Having finished the “Dickens Project” some time ago, “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter and I have decided to begin the “Eliot Project”. We are going to read all of George Eliot’s novels in the order they were written. Most of her novels are divided into several “books”. Our plan is to write something about each book as we go, as well as to review a few movie adaptations along the way.
George Eliot is the pen name of Mary Ann Evans (1819 – 1880). According to the British literary critic F. R. Leavis, there were only five truly great novelists writing in English: Jane Austen, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, and George Eliot. George Eliot began her writing career with a number of translations. She then published three of her own short stories which were soon collected into a volume called Scenes of Clerical Life (1857). Adam Bede was her first full-length novel. It was published in 1859, the year George Eliot turned forty. It was followed by The Mill on the Floss (1960); Silas Marner (1861); Romola (1863); Felix Holt, the Radical (1866); Middlemarch (1871 – 1872); and Daniel Deronda (1874 – 1876).
We plan on spending six weeks on Adam Bede, beginning this week. Then eight weeks on The Mill on the Floss, two weeks for Silas Marner, four for Romola, perhaps three to five for Felix Holt (which is not divided into books), nine for Middlemarch, and nine more for Daniel Deronda. You can find an index to all our reviews and notes here: Eliot Project.
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Adam Bede, Book First
The first book (out of six) of Adam Bede, covers more than a quarter of the novel. The second chapter is taken up with a sermon and the fourth with the making of a coffin. These are not, perhaps, particularly interesting occurrences, but they are not the point, the people are.
The first chapter introduces Adam Bede and his brother Seth at their work. Adam is shown to be too easily angered and unwilling to back down, even when in the wrong. Still, he is hard working and his affection for and loyalty to his brother are pleasing.
Seth is patient and kind. He is intensely in love with Dinah, but she does not return his affection. In fact, she is much more stirred by Adam. Dinah is a lovely young woman, full of active goodness. She would probably have made Seth a good wife if she were not also a preacher. Adam, for his part, is besotted with the extremely pretty, but vain and ignorant Hetty Sorrel. Hetty has no intention of marrying Adam. Her dreams are all of luxuries and Adam isn’t rich enough. However, she has no intention of letting Adam slip “from under the yoke of her coquettish tyranny” (ch. 9) and takes care to entice him back any time he shows himself attempting to resist his passion. Hetty actually has her eyes on young Captain Arthur Donnithorne, the heir of the local squire. Vanity and ignorance are a bad combination. Arthur soon finds himself in love with Hetty, but she is the penniless niece of one of the squire’s tenants and not an appropriate match for the heir. This never enters Hetty’s calculations, though, and she dreams of the handsome soldier and silks and fine things. Arthur is a good-natured, well-intentioned youth, but too easy-going. Without intending to give Hetty any encouragement, he becomes entangled with her.
My favorite character so far is Mr. Irwine, the rector. He is a friend to both Arthur and Adam. He is a middle-aged man, who provides for his stately mother and two sisters. It is his care for his sisters, one of whom is a suffering invalid, that first show his “unwearying tenderness for obscure and monotonous suffering” (ch. 5). George Eliot particularly points out that he takes off his boots before visiting his sister because she is suffering from a terrible headache: “Whoever remembers how many things he has declined to do even for himself, rather than have the trouble of putting on or taking off his boots, will not think this last detail insignificant.” He does such things as a matter of course, because he cares about his sister, though, not because it would be good of him to do so, and it is that which makes him so likable. He is also sensible and not so excitable as many of the characters. The way he tries to help Arthur is admirable, though it doesn’t succeed.
Arthur decided that he ought to tell Mr. Irwine of the trouble he was in. This was a very good idea. It would have provided Arthur with some accountability, which he recognized. But, faced with the awkwardness of telling Mr. Irwine about his meetings with Hetty, holding hands and kissing, he looses his nerve — much to his own disgust. Mr. Irwine, suspecting that Arthur had something to tell him, directly asked him if he is in any danger, but the book ends with the vacillating Arthur failing to tell Mr. Irwine of his problem.
Illustrations by Percy Tarrant: “Like a plucky small man as he was, he didn’t mean to give in” and “Dinah paused as she turned towards Seth”.