Towards the end of 1856, Mary Ann Evans, a well-regarded intellectual and essayist, submitted three stories to ‘Blackwood’s Magazine’. They were accepted, they were published over three issues during the following year, and towards the end of that year they were published as a single volume, entitled ‘Scenes of Clerical Life’.
It was George Eliot’s first published work of fiction, and it was recognised, in the words of ‘Saturday Review’, as ‘the production of a peculiar and remarkable writer.’
I must confess that it was a book that passed me by, back in the day when I fell in love with George Eliot’s writing and rushed to read every word of hers that I could find. This year though it called me; I was reading Patricia Duncker’s new novel, ‘Sophie and the Sibyl’, which was inspired by an episode in George Eliot’s life. I loved it, and I was so taken with her portrayal of the author that I had to pick up one of her books.
I remembered that I had ‘Scenes of Clerical Life’ in three little volumes; published by the Hesperus Press a few years ago.
I didn’t mean to start reading straight away, I meant to finish the book I was reading, but I was so taken with ‘Scenes of Clerical Life’ that I had to keep reading, slowly and steadily so that I could appreciate everything that it had to offer.
I loved the voice of the author from the start; she was an omniscient narrator, talking to her reader and wandering wherever she chose to illuminate the people, the places, the events, that she was choosing to share. It reminded me a little of Trollope, but her voice was distinctive and it was full of warmth and intelligence, and her love of writing and everything she wrote about shone.
She her first story by recalling going to church as a child; to the same church where, in the first of her stories, Amos Barton was curate. She captured the sensations of being a small child in a big church; an environment like no other, where adults behaved – and dressed -not quite as they did outside church.
She remembered deep pews, elaborate carvings and a choir master who clearly relished his moments centre stage; she made me think of the angels with lovely long dresses that I loved on our church’s reredos, and Mr Otto, who would swing the thurible in a full circle as the servers proceeded down the aisle.
She is equally at ease with her characters and their world; so obviously a world that she knew and loved. She could sum them up in one telling phrase and she made them live and breathe.
When we left church she steered me to a tea party. Had there not been gentlemen present I might have thought that I was in Cranford. The new curate, Amos Barton, was discussed, and sadly his parishioners had not warmed to him:
“The Rev. Amos never came near the borders of a vice. His very faults were middling—he was not very ungrammatical. It was not in his nature to be superlative in anything; unless, indeed, he was superlatively middling, the quintessential extract of mediocrity.”
He was sadly lacking in empathy with other people, he didn’t understand what might be achieved by sweetening pills, and when troubled his response was to withdraw and to study his bible. To put it simply, he lacked the qualities that a parish priest needs.
The curate was flattered by the attentions of an one parishioner, Countess Caroline Czerlaski, who promised to put in a good word for him with the Dean. But, before she could do that, her brother seduced her maid and promised her marriage. The Countess was horrified, and she left home in protest, descending on her dear friends, the Bartons.
It was too much for Milly Barton. She struggled to raise her brood of children and to keep house as her husband expected on his meagre stipend. She could make over clothes, but shoes were always a problem. She didn’t trouble her husband with those things though and she didn’t complain; because she was proud of him, and of the work he had been called to do.
Her husband was oblivious, and so was her house guest – the most demanding and imperious of house guests.
I loved Milly, and I wished I could do something or say something to try to sort the situation out.
The children’s nurse felt as I did and she tried to do something, even though it wasn’t her place. She succeeded, but it was too late. Milly had fallen ill, and she and the child she was expecting both died.
Her husband realised that he had failed her.
Amos Barton’s parishioners had been unsympathetic to him as their minister; they had suspected that the Countess was his mistress and gossiped about them; but when they saw him grief stricken at the loss of his wife they felt for him, and they did everything they could to support him and his family:
“There were men and women standing in that churchyard who had bandied vulgar jests about their pastor, and who had lightly charged him with sin, but now, when they saw him following the coffin, pale and haggard, he was consecrated anew by his great sorrow, and they looked at him with respectful pity”.
This is a simple story, but it is profound. And its world, its characters were so real, so wonderfully well realised, that I could quite easily believe that the narrator was telling me the story of a previous incumbent of her own parish.
She wrote so well, and, though this was a sad story, there were some lovely moments of wit and humour. I have to recommend reading, and reading slowly to appreciate everything that this novella holds
This isn’t George Eliot at the height of her powers, but I found it easy is see many of the things that would make her a great writer, some already in bloom and some growing nicely. And I have to say that this really is very fine first fiction.
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