Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Rural Background in Adam Beds: Its Significance

English Midland: Eliot’s Knowledge of It
George Eliot began her career with a loving attachment to the region in which her youth was passed. Her interest was in a particular locality—the English Midlands—which had a powerful pull on her imagination, and in the early novels she represents it with massive, wide-ranging detail, conjuring up a vivid sense of actual, concretely felt neighbourhood. The Midland setting and the orderliness of existence within it, provide her with the background against which the conflicts and dramas of human life take place. Even in the simplest of provincial situation, life is revealed clearly, wholly and in- depth. Even in her regional setting, “from time to time, dramas of a grandeur and intensity, truly Sophoclean, are enacted in the real, by virtue of the concentrated passions and closely knit interdependence of the lives therein.” The tragedy of Hetty Sorrel, a tragedy of Sophoclean intensity, takes place in this rural setting.

Two Major Divisions
The rural world created in Adam Bede possesses two major divisions: the counties of Loamshire and Stonyshire (with their villages, Hayslope and Snowfield). “The fact that they are not merely literal recreations of Staffordshire and Derbyshire and that the two places stand in complete antithesis is suggested by their quasi-symbolic names.”
(a) Loamshire
Most of the action of the novel takes place in Loamshire, in and around the village of Hayslope. Regarded together, the midland-shire and village constitute a kind of earthly paradise, a later day Elden, as is also suggested by the name of its hero Adam Bede. Protected on the north from “keen and hungry winds”, by the gentle heights of the Binton Hills, Loamshire is, a fertile and sheltered land, “a region of corn and grass” where the farms (excepting those of such miscreants as Luke Britton) produce the necessities and, indeed, the luxuries of life in great abundance. Prosperity, if not omnipresent, is nevertheless common; poverty is rare. Exile from this snug world is regarded by its inhabitants as the worst evil that can befall them. It is so regarded by the Poysers who do not want to go away leaving their roots behind.
(b) Stonyshire
Throughout the novel, however, we are reminded of a different sort of country—Stonyshire, where the land, naked under the sky, is barren and “where the trees are few, so that a child might count them, and there’s very hard living for the poor in the winter”. The people of Stonyshire earn their livelihood not by tilling a fertile soil but by digging deep beneath the earth’s surface in rocky mines or by labouring in the dark mills of sooty cities like Stoniton. In this “dreary bleak place”, poverty is the common lot of the people.
Their Symbolic Significance
“At a first glance Loamshire and Stonyshire seem like little more than a Victorian variation on the Romantic theme of country vs. city. It soon becomes apparent, however, that George Eliot has done more than simply broaden the negative symbol of the city (Stoniton) to include a surrounding wasteland (Stonyshire); she has handled the symbols in such a fashion that an inversion of their conventional values very nearly takes place. At least, both Loamshire and Stonyshire are so stringently qualified that it is impossible to say of one, that it is a positive, of the other a negative symbol. We discover that there is an ugly aspect to the green and fertile Loamshire world; and that despite the barrenness and sterility of Stonyshire it is not altogether a wasteland”.   —(George Creeger)
Loamshire is apparently soft and fertile, but it has a core of hardness. So also apparently, Hetty is beautiful and soft, but there is hardness within her which Mrs. Poyser perceives, and which is expressed in her ‘stubborn silence’ after the child-murder. Dinah tells Mr. Irwine, the Rector of Hayslope, “But I’ve noticed, that in these villages where the people lead a quiet life among the green pastures and the still waters, tilling the ground and tending the cattle, there’s a strange deadness to the world, as different as can be from the great towns…..It’s wonderful how rich is the harvest of souls up those high-walled streets, where you seemed to walk as in a prison-yard and the ear is deafened with the sounds of worldly toil. I think, maybe, it is because the promise is sweeter when this life is so dark and weary, and the soul gets more hungry when the body is ill at ease.” Loamshire people are spiritually dead, while those of Stonyshire are more responsive to religion, more awake spiritually, though it is a hard region in which they live.
The Scenes and Sights: Graphic and Vivid Presentation
The background against which the drama of Adam Bede takes place is on the borders of Staffordshire and Derbyshire, and picturesque and graphic, as also faithful, descriptions of the region are abundant in the novel. Its scenes and sights, its landmarks, the quality of the life that goes on within it, and its transitions, customs and superstitions have all been faithfully rendered so that we feel, for the time being, as if we were actually living there and sharing in the placid rhythm of life, disturbed only now and then by tragedies like that of Hetty. The geographical features, the inns, churches, mansions, etc., of this region have been faithfully recorded. There might be some modification and transformation of reality but there is no falsification.
The Landmarks
There are a number of inns where the rural folk assemble as much for rest and drink as for gossiping and exchange of views. In the second chapter of Adam Bede the traveller to Rosseter stops at Donnithorne Arms which stood at the entrance of the village of Hayslope. The original of the ‘Donnithorne Arms’ is the ‘Bromley Davenport Arms’ and it stands at the entrance of the village of Ellastone in Staffordshire. “The green lay at the extremity of the village, and from it the road branched off in two directions, one leading farther up the hill by the church, and the other winding gently toward the valley. This is an exact description of the fork in the readjust beyond the Bromley-Davenport Arms.”     —(Charles Olcott)
The description of Donnithorne Chase in Adam Bede corresponds to the beautiful estate of Wootton Hall, not far from the village of Ellaston. Over hundred years ago it was owned by Sir Francis Newdegate whose son introduced Robert Evan to the old Squire and Robert Evans later became the Squire’s baliff. This corresponds closely to be story in Adam Bede where Arthur Donnithorne makes Squire Donnithorne give the job of management of his lands to Adam Bede. Wootton Hall itself is described closely in the novel: “The house would have been nothing but a plain square mansion of Queen Anne’s time but for the remanents of an old Abbey to which it was united at one end in much the same way as one may sometimes see a new farmhouse high and prime at the end of the older and lower farm-office. The fine old remanent stood a little backward and under the shadow of tall beeches, but the sun was now on the taller and more advanced front, the blinds were all down, and the house seemed asleep in the hot midday.”
Robert Evans was born in a little cottage in Reston. Between the cottage and the village of Norbury was a little brick cottage owned by the village school-master Battle Massey. The name of Bartle Massey has been left unchanged in Adam Bede. It was to this cottage school that Robert Evans (Adam Bede) went to night school. George Eliot, no doubt, had heard of the goings on in the school from her father and she is able to give a vivid account of it in the novel.
These landmarks play an important part in the novels of George Eliot. They appear and re-appear in her novels and this imparts to them a rare continuity and organic wholeness. If a visitor visits the geographical scenes and places mentioned in the novel he will find himself in familiar surroundings which have been so accurately described and only faintly disguised. It is interesting to note that Adam Bede which is based much less on memory and personal experience than Scenes of Clerical Life and is not even set in Warwickshire, is richer pictorially than her first novel.
Graphic Descriptions: Novelists’s Use of them
She uses rich descriptions in this novel to provide a credible setting and to bring out the individual character of the setting and places where her characters live and to which they are bound by family tradition, love, memory, work and affection. Finally, George Eliot, uses landscape to define, reinforce and foreshadow the events of the plot and moral situation. “Some idea of her use of setting and background is provided by the opening scene in Jonathan Surge’s workshop where we meet Adam Bede for the first time. There are countless other such scenes in the novel. We should not just pass them by merely as background material. The warmth of the sun, the scent of the pine-wood, and elder bushes, the light striking the shavings of wood, all help to create the sense of a calm, ordered existence. Such scenes form a concrete background for the human action that follows. The atmosphere of sunny, harmonious, energetic rusticity is complicated, but not shattered, by the diversity of personalities and underlying tensions”.           —(Henry Auster)
Mrs. Poyser is the voice of rural tradition and community, her home, the Hall Farm, provides a background that illustrates her character vividly. The Hall Farm is the centre of orderliness, comfort, love, energy, security and peace of mind which all other characters in the novel recognize except Hetty. Even Captain Arthur Donnithorne recognizes The Hall Farm as a kind of local landmark and compliments Mrs. Poyser: “I think yours is the prettiest farm on the estate…..I know this his (Mr. Poyser) farm is in better order than any other within ten miles of us; and as for the kitchen……I don’t believe there’s one in the kingdom to beat it.”
Graphic Imagery
What gives such reality to the presentation of these rural dwellers, is the kind of imagery they use. Their images differ from character to character according to his or her profession. Says Walter Allen, “Mr. Poyser’s images with his similes from unripe grain, are those of the farmer: Mrs. Peyser’s those of the housewife. Mrs. Poyser is certainly individualized beyond this; but both gain strength from the fact that their speech is, as it were, generic; the speech of a special category of beings of which each is an individual member. Scott did the same with his peasant characters, and, as with Scott, the result is that such characters take on universality; in a way, they come to represent the enduring norms of life in society. Much of the solidity of George Eliot’s recreation of the scene of pastoral Warwickshire comes from this: Mrs. Poyser is not only one quite sharply individualized farmer’s wife, and perhaps part of Adam Bede’s failure comes from a false application of the same convention. Adam too is made habitually to express himself in the terms of his craft; but it is not Adam’s place to be a representative carpenter, and in his mouth his analogies from joinery and building emerge as platitudes, as copy­book maxims.”
The Flavour of Midland Life—Use of Dialect
According to Anne Morley the noblest achievement of George Eliot in the novel is the fact that she has succeeded in conveying to us the quality or flavour as it is of life lived in Hayslope. “We do not know if our literature anywhere possesses such a closely true picture of purely rural life as Adam Bede presents. Every class that makes up a village community has its representative; and not only is the dialect of the locality accurately given but the distinct inflection of each order. The field labourer’s rude utterance, ‘as incapable of an undertone as a cow or a stag’, receives a touch of cultivation when it is used by the mechanic; and these two, again are varied in the farmhouse; while each individual has appropriate peculiarities which give a distinct truth of portraiture. No, person, we apprehend, can be an adept in minute observation of character, or, at least, in delineating it, without a correct ear and a good verbal memory. When we have a distinct idea of the words people will use, we are led to a clearer notion of the range of their ideas; accuracy in expression secures an amount of accuracy of thought. And well does the midland country dialect come out in this its first appearance, as far as we know, as a written language: how faithfully it expresses both pathos, commonsense, and humour. On Adam’s lips how forcible, on Mrs. Poyser’s tongue how pungent, in old Lisbeth’s how querulous, these niceties of observation show themselves in the differences of intellect and cultivation which each calling develops. What a stride there is between the village mechanic and the village labourer.”
Occupation and Professions
The characters in the novel represent a cross-section of Midland occupations and professions. The carpenter, the preacher, the Rector, the Clergy, the farmer, the dairy-maid and the dairy hands, the Squire and his household, the common labourers and wage-earners, the vain and frivolous village girls, the village schoolmaster, etc., are all there, and they have all been brought to life by the hand of George Eliot.
Customs and Traditions
Midland superstitions, customs and traditions have all been rendered. Thus there is the superstition that a knock at the door at night means death in the family. The knock is heard by Adam, and Thias is found dead the next morning. The celebration of Arthur’s 21st birthday provides the author with an occasion for giving a detailed account of such celebrations in the rural side, as also to hint at village jealousies and village hierarchies which cause much heart-burning even in such primitive pastoral communities.
Hayslope as on Over-Character
As a matter of fact the world of Hayslope is a completely inter-related world, in which the good or ill of one cannot but have repercussions on the rest. The rural community is almost a character in the story. Those who do violence to it have no place in it and, ultimately have to leave it. Hetty Sorrel, who is compared to a plant with no roots, does not fit in with the corporate life of the community. The Poysers stay there despite the threats of the old Squire and the misdeeds of the young Squire, Arthur, because they have a sense of kinship with the community and do not deserve to be ousted from it. On the other hand, the thoughtless young Squire, who does a grave injury to it by trying to disrupt the even tenor of its life, has to bow out of it. More than in Hardy, a failure to harmonise oneself with the life of the community is a sure prelude to tragedy in this isolatsd world.
To conclude with the words of Gerald Bullet, “George Eliot’s intimate knowledge of country life and her matchless powers of description have combined to make Adam Bede a masterpiece. She has made rural England come to life in the pages of the novel. England is most English in those Midland shires, and George Eliot knew them, or knew their essential features—the farms, the lush fields, the brown canals, the rattle of cottage looms, and above all the racy’speech of the yeoman and peasant—as ‘only a child can’. Her descriptions of country people have all the warmth and colour of reality, but and this is important—it is reality with a difference, it is reality at the service of imagination; not usurping imagination’s place and function.”

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