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 …

A Second Tale of Clerical Life; Quite Unlike the First

After reading George Eliot’s First Tale of Clerical Life I thought I knew what to expect of her second; another account of a clergyman’s life in a country parish told with warmth and intelligence. I expected a contrasting story, because Maynard Gifil had been refered to in Amos Barton’s story, as a former parish priest who had understood his parishioners so much better than the new incumbent.

I was wrong.

The opening had me fooled. It introduced Mr. Gilfil as an old man, long established as the vicar of Shepperton, and it illustrated why he had been so popular. He was comfortable in the role of parish priest, he was sensitive to his congregations wishes, he preached short sermons, and he was a man who had no family; he belonged to his congregation.

It was lovely to meet the narrator I knew and loved from the first Tale of Clerical life, I was happy to meet one or two familiar characters again and I settled in for another story of life in Shepperton.

I was charmed by anecdotes like this:

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“There’s that case-hardened old Judy a-coming after the tea-leaves again,’ Mrs. Hackit would say; ‘an’ I’m fool enough to give ’em her, though Sally wants ’em all the while to sweep the floors with!’

Such was Dame Fripp, whom Mr. Gilfil, riding leisurely in top-boots and spurs from doing duty at Knebley one warm Sunday afternoon, observed sitting in the dry ditch near her cottage, and by her side a large pig, who, with that ease and confidence belonging to perfect friendship, was lying with his head in her lap, and making no effort to play the agreeable beyond an occasional grunt.

‘Why, Mrs. Fripp,’ said the Vicar, ‘I didn’t know you had such a fine pig. You’ll have some rare flitches at Christmas!’

‘Eh, God forbid! My son gev him me two ‘ear ago, an’ he’s been company to me iver sin’. I couldn’t find i’ my heart to part wi’m, if I niver knowed the taste o’ bacon-fat again.’

‘Why, he’ll eat his head off, and yours too. How can you go on keeping a pig, and making nothing by him?’

‘O, he picks a bit hisself wi’ rootin’, and I dooant mind doing wi’out to gi’ him summat. A bit o’ company’s meat an’ drink too, an’ he follers me about, and grunts when I spake to’m, just like a Christian.’

Mr. Gilfil laughed, and I am obliged to admit that he said good-bye to Dame Fripp without asking her why she had not been to church, or making the slightest effort for her spiritual edification. But the next day he ordered his man David to take her a great piece of bacon, with a message, saying, the parson wanted to make sure that Mrs. Fripp would know the taste of bacon-fat again.”

It wasn’t long though before the story moved into the past, quite naturally; to tell Mr. Gilfil’ love story, and to explain how he had come to be alone.

Maynard Gilfil had been chaplain at Cheverel Manor, and it was there that he fell in love with Caterina Sarti. Caterina, who was always known as ‘Tina’, was an Italian orphan and the ward of Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel, who took her into their care following the death of her father.

Sadly, Mr. Gilfil’s love for Tina was not returned. She liked him well enough, but she was utterly besotted with Captain Anthony Wybrow, nephew and heir of Sir Christopher Cheverel. And she thought it was her destiny to be the next lady of the manor.

That would never be. The Cheverels were prompting a match between their nephew and Miss Beatrice Assher, the daughter of a very dear friend;  and they hoped that Tina would marry Mr. Gilfil. Wybrow, but he flirted with Tina, and she was quite convinced that he loved her as much as she loved him.

Mr. Gilfil saw all of this, and he realised that there was nothing he do to save Tina from heartbreak.

I saw the influence of earlier women writers – Jane Austen in particular – in the beginning of this story. And then I began to think that George Eliot was testing her literary wings, deciding what kind of author she might like to be, because then there was a dash of sensation novel.

Tina learned the truth.

There was a terrible tragedy.

There was a serious misunderstanding.

And all of that led to high drama.

I can’t fault the storytelling. the psychology, or the writing. I just have to complain that the author was a little judgemental when she wrote of Tina, who was no more that a foolish girl blinded by love.

Some time later, Mr. Gilfil met Tina again. She was a little older and a little wiser, she came to appreciate his love and devotion, and she came to love him too. They married, but there would be no happy ending. Tina’s health had been compromised by those dramatic events that she so wanted to put behind her, and she died in childbirth.

That left Mr. Gilfil to live out the rest of his life alone.

This wasn’t George Eliot at the height of her powers; but it was an engaging story, a believable human drama, very well told.

She might have become a very good sensation novelist; but I’m glad that she didn’t, because the road that she chose was much more interesting.

George Eliot’s First Tale of Clerical Life

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.

9781843910510I 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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