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Friday, 10 October 2014

You ruined that a bit, George Eliot

I'm reading Adam Bede at the moment.
So far it has been an excellent book- George Eliot is very similar to Tolstoy. I intended to write something like "Where have you been all my life, George?"- to praise her, you see. Everything was going very well, I will get back to this later, till chapter 15. 
Let me pause a bit- before this chapter George Eliot has been introducing Hetty Sorrel and Arthur Donnithorne, and describing the beginning of their relationship. There are some wonderful scenes, and passages, such as the scene where Mr Irwine comes to talk to Dinah about the preaching and Arthur, full of charm and flattery, goes with Mrs Poyser to another room and invents clever excuses to have a look at the pretty Hetty, who is conscious of the effect of every single movement she makes, as she's making butter, on the man watching her. Charlotte Bronte could never write such a scene convincingly. George Eliot also gets into the minds of Arthur and Hetty, describing him debating with himself, entranced by Hetty's beauty whilst also conscious of its complications and determined, at 1st, to put an end to it all before anything bad happens, and describing her falling in love and getting so immersed in it and her dreams that nothing else has any meaning. In these bits, the brilliant George Eliot comes very close to Tolstoy- it is no wonder that people have made such comparisons. 
Or, take the scene in chapter 14. At this point, Arthur, who is not bad-natured, has made up his mind about what to do when they meet, then... 
"She doesn't know that there is another turning to the Hermitage, that she is close against it, and that Arthur Donnithorne is only a few yards from her, full of one thought, and a thought of which she only is the object. He is going to see Hetty again: that is the longing which has been growing through the last three hours to a feverish thirst. Not, of course, to speak in the caressing way into which he had unguardedly fallen before dinner, but to set things right with her by a kindness which would have the air of friendly civility, and prevent her from running away with wrong notions about their mutual relation.
If Hetty had known he was there, she would not have cried; and it would have been better, for then Arthur would perhaps have behaved as wisely as he had intended. As it was, she started when he appeared at the end of the side-alley, and looked up at him with two great drops rolling down her cheeks. What else could he do but speak to her in a soft, soothing tone, as if she were a bright-eyed spaniel with a thorn in her foot?" 
See, sadly life rarely goes according to plan. 
So the story has been very well-written, and so far I have never had any problem with George Eliot addressing readers, until chapter 15. Here, Hetty looks into the mirror, thinks of herself and Arthur and their future together, with happiness and luxuries. After telling us about her beauty, the narrator directs our attention to Adam and Arthur, both of whom mistakenly associate (her) beauty with goodness, and suddenly out of the blue launches into a lecture, or rather, a rant, about that mistaken view, about the deceptiveness of beauty. 
"... After all, I believe the wisest of us must be beguiled in this way sometimes, and must think both better and worse of people than they deserve. 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; or else, that the eyelashes express the disposition of the fair one's grandmother, which is on the whole less important to us.
No eyelashes could be more beautiful than Hetty's; and now, while she walks with her pigeon-like stateliness along the room and looks down on her shoulders bordered by the old black lace, the dark fringe shows to perfection on her pink cheek. They are but dim ill-defined pictures that her narrow bit of an imagination can make of the future; but of every picture she is the central figure in fine clothes; Captain Donnithorne is very close to her, putting his arm round her, perhaps kissing her, and everybody else is admiring and envying her—especially Mary Burge, whose new print dress looks very contemptible by the side of Hetty's resplendent toilette. Does any sweet or sad memory mingle with this dream of the future—any loving thought of her second parents—of the children she had helped to tend—of any youthful companion, any pet animal, any relic of her own childhood even? Not one. 
There are some plants that have hardly any roots: you may tear them from their native nook of rock or wall, and just lay them over your ornamental flower-pot, and they blossom none the worse. Hetty could have cast all her past life behind her and never cared to be reminded of it again. I think she had no feeling at all towards the old house, and did not like the Jacob's Ladder and the long row of hollyhocks in the garden better than other flowers—perhaps not so well. It was wonderful how little she seemed to care about waiting on her uncle, who had been a good father to her—she hardly ever remembered to reach him his pipe at the right time without being told, unless a visitor happened to be there, who would have a better opportunity of seeing her as she walked across the hearth. Hetty did not understand how anybody could be very fond of middle-aged people. And as for those tiresome children, Marty and Tommy and Totty, they had been the very nuisance of her life—as bad as buzzing insects that will come teasing you on a hot day when you want to be quiet. Marty, the eldest, was a baby when she first came to the farm, for the children born before him had died, and so Hetty had had them all three, one after the other, toddling by her side in the meadow, or playing about her on wet days in the half-empty rooms of the large old house. The boys were out of hand now, but Totty was still a day-long plague, worse than either of the others had been, because there was more fuss made about her. And there was no end to the making and mending of clothes. Hetty would have been glad to hear that she should never see a child again; they were worse than the nasty little lambs that the shepherd was always bringing in to be taken special care of in lambing time; for the lambs were got rid of sooner or later. As for the young chickens and turkeys, Hetty would have hated the very word "hatching," if her aunt had not bribed her to attend to the young poultry by promising her the proceeds of one out of every brood. The round downy chicks peeping out from under their mother's wing never touched Hetty with any pleasure; that was not the sort of prettiness she cared about, but she did care about the prettiness of the new things she would buy for herself at Treddleston Fair with the money they fetched. And yet she looked so dimpled, so charming, as she stooped down to put the soaked bread under the hen-coop, that you must have been a very acute personage indeed to suspect her of that hardness. Molly, the housemaid, with a turn-up nose and a protuberant jaw, was really a tender-hearted girl, and, as Mrs. Poyser said, a jewel to look after the poultry; but her stolid face showed nothing of this maternal delight, any more than a brown earthenware pitcher will show the light of the lamp within it.
It is generally a feminine eye that first detects the moral deficiencies hidden under the "dear deceit" of beauty, so it is not surprising that Mrs. Poyser, with her keenness and abundant opportunity for observation, should have formed a tolerably fair estimate of what might be expected from Hetty in the way of feeling, and in moments of indignation she had sometimes spoken with great openness on the subject to her husband..." 
I must say, this part is in very bad taste. Brings to mind Virginia Woolf's arguments in A Room of One's Own. This is indignation. This is a personal grievance. This is the author getting furious and losing control of her pen and letting her private problem interfere with her work, deforming it, twisting it, disrupting the flow and ruining the mood. Is it a female thing?* I don't think I've ever seen that in War and Peace and Anna Karenina
Still, the overall quality, up till now, is extremely good. Let's hope that I won't encounter anything of the kind again, or if I do, let's hope that the qualities, the merits of Adam Bede will outweigh its nuisances.  




*: You can find rants about beauty and its insignificance or deceptiveness in the works of Charlotte and Anne Bronte, by the way, though of course that's not what I mean in the phrase "a female thing". 

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