Returning to my safe space of the nineteenth century after a spell of modern reads felt like arriving home to a full kettle and well-stocked biscuit tin after a (stimulating) walk in the cold. George Eliot’s flowing prose, powerful storylines, insightful reflection, and rich complex characters lulled me, and I found myself intrigued and invested in this meandering study of rural life within the first few pages.
And as it progressed, I could only fall more deeply in love. What struck me was that this, in contrast to expectations raised by the title, is a book about its women. Adam Bede is certainly a hero, but this isn’t his story, and I can’t help but speculate that this disparity between title and emotional focal point has something to do with the prevailing tastes of a nineteenth-century reading public, as calculated by a woman who already felt compelled to use a male pseudonym in order to be taken seriously on the literary stage.
The book’s charm, and heart-swelling power, is in the stories of two very different women who, in a Middlemarch-esque intertwining of fates and concerns, are brought together at the novel’s emotional climax to create a force of sympathy, yearning, and heartbreak rarely paralleled in my reading experience. Eliot’s exploration of women’s experience in Hetty Sorrel, of whom, she confesses, ‘it is too painful to think that she is a woman, with a woman’s destiny before her’ is on par with Hardy’s in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and the might of the plot into which she weaves it gives it equal (if not greater) tragedy. As in Middlemarch, Eliot’s balance of stories, her holding of several strong and interesting characters’ feelings and fates in masterful suspension is what makes Adam Bede a stunning novel, and Eliot a superb novelist.
The magnitude of its plot is dramatic, staggering, but the whole remains effortlessly grounded in realities of human interaction and experience. I can’t articulate its emotional force, except by quoting the following, which may mean little without the 500 pages or so which precede it, but which acts for me like the guitar riff in that favourite song which thrills every time, which actually seems to move something inside you:
The two pale faces were looking at each other: one with a wild hard despair in it, the other full of sad, yearning love. Dinah unconsciously opened her arms and stretched them out.
The feeling that my heart was bursting its seams with sympathy and breaking all at once, the sigh and pause which this sentence (at the novel’s emotional and dramatic climax) provoked, wins Adam Bede the place in my esteem of only my most very beloved books – not even all of Austen or Charlotte Brontë’s titles make it there.
As always, Eliot is interested in the interesting, the unique, the complex. Her female characters characteristically endure as heroines with a difference, and with a message. Dinah, like Dorothea Brooke, is captivating, strong, talented, compassionate, and independent. In her ostensible meekness she is admirable in a way which seems to contrast, for example, Brontë’s feisty heroines, but which is in reality of very similar substance.
She acts as a foil for Hetty, perhaps a more typical heroine, but the two offset each other in far more complex ways than, say, Lizzie and Jane Bennet, or Jane Eyre and Blanche Ingram: Eliot intertwines their emotional journeys and asks us to consider each comparatively, but, I’d suggest, without making relative value judgements. Rather, though we’re more inclined to hold Dinah in reverential esteem, the unconditional love and sympathy which she (in stark contrast to the rest of society) heaps on Hetty is a forceful critique of the sparsity of options and opportunity which society provides for those women who aren’t goddesses.
Mrs Poyser, too, is as splendidly-drawn as any comic Austen villain, and is a fantastic representative of her sex – for we feel her to be intensely real, and only wish that such a figure existed in our own lives. Practical, competent, and not afraid to speak her mind to her ‘betters’, she provides much of the light-hearted spine of the novel, and is rewarded with a jolly husband who recognises her worth and superiority.
But, in what fundamentally differentiates Eliot from the likes of Austen and Brontë, she always takes a step back. Her omniscient narration would be mischaracterised as distance; what sometimes looks like outer description, if my heart-pangs are anything to go by, is profoundly detailed emotional exploration – but there are crucial moments where we are denied this insight and find ourselves forced to watch from a perspective which we know to be lacking in understanding or perception. Often, intriguingly, this limited insight belongs to our hero, which is possibly a subversive assertion of men’s fundamental oblivion to and reduction of women in patriarchal societies. Eliot definitely uses her beautifully-drawn and unique characters as starting points for wider philosophical reflection, which necessarily requires a removed consideration, but this doesn’t mean that their emotional resonance and our ability to engage with them as plausible representations of humanity in the first instance is at all comprised.
As the introduction to the Wordsworth Classic edition asserts, ‘she is the omniscient narrator who keeps readers at a distance from her characters, controlling reaction and interpretation with her own illuminating intelligence’. From that distance, though, she sits by us, holding binoculars to our eyes and carefully pointing to the sights of note, gently adjusting the focus and angle without ever pulling them away completely. Manipulation? Intense, prescriptive control of our emotional response? Sure it is. Powerful, heart-swelling, draining, and rewarding nonetheless? Worth relinquishing the freedom to opt out of intense emotional investment? Certainly.