There are times when a loss would be a gain. Losing the first chapter of the second book of Adam Bede would be such an occasion. This chapter (“In Which the Story Pauses a Little”) talks down to the reader and disturbs the “suspension of disbelief”. George Eliot seems to assume that at least a portion of her audience are snobs and prigs, and takes it upon herself to defend Mr. Irwine (who needed no exoneration) and protest her dedication to truth.
Possibly there was some personal feeling in this chapter, as Eliot, who was considered quite an ugly woman, champions clumsy, homely people — “old women and clowns”. “But bless us,” she writes, “things may be lovable that are not altogether handsome, I hope? … All honour and reverence to the divine beauty of form! … But let us love that other beauty too, which lies in no secret of proportion, but in the secret of deep human sympathy.”
Unfortunately, her defense of Mr. Irwine, besides assuming that her readers are too supercilious to like him without lengthy excuses, also quotes from Adam Bede: “to whom I talked of these matters in his old age,” she claims. The way Eliot claims a personal acquaintance with Adam Bede came across as artificial and reminded me that I was reading fiction, without adding to her argument. It disturbs the naturalness at which George Eliot otherwise excels.
In the second chapter, however, the story continues as if no such interruption had occurred. In the interest of resisting his affection for Hetty, Arthur goes on a fishing trip. Hetty misses him at church where she had hoped to see him. Adam makes an opportunity to spend some time alone with Hetty. Poor man, he blunders along speaking of Arthur, thinking to please Hetty by showing the young squire’s interest in himself. Hetty is interested, of course, but not for the reason Adam thinks. She keeps up her coquetry with Adam nonetheless.
Hetty’s aunt, Mrs. Poyser, is shown to have a disagreeably sharp tongue. She is one of those women who thinks general berating, mainly of her servant girls and niece, a duty. In one scene she abruptly starts scolding her maid Molly, startling her into dropping the jugs she was carrying. She continues scolding Molly for her clumsiness, which she considers wilful, to the point of bringing her to tears. It serves Mrs. Poyser right that in the midst of her scolding, she herself is startled into dropping and breaking a more valuable jug. With herself, however, she turns it off saying that the jugs are bewitched, and blaming her accident on “them nasty glazed handles” (ch. 20). Her husband laughs, “Why, thee’st let thy own whip fly i’ thy face”.
A new character, Bartle Massey, is introduced. He teaches a night school, at which Adam learned writing and mensuration (a new word to me), among other things. Mr. Massey is very kind to his slow-witted pupils as long as they are willing to work at learning. His downside is his contempt for women. Even bearing children, he considers, women do “in a poor make-shift way; it had better ha’ been left to the men” (ch. 21). Mr. Massey’s misogyny suggests some bitterness, making me wonder whether it is caused by something in his past. In the present, however, it shows him to be as subject to unreasonable prejudices as any of his more ignorant fellow men.
Illustration by Percy Tarrant: “With a sudden impulse of gaiety she stuck the rose in her hair”.