George Eliot’s Third Tale of Clerical Life

It’s a long time since I read George Eliot’s first two Tales of Clerical Life, and I don’t quite know why it has taken me so long to read the third – and final story, but I am so glad that I have read it now. It is the best of the trilogy, and it is a story that reminds me – and must have suggested to contemporaries – that George Eliot would become the finest of writers.

This story is set in the small town of Milby; a town that has been ministered to by a succession of clergyman, who have ranged from the downright wrong for the role to the merely competent. The most recent incumbent was elderly, and so he took on a curate to relieve him of some of his burden.

The new man was evangelical and pragmatic, and he divided opinion. Many loved Mr. Tryan, but there were some who hated him, who considered him to be nothing more than a dissenter. Lines were drawn, and the battle that would be fought would make the conflict of the Grantlyite and Proudieite forces in Barchester look like a tea party.

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Mr. Dempster, the town solicitor was the new man’s most vociferous critic. He was a respected man, but respected from fear not love. He drank heavily, he brooked no criticism, and he considered his word to be law. His wife, Janet, supported him, she encouraged his persecution of the poor curate.

The world thinks that she is as bad as he is; but the truth is rather different.

Janet suffers at the hands of her violent and abusive husband. She is desperately unhappy, but she stays because it is her duty, because she remembers the early days of her marriage when she had been happy, and because she had nowhere to go.

She is driven to drink; and one night, when she is emboldened and resists doing something her husband expects of her, he turns he out of the house in her nightdress.

A neighbour takes her in and the kindness she is shown makes her realise how wrong she had been about Mr. Tryan and his supporters. She knows her duty – she will do her duty – but she will do penance and she will endeavour to live a better life.

I loved the voice that told this story. It was distinctive, it was warm and wise, and I didn’t doubt that the narrator was personally acquainted with the people, the places, the events, that she was sharing. I was sure that there were many wonderful stories she could tell, but she knew that this one was important, and that it was important that she told it well.

She told it so well; everything was so rich and so real; everything lived and breathed.

It is a story of its time; but the story of domestic abuse feels strikingly modern, and the psychology is pitch perfect.

The plot is slow to emerge, because the town and its inhabitants and the situation were carefully introduced. I was happy with that, I loved spending time with the narrator; but that together with some lack of subtlety places this story some way behind George Eliot’s best work.

When the plot does emerge it is is profoundly moving; revealing a story of abuse and unhappiness, of salvation and hope. I felt so much for Janet as she was in despair, as she was rescued by the compassion and friendship of her neighbour and the love of her mother, as she acknowledged that she had been wrong and publically gave her support to Mr. Tryan, as she struggled with the demon drink ….

There are complex emotions here, there is a wonderful depth of feeling, and the story plays out wonderfully well.

I loved that it had a clear morality without ever preaching, and that it speaks profoundly about what it means to be alive in the world, and about how we must live with ourselves and with others.

I leave ‘Scenes of Clerical Life’ eager to read and re-read the rest of George Eliot’s work.

And I remember that why it called me; I had been reading Patricia Duncker’s novel, ‘Sophie and the Sibyl’, which was inspired by an episode in George Eliot’s life. I was loving it, and I was so taken with her portrayal of the author that I had to pick up one of her books.

I must find that book again …

10 thoughts on “George Eliot’s Third Tale of Clerical Life

  1. I just “did” this one with a class. We talked of it as a story about wife abuse, and the point was made by me and others what is so important about it is everyone knows Janet is being abused and no one does anything to help her. In fact the community attitudes help sustain the abuse. We also talked of confession as a mode of psychiatric help and how the harm Tryan did a young girl was analogous to the community norms which didn’t help Janet. That he could feel for others having done such harm himself. The mother’s complicity (Janet’s as well as Dempster’s). What is a bully? For me the most painful moment in the tale was when Janet supported her husband in his ostracizing of Tryan. Eliot also understands how years of abuse and channeling that destructively in order to live with or under it (through alcoholism) takes time to undo. Such harm is never wholly undone but by the end of the tale she has found some peace. One flaw: Eliot needn’t have killed of Tryan because she feared the romance would somehow spoil the meaning of the tale.

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  2. I think I am one of the very very small minority, whose rendezvous with George Elliot has not been particularly good. Maybe it was a wrong book at the wrong time! But the premises of this one is very intriguing and I will try and give the book and author a try!

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  3. I hadn’t heard about this book before your post but, gosh, it sounds very much (sadly) like a book for our times – will definitely be adding it to my TBR. and, as you say, what a great reminder to embrace the rest of GE’s marvellous work. 🙂

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