Female beauty in Adam Bede

In George Eliot’s “Adam Bede,” the titular character is a “sensible” man of high principles who falls in love with Hetty Sorrel, a superficial girl who does not love or understand him. He, in turn, loves Hetty but doesn’t understand her. This is a common and very human situation, as Eliot observes with extended irony:

Of course, I know that, as a rule, sensible men fall in love with the most sensible women of their acquaintance, see through all the pretty deceits of coquettish beauty, never imagine themselves loved when they are not loved, cease loving on all proper occasions, and marry the woman most fitted for them in every respect—indeed, so as to compel the approbation of all the maiden ladies in their neighbourhood.

But Eliot is not here to castigate Adam. What she really wants is to talk about beauty — to observe and question it, and to explore what might be genuine about it.

For some characters in the novel, external beauty is what counts, and in their view it always corresponds to inner beauty. So says Mrs. Irwine, the mother of the local pastor:

“You’ll never persuade me that I can’t tell what men are by their outsides. If I don’t like a man’s looks, depend upon it I shall never like HIM. I don’t want to know people that look ugly and disagreeable, any more than I want to taste dishes that look disagreeable. If they make me shudder at the first glance, I say, take them away. An ugly, piggish, or fishy eye, now, makes me feel quite ill; it’s like a bad smell.”

Now, Mrs. Irwine’s approach to life might seem to be caricature. But Eliot recognizes that we all think like this to some degree, and for those who doubt it, she poses this question:

ask yourself if you were ever predisposed to believe evil of any pretty woman

And this external female beauty may be idealized by women as much as men:

There are various orders of beauty, causing men to make fools of themselves in various styles, from the desperate to the sheepish; but there is one order of beauty which seems made to turn the heads not only of men, but of all intelligent mammals, even of women.

Returning to the male idealization of female beauty, she expresses what Adam and all men probably feel and think when they stare at Hetty:

The dear, young, round, soft, flexible thing! Her heart must be just as soft, her temper just as free from angles, her character just as pliant.

And for the man who may wish to marry Hetty:

Nature has written out his bride’s character for him in those exquisite lines of cheek and lip and chin, in those eyelids delicate as petals, in those long lashes curled like the stamen of a flower, in the dark liquid depths of those wonderful eyes.

Adam idealizes Hetty, of course, and imagines her as not just the perfect bride but the ideal wife in all things, including character. But we know that Hetty is an immature dreamer preoccupied with her own looks, and with beautiful clothes and jewelry. Eliot reminds us — a little too harshly, in my view, given that Adam obviously has his own superficialities — that Hetty is not what Adam imagines her to be.

It’s a great theme of the novel, the disconnect between external looks and inner character:

Nature has her language, and she is not unveracious; but we don’t know all the intricacies of her syntax just yet, and in a hasty reading we may happen to extract the very opposite of her real meaning. Long dark eyelashes, now—what can be more exquisite? I find it impossible not to expect some depth of soul behind a deep grey eye with a long dark eyelash, in spite of an experience which has shown me that they may go along with deceit, peculation, and stupidity. But if, in the reaction of disgust, I have betaken myself to a fishy eye, there has been a surprising similarity of result. One begins to suspect at length that there is no direct correlation between eyelashes and morals;

In one of the most poignant passages of the novel, Eliot reminds us that we all can feel this disconnect simply by looking at our own families:

Family likeness has often a deep sadness in it. Nature, that great tragic dramatist, knits us together by bone and muscle, and divides us by the subtler web of our brains; blends yearning and repulsion; and ties us by our heart-strings to the beings that jar us at every movement. We hear a voice with the very cadence of our own uttering the thoughts we despise; we see eyes—ah, so like our mother’s!—averted from us in cold alienation; and our last darling child startles us with the air and gestures of the sister we parted from in bitterness long years ago.

This much is uncontroversial, and countless writers have dealt with the theme before. What strikes me, though, is Eliot’s admission that nature has a truthful language that can be read — “Nature has her language, and she is not unveracious”. For Eliot, the problem is simply that we do not yet read it correctly.

She recognizes that there’s something unconscious or primal going on, something that could possibly be studied logically in a scientific manner, as when she mentions that even “intelligent mammals” respond to human beauty.

That again, is uncontroversial, and we know it even better today. Human beings, seeking out ideal mates, respond to physical traits that signify capacities to bear children or to hunt down animals on the ancient savanna. But what, Eliot asks, is the correlation “between eyelashes and morals”? What would eyelashes signify? Why do we see beauty there?

Eliot suggests that we see something broader when we see beauty in a human face, something possibly genuine and truthful:

But Hetty’s face had a language that transcended her feelings. There are faces which nature charges with a meaning and pathos not belonging to the single human soul that flutters beneath them, but speaking the joys and sorrows of foregone generations—eyes that tell of deep love which doubtless has been and is somewhere, but not paired with these eyes—perhaps paired with pale eyes that can say nothing; just as a national language may be instinct with poetry unfelt by the lips that use it.

This broader beauty, Eliot leaves somewhat mysterious. But she speaks of it as genuine and everlasting:

Beauty has an expression beyond and far above the one woman’s soul that it clothes, as the words of genius have a wider meaning than the thought that prompted them. It is more than a woman’s love that moves us in a woman’s eyes—it seems to be a far-off mighty love that has come near to us, and made speech for itself there; the rounded neck, the dimpled arm, move us by something more than their prettiness—by their close kinship with all we have known of tenderness and peace. The noblest nature sees the most of this impersonal expression in beauty (it is needless to say that there are gentlemen with whiskers dyed and undyed who see none of it whatever), and for this reason, the noblest nature is often the most blinded to the character of the one woman’s soul that the beauty clothes.

That last statement explains quite nicely, and sympathetically, how someone like Adam is actually the likeliest to idealize, even to marry, a superficial girl — to make a disastrous match such as Tertius Lydgate makes with Rosamond Vincy in Eliot’s later novel, “Middlemarch.”

There is something else that moves me about Eliot’s conception of beauty. In “Adam Bede,” there is a Methodist preacher, Dinah Morris, who befriends Hetty and tries to take care of her (she sees trouble coming). She recognizes the “blank” superficiality in Hetty’s personality, but she doesn’t conclude that Hetty’s beauty is simply deceptive:

And this blank in Hetty’s nature, instead of exciting Dinah’s dislike, only touched her with a deeper pity: the lovely face and form affected her as beauty always affects a pure and tender mind, free from selfish jealousies. It was an excellent divine gift, that gave a deeper pathos to the need, the sin, the sorrow with which it was mingled, as the canker in a lily-white bud is more grievous to behold than in a common pot-herb.

For Dinah, Hetty’s external beauty is not a reason to conclude that beauty is false and doesn’t exist, or to jealously feel that beauty is genuine but given to the wrong people. Dinah sees someone outwardly beautiful whose inner personality is not beautiful but still merits care and love. For Dinah, our love should go to the person, and not to the beauty, because the soul is ultimately what matters. The external merely serves as a reminder — if one were needed — of that truth, which calls forth Dinah’s loving friendship.

And so Eliot says —

let us love that other beauty too, which lies in no secret of proportion, but in the secret of deep human sympathy.

Patsy Kensit as Hetty Sorrel, in the 1991 BBC adaption

Thank God, says Eliot, that beauty, though it rules us to a great degree and though we often misread it, has a limited reign over our emotions:

I believe there have been plenty of young heroes, of middle stature and feeble beards, who have felt quite sure they could never love anything more insignificant than a Diana, and yet have found themselves in middle life happily settled with a wife who waddles. Yes! Thank God; human feeling is like the mighty rivers that bless the earth: it does not wait for beauty—it flows with resistless force and brings beauty with it.

Reading that, I did think this description of human feeling is a little too positive, maybe more prescriptive than descriptive. But I won’t be the one to disagree with Eliot that human love can and should flow on more than momentary beauty.

3 thoughts on “Female beauty in Adam Bede

  1. If only I could say that I am above all attraction to superficial beauty but, of course, I am not. Thank you for reminding me of Eliot’s generosity of spirit that comes through all of her novels. I have read Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss but not Adam Bede. Thomas Hardy would certainly have any flaws in our characters lead to tragedy but I am not so sure about Eliot. I hope that the story will end well for Adam and for Hetty.

      1. Yes, I would recommend it, as with all of Eliot’s work. As a member of the clergy of the Church of England (it is the anniversary of my ordination today), I have always appreciated her sympathetic treatment of my fellow clergy. They often display courage, as does the vicar in Mill on the Floss in challenging prejudices, but she displays their frailties with gentle kindness too. That is quite rare in writers from my experience.

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