City and Country in Adam Bede

Evans published Adam Bede in 1859, describing events set in 1799 — it was 1721 that the first machinery was introduced into a silk mill in Derby and 1771 that Arkwright opened his cotton mill in Cromford. This is a turning point in industrial history and one she references, though fairly tangentially more’s the pity.

One of the things I got out of reading this, was that it continued the process of doing away once and for all with one of my stubborn blind spots — and I appreciate things that do that. Especially a blind spot that has continued in the face of constant small revelations — my simplistic working binary of clean pastoral countryside with its lovely clean towns and villages vs great dirty smoggy cities as centres of industry and innovation.

It’s just wrong.

It was especially wrong several hundred years ago, because multiple small villages served as dirty centres of industry and innovation. Many more held quarries, tanneries, and mines and etc — coal dust transformed whole landscapes that are today green and peaceful. I am ashamed that I have still been carrying that binary shit in my head and the only reason I know it was still there is because books and museums and unexpected clusters of mills and mines encountered in my ‘peak district back-to-nature holiday’ surprised me.

What is curious now, I suppose, is how much closer to reality it has actually become in ‘developed’ countries. How the dirt and grime and exploitation and innovation have been centralised and separated from daily life, its laborers moved to the cities, pollution’s existence in naturally beautiful peripheries cleaned up, and industry’s stories retold or simply erased in much of the countryside. This means of course, that the dirt and toxicity moved along to other places, other countries. So in a way my blind spot is the result of a great deal of effort, but whose? And why?

This isn’t even an attempt at an answer because I know it’s a whole complex combination of things that I could probably start listing right now involving capitalism and labour and etc. One place to start might be Lumsdale Valley, which held all kinds of toxic industry starting in the 1600s and is now a lushly and eerily beautiful series of preserved ruins.

Matlock Walk

Instead here are just some interesting passages from Adam Bede. In this one the man himself, country carpenter and half-peasant half-artisan (as described by George Eliot) praising the industrial revolution. Why? Because it’s happening within a few miles of him.

And there’s such a thing as being oversperitial; we must have something beside Gospel i’ this world. Look at the canals, an’ th’ aqueduc’s, an’ th’ coal-pit engines, and Arkwright’s mills there at Cromford; a man must learn summat beside Gospel to make them things, I reckon. But t’ hear some o’ them preachers, you’d think as a man must be doing nothing all’s life but shutting’s eyes and looking what’s agoing on inside him.

A view of Masson Mill set in its landscape:

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And the setting of Cromford Mill and its canal:

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It is so hard, now, to understand that this was once ‘industrial’.

Sadly, this novel in almost its entirety takes place in ‘Hayslope’ which is really Ellastone, on the border of Derbyshire and Staffordshire. So eagerly awaiting references to Wirksworth, I was despairing (as already noted) several hundred pages into Hetty’s beauty as adorable as downy ducklings and the constant passive-aggressive wailing of Adam Bede’s mother and Dinah’s sermons on goodness and Methodism. But finally, we get to some descriptions of this beautiful stone town, quite rural and lovely to my own eyes. Here is Rev. Irvine to Dinah:

“Ah, I remember Snowfield very well; I once had occasion to go there. It’s a dreary bleak place. They were building a cotton-mill there; but that’s many years ago now. I suppose the place is a good deal changed by the employment that mill must have brought.”

She replies (and oh, if only this had centred on her life in ‘Snowfield’):

“It is changed so far as the mill has brought people there, who get a livelihood for themselves by working in it, and make it better for the tradesfolks. I work in it myself, and have reason to be grateful, for thereby I have enough and to spare. But it’s still a bleak place, as you say, sir–very different from this country.”

I suppose this is as much a shift in common perceptions of what is beautiful and what is country as it is my own blindspot. It’s also an interesting note on labour, those who moved first to smaller towns like these, seeking better lives. This happened alongside the importation of primarily children (not noted by Elliot of course) to work the mills. Both groups must have transformed these places.

This is the view over ‘bleak’ Wirksworth from Black Rocks — whose other side was once the site of a lead mine to be sure:

Wirksworth Walk

Curiously Dinah goes on to describe her own views on what the town-country distinction means for her preaching and gathering of souls, and Irvine responds.

“But I’ve noticed that in these villages where the people lead a quiet life among the green pastures and the still waters, tilling the ground and tending the cattle, there’s a strange deadness to the Word, as different as can be from the great towns, like Leeds, where I once went to visit a holy woman who preaches there. It’s wonderful how rich is the harvest of souls up those high-walled streets, where you seemed to walk as in a prison-yard, and the ear is deafened with the sounds of worldly toil. I think maybe it is because the promise is sweeter when this life is so dark and weary, and the soul gets more hungry when the body is ill at ease.”

“Why, yes, our farm-labourers are not easily roused. They take life almost as slowly as the sheep and cows. But we have some intelligent workmen about here.”

These are common enough prejudices against cities and people of the country even now of course…and perhaps Eliot had more of a hand in forming them than I know.

Here is Adam’s perception of Wirksworth — and it makes me think perhaps I am not quite so far off:

And when at last he came in sight of Snowfield, he thought it looked like a town that was “fellow to the country,” though the stream through the valley where the great mill stood gave a pleasant greenness to the lower fields. The town lay, grim, stony, and unsheltered, up the side of a steep hill, and Adam did not go forward to it at present, for Seth had told him where to find Dinah. It was at a thatched cottage outside the town, a little way from the mill–an old cottage, standing sideways towards the road, with a little bit of potato-ground before it. Here Dinah lodged with an elderly couple; and if she and Hetty happened to be out, Adam could learn where they were gone, or when they would be at home again.

I could have gone to see that same cottage, but I didn’t. We just didn’t get round to it. But here is where Mary Ann Evans visited her aunt:

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It has more than its share of quarries to be sure

Wirksworth Walk

But look at this village:

Wirksworth Walk

Wirksworth Walk

Hardly dreary.

Eliot did occasionally write something I really liked, and this is one of them. I’ll end with another quote from Adam and something I definitely miss in the city:

I like to go to work by a road that’ll take me up a bit of a hill, and see the fields for miles round me, and a bridge, or a town, or a bit of a steeple here and there. It makes you feel the world’s a big place, and there’s other men working in it with their heads and hands besides yourself.

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