Adam Bede, by George Eliot.

Perusing some of the many 'Top 100 Greatest Novels' I discovered that if George Eliot is mentioned on them (and she isn't always) then it is nearly always for Middlemarch. Strange, because I firmly believe that George Eliot is one of the best, if not the best English novelist and Adam Bede is one of the best novels I've ever read.

Adam Bede was the first novel written by George Eliot. She began writing it on 22nd October 1857, and it was published in 1859. It tells the story of Adam Bede, Hetty Sorrel, Dinah Morris, and Captain Arthur Donnithorne, and their lives in the idyllic setting of 18th Century Staffordshire (in a village called Ellastone, on the River Dove). It's a pastoral novel; bucolic almost, but finely interwoven with tragedy and struggle, and is, as we expect from Eliot, Realist literature. The plot, were I to describe it in it's entirety (which I won't otherwise I'll spoil it for those who haven't read it), perhaps does seem to include an element of melodrama: Hetty, a young, beautiful but unintelligent country girl is in love with Captain Donnithorne, son of the local squire and heir to Chase, who, though knowing it is wrong to encourage her persists in doing so. He is as weak, as selfish, and as shallow as Hetty is, but the love between them, however doomed, is genuine, though on Donnithorne's part not as strong. Adam, meanwhile, a carpenter who is intelligent and well-educated (his closest friend, Bartle Massey, is a schoolteacher), is also in love with Hetty despite his mother's warnings. Hetty is not a good match for Adam, but despite his intelligence he is seduced by her beauty. All of this is based on a true story told to Eliot by her Methodist Aunt Samuel one afternoon in 1839 or 1840, though I can't quote or link any sources without giving the end (even the URL would give it away). If you have read it, look up "Mary Voce Nottingham" and that will provide the inspiration for Hetty and Donnithorne. As for Adam, he was loosely based on Eliot's father Robert Evans, and Dinah on Eliot's aunt who told her the tale.

Ellastone.
It would be so easy to draw one-sided characters. Donnithorne could be like Samuel Richardson's Lovelace and Hetty Clarissa herself with Adam nothing other than seduced and helpless. But this is George Eliot, and as infuriating as these circumstances may be, we see the humanity in all of them. Hetty is foolish, but not docile, not simpering, nor, conversely, is she a 'belle dame sans merci' with Adam or even with Donnithorne. And Donnithorne isn't a villain. I didn't like either of them, yet it is entirely possible to sympathise with them: it is difficult to condemn Eliot's characters.

There are many themes; it's a dense book. Fate, or lack of ("What destroys us most effectively is not a malign fate but our own capacity for self-deception and for degrading our own best self"), Methodism in the late 18th Century and early 19th Century, beauty, character, and redemption, but above all else love: redemption through love - the possibility of redemption, at least, and hope that it brings. Deception, selfishness, desire, rejection, and disillusionment, then the opposites, then all that comes between. Ultimately, as Eliot writes,
What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life--to strengthen each other in all labour, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?
Eliot is a Realist, but she's a romantic as well. There is the despair and depression, but there is joy too. It's a whole novel, there are no caricatures, and although I said there could be a hint of melodrama, this was based on a true story. Besides, it is ridiculous to assume that nothing happened in the small villages in 18th Century England: Adam Bede is not about quiet little lives in the parishes of the Shires. It is a shocking story, I cannot emphasise that enough, and it would have be something I would have liked to gone into. All I would say is that whilst the setting may be idyllic, the lives of those in this village or any other may not have been. It is, in short, about life in all its aspects, which is something George Eliot excels at. I'm in love with it.

*****
Further reading:

Comments

  1. Shocking and melodramatic! Sounds horrid! I've only ever read Silas Marner by her and would definitely be up for more. This is now on my TBR list.

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    1. It is very good! I wish I could have written more about it, there's such a shock in it! Can't wait for you to read it! :)

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  2. I have added it to my official list under gothic-ish titles. :)

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    1. Excellent - let me know what you make of it! :D

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  3. Better than Middlemarch?
    It's the only Eliot I've tackled so far, but you've certainly sold me on Adam Bede now.

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    1. I wasn't keen on Middlemarch when I first read it, but loved it the second time around. But this is better, and I also prefer The Mill on the Floss. Don't get me wrong, Middlemarch is brilliant, but I feel there are better Eliots out there :)

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  4. I loved this, too. Eliot's use of dialect with Mrs Poyser was simply brilliant. Will come back and read your thoughts again when I can concentrate properly!

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    1. It is indeed brilliant. Think my next Eliot will be Daniel Deronda. :)

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  5. I was tossing up between Adam Bede & Middlemarch but you've got me curious so I'm going to try AB instead. Interesting review, thanks!

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