Thursday, March 03, 2016

George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life (1857)

Caterina and Gilfil

[Image source: . A still from the British silent movie "Mr Gilfil's Love Story" (1920), starring Robert Henderson Bland as Maynard Gilfil and Mary Odette as Caterina.]

Shepperton Church was a very different-looking building five-and-twenty years ago. To be sure, its substantial stone tower looks at you through its intelligent eye, the clock, with the friendly expression of former days; but in everything else what changes! Now there is a wide span of slated roof flanking the old steeple; the windows are tall and symmetrical; the outer doors are resplendent with oak-graining, the inner doors reverentially noiseless with a garment of red baize; and the walls, you are convinced, no lichen will ever again effect a settlement on—they are smooth and innutrient as the summit of the Rev. Amos Barton's head, after ten years of baldness and supererogatory soap.

These are the opening words, and they make me immediately want to go back, for the third time, to Bruce Pirie's wonderful reading.


At university I raced through English Literature; I read two or three, perhaps four, George Eliot novels, but she was an author I never much took to; I was far too young and untouched by life.  I knew about her reputation, then Scrutinistically high; I, however, was an ardent  Dickens fan and I made all the comparisons in his favour.

But Dickens himself instantly recognized the remarkable qualities of Scenes of Clerical Life. 

I have been so strongly affected by the two first tales in the book you have had the kindness to send me, through Messrs. Blackwood, that I hope you will excuse my writing to you to express my admiration of their extraordinary merit. The exquisite truth and delicacy both of the humour and the pathos of these stories, I have never seen the like of; and they have impressed me in a manner that I should find it very difficult to describe to you if I had the impertinence to try. In addressing these few words of thankfulness to the creator of the Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton, and the sad love-story of Mr. Gilfil, I am (I presume) bound to adopt the name that it pleases that excellent writer to assume. I can suggest no better one: but I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman. I have observed what seemed to me such womanly touches in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself mentally so like a woman since the world began.

[I'm not sure what I think about Dickens' gender-hunting... at least, I'm quite sure I wouldn't indulge in that sort of speculation in a letter to a stranger... but his moral certainty that the author was a woman is interesting. He had an unparallelled sensitivity to the different forms of thinking and language used by different parts of society.  Four years previously he had triumphantly carried off the narrative of Esther Summerson in Bleak House, but evidently he had learnt the limits of impersonation.]

Anyway, these days I'm more grown-up, apparently. At any rate my youthful indifference to Eliot's books is belatedly transforming into admiration and attachment. She, along with Tolstoy, is someone I now anticipate spending a lot more time with.

Virginia Woolf's parenthetical remark was this: "...Middlemarch, the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." (TLS, November 1919.)

What did Woolf mean by "grown-up"? Maybe there's a trace of Woolf-family snobbery about pronouncing so confidently on what is or isn't grown-up. I think there is. And the parenthesis takes place within a larger argument about how George Eliot's necessary social isolation, once she was living with G.H. Lewes, enforced the cultivation of hallucinatory memories of her Midland youth - with unforgettable results of course - but prevented her from realizing and still less from portraying realistically fit futures for her constrained and aspirational heroines. Ruling-class futures, you might say. Implying that the emancipated yet socially presentable Bloomsbury set had ascended to a higher evolutionary level; they could and should write better novels as a result.

Or she might have meant intellect; the intellect that Mary Ann Evans possessed in an exceptional degree, and which has sometimes cooled praise of her work, as if intelligence was somehow a bad thing for a novelist to have too much of. (Especially, maybe, a woman novelist?)

Or she might have meant the novels' commitment to the hard truths that grown-ups really believe: that fairy-tales are fantasies, that life isn't full of happy endings, that happiness flits across us and keeps on going, that people become ill or aged or silly or die, that goodness doesn't confer immunity, that most people do their best and it isn't enough, that sometimes love turns to hate and that people usually don't change for the better.

Or she might have meant a committed engagement with grown-up and serious subjects: faith, tolerance, the right way to live, psychology and society.

Or maybe she meant something like hard-won wisdom, something like the deep experience of suffering that in the end brings together Mr Tryan and Janet Dempster in "Janet's Repentance".

When Janet left the grave, she did not return to Holly Mount; she went to her home in Orchard Street, where her mother was waiting to receive her. She said quite calmly, 'Let us walk round the garden, mother.' And they walked round in silence, with their hands clasped together, looking at the golden crocuses bright in the spring sunshine. Janet felt a deep stillness within. She thirsted for no pleasure; she craved no worldly good. She saw the years to come stretch before her like an autumn afternoon, filled with resigned memory. Life to her could never more have any eagerness; it was a solemn service of gratitude and patient effort. She walked in the presence of unseen witnesses—of the Divine love that had rescued her, of the human love that waited for its eternal repose until it had seen her endure to the end.

Not, perhaps, that Mary Ann Evans then knew what Janet Dempster knew. But she knew of it, and could write it.


Dickens (in the passage given above) rightly admired the humour of Eliot's stories. The opening pages of "The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton" are full of this quiet and delectable humour. The ponderous title, too, suggests (against its plain meaning) that the reader can look forward to a jocular performance, which makes the story that follows all the more poignant.


In "Mr Gilfil's Love Story", neither the author nor any of the characters seem especially bothered about how Miss Assher might take her fiancé's death.

While Mr. Gilfil was telling Warren how it would be best to break the news to Lady Cheverel and Miss Assher, anxious himself to return to Caterina.....

In the story, the only people whose reactions matter are Caterina and Sir Chrristopher. I don't pretend, of course, that Miss Assher makes a pleasant impression on us.


An internet search turned up this, some helpful thoughts by Rohan Maitzen on "Janet's Repentance":

Maitzen notes that, in this story, the consolations of Christianity are not replaced by mere human relations. That's true. A pious reader could read it without strain as a pious tale. Yet Eliot makes it clear that in the end the consoling power of Mr Tryan depends on purely human factors, e.g his own experience of terrible guilt and his effort to atone for it.

It is strange that the brutal lawyer and the lovable priest should both, in their different ways, have been guilty of crimes towards women.

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