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review 2017-06-10 16:50
Peasants are the real heroes...
Adam Bede - Hugh Osborne,George Eliot

That's the thing with free 'purchases' on the Kindle isn't it, one wonders 'why'? Is the offering so value-less? Even with the pedigree of George Eliot there is a temptation to look such a gift horse tentatively in the mouth. But, I needn't have worried.

 

Published in 1858, "Adam Bede" was the author's second novel and came more than a decade before "Middlemarch" (see previous review) and yet it turned out to be wonderfully self-assured. Set in Hayslope in Loamshire, which we learn is in the north midlands, the book focuses on a slice of nineteenth century pastoral life, but Eliot's examination of social divisions and connections across class, gender, generations, religion, wealth, etc has some powerful resonance with contemporary Britain. For example, preaching by Christian women (150 years later and still being debated!!); the moral conundrum of support for the poor; teenage pregnancy; gender inequality; and even the responsibility of powerful elites to wider society.

 

As the title of the book suggests, the central character is Adam Bede, who is a master carpenter and curiously in this homage to the humble working man/woman, Eliot offers a compelling antidote to the modern obsession with fame and celebrity. Indeed, the book deliberately lauds several characters of substance and I particularly liked Lisbeth Bede (Adam's doting mother), Dinah Morris (who might equally have been entitled to entitle the book, if you see what I mean) and Mrs Poyser (wife of a local farmer and a complete tartar). Each of them is made all the more praiseworthy in that they must make their respective ways without the advantages conferred by privileged upbringing. Moreover, the characters are buffeted by the twists and turns of life, but it is their capacity to 'do the right thing' in the context of their respective social codes that set them apart. What Eliot seems to be implying is that it can be very difficult to warrant the deceptively simple epithet of a 'good' man/woman and consequently they represent the best of us. Yet, they are "...reared here and there in every generation of our peasant artisans - with an inheritance of affections nurtured by a simple family life of common need and common industry, and an inheritance of of faculties trained in skilful courageous labour.....They have not had the art of getting rich, but they are men of trust, and when they die before the work is all out of them, it is as if some main screw had got loose in a machine; the master who employed them says, 'Where shall I find their like?' "

This shining of a perceptive light on the value of the industrious working class was rather more interesting to me than tiresome tales of the innately powerful and rightly elevates the author among her Victorian peers.

 

Curiously, at a couple of points in the book, Eliot affects a 'time-out' and proceeds to explain her approach to the story. "So I am content to tell my simple story, without trying to make things seem better than they were; dread nothing indeed but falsity.... Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult."

This could be perceived as almost an apology for a tale steeped in realism, which might be deemed banal and yet, I found the book thoroughly absorbing. Rather, it was this signposting, explicitly leading the reader to understand an underlying theme and not trusting for it to be gleaned from the narrative that was interesting, but slightly odd.

 

Adam Bede is seen as quite eligible in his community and has set his cap towards local beauty Hetty Sorrel, but she in turn has come to the attention of the heir of the local squire, Captain Arthur Donnithorne. Indeed, the story deftly describes two successive love triangles, with Adam featuring in both, but these are hardly mainstays of the book. Instead, it is the strength of the 'supporting cast' that truly sets this book apart and the meshing of the various cogs in the community machine that mesmerize the reader as smoothly as the engine in a Rolls Royce Phantom. Certainly that compelling desire to know what happens, not only to Adam, but to half a dozen characters, is the hallmark of a great read. And 'love' in its many guises - romantic, familial, communal - triumphs, not in some mushy sentimental way, but as the warm oil that soothes the heat and grinding of components.

 

For me, the only grit in the Eliot machine was the language, which, true to form, was also kept 'real'. That is, the Loamshire dialect was written as pronounced,and slowed my reading until I got the hang of the rhythm. But, even that faint criticism had faded by the end and on reflection was absolutely right for the rural inhabitants and further separated the workers from their (not so much) 'betters'. I don't give out five stars lightly, but then my favourite shelf is fairly sparse too and yet I have placed Adam Bede there with little hesitation. 

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