“Hailed for its sympathetic and accurate rendering of nineteenth-century English pastoral life, Adam Bede was George Eliot’s first full-length novel and a bestseller from the moment of publication. Eliot herself called it ‘a country story – full of the breath of cows and scent of hay.’” Yet, it can be hard medicine to take for a modern reader. The omniscient narrator always pulling at the edges of the story may well irritate the reader, or cause the reader to ask: who is it who’s rendering this faithful account? And what’s their game? Moralizing in a novel, no matter how reasonable and restrained, will stuck in the modern reader’s craw.
The control of the prose, particularly in descriptions of nature, is impressive. Eliot goes on to be an undoubted master of the novel form, and the restrained yet eloquent prose of the English novel’s heyday; in ‘Adam Bede’ Eliot’s skill is clear and a joy to read.
The story… “In the early days of the Napoleonic Wars, Adam Bede is hardworking carpenter with enormous physical strength and considerable force of will. But Adam has a single flaw, his blind love of Hetty Sorrel, a vain, shallow dairymaid who spurns Adam but is easily seduced by the local squire. The bitter and tragic consequences of her actions shake the very foundations of their serene rural community.”
So, if Adam Bede “represents a timeless story of seduction and betrayal,” and it is also “a deeper, impassioned meditation on the irrevocable consequences of human actions and on moral growth and redemption through suffering,” can the modern reader walk away from it a changed person? A better person?
Not Eliot’s best (that would be ‘Middlemarch’), but an interesting juncture in the history of the novel, as well as a master-class in mid-nineteenth century realist prose.
…and, on realism…
Realism and research in Adam Bede (The novel 1832 – 1880) by Rohan Maitzen
In Adam Bede, George Eliot sets out her commitment to realism as a literary genre – a commitment she would continue to develop over the course of her career. Dr Rohan Maitzen explains how detailed research and Eliot’s own experience fed into the realist project, enabling her to express her beliefs about religion, sympathy and understanding.
Adam Bede (1859) was George Eliot’s first full-length novel but not her first fiction: that distinction goes to Scenes of Clerical Life, a collection of three novellas published in 1856. By that time Eliot had established herself as an editor, essayist, and reviewer, but though, as she later reflected, ‘it had always been a vague dream of mine that some time or other I might write a novel,’ she feared she was ‘deficient in dramatic power’. Adam Bede’s gripping story of seduction and infanticide proved Eliot had no need to worry – and while Scenes of Clerical Life had been well-received, it was Adam Bede that became a bestseller.
George Eliot’s realism
Adam Bede is an early example of the realism for which George Eliot became celebrated. The exact meaning of ‘realism’, however, has been much debated. In an essay on the artist and critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), Eliot herself defined realism as ‘the doctrine that all truth and beauty are to be attained by a humble and faithful study of nature.’ To her, realism did not mean a naïve belief that writing can transparently represent the real world, but the conviction that writing should not falsify or romanticise it. Eliot regarded realism as a moral choice, as well as an aesthetic one; as she explains in her essay ‘The Natural History of German Life’ (1856), ‘Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.’
In her essay ‘The Natural History of German Life’, George Eliot suggests that the purpose of literature is to expand readers’ moral sympathies and imaginations.
In Chapter 17 of Adam Bede, Eliot pauses her unfolding story to expand on this principle, urging artists not to focus only on ‘divine beauty of form’ but to ‘give the loving pains of a life to the faithful representing of commonplace things’, so as to help us all learn to accept and sympathise with our ‘fellow-mortals, every one . . . as they are.’ Because for Eliot realism is a philosophy rather than a literary style, it is compatible with this kind of metafictional interruption. Indeed, by prompting us to think about how a novel is written, rather than immersing us in its illusions, narrative intrusions can enhance the realistic effect. Adam Bede opens with just such a moment: ‘With this drop of ink at the end of my pen,’ says the narrator,
“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.”
The specificity of that date points to another important dimension of Eliot’s realism: giving a ‘faithful account’ includes paying scrupulous attention to contexts and settings, especially historical backgrounds. Though for some aspects of Adam Bede, such as the landscape and local dialects of the Midlands, Eliot could draw on her own childhood memories, she also (as scholar Joseph Wiesenfarth has documented) took research notes on late 18th-century fashion, on details of the weather in 1799 (‘August seems to have been a rainy month’), and on national and international events, including the publication of Wordsworth’s first volume of poetry, the building of Joseph Arkwright’s spinning mill and the death of George Washington. She immersed herself in the culture and practices of rural life, reading agricultural texts such as The Book of the Farm and A Six Month Tour through the North of England, as well as issues of the Gentleman’s Magazine from 1799 to 1801. The January 1799 issue of this publication contained a description of the 21st birthday celebrations of the Duke of Rutland, which Eliot used as the inspiration for Arthur Donnithorne’s Birthday Feast. From A Six Month Tour, she copied into her notebook that ‘all [in the north of England] drink tea’ – and she used that detail in Adam Bede. Eliot’s research had a greater purpose than simple accuracy: she believed that only through a rich understanding of their actual conditions (including the history that led to them) could people work effectively — realistically — for social or political change.