06 August 2011

Reading Eliot’s ‘Adam Bede’ on a Kindle

Compare and Contrast

“Leisure is gone — gone where the spinning-wheels are gone, and the pack-horses, and the slow waggons, and the pedlars, who brought bargains to the door on sunny afternoons. Ingenious philosophers tell you, perhaps, that the great work of the steam engine is to create leisure for mankind. Do not believe them: it only creates a vacuum for eager thought to rush in. Even idleness is eager now — eager for amusement: prone to excursion trains, art-museums, periodical literature, and exciting novels….”

George Eliot wrote Adam Bede (from which the quotation above is taken) in 1859, but set the novel in the era of her readers’ fathers and grandfathers, at the turn of the century. Read nowadays, when machines far more complex than the steam engine have created ever-more frenetic forms of leisure for us all, this little passage from Adam Bede is quaint and amusing. I suspect that Eliot meant for it to be so — though surely she didn’t anticipate the Kindle.

Gorgeous George, the Mary Anne Kind

My well-meaning friends Kara and Konrad bought me a Kindle for my birthday, in another of their periodic attempts to shove me deeper into the 21st century. Naturally, I loaded with the complete works of long-dead writers: Shakespeare, Twain, Wharton, Henry James, and George Eliot. This reflects not only my tastes but also the bargain prices for works in the public domain: current releases by the living cost about $10.

Eliot was a timely choice, too, because, having read her Middlemarch years ago and loved it, I’d never read anything else by her. When I stumbled across an incredibly cheap paperback copy of Adam Bede for only a dollar, I snatched it up — then left it on a train, just as I was warming to the story. Although I replaced the paperback with a bargain hardback, the Kindle offered an opportunity to resume my reading most efficiently, while also experimenting with the new technology.

And as a reading experience, it’s not bad. I’m still getting accustomed to navigating, and I do miss certain features, such as italics, and the copious annotations of the Penguin paperback and the less-extensive notes of the Könemann hardback. Typographical errors are rife in both the Könemann and the Kindle texts, but such is the nature of modern life, I think, when I can hardly turn to the electronic edition of The New York Times without finding errors of grammar, usage, and spelling on the front page. (Errors of fact, sometimes, too.)

Oy, such a headache: Hapless Hetty Sorrel,
as seen by English artist John Collier (1850–1934)

But there’s an undeniable ease to clicking a little button to turn the page, to moving the cursor over a word in order to look it up (a dictionary comes with the Kindle, though some of Eliot’s archaisms are too arcane to be included), and above all to storing the entire library of Eliot’s work in a single, lightweight and eminently portable device — which also stores all of the other collected works of dead white people I’d downloaded, for a few bucks. The logistics of transportation and storage that have beset me since I moved to France, wouldn’t even have come up, if I’d had a Kindle years ago.

As for the novel itself, I found it another unlikely page-turner, as Middlemarch is, though not quite so compelling or meaningful. Eliot’s first novel, Adam Bede attempts to capitalize on the success of her short stories, Scenes of Clerical Life, in its small-town ambiance and its interest in the tensions between a notably laid-back, old-fashioned country Anglicanism and newfangled Methodism. Some of the dialects and a cutesy-pie baby character, Totty, nearly provoked me to hurl the (paperback still, at this point) book against a wall, for much the same reason that I could never get past the opening pages of The Mill on the Floss.

But it soon becomes clear that Adam Bede contains the germ of what I liked best about Middlemarch: it’s a story in which several well-meaning characters are brought together in one location, and tested there. The moral complexity of Eliot’s universe is as broad as her writing is compassionate: even when a character is truly awful, as Middlemarch’s Edward Casaubon and Rosamund Lydgate are, we understand why they do what they do, and Eliot tries to make it difficult for her readers to deny that we would do any better, in like circumstances.*

Eliot’s gifts aren’t quite in full flower here, and she sets up the principal counterparts — the sober and responsible (Adam, Dinah) versus the flighty and irresponsible (Arthur, Hetty) — too neatly. Minor characters tend to be rustic “types,” resolutely two-dimensional, of a kind that Dickens did much better; several (the woman-hating schoolteacher, Bartle Massey; Lisbeth Bede; Mrs. Poyser) are hard to take.

When one of these supporting players, the rector Mr. Irwine, ceases to be flat, Eliot feels compelled to offer a chapter-long apology for him. He remains rounded for the rest of the book and winds up a satisfying character, though you’re never sure why Eliot didn’t show more confidence in him.

Dinah Morris, inspired by Eliot’s own aunt, comes off quite well by the end of the novel — though to begin with she seems in her exasperating selflessness the perfect forerunner of Mitchell’s Melanie Hamilton, too good to be true. Dinah’s so devout that you start to wonder whether she’s quite sane, with that self-martyring impulse that must have driven Joan of Arc, refusing to follow any path which the Lord hasn’t shown to her in a vision. Least of all any path toward happiness or prosperity.

Patsy Kensit as Hetty, and Iain Glen as Adam,
in a BBC adaptation from 1991.
She looks too trampy; he, too dorky.
Evidently Rufus Sewell was unavailable.

This in turn leads a reader to wonder what’s wrong with Adam Bede, and whether there’s a pattern to his interest in women who don’t care for him or who are unattainable — one may even wonder (briefly) whether there’s more to his relationship with Bartle Massey.** In short, Eliot takes Adam and Dinah, two stalwart, thoroughly irreproachable characters, and makes them intriguing: and to make goodness interesting is perhaps the most difficult feat in any form of art.

The art to which Eliot aspires, she suggests, is that of Northern European genre painting, realistic scenes of country-village life, in which we are supposed to get closer to the essence of human nature. But how “realistic” is the pregnancy of one major character, concealed not only from everybody in the book but from the reader, as well, until it suits Eliot to reveal it? (Namely, after the baby is born.) She indulges in a broad streak of melodrama, too, and her pairings are pretty contrived: those perfectly matched sets of heirs apparent (working-class Adam, upper-class Arthur), orphaned nieces (Hetty and Dinah), benevolent tutors (Irwine and Massey), etc.

Adam Bede is the work of a master, but not a masterwork, an engaging but not an urgent read. I’m looking forward to continuing my too-long-delayed return to Eliot — with perhaps a return to Middlemarch, too. That’s a book I can’t praise enough. And happily, it’s on my Kindle already.

Rufus Sewell did show up for the BBC’s excellent adaptation of Middlemarch, in 1994. He plays Will Ladislaw, seen here with Dorothea (Juliet Aubrey) and Mr. Brooke (a peerless Robert Hardy).

*NOTE: Reading Middlemarch while working at CBS, I immediately began to perceive the newsroom as a mini-Middlemarch, where each of us was similarly tested. This led at times to a not-always flattering (to either of us) tendency to view myself as Will Ladislaw and Dan as Mr. Brooke, but otherwise no harm was done, and I found my patience growing toward certain of my colleagues.

**Most of Eliot’s earliest readers would have believed the author to be a man, and presumably she includes Bartle Massey’s tirades as part of her energetic tweaking of chauvinist attitudes. But I’d be willing to bet that there are plentiful modern-day exegeses out there, detecting homoerotic tensions between Adam and Mr. Massey, and between Arthur Donnithorne and Mr. Irwine, to say nothing of copious essays on the latent homosexual tendencies of Adam’s brother, Seth. But I don’t mean to dwell on country matters.

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