Holiday in Wirksworth this year, and finding all the references to George Eliot and Adam Bede there, I thought to myself it would be good to read it. I read Middlemarch while an overly precocious teen, and though profoundly unimpressed to the point of remembering nothing about it, I’ve been meaning to give her another go.
I was a bit sorry I did. Still, I plowed through it over the holiday while resting after glorious walks. I confess in some ways it was immensely thought-provoking. One novel was probably enough, however.
What was most interesting, given my interests, were her invocations of city and country and the relationship between the two…these were rare though. So this first post shall be full of all that had me huffing and puffing and snorting and reading aloud passages, mostly to do with her characterizations of women and workers.
In many ways it strikes me now as simply quaint, with an odd trace of orientalism to start:
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. With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr. Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder, in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the eighteenth of June, in the year of our Lord 1799.
There is also a curious claim to depicting reality, almost as a painting might, a clear identification with the narrative voice.
Certainly I could, if I held it the highest vocation of the novelist to represent things as they never have been and never will be. Then, of course, I might refashion life and character entirely after my own liking; I might select the most unexceptionable type of clergyman and put my own admirable opinions into his mouth on all occasions. But it happens, on the contrary, that my strongest effort is to avoid any such arbitrary picture, and to give a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind. The mirror is doubtless defective, the outlines will sometimes be disturbed, the reflection faint or confused; but I feel as much bound to tell you as precisely as I can what that reflection is, as if I were in the witness-box, narrating my experience on oath.
This is visible in the deep descriptions of farming life and village customs, I quite enjoyed descriptions such as this one:
Mr. Rann’s leathern apron and subdued griminess can leave no one in any doubt that he is the village shoemaker; the thrusting out of his chin and stomach and the twirling of his thumbs are more subtle indications, intended to prepare unwary strangers for the discovery that they are in the presence of the parish clerk.
This view of early methodism and the role of women in it was also interesting (when it didn’t send me to sleep, which it did). But god, the descriptions of most of the women. A record of changing mores this may undoubtedly be, but I don’t think Mary Anne Evans and myself would have got on too well at any point through the ages.
Poor Bessy had always been considered a naughty girl; she was conscious of it; if it was necessary to be very good, it was clear she must be in a bad way. She couldn’t find her places at church as Sally Rann could, she had often been tittering when she “curcheyed” to Mr. Irwine; and these religious deficiencies were accompanied by a corresponding slackness in the minor morals, for Bessy belonged unquestionably to that unsoaped lazy class of feminine characters with whom you may venture to “eat an egg, an apple, or a nut.” All this she was generally conscious of, and hitherto had not been greatly ashamed of it.
I confess no little admiration for the sentence ‘unsoaped lazy class of feminine characters…’ despite hating its earnest content. But she celebrates how everyone here fits into and accepts their place except at their very great cost:
Adam was not a man to be gratuitously superstitious, but he had the blood of the peasant in him as well as of the artisan, and a peasant can no more help believing in a traditional superstition than a horse can help trembling when he sees a camel. Besides, he had that mental combination which is at once humble in the region of mystery and keen in the region of knowledge: it was the depth of his reverence quite as much as his hard common sense which gave him his disinclination to doctrinal religion, and he often checked Seth’s argumentative spiritualism by saying, “Eh, it’s a big mystery; thee know’st but little about it.” And so it happened that Adam was at once penetrating and credulous.
There is a steady class consciousness:
You suspect at once that the inhabitants of this room have inherited more blood than wealth, and would not be surprised to find that Mr. Irwine had a finely cut nostril and upper lip; but at present we can only see that he has a broad flat back and an abundance of powdered hair, all thrown backward and tied behind with a black ribbon–a bit of conservatism in costume which tells you that he is not a young man.
For in those days the keenest of bucolic minds felt a whispering awe at the sight of the gentry, such as of old men felt when they stood on tiptoe to watch the gods passing by in tall human shape.
Adam, I confess, was very susceptible to the influence of rank, and quite ready to give an extra amount of respect to every one who had more advantages than himself, not being a philosopher or a proletaire with democratic ideas, but simply a stout-limbed clever carpenter with a large fund of reverence in his nature, which inclined him to admit all established claims unless he saw very clear grounds for questioning them.
Ah, our steady peasant stock so superior to those proletaires… So I suppose I should have taken the views on women as they came, but they are at times quite unbelievable.
There are various orders of beauty, causing men to make fools of themselves in various styles, from the desperate to the sheepish; but there is one order of beauty which seems made to turn the heads not only of men, but of all intelligent mammals, even of women. It is a beauty like that of kittens, or very small downy ducks making gentle rippling noises with their soft bills, or babies just beginning to toddle and to engage in conscious mischief–a beauty with which you can never be angry, but that you feel ready to crush for inability to comprehend the state of mind into which it throws you. Hetty Sorrel’s was that sort of beauty.
These few sentences contain such absurdity, especially given what happens to her later as hers is clearly a deeply sexualised beauty…I suppose not everyone needed to be as brilliant and clearheaded and eloquent in defense of women as Mary Wollstonecraft, but writing even earlier than Evans she at least shows that perhaps other women of the time may have reacted as I do. I’m prepared to accept I am missing something or that all of this can be argued, but still…anger and laughter kept flaring. I present more of my favourite quotes, like where Hetty
after a momentary start, began to pace with a pigeon-like stateliness backwards and forwards along her room
Here we have the awkward foreshadowing of what is to come
Hetty would have been glad to hear that she should never see a child again; they were worse than the nasty little lambs that the shepherd was always bringing in to be taken special care of in lambing time; for the lambs WERE got rid of sooner or later. As for the young chickens and turkeys, Hetty would have hated the very word “hatching,” if her aunt had not bribed her to attend to the young poultry by promising her the proceeds of one out of every brood.
Odd asides, like this one:
But one of the lessons a woman most rarely learns is never to talk to an angry or a drunken man.
There is the educator Bartle, who has devoted himself to giving classes for working men. Which makes me like him, but heavy handed hints show he was wounded by a treacherous woman in his youth, causing a constant stream of anti-female invective to pour out of his mouth, like this tidbit:
“That’s the way with these women–they’ve got no head-pieces to nourish, and so their food all runs either to fat or to brats.”
You know that’s just the character talking, but there is so so much of it. And then the narrative voice starts in with this sort of thing:
you will never understand women’s natures if you are so excessively rational. Try rather to divest yourself of all your rational prejudices, as much as if you were studying the psychology of a canary bird, and only watch the movements of this pretty round creature as she turns her head on one side with an unconscious smile at the ear-rings nestled in the little box. Ah, you think, it is for the sake of the person who has given them to her, and her thoughts are gone back now to the moment when they were put into her hands. No; else why should she have cared to have ear-rings rather than anything else? And I know that she had longed for ear-rings from among all the ornaments she could imagine.
And so for a pair of earrings hidden carefully away and dreams of rising above her station and dressing in silks, she gets kissed in the wood. I had forgotten how oblique these novels had to be, but I was still slightly ashamed of myself not realising some innocent kisses in the wood inevitably led to pregnancy well hidden until what must have been the 7th or 8th month. Then poor Hetty is off on her search for the father and desperation and hunger and birth and you’re maybe not that surprised she leaves the baby out in the woods.
I feel for young women reading this in the days before sex ed.
Hetty stands in strong contrast with the other main character Dinah, Methodist preacher (until they banned women from preaching, and she agreed it was for the best), sure in herself and her faith, not anxious to wed. She was far too saintly for me to like much and her sermonizing very tedious, so her winning men over to the idea that women could be sensible every now and then still didn’t sit that well. They are both drawn too much as caricatures of good and bad, but I suppose it’s her first novel and all.
Of course there was that one wonderful scene where Mrs Poyser gives the squire what for on the matter of rents and fields, and I enjoyed that immensely.
That was the very short highlight of a very very very long novel.
There were other bits and pieces that were interesting. Beside the fact that I found the women much more compelling than the title character, though I liked a carpenter as one of several central characters. I appreciated this focus on more everyday lives. As Evan says rather pedantically
Nevertheless, to speak paradoxically, the existence of insignificant people has very important consequences in the world. It can be shown to affect the price of bread and the rate of wages, to call forth many evil tempers from the selfish and many heroisms from the sympathetic, and, in other ways, to play no small part in the tragedy of life.
Her own station in life is clear here:
The progress of civilization has made a breakfast or a dinner an easy and cheerful substitute for more troublesome and disagreeable ceremonies. We take a less gloomy view of our errors now our father confessor listens to us over his egg and coffee. We are more distinctly conscious that rude penances are out of the question for gentlemen in an enlightened age, and that mortal sin is not incompatible with an appetite for muffins. An assault on our pockets, which in more barbarous times would have been made in the brusque form of a pistol-shot, is quite a well-bred and smiling procedure now it has become a request for a loan thrown in as an easy parenthesis between the second and third glasses of claret.
Ah, the easy life.
I rather loved this curious and unexpected hint of the pivotal role of the Scots in English gardening (Scotch though, dear me):
I think it was his pedigree only that had the advantage of being Scotch, and not his “bringing up”; for except that he had a stronger burr in his accent, his speech differed little from that of the Loamshire people about him. But a gardener is Scotch, as a French teacher is Parisian.
Turnspits! I had just been reading about them elsewhere, and the use of dogs in medieval times to keep the spit turning
a brown-and-tan-coloured bitch, of that wise-looking breed with short legs and long body, known to an unmechanical generation as turnspits, came creeping along the floor, wagging her tail, and hesitating at every other step, as if her affections were painfully divided between the hamper in the chimney-corner and the master, whom she could not leave without a greeting.
This poor dog Vixen is subject to far too much of her master’s invective against women sadly.
Just one last curious quote:
It is very pleasant to see some men turn round; pleasant as a sudden rush of warm air in winter, or the flash of firelight in the chill dusk. Mr. Irvine was one of those men.
I rather liked that one.
Anyway, the cool city & country stuff next post.