I’ve recently read George Eliot’s first novel, “Adam Bede.” It’s a racier novel than I had come to expect, having read “Middlemarch” and “Silas Marner”.
Do people still speak of “racy” novels in this day and age? Well, I considered calling it straight-up sexy, but this is still 19th century Victorian literature, and it’s still George Eliot. Yet sexual desire is nevertheless front and center, if still thickly clothed in Victorian wording. This novel has a genuine ingenue (another word perhaps no longer used today?), Hetty Sorrel, and it spends some time admiring her, even staring at her. Of course Eliot has a purpose in doing this, and she gives us extended reflections on the nature of beauty, or, you might say, the beauty of nature. Those reflections are the best of Eliot, just as I remembered from “Middlemarch.”
But “Middlemarch” and “Silas Marner,” though they speak of illicit affairs, base desires, and secrets, bring those things in from the side, as background to the story already being told. In “Adam Bede” the affair and secrets are the story.
This is no bodice-ripper, of course, and it’s actually a slow-moving novel that demands patience. It was just somewhat surprising to me to be reading, for example, about a secretly pregnant bride-to-be, alone in the countryside, running away from her marriage.
The young woman on the run, Hetty Sorrel, started reminding me of Elmira Johnson from Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove”. The stories share many commonalities. Elmira fends for herself on the road and in the empty countryside, eventually giving birth at a crossroads on the prairie. Ellie abandons her baby to continue her search for an ex-lover, and eventually her husband, July Johnson, briefly catches up with her.
This type of story is not exactly uncommon, but two things in particular stood out for me. One is Hetty Sorrel’s silence. She is tight-lipped, and not merely out of secrecy; something in her seems painfully incapable of expression. It was one of her taciturn replies in conversation that actually made me first think of Elinor Johnson.
The second thing that struck me is that George Eliot makes a most interesting appearance in “Lonesome Dove.”
Ellie Johnson, as I said, gives birth at a crossroads on the prairie, in the home of Clara Allen. Now, Clara is a hard woman in a tough place, but she loves to read, and she has a particular liking for the women in George Eliot’s stories. She is subscribed to a “ladies’ magazine” in which George Eliot actually published her early stories:
The ladies’ magazines had stories and parts of novels in them, in many of which were ladies who led lives so different from hers that she felt she might as well be on another planet. She liked Thackeray’s ladies better than Dickens’s, and George Eliot’s best of all—but it was a frustration that the mail came so seldom. Sometimes she would have to wait for two or three months for her Blackwoods, wondering all the time what was happening to the people in the stories. Reading stories by all the women, not only George Eliot, but Mrs. Gore and Mrs. Gaskell and Charlotte Yonge, she sometimes had a longing to do what those women did—write stories. But those women lived in cities or towns and had many friends and relatives nearby. It discouraged her to look out the window at the empty plains and reflect that even if she had the eloquence to write, and the time, she had nothing to write about. With Maude Jones dead, she seldom saw another woman, and had no relatives near except her husband and her children. There was an aunt in Cincinnati, but they only exchanged letters once or twice a year. Her characters would have to be the horses and the hens, if she ever wrote, for the menfolk that came by weren’t interesting enough to put in books, it seemed to her. None of them were capable of the kind of talk men managed in English novels.
The journal that Clara Allen reads is Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. “Adam Bede” was subsequently published by Blackwoods publishing house in 1859, seventeen years before the events of “Lonesome Dove.”
Hetty is surely not one of the women whom Clara seems to admire. I think it’s much more likely that Clara admires, even sees something of her own large soul, in Dorothea Brooke from “Middlemarch”.
But I like to imagine that Clara, as she received first the fleeing Elmira and then the searching July Johnson into her home, had already read about Hetty Sorrel and Adam Bede.
Who knows, perhaps something of the fleeing nature of Elmira and Hetty touched something in Clara too.