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

§ 24. Adam Bede

Before Scenes of Clerical Life had reached a speedier close than the authoress had, at first, intended, and before the book, as a whole, had come into the hands of the great novelists by whose side she was soon to take her place, George Eliot had begun her new story, Adam Bede. A considerable part of it was written at Dresden, and it was finished by November, 1858. The germ of this novel, the reading of which, Dickens said, “made an epoch in his life,” and which, like the firstfruits of some other authors of genius, is, by many of the lovers of George Eliot, held unsurpassed in original power by any of its successors, was a story of terrible simplicity. Her aunt Elizabeth Evans, methodist preacher at Wirksworth, had told her of a confession made to her by a girl in prison, who had been convicted of the murder of her child, but had previously refused to confess the crime. On the foundation of this far from uncommon anecdote of woe, the authoress of Adam Bede raised a structure of singular beauty and deep moral significance. The keynote of the story—the belief that the divine spirit which works in man works through man’s own response to its call—dominates the narrative from first to last. It is sounded by Adam Bede in an opening scene of singular originality and force, in which he is introduced with his brother Seth in the midst of their fellow-workmen; and it is the text of a full exposition of his views on religion in the middle of the story, where it “pauses a little,” and Adam is represented as “looking back” upon the experiences of his life and their illustration of the truth: “it isn’t notions sets people doing the right thing— it’s feeling. And it connects itself with the altruism which, though Adam does not attain to it at once or till after sore trial, since nothing great or good drops into our laps like ripe fruit, George Eliot exemplified in this, as in other of the most grandly conceived characters in her stories, and, thus, as it were, superinduced in her readers—by making them

  • better able to imagine and feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring, human creatures.
  • While the ethical spirit of the narrative thus, throughout, maintains the same high level, and while, with true moral strength, is contrasted the weakness which neither beauty can excuse nor kindliness of disposition cover, the awful gulf that separates act from thought, and passionate longing or yielding languor from guilt and its inevitable consequences, opens itself before our eyes, and we recognise, in the results of human deeds, an [char] far stronger and more resistless than what men call fate.

    Viewed from another point of view, it is little short of wonderful that so new a writer should have satisfied so many demands of the novelist’s art. The descriptive power which George Eliot here exhibits, though the scenery and surroundings depicted by her are associated with ancestral rather than personal reminiscences, is very fresh and vivid: the Staffordshire village and the Derbyshire neighbourhood have an element of northern roughness effectively mixed with their midland charm. And the signature of the times in which the story plays is alike unmistakable—more especially in its treatment of the religious life of an age which was but faintly lit up with the “afterglow of methodism,” and in which the new revival of church feeling had not yet made old-fashioned parsons like Mr. Irvine feel uncomfortable. But it is in the characters of the novel themselves that the author’s creative power already appears at its height in Adam Bede, and that she gives proof of that penetrating perception of the inner springs of human action which, without exaggeration, has been called Shakespearean. Adam Bede himself is no Sir Charles Grandison of the class to which he belongs, but an example of a highsouled working man who has taught himself the duty of self-sacrifice, till, like the ploughman of old, Adam Bede brings us nearer to a conception of the divine mission which a fellow may help to carry out. He is throughout contrasted, in no harsh spirit, with his younger brother, who is cast in a slighter mould, but whose humility has a beauty of its own. The kindly rector, whose shrinking gentleness is defended almost without a touch of irony, and his godson, whose good resolutions are almost an element of his instability, the coldly selfish squire, the savagely sympathetic schoolmaster—all are more or less novel, and all are true, varieties of human nature. Among the women, Dinah and Hetty sleep, separated only by a thin wall, in the Poysers’ house—but, on the one side of it, there abides an innate selfishness which thinks itself born for the sunshine, on the other, the loving minister of comfort which will not be rejected at the last. With Mrs. Poyser herself and the family over which she holds sway, we enter into another sphere of George Eliot’s creative genius. Among all the groupings invented by her, the Poyser family has remained unsurpassed as a popular favourite, and such scenes as the walk of the family to church, or their appearance at the young squire’s birthday feast, are pure gems. Mrs. Poyser herself, though universally admired, has, perhaps, not always been quite justly appreciated. She is, above all things, a great talker, the value of whose talk should by no means be estimated only by that of the “proverbs” by which it is adorned. Indeed, since we have it on George Eliot’s own authority, that “there is not one thing put into Mrs. Poyser’s mouth that is not fresh from my own mind”—in other words, that Mrs. Poyser’s sayings are not, properly speaking, proverbs at all—they should be regarded merely as the spontaneous decorations of an eloquence which can rely on powers of exposition superior to all resistance, and merely on occasion, when moved by didactic purpose, is fain to heighten the effect of its colouring by means of these gnomic jewels.

    The construction of the story is skilful and close, and, with logical firmness, bears out the principle laid down by Adam Bede, that “you can never do what’s wrong without breeding sin and trouble,” as well as his later reflection: “that’s what makes the blackness of it… it can never be undone.” The only exception that can be justly taken to the self-developing course of the narrative is concerned with its concluding portion. As was frequently the case with the Victorian novel, the conclusion of Adam Bede is long drawn-out—in this instance, probably, with the design of reconciling the reader to Adam’s second love, for Dinah, and to his marriage with her. It is not so much as affecting any previous notion of Dinah that this ending is unfortunate, or because we are sorry for Seth, or even because the whole episode, intrinsically, is not very probable. But could a deep and noble nature such as Adam Bede’s have forgotten his love for Hetty, while she was still suffering for guilt which, as he well knew, was only half her own? And if (as is not very clear from the closing pages) she had already passed away, could she have been dead to Adam? “Our dead,” as we read in a passage of the novel which seems to breathe, as it were, the remorse of humanity, “are never dead to us till we have forgotten them.”