Adam Bede

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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My review of George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life, triggered a lively discussion over in the Corner.

(Start here for Richard Brookhiser’s dissent on Daniel Deronda, here for Mona Charen’s defense, here for Bill Bennett ditto, and then finally here for Brookhiser’s olive branch.)

So I am excited to see what might ensue from another posting on Eliot, this time on her first full length novel, Adam Bede.

The eponymous hero of the novel, Adam Bede, is a carpenter in his middle 20s living on the north Midlands estate of a family named Donnithorne at the end of the 18th century. Bede is a remarkable man: self-willed, self-disciplined, a hard worker, a gifted natural mathematician.

Bede has fallen in love with the pretty niece of a neighboring prosperous farmer, Hester (or “Hetty”) Sorrel. Hetty is a worthless girl: vain, selfish, and foolish. Despite (or maybe because of) her family’s strong admiration for Adam, Hetty spurns him – and instead falls into a lethal love affair with the young heir to the Donithorne estate, Arthur. The young squire-to-be is a good-natured and basically honorable person, but weak and spoiled.

The affair is detected by Adam. Adam and Arthur have been friends all their lives. Yet Adam then does an almost unimaginable thing: he physically attacks Arthur, beating him violently. Afterward, Adam shames Arthur into breaking off with Hettie. Arthur has assured Adam that the affair was nothing more than a flirtation, and Adam believes him.

Arthur departs, returning to his regiment, off to fight Napoleon. Adam prevails on a desolate Hetty to accept his proposal of marriage. But soon Hetty discovers herself pregnant. She pursues Arthur Donnithorne, and when she cannot find him, abandons her newborn baby. The child dies, Hetty is apprehended, put on trial for murder, and sentenced to hang.

Now we reach the moral climax of the novel. Adam is a strong man, uncomprehending of and unforgiving of human weakness. Yet in his terrible feelings of betrayal by Hetty, he also discovers the moral resources to forgive her – and to try to protect her from the law. Arthur returns just in time to use his influence to reduce Hetty’s sentence to transportation (presumably to Australia). Arthur, who has always basked in the admiration of others, now finds himself shunned and hated by his tenants. Despite his lordly power over the livelihoods of hundreds of people, the shunning breaks him. Arthur returns to the army, leaving his estate behind.

Adam finds happiness at last in marriage to a devoutly religious character, a Methodist preaching woman, who has been a soothing influence throughout the book. (This last bit has been disliked by literary critics from Henry James onward as contrived and unconvincing, but I personally found it less outlandish than Hetty’s nick-of-time rescue from the gallows.) We finish the book a decade after it begins, with Adam a father, prospering in his business, and reconciled at last to Arthur who has returned sick and feverish from wars abroad.

Adam Bede was a big commercial success when published in 1859. The Victorians liked its uplifting message and its recreation of a swiftly vanishing traditional rural landscape, in which a distance of 30 miles carried one into another “country” (as the people then said) – and in which a working man never omitted to call his landlord “sir,” even in the middle of a fistfight. England in 1859 was becoming a recognizably modern place, and with modernity comes nostalgia for what one historian famously called “the world we have lost.” Toward the end of Adam Bede, Eliot herself seems touched by this nostalgia:

Surely all other leisure is hurry compared with a sunny walk through the fields from “afternoon church”Ñas such walks used to be in those old leisurely times, when the boat, gliding sleepily along the canal, was the newest locomotive wonder; when Sunday books had most of them old brown-leather covers, and opened with remarkable precision always in one place. Leisure is goneÑgone where the spinning-wheels are gone, and the pack-horses, and the slow waggons, and the pedlars, who brought bargains to the door on sunny afternoons. Ingenious philosophers tell you, perhaps, that the great work of the steam-engine is to create leisure for mankind. Do not believe them: it only creates a vacuum for eager thought to rush in. Even idleness is eager nowÑeager for amusement; prone to excursion-trains, art museums, periodical literature, and exciting novels; prone even to scientific theorizing and cursory peeps through microscopes. Old Leisure was quite a different personage. He only read one newspaper, innocent of leaders, and was free from that periodicity of sensations which we call post-time. He was a contemplative, rather stout gentleman, of excellent digestion; of quiet perceptions, undiseased by hypothesis; happy in his inability to know the causes of things, preferring the things themselves. He lived chiefly in the country, among pleasant seats and homesteads, and was fond of sauntering by the fruit-tree wall and scenting the apricots when they were warmed by the morning sunshine, or of sheltering himself under the orchard boughs at noon, when the summer pears were falling. He knew nothing of weekday services, and thought none the worse of the Sunday sermon if it allowed him to sleep from the text to the blessing; liking the afternoon service best, because the prayers were the shortest, and not ashamed to say so; for he had an easy, jolly conscience, broad-backed like himself, and able to carry a great deal of beer or port-wine, not being made squeamish by doubts and qualms and lofty aspirations. Life was not a task to him, but a sinecure. He fingered the guineas in his pocket, and ate his dinners, and slept the sleep of the irresponsible, for had he not kept up his character by going to church on the Sunday afternoons?

Fine old Leisure! Do not be severe upon him, and judge him by our modern standard. He never went to Exeter Hall, or heard a popular preacher, or read Tracts for the Times or Sartor Resartus.

Yet in one crucial way, Eliot breaks away from nostalgia: by offering readers a hero who speaks in dialect, works with his hands, wears rough clothes, and owns only a single book (the Bible) – which he reads with his lips moving. Adam Bede is admirable in every way (Eliot’s biographers tell us he is based upon the character of Mary Evans’ own father), and yet he is in no way a gentleman as 19th century English readers would have understood the term.

It’s hard to convey now how startlingly unusual it was for a Victorian author to put a non-gentlemanly character at the center of a story. Non-genteel characters abound in Victorian literature, many of them presented in a very positive light – but until quite late in the century, always with a certain comic edge, and always as minor or subordinate characters.

When Charles Dickens published his semi-autobigraphical David Copperfield, he took great care to endow his eponymous protagonist the speech and manners of a gentleman born – a class background to which Dickens himself could lay only very precarious claim. Bold authors might situate their romantic characters on the edge of genteel society or in some ambiguous relation to it. Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn is an Irish adventurer. Thackeray’s Becky Sharp is the daughter of a painter and a French opera dancer. Jane Austen’s Bennett family are on the verge of falling out of gentility: When the overbearing Lady Catherine DeBurgh’s accuses Elizabeth of overstepping class bounds by contemplating marriage to Fitzwilliam Darcy, Elizabeth replies, “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.” Elizabeth is uncomfortably aware that she can make no such claim on behalf of her mother – a vulnerability on which Lady Catherine cruelly but accurately seizes.

Embedded in Elizabeth’s reply to Lady Catherine is an ideological statement bound to be congenial to the novel-reading Victorian middle class: the equality of all gentlefolk. Implied in that ideal of course is its converse: the superiority of all gentlefolk over all non-gentlefolk. To put a man like Adam Bede at the heart of a novel was to challenge that comfortable assumption. In every possible way, he is a finer man than his gentlemanly counterpart, Arthur Donnithorne: Adam even wins when they fight hand-to-hand – a brutal refutation of the ancient idea that it is physical supremacy that most fundamentally separates the gentleman/knight/chevalier from the churl/varlet/peasant.

And yet it is also true that the final form of the story is ultimately shaped by Arthur’s decisions, not by Adam’s. How could it be otherwise? In the circumscribed world of the estate, the owner holds overwhelming power over his tenants, even over a tenant as intelligent and vigorous as Adam Bede. Arthur is basically a kindly man – or anyway somebody who cares intensely that he be well-regarded by others, which has the same effect.

Because of Arthur’s good nature, the harm done by the affair with Hetty is limited before it reaches its fullest imaginable extent. Had Arthur not accepted his guilt and chosen voluntary exile, Hetty’s aunt and uncle would have felt obliged to abandon the farm their family had rented from the Donithornes for the past three generations – leaving behind all their nonmoveable goods as a windfall to the landlord. What would have happened to them? From comfortable sufficiency they would have been plunged into wandering, and would very likely have tumbled from the status of farmers to the much lower status of laborers. Adam too would have had to leave, to search for new prospects elsewhere, with nothing much except the small money he had saved.

In the village economy, reputation was a very considerable asset – and a move of as little as a few miles destroyed that asset’s value. Adam and Hetty’s family would have had to rebuild their lives almost from scratch.

When the Arthur-Hettie affair is revealed, the benign parish clergyman assures Adam and Hetty’s family that Arthur too will suffer the consequences. Arthur suffers only to the extent that he chooses to suffer, or that his unusually active conscience causes him to suffer. Had he chosen to brazen it out, shrug it off, he could have left all the consequences to be suffered by others. That does not happen in Adam Bede. But it must have happened often enough in the world Adam Bede recreates.

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