Scenes of Clerical Life: by George Eliot

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      The novels of George Eliot are easily divisible into two groups or categories. The first group includes her early novels— Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, Milt on the Floss and Sails Marner, in which the setting and the story are provided by her girlhood memories. The second group includes her later novels — Romola, Felix Halt, Daniel Doranda—in which having exhausted her memories of the past she turns to fresh fields and pastures new, and Middlemarch in which she returns once again to her beloved Midlands. A familiarity with these works is essential for a proper appreciation other art and genius.


      Scenes of Clerical life is not a novel, properly so called, but a - collection of three stories. It gives us, as its title suggests, vivid sketches of three different aspects of the life and character of clergymen.

      George Eliot had always cherished a “vague dream” that some time or other she might write a novel. At the age of thirty-six, she had got no further than an “introductory chapter” descriptive of life in a Staffordshire village and the neighboring farmhouses. She happened, however, to have this fragment with her in Germany, and read it to Lewes one evening at Berlin. He shared her doubts as to the dramatic power; hut the ability shown in her other articles led him to think the experiment of novel-writing worth trying. One day. in a dreamy mood, she fancied herself’ writing a story to be called The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton". Lewes suggested that it might open a series of sketches drawn from her observations of the clergy. The story convinced him that she could write good dialogue. It was still to be seen whether she had a command of pathos. This was settled by a chapter describing the last illness of Mrs. Barton. They both “cried over it”, and Lewes kissed her, saying, “I think your pathos is better than your fun”. Thus encouraged, she finished the story on the 5th of November, and next day Lewes sent the MS with a note to John Blackwood Lewes stated that the story, intended for the first of a series, had been written by a friend whose powers he had doubted. The doubts had been changed by the reading into ‘very high admiration’. “Such humor, pathos, vivid (presentation, and nice observation”, he thought, “had not been exhibited in this style since the Vicar of Wakefield”. Lewes also added that the story showed the rarest of all faculties—dramatic ‘ventriloquism’. The first part of the story accordingly appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in January 1857; and Blackwood sent ‘fifty guineas and some very cordial praises in return. “Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story’ and ‘Janet’s Repentance’ appeared in the Magazine in the following months; and these appeared together as Scenes of Clerical Life in the beginning of 1858. The name ‘George Eliot’, under which these and all her later works appeared, was assumed, it appears, because Lewe’s name was ‘George’, and ‘Eliot’ was “a good, mouth-filling, easily pronounced word”.

      The Scenes of Clerical Life at once attracted considerable critical attention, and was praised highly for its humor, pathos and vivid and life-like descriptions. Certain touches in the book convinced George Eliot’s old neighbors that the author came from their district. The Scenes as she admitted soon afterward, contained ‘portraits’, a mistake which should not occur again, and was due to the fact that her ‘hand was not well in’. The plots, too, were more or less reproductions of remembered incidents. Milly Barton, we are told, is the wife of a Mr. Gwyther, curate of Chilvers Coton, He died when George Eliot was sixteen, and was a friend of Mrs. Robert Evans, who appears in the story as Mrs. Hacket. A persecution of a clergyman, like that upon which Janet’s Repentance turns, really took place, though she filled in details from imagination. Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story was a more interesting application of the same method.

      Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel represent Sir Roger and Lady Newdigate. The Newdigates had taken charge of a girl called Sally Shilton, daughter of a collier, who had given promise of musical talent. They had her trained as a singer; and when ill-health forced her to give up the attempt, they continued their protection. She married a Mr. Ebdell, vicar of Chilvers-Coton (the ‘Shepperton’ of the story), in 1801, and died twenty-two years later. Sir Roger’s heir, Charles Parker, died suddenly, when Sally was a little over twenty, in 1795. George Eliot, who must have learned the facts from family tradition, converted Sally Shilton into Caterina Sarti, by way of explaining her musical talent as a case of heredity, and then invented the love affair with Captain Wybrow, who takes the place of Charles Parker. These childish recollections have been transformed by the novelist with great skill into the most charming of stories.

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