Sunday, October 31, 2010

Historical Background to the Novel

The Isolation of Hayslope
Adam Bede was published in 1859, but its story takes place in 1799. They were momentous times and stirring events were taking place in Europe and in England, but Hayslope, a remote isolated community which forms the setting to the novel, remains unaffected by these events. It is as if they did not happen at all, and the outside world for this agricultural community was a vague, remote entity, of which they sometimes heard, but which did not affect them in any way.

Some Historical Events
Adam Bede cannot be called a historical novel, for the earth-shaking political events of the day are of no consequence and have no impact on the action of the novel. In the United States the Civil War was fought, slavery was put down, the West was all but conquered, and the Industrial Revolution (and with it the rise of the rich capitalists) changed the form and face of American life for all time to come. Italy saw the emergence of Garibaldi and the drive for Italian unity and independence. Japan stood on the threshold of the door of the world after centuries of self-imposed isolation. And Russia, freed her serfs, whose bondage was prior by hundreds of years to the slavery of American Negroes. Prussia arose as a great European power, first conquering Austria, then France, and then providing the military and political force that culminated in the proclamation of the German Empire. Defeated France fell into the throes of internal strife, and finally there was the establishment of the Third Republic.
None of these momentous events are in any way fore-shadowed in Adam Bede, which takes place, as George Eliot says, in 1799. As a matter of fact, none of the great happenings in the world that were contemporary or prior to the action of the novel seem to have had any effect on Hayslope. The American colonies had fought Great Britain for their independence and won, establishing themselves as the United States. Liberation movements were beginning to flare all over Latin America, and France had executed her king and queen in the ten bloody years of her revolution. Napoleon Bonaparte had begun his far-flung conquests and was on the verge of proclaiming himself Emperor of France. By 1799, England had been at war with France for six years, her great leaders, Wellington and Nelson, battled to contain Napoleon. To these French wars, the only reference in the novel is that Arthur Donnithorne goes out to France with his regiment, falls ill, is advised rest at home and so comes back to Hayslope. Otherwise, all these great happenings sound as remote to the people of Hayslope as if they happened on the other side of the Moon. They have no impact at all on Hayslope life, or on Adam, Seth, Hetty, Arthur and Dinah, the principal figures in the novel. The only historical event that makes its impact on the novel is the movement for religious dissent from, or non-conformity with, the established Church, known as Methodism.
Brief Survey of Religious Dissent—Methodism
It should be remembered that the established Church of England is based on compromise between Catholicism and Protestantism and there have been dissident movements ever since the days of Chaucer. This tendency towards religious dissent or separatism continued through the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and the Stuarts down to the eighteenth century and even beyond into the 19th century. Methodism or ‘Evengelical Methodism’ was the most important form religious dissent took in the last decades of the 18th century. In the novel the established Church is presented by Mr. Irwine and Methodism by Dinah Morris, a staunch Methodist preacher and the heroine of the novel, thus providing the novelist an opportunity for comparing and contrasting the two. Methodism may be defined as, “a movement of reaction against the apathy of the Church of England that prevailed in the early part of the eighteenth century”. The name ‘Methodist’ was originally applied to the members of a religious society established at Oxford in 1729 by the Wesleys and other members of the university, “having for its object the promotion of piety and morality. It was subsequently extended to those who took part in or sympathised with this movement.” The term ‘Evengelical’ was applied from the eighteenth century onwards to that school of Protestants which maintains that the essence of the Gospel consists in the doctrine of salvation by faith in the atoning death of Christ. It lays more stress on faith than on action or on grace, and also strictly upholds the verbal inspiration of the Bible. It is the theoretical or philosophical aspect of Methodism.
Methodism: Its Founder
The ‘Methodist’ movement was founded by John Wesley who was born in 1703 in Lincolnshire. He was educated at Oxford, and took holy orders in 1725. He became the greatest religious figure in eighteenth century England. The Methodist society was formed in 1729 when a few young men at Oxford came together under his, leadership. Their purpose was to observe strictly the fasts and festivals of the Church; to celebrate holy communion regularly and to keep themselves unspotted from the world.
In 1739, Wesley experienced great spiritual development. He now felt that he had a special message to deliver. He took the whole of England as his parish and went preaching from place to place. His influence was tremendous and thousands were converted, experiencing what they called “the new birth”. His success was the greatest among the lower classes, who hitherto had often been beyond the influence of the established Church.
Its Popularity
It became essential to have some organization to provide religious discipline for the thousands of converts, and the Methodist Society was strengthened, and its organisation extended to meet the need. Lay preachers were appointed; there were band meetings, class meetings and meetings in houses. Women who were able to preach, were allowed to do so. In the beginning they worked within the established Church but as the society grew, it became more independent, and in 1744, the First Wesleyan Conference was held. Formal separation from the Church of England, did not take place till after Wesley’s death in 1791.
Dinah, a Typical Methodist
Dinah is an example of the most sincere type of Methodist, whose greatest aim was to know the will of God and to follow it. “They believed in present miracles, in instantaneous conversion, in revelations by dreams and visions; they drew lots; and sought for Divine Guidance by opening the Bible at hazard.” Dinah believes in all this, and she consults the Bible in this way whenever she has to take some crucial decision. Thus she consults it when she rejects Seth or accepts Adam.
Her Sermon and Her Impact
Dinah’s sermon on the village green is characteristic of Methodist preaching. The appeal is at the first general, with an emphasis on, God’s love of the poor, then particular, with a rousing call to repentance, painting the misery of souls lost in sin. Dinah communicated her belief in the visible manifestations of Jesus, so that Christ’s agony in the garden became very real to the listeners. Then came the warning against worldly vanity. Compare the passage on the ear-rings and finery in Dinah’s sermon with the following passage taken from one of John Wesley’s sermons: “Wear no gold, no pearls or precious stones, use no curling of hair, buy no velvet, no silks, no fine linen, no superfluities nor no mean ornaments, however much in fashion. I do not advise women to wear rings, ear-rings, necklaces, laces, etc.” It is also to be noted that the stress throughout is on the poor, and what the saviour would do for them. Chad Bess is moved by the sermon, and tries to hide her large ear-ring, though by and large the people of Hayslope are not affected by it. On the other hand, the poor and suffering people of Snowfield are more receptive to it.
From the Epilogue we learn that after a time the second Wesleyan conference forbode women preachers, for most of them “did more harm than good with their preaching”. Dinah too stops preaching and is thoroughly domesticated. However, this is a loss to the movement, for she is a devout and inspired preacher who did only good, and caused no harm at all, through her preaching. Remember, the way in which she consoles Lisbeth in her grief, and goes to poor Hetty in the prison and moves her to open out her heart and confess. From the way in which she moves Bess Carnage with her preaching, we may safely presume that she must have made many converts from among the sinners and saved their souls. Even Mrs. Irwine, who belongs to the opposite camp, has profound respect for her, and regards her as a force for good.
The Element of Universality
The fact is that the people in Hayslope are moved by universal human emotions, and the themes, “of God and godlessness, love and jealousy, life and death, sin and repentance, are universal and come about regardless of the Napoleons and the Hitlers, or perhaps inspite of them. What happens in Hayslope in Adam Bede can well happen in almost any agricultural community on earth and in almost any period of recorded history.” The soil was rich and nature was kind, but for a tenant who farmed land he did not himself own, life was always hard, and only the most provident fared well. Despite the establishment of factories in nearby Coventry and other embryonic industrial centres, England was still largely an agricultural country in a time in history when agriculture, handicrafts, and trade were the dominant influences. “Except for the universal emotions, the only significant aspects of the background to Adam Bede in the village of Hayslope were the need to work hard and skilfully in order to survive, and the fermentation caused by Evangelical Methodism.” The upheaval in the rest of England, on the Continent, and in the New World was indeed in another world. It was as if Hayslope existed by and for itself. If these rustics appear quaint to us we should remember that all over the earth, thousands of Hayslopes and their people still work hard for a living and lift their political hearts for a moment to listen to a passing preacher.
In India, of course, there are thousands and thousands of such Hayslopes, where the people live in isolation from the great and historical movements of the day, and still cultivate, plough and reap in their age-old primitive ways. However, tragedies of Sophoclean grandeur and intensity are daily enacted in these remote, isolated rural communities, and the Hetty-Adam-Arthur Donnithorne story is only one such instance.

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