Sunday, 3 April 2011

Scenes of Clerical Life

In betweeen reading all these Lives of Jesus I managed to find time to read George Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life.   I remember my first year literature tutor telling us Eliot's Middlemarch was the greatest novel ever written in English.  That's a big call but once I read it, particularly after the first 100 pages, I had to agree that she had a point.

Eliot (real name Marian Evans) was a minister's daughter but as a young adult she abandoned the established church, "converting" to the ideas of German theological scholar David Freidrich Strauss, whose rationalist Life of Jesus she translated in 1846.  By the mid 1850s when she started writing fiction she was living openly with a married man and one of the reasons she used a pseudonym was to avoid her writings being rejected because of her rather notorious personal life.

Scenes of Clerical Life contains her first published works of fiction - three novellas which appeared seperately in one of John Blackwood's publications through 1857 and then were published together in book form in 1858.  The male pseudonym didn't fool Dickens, who immediately identified the author as a woman.  This couldn't have been difficult - these stories have both femininity and feminism written all over them.

This is not the Eliot of Middlemarch.  You can see that she's still learning her craft and gaining confidence.  She pontificates a lot more than the stories warrant, there are moments of absurd melodrama and she frequently apologises to her readers for the plainess of the tales.  The first of them, The Sad Fortunes of Amos Barton, does in fact require an apology, but the other two, Mr Gilfil's Love Story and Janet's Repentance, need nothing of the sort.  Two things mark them as the works of a genius in the making - their subject matter, and the skill with which things are revealed to the reader beneath the surface of the words.

Janet's Repentance is ostensibly the darkest of the stories, revolving around Janet Dempster's marriage to the abusive, alcoholic lawyer Robert Dempster, against the backdrop of an evangelical revival sweeping the small town of Milby.  Even though Janet has developed her own alcohol addiction as a result of her husband's abuse, all the sympathy is with her as, in the final crisis of her marriage, she turns for help to the evangelical pastor, who brings about her repentance and helps her to rebuild her life. 

Yet what on the surface is a story of piety and religious awakening is, in fact, a submerged love story.  All the conversation between Janet and the Rev Edgar Tryan revolves around religious devotion, prayer and conversion.  Janet's troubles, and then Tryan's illness, prevent their romance from emerging from this disguise.  Yet Eliot's hints are plain enough that there can be no doubt what she intends.  She never tells you in so many words, and this only heightens your enjoyment in discovering it for yourself, the agony of knowing that the romance will never blossom, and the joy of seeing that nonetheless it was a transforming love.

This same hiding of the real story below a more conventional surface is much starker in Mr Gilfil's Love Story, and it means that while the surface story is more hopeful, the tale hidden within it is if anything darker and more sinister than Janet's tale of abuse.  Here cruelty masquerades as kindness. 

The surface story is a rather clumsy love triangle.  Caterina, the beautiful ward of Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel, is caught between Sir Christopher's nephew and heir Captain Wybrow, a stock-standard flirt who steals her affections, and the earnest and genuine Rev Maynard Gilfil.  The story winds through its expected twists and turns before Caterina finally ends up where she belongs - in the loving arms of Mr Gilfil - but with her health ruined by the stress so she only survives for six months after their marriage.

So far so cliched.  What's so clever about this story is what lies imperfectly concealed beneath the surface.  Caterina is an Italian orphan, taken into the care of the Cheverels during a visit to Italy.  Eliot points out, in a seemingly neutral way, that she is not adopted as their daughter but merely taken into their household.  They seem to treat her with affection, and she seems part of the family, but as the story unfolds you see things differently.  Sir Christopher continually calls her his "clever monkey" and his "singing bird" and you come to see that what appear to be terms of affection reveal her actual status in the household.  She is an exotic pet, fussed over and made to do tricks in the same way as Sir Christopher's favourite hunting dogs.  He demands that she sing, and she dare not refuse.  On leaving the room she kneels at his feet, and he pats her cheek.

Captain Wybrow, of course, treats her the same way.  He flirts with her, and they have a love affair carried on in secret under the noses of the elders and noticed only by Gilfil, another household pet.  But of course while she is passionately in love he is just playing with her, and far from having any conscience about abandoning her expects her to welcome and befriend his wealthy fiance.  Sir Christopher, meanwhile, is quite oblivious and insists on her marriage to Gilfil as if her own opinion on the matter is of no consequence.

It's amazing, and a testament to Eliot's skill, that such a devastating critique of class divisions and the position of poor women could be published and circulated in the London establishment without censorship.  This, in the end, is the difference between Eliot and her equally celebrated contemporary Charles Dickens.  Dickens would have whacked you in the face with this injustice, exaggerated it to the point of parody, and cloaked it in sinister intent and dark secrets so that its orginals could safely laugh at it.  The real life Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel, on the other hand, would have had to squirm and protest if they had recognised themselves in this portrait.  Its cloak of kindness and charity only serves to heighten the horror of what is really going on, as you see the singing bird flapping vainly against the bars of its cage, finally escaping but so wounded it can never fly free.

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