessly and reprehensibly when it comes to Hetty. He should be more sensitive as to how their difference in class compromises her status in the village. But Eliot is quick to establish that he is a good, well-meaning person: he was not consciously using Hetty so much as genuinely ignorant of the profound ramifications of their dalliance. And I think this is a more effective and more accurate portrayal of a nineteenth-century country dandy than a moustache-twirling rake would be. Arthur is a man who makes mistakes, stumbles, and tries repeatedly to make amends.
Hetty herself is a character who can be the source of much ambivalence. On one hand, there is a genuine lack of sensitivity within her: she is very self-involved, very aware of herself and her appearance. On the other hand, no one seems to have educated her on the dangers of becoming involved with someone like Arthur; she is naive as to so many aspects of the real world, such as the cost of simply journeying from Hayslope to Windsor. So she is sympathetic and pitiable but not entirely innocent: her downfall is a product of her own indiscretions made worse by how others have used her. At the risk of speculating about Eliot’s intentions, it seems like Eliot is striving to examine the difficult realities of a woman in Hetty’s position.
The only part of Adam Bede that I can’t truly appreciate is the ending. It isn’t so much abrupt as it is discontinuous from the rest of the novel. After so many ups and downs, Eliot steadfastly pursues a happy ending. I only wish it seemed more credible. This is perhaps where the relative weakness of Adam’s characterization comes to the fore again: until now, there hasn’t been much of a hint as to his feelings for anyone else; it seems like it’s only the fact that his name is on the cover that he receives such good fortune. I feel a little mean for wishing Adam more unhappiness. Yet the swift and contrived method of rendering him once more content undermines the careful work Eliot has done throughout the rest of the book.
Middlemarch blew me away, affecting me in the way few novels have done before or since. I didn’t think The Mill on the Floss could top that—but it did. So I went into Adam Bede unsure of what to expect, but knowing better than to think that I had seen the best of George Eliot. Well, this isn’t my new favourite of hers. It’s rougher than those other two books, more prototypical in many ways. But it was enough to make me reflect while reading, "Ah, it’s so good to be reading another Eliot novel again". Some authors seem like old friends: it doesn’t matter which of their books you pick up; you’re just happen, for a brief time, to be immersed again in their writing, their thoughts, and their stories. Eliot is this way with me, and Adam Bede has created more fond memories for me.