Scenes of Clerical Life, George Eliot
The title of this caught my eye at Half Price Books, as did the lovely cover of the Penguin Classics edition. The editor, David Lodge, suggests that it is "not a title likely to set the pulse of a modern reader racing with anticipation. . . " I can't say my pulse raced, exactly, but I was curious to read George Eliot's take on the clergymen who permeate so much Victorian literature, particularly in Anthony Trollope and Margaret Oliphant's books. I have a list of favorites, starting with Mr Harding and Dean Arabin from the Barsetshire series, and Oliphant's Perpetual Curate, Frank Wentworth. I've recently added Mary Cholmondeley's Bishop of Southminster, Charlotte Yonge's blind rector Mr Clare, and Rhoda Broughton's saintly James Stanley.
I did not know when I started it that this was George Eliot's first book, published in 1858. The three novellas that comprise it were initially published a year earlier, in Blackwood's Magazine (Lodge, the editor, states that Adam Bede was originally intended as an additional "Scene"). Perhaps because this is an early work, I found it the most readable of her books, with a simpler, less convoluted language than in the others I've tried.
The title of the first story, "The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton," should prepare the reader. Mr Barton is the curate of Shepperton, on a salary of £80 per year, with a wife and a constantly-increasing family living in a crumbling old vicarage. He is a good conscientious clergyman, even a zealous one, but he is unpopular in the parish. He can't quite seem to hit the right note with his parishioners, no matter how hard he tries. And they resent his liturgical innovations, like hymns for worship replacing the familiar sung Psalms, and the fervor of his preaching. Mrs Patten, a rich elderly widow, complains that "I don't understand these new sort o' doctrines. When Mr Barton comes to see me, he talks about nothing but my sins and my need o' marcy. Now, Mr Hackitt, I've never been a sinner." (Mr Hackitt is at least "a little shocked by the heathenism of her speech"). Further trouble comes to the curate when an acquaintance, an attractive widow, invites herself for an extended stay at the vicarage, just as his wife is suffering through a difficult eighth pregnancy, and rumors begin to spread.
The second story, "Mr Gilfil's Love-Story," initially seems to be about a previous vicar of Shepperton, the incumbent for thirty years. Unlike his successor Mr Barton, Maynard Gilfil was not a zealous active pastor, but he was loved and admired across the parish, and his influence was clear. I wanted to know more about him, but the story jumps back forty years, and he becomes a supporting character. As a young man, he was the chaplain to his relatives, Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel. On a trip to Italy years ago, the couple rescued a young orphan, Christina, after her father's death, and brought her back to Cheverel Manor. There the young Maynard fell irrevocably in love with her, while she fell unsuitably in love with Sir Christopher's heir Captain Wybrow, who flirted with her but could not marry her. Since she is Italian, her love is of course violent and passionate, particularly after Wybrow becomes engaged to the very suitable Miss Assher. I thought this story really dragged, and I found the romantic resolution improbable at best. I was also irritated with the way Christina is constantly called "little monkey"!
The third story, "Janet's Repentance," was to me the most interesting. It moves from Shepperton to the near-by market-town of Milby. The town is divided over a new curate at a chapel near the manufacturing district. The Rev. Mr Tryan is an Evangelical who is drawing large crowds to his services, from both the Anglican and the Dissenting congregations. His proposal of a series of Sunday evening lectures in the parish church is the last straw for many, who think it an insult to their elderly curate Mr Crewe, beloved for his benevolence if not his preaching. Eliot lays out the battle lines and introduces us to townspeople on both sides. I found the politics fascinating (and rather Trollopian). Robert Dempster, the town's leading lawyer, is organizing a formal protest and inciting the anti-Tryan feeling. He relishes the fight, an outlet for the rage that builds up inside him, which he frequently takes out on his wife Janet, particularly when he has been drinking. The whole town knows that Dempster mistreats his wife, though not all the sordid details, as they also know that Janet has taken to drink herself. The scenes where he verbally and physically abuses her came as a shock. I can't remember reading anything so explicit in a 19th-century novel. Dempster of course expects Janet to support his anti-Tryan crusade, but when Janet meets the curate, she finds a good and holy minister, who will stand by her in her trials, particularly her struggles with alcoholism.
While the Introduction includes the usual spoilers, it also puts these three stories in the context of George Eliot's life, showing how she drew on her own experiences in creating her characters and plots. Since I am still fairly new to Eliot, I found the background information both interesting and helpful. The editor also uses Eliot's correspondence with the editor of Blackwood's Magazine to show how her stories developed, and how she resisted his efforts to tone them down, make them more conventional. She was proved right as the book became a success.
This wasn't always an easy book, but I am glad that I read it, and now I'm looking forward to Adam Bede, to see how it fits in with George Eliot's first scenes of clerical life.