Its Publication; Its Origin
George Eliot finished Janet’s Repentance on
the 9th October, 1857, and began Adam Bede on the 22nd October, 1857. She completed the first volume by the following March: wrote the second during the tour in which followed and after returning to Germany , at the beginning of September, completed the third volume on 16th November. It was published in the beginning of 1858. When recording these dates in her journal she gives also an interesting account of the origin of the book. It was suggested by an anecdote which she had heard from an aunt, the Methodist preacher, Mrs. Samuel Evans: England
“We are sitting together one afternoon during her visit to me at Griff, probably in 1839 or 1840, when it, occurred to her to tell me how she had visited a condemned criminal—a very ignorant girl, who had murdered her child and refused to confess; how she had stayed with her praying through the night, and how the poor creature at last broke out into tears, and confessed her crime. My aunt afterwards went with her in the cart to the place of execution…..I then conceived the idea of blending this and some other recollections of my aunt in one story with some points in my father’s early life and character…..
The character of Dinah grew out of my recollections of my aunt, but Dinah is not at all like my aunt, who was a very small, black eyed woman, and (as I was told, for I never heard her preach) very vehement in her style of preaching…..The character of Adam and one or two incidents connected with him were suggested by my father’s early life; but there is not a single portrait in Adam Bede, only the suggestions of experience wrought up into new combinations. When I began to write it, the only elements I had determined on, besides the character of Dinah, were the character of Adam, his relation to Arthur Donnithorne, and their mutual relations to Hetty, i.e. the girl who commits child-murder—the scene in the prison being, of course, the climax towards which I worked. Everything else grew out of the characters and their mutual relations.”
Time of Action
Though Adam Bede was published in 1859, its action takes place in 1799. Those were stirring times when momentous events were taking place both at home and abroad. But Adam Bede is not a historical novel, and these stirring events are not even mentioned in the novel. The only historical event which is of any significance in the novel is Methodism. The Methodists or non-comformists or dissenters were people who did not agree with the doctrines of the established church. The founder of the Methodist movement was John Wesley, and he had allowed women to preach, but the Second Wesley Conference, 1798, forbade women preachers. This conference is mentioned in the novel towards the close. Methodism has been presented through Dinah Morris “the preacher-woman”, and through her the best in Methodism has been highlighted. Besides this historical event, the novel is concerned with universal human passions, the tragedies of Sophocalian grandeur that take place in country solitudes. Hence the perennial appeal of the novel.
The setting of the novel is provided by the
in the village of Hayslope , and Snowfield and Stoniton in the county of Loamshire , in the English Midlands where the novelist had been bred and brought up, with the characters, scenes and sights of which she had been familiar since her childhood, and which had fertilised her imagination. Indeed, the rendering of these country places is so faithful and the evocation of the Midland flavour is marked with such fidelity, that when the novel was first published anonymously, it was at once felt that its writer must be a resident of those parts, and many conjectures as to its authorship were made. No one, of course, suspected that an unknown and inexperienced, woman, like Mary Evans, was the authoress. Various landmarks of the places mentioned above have been given, and devoted scholars and George Eliot-lovers have visited the county of Stonyshire Midlands and tried to identify the villages and the counties with their real counterparts. However, all such attempts have remained futile, for Hayslope, Broxton Stoniton, etc., are dream countries or “countries of the mind”. It is reality transmuted, glorified and modified by the imagination of the novelist.
The canvas of the novel is a crowded one, there being a number of characters both major and minor. First, there are the Bedes, village carpenters. The family consists of Adam Bede, the central figure, his brother Seth Bede, and mother Lizbeth and father Thias Bede. Then there are the Poysers, tenants of the Hall Farm. The group consists of Mr. Martin Poyser, his old father, his wife Mrs. Poyser—an immortal figure of fun—their two nieces Dinah Morris and Hetty Sorrel, and their children, Totty and others. Another group consists of the old Squire or landlord of the village and his grandson Arthur Donnithorne heir to the state. They live at The Chase with a number of attendants. Rev. Mr. Irwine, the Rector of Hayslope and Broxton, his old mother Mrs. Irwine a majestic lady, and his two unmarried sisters complete the list of characters who occupy the front of the stage. In the background, are such figures as Bartle Massey, the school-teacher. Jonathen Burgess, the carpenter, “wiry” Ben, a romping girl called Bess, Molly, the maid servant, and a number of other minor figures. Through these characters, George Eliot has given us a cross-section of village society, of its various professions and occupations, of its sorrows and sufferings of its joys, traditions and customs, of its jealousies and tragedies and of its narrowness and conservation. In this way has the novelist presented a faithful picture of the life and society of
Midlands, as she knew it.
The tragic tale of Hetty Sorrel forms the core of the novel and all other events and characters are related to it in one way or the other. Adam Bede is in love with Hetty Sorrel, a pretty, empty-headed girl who lives on the farm of Martin Poyser, her uncle. Arthur Donnithorne, is unaware that Adam, his old friend, loves Hetty; since he is attracted to her himself, he meets her on several occasions secretly in the woods. As Hetty’s fondest dream is to become a country lady, she encourages Arthur.
One day, Adam surprises the lovers in the woods and forces Arthur to fight. The bewildered Arthur tries vainly to make light of the situation. Conscience-stricken, he writes a farewell letter to Hetty and goes off with his regiment, in which he holds the position of a captain. Hetty, to make the best of a bad bargain, then agrees to marry Adam in the spring. But as the wedding day approaches, her pregnancy can no longer be concealed. She thinks of suicide, but vainly goes in search of Arthur. On the way, she prematurely gives birth to her child. In despair, she murders it and is arrested.
At the trial her stubborn silence arouses great indignation; she is found guilty of child-murder and is condemned to death. At the last moment, Arthur arrives with a document, showing that her sentence has been commuted to transportation. Later, Adam marries Hetty’s cousin, the gentle Dinah Morris, the Methodist preacher. The novelist had abided an Epilogue to the novel, which shows them living happily together with their two children. Seth Bede also lives with them, and we are told that Hetty is released after eight years, and that she dies on her way back home.
Greatness of the Novel
Adam Bede is one of the most powerful novels in the English language. W.H. Hudson, speaks of George Eliot’s “power of weaving tragedy, and tragedy as poignant and deeply moral as anything to be found in Aeschlyus or Shakespeare, out of home spun material”. He shows how the story of Hetty moves “from weakness to sin and from sin to Nemesis”. The story of Arthur and Hetty is indeed so moving, painful and tragic that the novel loses much of its power when they pass out of the narrative.
The novel is outstanding, too, for its rural background the pictures of farm life and the delightfully drawn groups of characters—the tragic Hetty and Arthur; the moral and spiritual Adam and Dinah; the amusing Poyser family; the Squire’s household, the Irwine family and the rustics.
Religion and its Treatment
Edmund Goose, tells us: “What really made the book remarkable was the manner in which the novelist brought her philosophical training to the study of religious character. This was quite new, and the world, much exercised at the moment by religious questions, saw the souls of Dinah Morris, the Methodist missionary, and of the other converts analysed, by a sympathetic outsider, in accordance with close actual experience, and not caricatured from a distance, as is often the care with Dickens.”
Wisdom and Psycho-analysis
George Eliot was the most intellectual novelist of her time. She was critical, observant, a deep thinker, highly intelligent and imaginative. Many examples of her wisdom are to be found in Adam Bede:
“When death, the great Reconciler, has come, it is never our tenderness that we repent of, but our severity.”
“Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them.”
“It is the favourite stratagem of our passions to sham a retreat, and to turn sharp round upon us at the moment we have made up our minds that the day is our own.”
“Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds.”
“There is no despair so absolute as that which comes with the first moments of our first great sorrow.” It is in the novel, that for the first trial George Eliot is seen as a modern novelist. The analysis of the motives and the mental processes in this novel would do credit to any of the great psychological novelists of recent times.
Mrs. Poyser, the Cause of the Popularity of the Novel
However in the final analysis, it is neither the treatment of rural life nor psycho-analysis nor Dinah Morris nor Adam, that at once raised George Eliot to the first rank among English novelists. Says Leslie Stephen, “Adam Bede for most of us means pre-eminently Mrs. Poyser and owes its popularity to her presence. Her dairy is really the centre of the whole microcosm. We are first introduced to it as the background which makes the kitten-like beauty of Hetty Sorrel, irresistible to young Captain Donnithorne. But Mrs. Poyser is the presiding genius. She represents the very spirit of the place; and her influence is the secret of the harmony of the little world of squire and parson and parish clerk and schoolmaster and blacksmith and carpenter and shepherd and carter. Each of these types is admirably sketched in turn, but the pivot of the whole is the farm in which Mrs. Poyser displays her conversational powers. The little rustic world is painted in colours, heightened by affection. There is, it may be, a little more of Goldsmith’s beautifying touch than of Crabbe’s uncompromising realism. But it is marvellously life-like, and Mrs. Poyser’s delightful shrewdness seems to guarantee the fidelity of the portraits. She has no humbug about her, and one naturally takes it for granted that they must be as she sees them. It is, indeed, needless to insist upon her excellence for Mrs. Poyser became at once one of the immortals.” In her later novels one sometimes regrets that Mrs. Poyser did not come to the fore to temper the graver moods. Mrs. Poyser may take rank with Sam Weller as one of the irresistible humorists.