Charles Petzold

1859 Books: George Eliot’s “Adam Bede”

February 1, 2009
New York, N.Y.

The 19th century was a time of exciting scientific discoveries and breakthroughs. In the early part of the century, and particularly in Great Britain, these discoveries occurred within the context of strong religious belief, and were even prompted and guided by the old tradition of natural theology — the idea that the natural world reflected the attributes of its divine Creator.

Through the course of the 19th century, however, Belief gave way to Doubt, leading to an understanding of the natural workings of the world apart from supernatural intervention. In the intellectual history of Victorian England, one pivotal year in this process seems to be 1859, the sesquicentennial of which I am celebrating.

Taken solely by itself, George Eliot's first novel, Adam Bede, published 150 years ago today on February 1, 1859 (the original edition of which is viewable on Google Book Search, Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3) would not seem to fit into the concept.

Adam Bede begins in the summer of 1799 and ends a few years later. The plot that drives the book is a basic love triangle: Adam Bede (a carpenter) and Arthur Dinnithorne (who is in line to inherit a large estate and is currently a Captain in the military) have been friends since boyhood. Unknown to each other, both are in love with Hetty Sorrel, a 17-year old orphan who works on a dairy farm run by her uncle and aunt. Of the two men, Hetty favors the sophistication and wealth of Arthur, but due to class differences there can be no chance of a marriage between them. Events take a tragic turn when Arthur seduces Hetty (in a scene we don't see) and she later discovers she is pregnant, communicated to the reader in the author's necessarily circumspect language, "All the force of her nature had been concentrated on the one effort of concealment, and she had shrunk with irresistible dread from every course that could tend towards a betrayal of her miserable secret." (ch. 35)

Until Hetty's frantic reaction to her situation takes over the novel, the dominant impact of Adam Bede is that of an extremely realistic portrayal of working-class England in the rural Midlands. The novel abounds with long descriptions, meticulous detail, and hard-working characters who only occassionally pause for relaxation. Their speech is captured in rough dialect, enlivened with the homey aphorisms of Mrs. Poyser (Hetty's aunt). People are what they do: Adam the carpenter is strong, sturdy, and upright. Hetty, introduced in an extraordinary scene in the dairy (ch. 7), seems as pliable as the butter she is making. Arthur, the military man, becomes a predator.

The other main character in Adam Bede is Dinah Morris, a Methodist preacher. (Until 1803, the Methodists allowed women to preach in public.) She makes her dramatic entrance in the second chapter, preaching outdoors to the faithful and the merely curious, and George Eliot includes a large part of Dinah's compassionate, charismatic, captivating sermon.

Dinah Morris floats in and out of the novel. Adam's brother Seth is in love with her, but she feels that marriage is not in God's plans. When Adam and Seth's father dies while staggering home drunk from a tavern and falling in a river, Dinah comes to their home to comfort their mother. Dinah shows up most significantly in the climax of the novel in Chapter 45, where she visits Hetty in prison to comfort her in her final hours.

The portrayal of Methodist preacher Dinah Morris is so accurate and so sympathetic in Adam Bede that it's easy to assume that the novel's author must have been an extremely devout Christian of evangelical leanings.

But that was not the case.

The author known to the world as George Eliot was born on November 22, 1819, and baptized as Mary Anne Evans, the first of many names should would have. (Dropping the 'e' at the end of her middle name was the first change.) Following the influence of some evangelical teachers and a Methodist aunt, Mary Ann had a period of very strong faith in her early teenage years, but by about the age of 20, that was mostly gone, partly as a result of extensive reading in philosophy and the sciences. She was apparently quite familiar with Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, for example, the extremely influential book published in three volumes in the early 1930s that persuasively argued for a long age of the Earth and which persuaded Charles Darwin to think in terms of long natural processes.

In early 1842, at the age of 22, Mary Ann Evans proclaimed a "holy war" by announcing to her family that she would no longer go to church. Her father was particularly upset by this development, but not primarily for fear of her immortal soul. He feared instead that by not going to church she would no longer have the social opportunities to meet a husband and be married and no longer be a financial burden. In a famous letter of February 28, 1842, to her father, she wrote,

One friend sent a Baptist minister over to her house with some recommended books to try to talk some sense into her. The books were no help. She had read those books already, and knew exactly what was wrong with them.

In England, the Evangelical tradition had origins in the Puritans and other sects of the 17th century, but in the late 18th century it had become a strong current within the Church of England itself and appealing most to the middle classes. The Methodists had found it necessary to split off from the Church of England, even though in doing so they would be forced to suffer the same legal restrictions as the Baptists, Quakers, and other "dissenting" sects.

In a sense, by focusing attention on Jesus the person, Evangelicalism sows the seeds of its own theological destruction. The historical Jesus barely exists outside the Gospels, and the Gospels seem not to be contemporaneous with his ministry. Where do these Gospels (and the rest of the Bible) come from? Can their origins be analyzed historically? Can the historical veracity of the texts then be considered? This was the task taken on by German scholars of the late 18th and early 19the centuries, which came to be known as the "higher criticism."

What began as theological and Biblical scholarship led to an an extremely influential book, Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet‎ ("The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined," 1835-6) by David Friedrich Strauss. In almost 1,500 pages spread over two volumes, Strauss finds very little evidence that anything in the Gospels ever took place. He is extremely skeptical about the miracles, has doubts about the historic plausibility of the rest, and concludes that the Gospels are of mythological origins.

When Mary Ann Evans left her father's house in her early 20s, she befriended a group of like-minded skeptics and intellectuals, and in early 1844, had an opportunity to translate Das Leben Jesu into English. She spent a grueling two years translating Strauss (including many quotations in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew), becoming what she called "Strauss-sick" in a daily struggle with Strauss's relentless dissection and destruction of every Christian concept that had nurtured her early life and, indeed, the past 18 centuries of Western Civilization.

(Years later, this familiarity with German higher criticism became a hidden joke behind a pivotal scene in George Eliot's 1872 novel Middlemarch, the action of which begins in 1829. Dorothea Brooke's much older husband, Rev. Edward Casaubon, has spent many years researching a large book he calls "Key to all Mythologies." Instead of presciently writing The Golden Bough, however, Casaubon intends to show "that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed" (ch 3) — in other words, that all myths derive from revealed truths chronicled in the Old Testament. Even contemporary readers of Middlemarch would have realized how backward and doomed to failure this approach was, but the only person in the novel who seems to have any insights is Casaubon's cousin Will, who tells Dorothea "If Mr Casaubon read German he would save himself a great deal of trouble.... the Germans have taken the lead in historical inquiries, and they laugh at results which are got by groping about in woods with a pocket-compass while they have made good roads. When I was with Mr Casaubon I saw that he deafened himself in that direction: it was almost against his will that he read a Latin treatise written by a German. I was very sorry." This is Dorothea's first hint that her new husband is not the brilliant scholar she had thought.)

Mary Ann Evans' translation of The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined was published in 1846, and is available on Google Book Search, Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3, but as you can see, her name does not appear on the title page or anywhere else in the book. She was paid £20 for her two years of labor.

However, there were some side benefits. The translation brought Mary Ann Evans to the attention of John Chapman, the book's publisher, who would much later on to publish all of her novels except one. She moved to London to pursue a career in journalism and decided that she would be known not as Mary Ann but as Marian Evans. In 1851, Chapman gave her the opportunity to revive a once-proud quarterly, the Westminster Review, originally founded by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill in 1823. Of course, it was important not to let anyone outside the magazine know that a woman was running it.

In 1854, another book that Marian Evans translated from the German was published, this one of the much shorter Das Wesen des Christentums ("Essence of Christianity," 1841), Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach's attempt to salvage Christianity in a post-Strauss world, in which God is rediscovered as a symbol man's higher nature, his propensity to do good and to be virtuous and to find beauty in the world. In short, "Love is God himself, and apart from it there is no God" (p. 47) a simple concept that would become evident in the novels of George Eliot. The first edition of the translation is available from the Internet Archive. The title page reads "Translated from the Second German Edition, by Marian Evans, Translator of 'Strauss's Life of Jesus'."

In 1854, Marian Evans also made the decision that would blacken her name in the eyes of Victorian society. In some earlier romantic attachments Marian had been rejected solely on the basis of her physical appearance, but now she had fallen in love with writer, biographer, philosopher, and aspiring scientist George Henry Lewes, and the feeling was mutual. Lewes, however, was married, and he could not get a divorce for technical reasons: Although Lewes's wife had an affair that led to the birth of a son, Lewes allowed the boy to be registered as his own son, thereby relinquishing any rights to sue for divorce.

Marian Evans and George Henry Lewes moved in together in a relationship they considered to be a marriage but nobody else did. (They were together for 24 years until Lewes's death in 1878.) Marian requested that her friends now refer to her as Marian Evans Lewes or Mrs. Lewes. Lewes himself called her "Polly." But the couple could not be seen in public together. By the odd conventions of Victorian propriety, they could be visited at their home by men, but not by their guests' wives.

Meanwhile, Marian Evans honed the wit and raw power of her writing in still highly readable essays such as "Evangelical Teaching: Dr Cumming" (1855), a devastating attack on the published sermons of Dr. John Cumming, minister of the Scottish National Church in Convent Garden, and "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" (1856) attacking the popular romance novels of the time.

The year 1856 was also the year Marian Evans, now in her mid-30s, began seriously to write fiction. In religious matters she was by this time almost certainly an agnostic (although the word wouldn't be coined until 1869), but she continued to be fascinated by the Midlands rural envionment in which she had been raised, and the Evangelical milieu familiar from her childhood. She wrote first three novellas (published in installments in the January through November 1857 issues of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine) under the collective title Scenes of Clerical Life.

When it came time to publish these three stories as a book, Marian Evans, George Henry Lewes, and John Chapman decided on a pseudonym, partly because Marian Evans didn't want the possibility of failure with fiction to interfere with her journlism career, partly because the name of Marian Evans was now tainted with scandal, and partly because she wanted to avoid being lumped in with the other Lady Novelists she had just recently skewered.

George Eliot was born in the first edition of Scenes of Clerical Life (available on Google Book Search, Volume 1 and Volume 2), and even when her identity became known a few years later, Marian Evans continued to publish novels under that name. As Kathryn Hughes notes using concepts familiar to modern readers,

Adam Bede was George Eliot's first real novel. As in all her novels, the author clearly recognizes that people are "spiritually a-hungered" (Middlemarch, ch. 29) but she handles the religious aspects of Adam Beded in a slyly subversive manner. The opening scene of Adam in the carpentry shop seems reminiscent of John Everett Millais' painting Christ in the House of his Parents (1850), rather notorious at the time for its rustic low-class setting. Much later, in Chapter 42, the Last Supper is re-enacted with a loaf of bread and a cup of wine. Both scenes serve to humanize Christian myth and remove the supernatural from them.

Adam Bede himself seems to have no recognizable religion: "His work, as you know, had always been part of his religion, and from very early days he saw clearly that good carpentry was God's will..." (ch. 50)

The spiritual leader of this little community is ostensibly the Reverand Adolphus Irwine. He is only one of two characters in the novel who have "white hands" that signify the avoidance of physical labor; the other is Arthur Donnithorne. Rev. Irwine lives well and leisurely, and he's not very theological.

George Eliot even puts words in the mouths of the novel's readers complaining "How much more edifying it would have been if you had made him give Arthur some truly spiritual advice. You might have put into his mouth the most beautiful things — quite as good as reading a sermon." (ch. 17) But that's not who Irwine is!

It is instead Dinah Morris who gets all the good sermons. George Eliot's completely sympathetic portrayal of Dinah came at a time when Methodists commonly figured in novels as targets of ridicule or sources of fear.

Yet, Dinah certainly performs no miracles, and what good she brings into the world is basic human comfort and compassion. Dinah courageously goes into Hetty's prison cell in a traditional Methodist appeal for confession, and Hetty confesses alright, but that's about it. No further magic happens. Hetty's actions are nothing like prison scenes common in Methodist literature, and certainly nothing like the popular description of the imprisonment and 1802 execution of Mary Voce that inspired this novel. George Eliot knew this literature, and she could have written a redemption scene for Hetty that would have satisfied even connoisseurs of extreme Dickensian sentimentality. But such a scene would have been an indulgent fantasy. No Methodist magic or author's magic would make Hetty react in the "proper" way.

And right about this place, the novel seems to run into a bit of a problem. The world is divided into two classes of people: Those who think that the ending of Adam Bede is right and proper, and those who feel the novel derails and becomes dishonest and false beginning with the last sentence of Chapter 47. I am in the latter class. I think the horrifying reality of Hetty's fate was too much for the novel's contemporaneous readers and even for the author. (The only compromise I would accept is for Chapter 47 to end as it does, but for Adam to do what Prince Nekhlyudov does at the end of Tolstoy's Resurrection.)

In George Eliot's moral universe, actions have consequences. Not because of fate, or karma, or divine retribution, but as a result of simple Newtonian mechanics. Hence, when something awful happens in one of her novels, it makes sense to examine where the characters went wrong. Surely Arthur Dinnithorne shouldn't have used his rank and privilege to lure Hetty into seduction. That we can all agree on. But Adam needed to be more involved. A more reticent courtship than the one he pursued seems hard to imagine.

I find it hard to blame Hetty, particularly with what we know today about such cases. In the context of the times, I suppose her big flaw was not knowing her place in the world, and how hopeless it was to try to escape upwards. But it's tough to stay focused on class boundaries when pretty things are dangled in front of your eyes by the village hunk. Surely a little more education would have helped Hetty, and the author agrees: "Hetty was quite uneducated — a simple farmer's girl, to whom a gentleman with a white hand was dazzling as an Olympian God." Yet, the local schoolteacher who helped Adam become educated is so misogynist that accepting Hetty as a student would have been inconceivable.

Even with her reputation for godlessness, and her scandalous living arrangements with a married man, George Eliot's novels were very successful. She became mainstream and popular, and people eventually assumed that the marriage thing was fixed somehow. Queen Victoria (who was born just six months earlier than George Eliot) let it be known that she was a big fan, and Victoria's daughters were eager to meet the famous author. Princess Louise spied her at a concert once and quickly sketched her profile on her program. (right)

Through her novels, George Eliot provided moral guidance in the newly godless world of 1859 and beyond. She reminded us that the truest religious sense is compassion and sympathy for others. The human bond is the strongest.

Gordon S. Haight, ed., Selections from George Eliot's Letters, Yale University Press, 1985.
Kathryn Hughes, George Eliot: The Last Victorian, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1998.
Bernard J. Paris, Experiments in Life: George Eliot's Quest for Values, Wayne State University Press, 1965.
Ruby V. Redinger, George Eliot: The Emergent Self, Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.
Neil Roberts, George Eliot: Her Beliefs and Her Art, Paul Elek, 1975.
A. N. Wilson, God's Funeral: A Biography of Faith and Doubt in Western Civilization, Ballentine Books, 2000.