Before you run off to fetch a psychiatrist (“Tony’s really gone bananas this time!”), let me explain. My theoretical ‘Fifty-Mile Challenge’ would involve reading works by writers who were born within a fifty-mile radius of your home town. This would obviously be much easier for bloggers in Dublin than in Detroit, London than Loughborough, Weimar than Wollongong… However, it would be especially easy for me as, in addition to flicking through the works of some playwright from just up the road (wrote something about kings, mad people and lovers – ‘Hambeth and Juliet’?), I would be able to sit back and enjoy the works of George Eliot.
‘Scenes from Clerical Life’ was Eliot’s first work of fiction, but it was not her first novel as it consisted of three ‘short’ stories totalling about 320 pages. As is evident from the title, the lives of the clergy are prominent features of these tales, and the theme of religion is one that Eliot pursued in later novels, although these stories focus on the human more than the church side of their lives. Just like her contemporary, Anthony Trollope, she draws out the lives of churchmen in a time where the vicar was a centre of society in country towns and played a much greater role in the community than is the case in many countries today.
Back in 18th/19th century England, the church was not only a place for people with a calling to gravitate to, but also a common employer for the younger sons of rich families where the eldest son inherited the money and estate. Consequently, many clerics were well educated (at Cambridge or Oxford), fairly well off and desirous of the good things in life, and this made things difficult for the poorer members of the clergy, as they were expected to fulfil the same role in society as these younger sons of the landed gentry with virtually no money. The hero of the first tale (‘The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton’) faces precisely this problem, one which was not uncommon for poor curates (often substitutes for a vicar who owned the ‘living’ of several parishes and ‘sub-let’ all but one of them for a fraction of the stipend he received for them). Amos falls into financial troubles because of the need to keep up appearances, despite receiving a wage no better than most workers. When a flighty Countess decides to move in with him and his family, this causes further dents in the budget and leads to problems which are totally unforeseen…
In the third scene, ‘Janet’s Repentance’, the religious view turns to the conflict between traditional Protestant doctrine and the evangelical wing of the Church of England. A new curate, Edgar Tryan, appears in Milby (Eliot’s home town of Nuneaton, just down the road from my home town of Coventry – the model for Middlemarch
!) and shocks many of the townspeople with his approach to religion, drawing protests and scorn from some of the most powerful people in the town. Events in this scene (and, to some extent, in her first novel, ‘Adam Bede’) reflect the conflict in Eliot’s own life as she began to doubt her faith in Christianity. Through Tryan’s role in the saving of Janet Dempster, the title character of this tale, Eliot espouses her support for people who do good deeds and have faith in their fellow mortals over the allegedly moral but actually selfish traditional churchgoers. Eliot also shows the way in which the ordinary people follow their religion without really understanding much about it, enjoying it as a tradition rather than as anything more complicated than blind faith (an idea which Thomas Hardy also touched upon in ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’
However, important as the religious side is, the clergy are not always the central characters of these stories. In Amos Barton’s tale, the tragic fate of his wife, Milly, and the way in which Amos only comes to realise his good fortune too late, are more important than the tale of the curate himself, and in the second scene, ‘Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story’, the parson of the title is secondary to the true heroine, Caterina. This young woman, brought to England by an aristocratic couple after being orphaned at a young age has her affections trifled with by a young nobleman (very similar to the situation of Hetty Sorrel and Arthur Donnithorne in ‘Adam Bede’). The poor Caterina, living as she does in late eighteenth century England is triply disadvantaged: she is foreign (you can’t trust Italians…), she is of low birth, and is consequently not adopted, but brought up as a dependant, and she is also, the most unfortunate situation of all, a woman. By virtue of these social failings, she is treated badly by the vain young Captain Wybrow, and the events caused by this mis-matched passion lead to a tragic ending for all concerned.
I could go on all night about the interesting themes and concepts in this book, but I won’t, mainly to spare you all my meandering explanations (and also because red wine and literary exposition just do not mix). However, there is one further idea which Eliot pushed in this work, and that is her preference for the plain, the old, the ordinary good people over the showy and well-off. Just as Edgar Tryan is eventually accepted by the folk of Milby, despite his dissenting views, and the crabby old Mr. Gilfil is shown to have a passionate and unfortunate past, people are shown to be inherently interesting in themselves, no matter what their religion or social standing. This collection was written in the mid-nineteenth century and was partly constructed to show readers that life was just the same, and people were just as interesting, passionate and good in the time of their grandparents and great-grandparents. Eliot enables the innate goodness of her characters to shine through in her scenes, connecting the old-fashioned times of the the stories to the ‘modern’ age of the readers. In this way, her readers were urged to learn lessons from the past and not make the same mistakes. Today, in a time where conflict, both within and between religions, is as violent as ever, this is a lesson which we could do with learning.