Scenes of Clerical Life

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

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One of my more frequent email correspondents cites an assigned reading of George Eliot’s Middlemarch as one of the great traumas of his college years. Eliot – the pseudonym of course of Mary Ann Evan – is one of the more daunting of the Victorian writers to our contemporary taste : lacking entirely the humor of Dickens, the sparkle of Thackery, and the gossipy raciness of Trollope.

She is a thoroughly 19th century person, earnest above all things: earnest in her topics, earnest in her sentiments, and earnest in her style. This earnestness is what the Victorians valued in her, and precisely what makes her so difficult of approach by the distracted, ironic, skeptical modern reader, especially the younger reader. Neither does it help that Eliot begins her stories in such a slow, deliberate way – nor that she pauses often to memorialize the slow rural rhythms that govern the lives of her characters. Eliot does not engage in the lyrical outbursts of nature worship that so weary Thomas Hardy’s undergraduate readers. She prefers to describe instead the more practical facts of early 19th century life: cheesemaking and harvesting, ale-making and pre-industrial weaving.

Have I lost you already?

I dearly hope not. For there is more to Eliot: She is one of the profoundest minds ever to write an English novel, one of the deepest students of human nature. DH Lawrence paid her a great compliment: He said she was the first to realize that the action of the novel happens on the inside. I don’t know if that is literally true, but it does describe Eliot’s enduring appeal. And for me, there is a special sentimental bonus to Eliot: My wife and I read Middlemarch together in the first year of our marriage, and that book and its author helped open our minds to a more adult insight into art and each other. I could not really afford it, but one of my early presents to my wife was an old rare set of Eliot’s complete works. Of course, in daily life we use the Penguin paperbacks … or in my case, the audiobooks!

Despite my enthusiasm for Middlemarch and (less so) for Daniel Deronda, there has till now remained quite a lot of Eliot I have never read. Scenes of Clerical Life is Eliot’s first work of fiction – and the first published under her adopted pen name. (It’s often said that Mary Ann Evans chose a male pseudonym in order that she might be taken more seriously as a writer. I suppose there must be some truth to that, but surely she was at least as strongly motivated by the uncomfortable fact that although she was not married to the man she was living with – and so the whole issue of names was best avoided altogether.)

Scenes of Clerical Life collects three long stories by Eliot, each set in or near the fictitious village of Milby. Though written in the 1850s, the stories are set one or two generations back, when a rural village was almost a world unto itself. (In her next novel, Adam Bede, one character travels to a village 30 miles away – and the old woman she is tending laments that she will never see her again in her life.)

My favorite of the three stories in Scenes is the second, “Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story.” Eliot opens her story in the old age of Mr Gilfil, the good-natured, self-neglecting vicar of two of Milby’s parishes. She describes his shabby outward appearance, and then observes signs that he originated in a very different society than the rural obscurity in which he had spent most of his adult life: Mr Gilfil’s

slipshod chat and homely manners were but like weather-stains on a fine old block of marble, allowing you still to see here and there the fineness of the grain, and the delicacy of the original tint

Eliot expresses doubts that her “refined lady readers” will summon much interest in the youthful passion of a shabby old clergyman. That pessimistic anticipation then leads her to this thought:

we poor mortals are often little better than wood-ashesÑthere is small sign of the sap, and the leafy freshness, and the bursting buds that were once there; but wherever we see wood-ashes, we know that all that early fullness of life must have been. I, at least, hardly ever look at a bent old man, or a wizened old woman, but I see also, with my mind’s eye, that Past of which they are the shrunken remnant, and the unfinished romance of rosy cheeks and bright eyes seems sometimes of feeble interest and significance, compared with that drama of hope and love which has long ago reached its catastrophe, and left the poor soul, like a dim and dusty stage, with all its sweet garden-scenes and fair perspectives overturned and thrust out of sight.

Rather fine, that, I think.

Anyway I won’t spoil the plot turn by revealing Mr. Gilfil’s catastrophe – I’ll just suggest that if you do try Scenes, you start with him and leave for last the the first story, the very poignant but I am sorry to say rather dull “Amos Barton.”

The third story, “Janet’s Repentance,” I liked rather less than the second. Yet in one respect it is the most interesting of all.

One of Eliot’s great themes in the Scenes is the transformation of English country life between 1800 and 1850. Here she is at the very opening of the the first story:

More than a quarter of a century has slipped by since then [that is, the opeming of the story] , and in the interval Milby has advanced at as rapid a pace as other market-towns in her Majesty’s dominions. By this time it has a handsome railway station, where the drowsy London traveller may look out by the brilliant gas-light and see perfectly sober papas and husbands alighting with their leatherbags after transacting their day’s business at the county town. There is a resident rector, who appeals to the consciences of his hearers with all the immense advantages of a divine who keeps his own carriage; the church is enlarged by at least five hundred sittings; and the grammar school, conducted on reformed principles, has its upper forms crowded with the genteel youth of Milby. The gentlemen there fall into no other excess at dinner-parties than the perfectly well-bred and virtuous excess of stupidity; and though the ladies are still said sometimes to take too much upon themselves, they are never known to take too much in any other way. The conversation is sometimes quite literary, for there is a flourishing book-club, and many of the younger ladies have carried their studies so far as to have forgotten a little German. In short, Milby is now a refined, moral, and enlightened town; no more resembling the Milby of former days than the huge, long-skirted, drab great-coat that embarrassed the ankles of our grandfathers resembled the light paletot in which we tread jauntily through the muddiest streets, or than the bottle-nosed Britons, rejoicing over a tankard, in the old sign of the Two Travellers at Milby, resembled the severe-looking gentleman in straps and high collars whom a modern artist has represented as sipping the imaginary port of that well-known commercial house.

But pray, reader, dismiss from your mind all the refined and fashionable ideas associated with this advanced state of things, and transport your imagination to a time when Milby had no gas-lights; when the mail drove up dusty or bespattered to the door of the Red Lion; when old Mr. Crewe, the curate, in a brown Brutus wig, delivered inaudible sermons on a Sunday, and on a week-day imparted the education of a gentlemanÑthat is to say, an arduous inacquaintance with Latin through the medium of the Eton GrammarÑto three pupils in the upper grammar-school.

If you had passed through Milby on the coach at that time, you would have had no idea what important people lived there, and how very high a sense of rank was prevalent among them. It was a dingy-looking town, with a strong smell of tanning up one street and a great shaking of hand-looms up another ….

Without prompting by George Eliot, I would have ventured that the most important changes to come to a place like Milby in the years between 1800 and 1850 were (1) the revolution in transportation and communications wrought by the railroads and the telegraph; (2) the improvements in standards of living owing to the advent of industrialization and freer trade; and (3) the equalization of personal life by the spread of voting rights and the cluster of political reforms that together made England a less oligarchic place.

But notice what she emphasizes! Yes, she mentions the trains, and better mails, and better roads. But where she lays most emphasis is the reduction in alcohol consumption, improvements in education, and generally more refined standards of personal behavior. In short, while most students of history would regard the most important event of the first half of the 19th century as the constellation of technological breakthroughs summed up by the inadequate phrase, “the Industrial Revolution”; for Eliot, who grew up in a place very like Milby, the revolution of her times was most fundamentally moral. And its driving force was not steam or electricity, but a more intense, more immediate, and more commanding form of religion: evangelical Anglicanism.

From the Restoration of 1660 until the early 19th century, the British State had offered semi-toleration to radical forms of Protestantism outside the Church of England. In Scotland, indeed, these radical Protestants constituted the national church. In England, these “Dissenters” played a disproportionate role in economic life – as names like eg Cadbury and Wedgewood remind us. But they were excluded from political life, barred from Parliament, excluded from the two national universities, and generally looked down upon by the governing elite.

Yet the line between “Dissent” and the national church was ultimately a political one, not a religious one. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, lived and died within the Church of England. And though his movement too ended as a form of “Dissent,” the revolution he triggered reverberated within the established Church. By the 1830s and 1840s, evangelicals were claiming to be the truest Anglicans. This claim irritated many more traditional latitudinarian Anglicans – and by the way fascinated and inspired much of 19th century English literature. Trollope despised the new evangelical parsons – and devoted one of his funniest novels, Barchester Towers, to lampooning them as clammy-handed, manipulative hypocrites.

Dickens did not care for them either, although I think his most vicious portrait, Mr. Chadband in Bleak House, was a Dissenter, rather than an evangelical within the Church.

“My friends,” says [Mr Chadband], “what is this which we now behold as being spread before us? Refreshment. Do we need refreshment then, my friends? We do. And why do we need refreshment, my friends? Because we are but mortal, because we are but sinful, because we are but of the earth, because we are not of the air. Can we fly, my friends? We cannot. Why can we not fly, my friends?”

Mr Snagsby, presuming on the success of his last point, ventures to observe in a cheerful and rather knowing tone, “No wings.” But, is immediately frowned down by Mrs Snagsby.

“I say, my friends,” pursues Mr Chadband, utterly rejecting and obliterating Mr Snagsby’s suggestion, “why can we not fly? Is it because we are calculated to walk? It is. Could we walk, my friends, without strength? We could not. What should we do without strength, my friends? Our legs would refuse to bear us, our knees would double up, our ankles would turn over, and we should come to the ground. Then from whence, my friends, in a human point of view, do we derive the strength that is necessary to our limbs? Is it,” says Chadband, glancing over the table, “from bread in various forms, from butter which is churned from the milk which is yielded unto us by the cow, from the eggs which are laid by the fowl, from ham, from tongue, from sausage, and from such like? It is. Then let us partake of the good things which are set before us!

George Eliot takes a very different and much more philosophical view. She is alive for all the potential for absurdity and hypocrisy within the new evangelical movement. Yet the hero of her third “clerical” story is an evangelical clergyman depicted as sensitive, principled, brave, and (in a stroke calculated to allay her readers’ prejudices) gentlemanly.

The clergyman, Mr Tryan, has a terrible secret on his conscience. As a young man, he became involved in a love affair with a girl from a lower social class. He could not marry her – and left her unable to marry anybody else. She turned to prostitution and then suicide. He was one of those who found her body in the river. From that experience he turned to intense, self-denying religion.

When we meet him, Mr Tryan is dying from tuberculosis. But he is given time to save the “Janet” named in the title – a woman driven to alcoholism by a brutal husband – and (we are to understand) himself. Along the way, he brings change to the entire once sluggish village.

Evangelicalism was making its way in Milby, and gradually diffusing its subtle odour into chambers that were bolted and barred against it. The movement, like all other religious ‘revivals’, had a mixed effect. Religious ideas have the fate of melodies, which, once set afloat in the world, are taken up by all sorts of instruments, some of them woefully coarse, feeble, or out of tune, until people are in danger of crying out that the melody itself is detestable. It may be that some of Mr. Tryan’s hearers had gained a religious vocabulary rather than religious experience; that here and there a weaver’s wife, who, a few months before, had been simply a silly slattern, was converted into that more complex nuisance, a silly and sanctimonious slattern; that the old Adam, with the pertinacity of middle age, continued to tell fibs behind the counter, notwithstanding the new Adam’s addiction to Bible-reading and family prayer: that the children in the Paddiford Sunday school had their memories crammed with phrases about the blood of cleansing, imputed righteousness, and justification by faith alone, which an experience lying principally in chuck-farthing, hop-scotch, parental slappings, and longings after unattainable lollypop, served rather to darken than to illustrate; and that at Milby, in those distant days, as in all other times and places where the mental atmosphere is changing, and men are inhaling the stimulus of new ideas, folly often mistook itself for wisdom, ignorance gave itself airs of knowledge, and selfishness, turning its eyes upward, called itself religion.

Nevertheless, Evangelicalism had brought into palpable existence and operation in Milby society that idea of duty, that recognition of something to be lived for beyond the mere satisfaction of self, which is to the moral life what the addition of a great central ganglion is to animal life. No man can begin to mould himself on a faith or an idea without rising to a higher order of experience: a principle of subordination, of self-mastery, has been introduced into his nature; he is no longer a mere bundle of impressions, desires, and impulses.

Whatever might be the weaknesses of the ladies who pruned the luxuriance of their lace and ribbons, cut out garments for the poor, distributed tracts, quoted Scripture, and defined the true Gospel, they had learned thisÑthat there was a divine work to be done in life, a rule of goodness higher than the opinion of their neighbours; and if the notion of a heaven in reserve for themselves was a little too prominent, yet the theory of fitness for that heaven consisted in purity of heart, in Christ-like compassion, in the subduing of selfish desires. They might give the name of piety to much that was only puritanic egoism; they might call many things sin that were not sin; but they had at least the feeling that sin was to be avoided and resisted, and colour-blindness, which may mistake drab for scarlet, is better than total blindness, which sees no distinction of colour at all.

Mary Ann Evans grew up in an Evangelical milieu herself. And though in later life, she lost much of her early religious faith, she never lost sight of its merits or its power – powers over the characters she summoned to life, power over the rural society she recorded as it faded away. And if she leaves her admirers with a feeling of greater thought and depth than that of so many of her more immediately attractive contemporaries, it is precisely because she never ceased to care about the great spiritual questions that had set her mind on its astounding way.

The intellectual and moral awakening Eliot describes in Scenes of Clerical Life was the awakening not only of small town England to a new variety of religious experience, but of her own mind to the complexities and anguish of human life. And if you can accustom yourself to Eliot’s wordiness and forgive her sometimes contrived plots, her awakenings may spark some of your own as well.

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