The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XI. The Political and Social Novel

§ 23. Scenes of Clerical Life

Notwithstanding the just and discerning applause with which the first appearance of George Eliot as a writer of fiction was greeted, it would not be difficult to show that, in Scenes of Clerical Life, her style and manner as a novelist were still in the making; but what she still had to learn was so speedily learnt that not much needs to be said on this head. In after days, she laughed at herself for being—or at her critics for thinking her—“sesquipedalian and scientific” at all costs; and, on the very first page of the first of these tales, the walls of Shepperton church are described as “innutrient,” like the bald head of the Rev. Amos Barton. As this example indicates, the taste of the phraseology is not always perfect; and the artifices of style are not always original. The humour, at times, is inadequate, and, at other times, forced: the group of clergy over whom Mr. Ely affably presides at the book-club dinner in Amos Barton includes one or two very unfinished sketches, while the talk at the symposium in the Red Lion, in Janet’s Repentance, is too cleverly stupid. Moreover, in this last and, by far, most powerful of the three stories, the construction is seriously at fault; for Dempster does not, as had obviously been intended, die a ruined man, and (which is of more importance) Janet’s recovery from her craving for drink is not harmonised with her deeper spiritual repentance. What, then, accounts for the effect produced by these Scenes when they first appeared, and still exercised by them on the admirers of George Eliot’s later and maturer works? In the first place, no doubt, the gnomic wisdom, which generally takes the form of wit, is as striking as it is pregnant; but, again, occasionally it has the lucid directness which, rather than mere pointedness, is characteristic of the Greek epigram, and, yet again, at times, it lurks in the lambency of unsuspected humour, while it may rise to the height of a prophetic saying or a maxim for all time, or pierce with poetic power into the depths of tragic emotion. The examples of these varieties of expression given below have been taken almost at haphazard from Scenes of Clerical Life, and no attempt will be made, easy though it would be, to multiply them from this or later works. But they may be regarded as sufficiently illustrating a feature in the imaginative writings of George Eliot which must be acknowledged to be one of their most distinctive characteristics. Yet, even the brilliancy of the writing—and no other epithet would suit it—allows itself to be overlooked, as the sympathetic power of the writer, and the catholic breadth of her principles of moral judgment, impress themselves upon the reader. The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton, though hardly more than a sketch, teaches a lesson, devoid of any subtlety or novelty, that it is neither the cloth nor the respectability of the man himself (and Amos was “superlatively middling”) that entitles him to goodwill, but the human anguish of his experiences—the pathos of an ordinary soul—as he is left with his children by the deathbed of his poor, beautiful, patient Milly. Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story is of hardly more solid structure—a vision of the past, illustrating the beautiful simile of the lopped tree which has lost its best branches—but a true reflection of the tragedy of life with its unspeakably cruel disenchantments, softened only by fate’s kindness in the midst of unkindness. And Janet’s Repentance deals, as George Eliot herself put it, with a collision, not between “bigoted churchmanship” and evangelicalism, but between irreligion and religion. It is not perfection that makes Tryan a true hero any more than, as we are reminded in a fine passage, it made Luther or Bunyan; nor is it in what he achieved, but in the spirit in which he sought to achieve, that lies the value of his endeavour. The atonement of Janet, an erring woman as he had been an erring man, but whom his influence saves from herself, is told with the same power of sympathy; and, while Tryan dies with her love in sight, there remains for her a life which has become a solemn service. The humanity of both these stories, and of the last in particular, as exhibiting the blessed influence of one human soul (not one set of ideas, for “ideas are poor ghosts”) upon another—this is what came home to the readers of George Eliot’s first book as already something more than promise.