Monday, 22 June 2009

Adam Bede by George Eliot

This isn't going to read much like my other book reviews, since George Eliot is so well established as a 'classic' author that only quite personal reflections on the novel can really add anything new.

I first read Adam Bede when I was preparing for my first year at university. It was one of a long list of weighty Victorian novels, and the list also included Bleak House and Middlemarch, as well as The Mill on the Floss and Great Expectations, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. In such star-studded company, Adam Bede didn't exactly stand out from the crowd. Still, it was the first written of the three Eliots on the list, and so the one I read first.

The book revolves around four characters, principally: Adam himself, a fairly obvious cipher for Jesus, since he's a straightforward, self-improving and eloquent carpenter. Then there's Hetty Sorrell, the girl he's loved for years, despite the fact that she's vain and self-centred, to which Adam is blind. Thirdly, we have Arthur Dunnithorne, the squire, who falls quite under Hetty's spell, and manages to seduce her. Finally, there's Dinah Morris, a Methodist preacher, who is plain but forthright and impossibly good-hearted, who is Hetty's cousin.

The drama of the plot doesn't really kick off until about halfway through the book, so one has to plough through an awful lot of description, characterisation and Christian doctrine. This is wonderful if you love Eliot, which I do - and I found the religious stuff particularly inspiring since I lost a relative around the same time - but it is quite dense, so people in search of a light read should stay away. Eliot captures the small-town attitude, quick to judge, sometimes happy to forgive but never to forget, perfectly, as well as - and I think this is a quality of Eliot that is often overlooked - managing to be very witty and amusing.

You can't help but love Adam, since he comes across exactly as a bumbling man in his mid-twenties might in a modern novel: frustrated but affectionate with his mother and brother, susceptible to irrational and largely appearance-based attachments, yet highly moralistic. I don't know how popular Dinah would be, since she is pretty damn well perfect and readers tend not to like these kinds of characters, but I thought she was marvellous, the kind of character that makes you see how much your own personality is wanting of essential kindness.

The most interesting character is probably Arthur, who does not lack this kindness by any means, but surrounds it with rashness and a propensity to care too much what people think of him. There is a particularly deft scene where Arthur nearly confesses to his vicar that he has been playing with Hetty's heart, but at the moment when he is about to unburden himself, the clergyman changes the subject and the opportunity is, for Arthur, lost. This is exactly how conversation works today, and it seems both marvellous and unsurprising that so little has changed over the years.

I was also struck by the fact that Hetty and Arthur's dalliance turns out to have gone much further, in physical terms, than we are led to believe (Eliot, of course, embraces the Victorian delicacy which consists not so much in euphemisms but in complete silence. Bring on the feminist critics.). They tend to meet in a wood, and Eliot is quick to capitalise on the inherent mystery of events that disappear into the trees and reemerge at some point later. If someone you know spends a great chunk of time elsewhere, it is impossible to calculate their movements accurately enough to know what they have been doing the whole time - and, consequently, easy to slip in a little illicit activity.

Rereading Adam Bede, much more slowly than the first time round, makes you able to appreciate how sleepy the first half is, and therefore how great a shock to the system the quick-moving crisis of Hetty's unplanned pregnancy and flight, and subsequent disasters, are. It is a long book, facts is facts: my Penguin classics has fairly small font and still runs to 540-odd pages. But it is a book that rewards patience, as few seem to nowadays. My former tutor edited the Oxford edition once; no doubt he will agree with me. If you like being in for the long haul, there are few better places to go than a Victorian tome, and I will always hold a peculiar affection for Adam Bede.

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