Monday 3 March 2014

Review: Scenes of Clerical Life, George Eliot (1857)

‘Depend upon it, you would gain unspeakably if you would learn with me to see some of the poetry and pathos, the tragedy and the comedy, lying in the experience of a human soul that looks out through dull grey eyes, and that speaks in a voice of quite ordinary tones.’ 

Eliot’s first foray into fiction was Scenes of Clerical Life – three short stories published over the course of 1857 before being sold together in volume form in 1858. The stories share a setting – the fictional town of Milby - and some interest in a (different) clergyman working in the area. ‘The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton’ is the tale of a man who fails to appreciate his wife until it is too late, ‘Mr Gilful’s Love-Story’ is about the unexpectedly dramatic early love affair of a now single and unremarkable clergyman, and ‘Janet’s Repentance’ considers the suffering of an abused wife who turns first to alcohol, but then to the religious comfort of evangelical preacher Mr Tryan.

But any summary of a George Eliot novel, or even these shorter works, is extremely reductive. The broader brushstrokes are prevalent here too – these aren’t just the tales of individuals, or even of an evolving community and its religious life. Eliot’s ‘theme’ is human nature, and the negotiation of morality and empathy which every human undergoes. Scale is important in Eliot – every thought, each decision can be subjected to scrutiny, and the seemingly trivial can have a massive impact on many lives – and so it is fitting that it is in these smaller scale works that we first have sight of the novelist she was to become. 

Marian Evans ('George Eliot')
For general readers: Scenes of Clerical Life is a collection of works which vividly depicts life in a Midlands town at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and really involves you in the trials of its inhabitants – but Eliot makes you work for it. These short stories are by no stretch of the imagination an easy read as Eliot introduces characters with the same ease as your grandmother telling you her neighbours’ gossip, plunges you into scenes without allowing you a moment to get your bearings and then guides you back to the thread of the story and its moral in indomitable narrative style.

‘Mr Gilful’s Love-Story’ is the most manageable and perhaps initially appealing, albeit it is the weakest (and least obviously Eliot) of the three. The story of beautiful orphaned Italian heroine, Caterina, seduced by the heir to the estate, is bookended by the frame narrative but otherwise proceeds chronologically in typical love plot style. ‘Janet’s Repentance’ is emotionally affecting and still starkly recognisable but difficult to get into initially due to frequent changes in focus, and the rather understandably off-putting discussions of the future of the Church in dialect.

My advice would be to take the stories at their own pace, avoid rushing and trust Eliot’s narrative mastery, while perhaps taking breaks between the three. 

For students:  For students working on Eliot this is an obvious choice – all the hallmarks of her style are here and are ready to be analysed without you having to tackle another lengthy novel or deal with the same passages of Middlemarch that every student quotes.

For others it is the focus on the clergy which may appeal, especially given the stories’ historical setting, and the changes which can be seen affecting the Milby community over the course of the three tales – not just socially, but to the very bricks of their church.

Caterina is an example of an emotionally overlooked female dependant living on uncertain footing in gentile family, who has many fictional counterparts and her Italian origin is also interesting, while Janet is a more nuanced, rounded and realistic portrait of what can happen to a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage than most found in the pages of contemporary literature.

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