“Adam Bede” by George Eliot

One comes to a novel by the author of Middlemarch with the highest of expectations, even when one knows that the novel is her first, and that the author may not, so early in her career, have completely mastered her craft, or be in full or even partial possession yet of a mature artistic vision.

Adam Bede is prefaced with a few lines by Wordsworth:

       … So that ye may have
Clear images before your gladden’d eyes
Of nature’s unambitious underwood
And flowers that prosper in the shade. And when
I speak of such among the flock that swerved
Or fell, those only shall be singled out
Upon whose lapse, or error, something more
Than brotherly forgiveness may attend.

The lines are from The Excursion – not admittedly one of Wordsworth’s better-known efforts – in which, at one point, a pastor tells of a young woman, now dead, who had been seduced and abandoned, and who is buried next to a baby to whom she had given birth in “distress and shame”. This is, one suspects, a somewhat familiar theme: it had occurred earlier, and more famously, in Wordsworth’s poem “The Thorn”, included in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads. In that poem, we are presented with a woman who is demented with guilt and grief, and who, it is implied, may have murdered her illegitimate child. Lyrical Ballads itself – published one year before the start of the story of Adam Bede – is explicitly mentioned in the novel: Arthur Donnithorne, the future squire, presents a volume to his godmother:

“I know you are fond of queer, wizard-like stories. It’s a volume of poems, ‘Lyrical Ballads’: most of them seem to be twaddling stuff; but the first is in a different style – ‘The Ancient Mariner’ is the title.”

The “twaddling stuff” refers presumably to the various poems of everyday rural lives, “nature’s unambitious underwood”, that was a favourite theme both of Wordsworth, and, under his direct influence, it seems, of George Eliot herself. It certainly includes “The Thorn”. It is clearly ironic that Arthur, more responsible than anyone else for the tragedy contained in this novel, should be so dismissive of such themes, and attracted more to stories such as “The Ancient Mariner”; but he is dismissive not out of cruelty or cold-heartedness, but out of an inability to see the significance of “nature’s unambitious underwood”. The role he plays in this novel is essentially that of the villain, the heartless squire who seduces and undoes a country wench, but that is not how he is presented: he is presented as an essentially decent fellow, whose crimes are the crimes of thoughtlessness rather than anything more sinister, and who, when he comes to understand the terrible consequences of what he has done, is capable of remorse and self-laceration. This is typical of what is essentially – despite the tragic story of Hetty Sorrel – a sunny novel: people here, whatever their foibles, are essentially decent and good-natured, and the rural community presented is essentially happy and harmonious. For all Wordsworth’s influence, this is not the rural world as presented by Wordsworth. Or, indeed, in a later generation, by Hardy.

For the tragic story of Hetty Sorrel is not really at the centre of the novel: it is, rather, a bit to one side. My edition of the novel has 612 pages, and, although a few seeds of the tragedy had been planted earlier, the tale of Hetty Sorrel really only takes off in the chapter entitled “A Crisis”, which begins on page 329. And the story comes to an end with some 70 or so pages of the novel still to go. The novel accommodates this tragic tale, but the tragic tale in itself is but an aspect of the novel: a very important aspect, admittedly, but by no means the only one. For what Eliot sets out to present is a community; and this she presents with a loving and explicitly stated nostalgia:

Surely all other leisure is hurry compared with a sunny walk through the fields from ‘afternoon church,’ – as such walks used to be in those old leisurely times, when the boat, gliding sleepily along the canal, was the newest locomotive wonder; when Sunday books had most of them old brown-leather covers, and opened with remarkable precision always in one place. Leisure is gone – gone where the spinning-wheels are gone, and the pack-horses, and the slow waggons, and the pedlars who brought bargains to the door on sunny afternoons. Ingenious philosophers tell you, perhaps, that the great work of the steam-engine is to create leisure for mankind. Do not believe them: it only creates a vacuum for eager thought to rush in. Even idleness is eager now – eager for amusement …

Modern taste, suspicious of and embarrassed about such matters, is likely to frown upon such sentiments, and, indeed, denounce them as mere “sentimentality”. But I suppose much depends on how one defines the term “sentimentality”. George Eliot herself displays no embarrassment: the world she presents may have its tragic elements, but oh! – it is so much nicer, so much more pleasant, more delightful, than the nasty world we live in now! And if that means looking back with, as they say, “rose-tinted spectacles”, what is wrong with that, she seems to ask, if doing so relieves some of the pressures of our own stressful lives?

The world she presents is certainly seen through various tints of rose. This is a world in which workhouses are mentioned, but not depicted; and neither are we allowed to see the vagrants, the starving, the elderly and the feeble, people living in the direst penury – all those characters who had populated Wordsworth’s poems. This is a world in which a farmer’s wife can stand up to the squire and not have to face consequences. This is a world where a simple farmer’s family may feed on roast beef and make gooseberry jam, and live a contented life. It is a world of regular communal gatherings, in which the entire community can get together joyously. Because, unlike our modern world, this world is inhabited by people who still form a community and who are not alienated one from another. It is a world in which the local minister of the church is a decent, kindly and tolerant man, with only his love of Aeschylus pointing to the possibility of darker shadows.

Of course, there is a very long tradition of nostalgia for a simpler past, a purer, more innocent life: the facts of the tremendous hardships of country life have never really shaken this tradition of the pastoral. And it is this tradition that Eliot clearly draws on, as well as from the greater awareness of human suffering that may be found in Wordsworth’s poems in Lyrical Ballads. If Adam Bede may be seen as a sort of balancing act between the two elements, then the balance is by no means unbiased: it seems to me clearly weighted towards the nostalgic, towards the loving evocation of a world of uncomplicated bucolic joys. Seen in this way, the final section of the novel need not be seen as flawed: Eliot has often been criticised for ignoring in this final section the tragedy she has earlier depicted, and showing life continuing as if nothing had happened. But if we see the novel as primarily a pastoral idyll, then this final section may be interpreted quite differently: it may be seen as a re-statement, a re-establishment, of the values of a simple life – a life that may be disrupted, but not fatally compromised, even by tragedy.

(Hardy, of course, despite his own obvious attachment to rural life, had a somewhat different take on this.)

The tragic story of Hetty has about it a feel of the traditional ballad. The virtuous maid undone by the lecherous squire is a hoary old cliché these days, and may have been a hoary old chiché even in the late 1850s when this novel was written. Even the infanticide, which may have shocked certain Victorian sensibilities, was not a new element: quite apart from Wordsworth’s poem “The Thorn”, it had cropped up in the First part of Goethe’s Faust (which George Eliot would certainly have known), and also, I gather, in Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, which I haven’t read, but in which, I gather, the story is given a happy ending. But it is perhaps best to regard this tragic story as an heir to the traditional ballad. After all, all the characters involved are all quite straight-forward: there’s no more to any of them than may be stated in few sentences at most, and none has the sort of hidden depth that a more artistically mature George Eliot would go on to explore in her later novels. Perhaps the most complex actor in the drama is Arthur Donnithorne, the seducer, but even he is relatively straightforward. The story is drawn in clear, firm lines: there isn’t really much scope here for fine shades and for nuance.

(The character of Eugene Wrayburn in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, written shortly after the publication of Adam Bede, is similar in many ways to Arthur Donnithorne, and is in a similar situation: he is attracted to a young lady who is well below his own social class, and finds himself confused by his own emotions. But Eugene Wrayburn seems to me to be characterised to considerably greater depth. It is, however, unfair to compare a creation from Dickens’ last finished novel to one from Eliot’s first.)

As for the rest, if nostalgic, bucolic pleasures are your kind of thing; if you can take a pace which, even by the standards of the Victorian novel, is very slow; if your idea of idea of a pleasant afternoon is to put on a recording of Haydn’s The Seasons, and to immerse yourself in the innocent delights of a pastoral life; then this novel may be recommended without hesitation. Speaking for myself, I do, I admit, find pastoral joys not quite to my taste. It’s not that I am not nostalgic, and it’s not that I can’t revel in evocations of communal warmth: I can’t think of anything more delightful than to be a guest in, say, Dingley Dell. But bucolic idylls and pastoral joy do, I admit, tend to pass me by somewhat.

And of course, George Eliot frequently addresses the reader directly, and directs the reader’s emotions – old-fashioned faults which are nowadays considered quite unpardonable. But I couldn’t help wondering: if a modern author were to pause in the narrative and explain why she depicted certain things in a certain manner and not another, far from decrying it for being old-fashioned, we’d all be praising its postmodern daring. Have we possibly come round full circle, I wonder? Perhaps the modern objections are not so much to the fact of Eliot addressing the reader directly, but, rather, to the moralising tone in which she addresses the reader. Being a keen reader of 19th century fiction, I can’t say I had too much of a problem with this, although I did sometimes wish that George Eliot had presented the authorial voice more firmly, and with imbued it with a more striking personality: this is what Fielding does in Tom Jones, with the consequence that the author himself becomes a striking character in the narrative. Which, I suppose, is quite postmodern in its way.

The pacing of the novel is undeniably slow, and, it must be admitted, I think, that those used to modern novels may find the first three hundred pages or so, and the return to the pastoral idyll in the final 70 pages, something of a trial. Not that the Hetty Sorrel story is itself particularly fast-paced, but, compared to what is around it, it seems to gallop at a breakneck tempo. (I had to smile when, some 200 or so pages into the book, Eliot gives us a chapter entitled “In which the Story pauses a little”. Pauses from what?) But then again, when the objective is to depict an essentially static community, the pace cannot be anything other than slow.

We must see this novel for what it is: Eliot was not, I think, a dramatic author by nature, and what she sets out to depict here is not a drama (although there is drama in it), but a warm, nostalgic picture of a community that is essentially at peace with itself. It may not be a particularly ambitious aim for a writer capable in later years of writing Middlemarch, but we must be careful, I think, not to judge it by the standards of what it never set out to be in the first place. For me, personally, a little pastoral delight goes a long way, but for other readers more in tune with this sort of thing than I am, Adam Bede may well be seen as an unmitigated delight. And those who want a less nostalgic picture of a working girl “seduced” (which was in those days often a polite word for “raped”, and which let the rapist off the hook) may wish to turn instead to Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

4 responses to this post.

  1. It’s hard to beat Middlemarch.


    • It’s certainly hard to beat, and it’s hard to match also: I don’t think George Eliot herself ever quite matched it. (Admittedly, of her seven novels, I have yet to read Felix Holt or Romola.) The Mill on the Floss was, I though, excellent until the final section; and, while Daniel Deronda seemed to me maddeningly inconsistent, when it’s good it’s very, very good. But amongst Eliot’s works, Middlemarch does seem in a class of its own.


  2. Posted by Martin Johnson on June 20, 2021 at 10:48 am

    Reading Adam Bede for a lit group meeting I feel a little apprehensive. The group’s etiquette demands a positive response out of respect for the group member’s choice. In this case the member is a George Eliot enthusiast and is very knowledgeable about the novels. My apprehension is that I feel very unhappy with the book and bound to disappoint the group with my comments. The story seems to me unbalanced and uncertain, morally muddled and inconclusive. It has passages of bucolic reverie and pastoral beauty, but cannot be regarded as a depiction of pastoral serenity, as it has, at its heart, a shocking tragedy, which, once over, is almost forgotten. Hetty, the ingenue at the centre of the tragedy, is convicted of murder, sentenced to death, saved from the gallows and transported instead. The real villain, Arthur Donnithorne, her well-born seducer, is responsible for the commuting of her sentence, and flees to the army, escaping from this rural turmoil. In a flat epilogue, he returns, a sick man, and Hetty is acknowledged only in a hasty reference to her death on returning from transportation. Adam Bede, meanwhile, Arthur’s rival, marries Dinah and lives happily ever after. Hetty, once central to the story, fades away, like Adam’s love for her. The moral complexities involved are left hanging in the air, the stain on the rural idyll glossed over. Towards the end we have a jolly ‘Harvest Home’ party at the home of the Poysers, aunt and uncle to Hetty and Dinah. So everything’s OK. But it isn’t.


    • Helllo Martin, and my apologies for the delayed response. I have been neglecting this blog of late, I fear, and really should start up again.
      I must confess “Adam Bede” does not count among my favourite novels, It is, I think, a happy pastoral novel overall, and the tragic story is a dark strand in the novel, one strand among many, rather than the central feature. The pastoral idyll continues despite the darkness of that particular strand: it is the idyll that sets the dominant tone of the novel. The dark story certainly disturbs it, but doesn’t displace it,

      I thin you are certainly entitled to dissent from established views, if you have arguments to back up your perspective (and you certainly do). Unargued opinions are never very useful, but debate where each point of view is presented with reasoned argument is surely what book groups should be about!

      Best wishes,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: