Adam Bede – ‘Clear images before your gladden’d eyes’

I’ve been away; travelling the length and breadth of England – but not on holiday. It’s been an anxious and challenging time. We managed to squeeze in some moments of rest, recuperation and togetherness – some refuelling; a brief (much shortened) trip to Northumberland to pause, calm ourselves, spend a few days with my parents-in-law, breathe the consoling beauty of Alnmouth beach – and make a steadying, promised visit to Barter Books with my daughter. Then I was away to where I was needed most, whilst my husband returned westwards with the kids to hold the fort at home. I’m back now, though emotional distraction, tiredness and vital family priorities mean blogging will be difficult for a while. But, here’s a post I intended to put up on the blog a couple of weeks or so ago – before we received the news that altered our course and called me away. The post isn’t quite finished; not edited, polished or thought out as much as I’d like. But, I can’t muster up enough concentration to shape it into something better. Please accept it for what it is, an unsculpted piece of clay – but full of feeling:

I am currently reading Adam Bede – and this is how it is making me feel:

'Woman Reading' by Leon Kaufmann, 1892-1933

‘Woman Reading’ by Leon Kaufmann, 1892-1933

Reading George Eliot’s novel is like sunlight hovering at my fingertips – like April rays after rain, filling my vision. Eliot’s characters are populating my house. I know these people. We each draw up a chair on the rug – and swap our times of day, as familiar as if we were family. How does Eliot do it? How does she draw a character so surely, so deftly – in just a few introductory lines – sometimes just in a sentence – so that, instantly, we know them, recognise them – see the slant of their head, the lean of their shoulder against the doorframe, the foot they place on the ground; the small frown, the scratch of the head – the eyebrow knitted, the hand reaching out across the years? We can anticipate the demeanour of each of her character’s actions even before we see them leave their initial pose, or hear them speak; before first introductions are even complete.

And, strong affections are knit so swiftly into the weave of those introductions. How did Eliot make me love the Reverend Irwine almost as soon as I’d met him? The light in his face is not so much described, as felt in that sunlight of words that warms my own face as I read; illuminating too the instant, sure portrait of his mother, Mrs Irwine – our first glimpse of her resplendent, ring-laden, self-regarding mien, enough to catch the way in which ‘that stately old lady’ is a foil for herself; a two sided coin of smallness, and the impressiveness of seeming magnanimity.

From their life on the page, to the reality of our own days – each time, Eliot’s observations balance perfectly with experience. Like a well-judged, intuitive scoop of ingredients added to the recipe – they always correspond to every measurement of the truth. Her characters don’t exist in an idea, or a concept – or as a creation. They are living, breathing – solid flesh and blood. They are with you in the room. They walk beside you in the sunlight, in the rain – your feet splashing with theirs in the mud.

Eliot gives us detail, depth – and time. She gives us lots of time. Things unfold slowly, at real-time pace; with the beat of real hearts and of bodily gesture, with the natural pace of thought, emotion and conversation – with the daily movement of the sun.

I am standing beside Grandfather Poyser, leaning on the gate and dreaming the distance between the hedgerows and the retreating backs of his family as they cross the fields towards Hayslope church.

And I am wandering the village, its valley – and Fir-tree Grove:

‘…a wood of beeches and limes, with here and there a light, silver-stemmed birch – just the sort of wood most haunted by the nymphs; you see their white sun-lit limbs gleaming athwart the boughs, or peeping from behind the smooth-sweeping outline of a tall lime….….. Not a grove with measured grass or rolled gravel for you to tread upon, but with narrow, hollow-shaped, earthy paths, edged with faint dashes of delicate moss – paths which look as if they were made by the freewill of the trees and underwood, moving reverently aside to look at the tall queen of the white-footed nymphs.’

Paths made as if ‘by the freewill of the trees’ – isn’t that a wonderful phrase? I’m sure we have all followed such paths in our time…

And in this place, Fir-tree Grove, named – with beguiling idiosyncrasy – ‘not because the firs were many, but because they were few,’ we see Arthur Donnithorne caught, against his frail better judgement, by his fascination for Hetty Sorrel – waiting to meet her amongst ‘Those beeches and smooth limes’ which he comes to see as ‘surely…haunted by his evil genius.’ Here, at a remove from the more sobering effect of the Chase where ‘the strong knotted old oaks had no bending languor in them,’ Arthur’s fragile ‘self-mastery’ dissolves:

‘…It was a still afternoon – the golden light was lingering languidly among the upper boughs, only glancing down here and there on the purple pathway and its edge of faintly-sprinkled moss; an afternoon in which destiny disguises her cold awful face behind a hazy radiant veil, encloses us in warm downy wings, and poisons us with violet-scented breath.’

And then, I am shadowing another meeting, between Adam Bede and Hetty Sorrel in the Hall Farm garden, where flowers, fruit and vegetables grow ‘together in careless, half-neglected abundance’ and roses teem ‘all huddled together in bushy masses, now flaunting with wide open petals.’ An Eden place, where the mismatch of Hetty and Adam, in the collide of their very different dreams, has already set its seeds of heartbreak.

I glimpse that coming heartbreak as I walk the Hayslope lanes with Adam, for whom ‘It was summer morning in his heart, and he saw Hetty in the sunshine: a sunshine without glare – with slanting rays that tremble between the delicate shadows of the leaves.’

On the edge of Hayslope’s ‘rich undulating district’ – within sight, and always on the margins of awareness – lies ‘a grim outskirt of Stonyshire,’ a landscape of ‘barren hills’; the shadow of a more starkly declared possibility just a short step away.

On entering the region of Hayslope:

‘…the traveller might exchange a bleak treeless region, intersected by lines of cold grey stone, for one where his road wound under the shelter of woods, or up swelling hills, muffled with hedgerows and long meadow-grass and thick corn; and where at every turn he came upon some fine old country-seat nestled in the valley or crowning the slope, some homestead with its long length of barn and its cluster of golden ricks, some grey steeple looking out from a pretty confusion of trees and thatch and dark-red tiles. It was just such a picture as this that Hayslope church had made to the traveller as he began to mount the gentle slope leading to its pleasant uplands, and now from his station near the Green he had before him in one view nearly all the other typical features of this pleasant land. High up against the horizon were the huge conical masses of hill, like giant mounds intended to fortify this region of corn and grass against the keen and hungry winds of the north; not distant enough to be clothed in purple mystery, but with sombre greenish sides visibly specked with sheep, whose motion was only revealed by memory, not detected by sight; wooed from day to day by the changing hours, but responding with no change in themselves – left for ever grim and sullen after the flush of morning, the winged gleams of the April noonday, the parting crimson glory of the ripening summer sun.’

We too, as we read the novel, are ‘wooed from day to day’ with a gradual motion ‘revealed by memory.’ And, like a ghost invited through the locked gates of the Hall Farm, I see the old manor house and farmyard, the sheen of sunlight touching every surface; warming my skin.

Come with me there ‘…for imagination is a licensed trespasser: it has no fear of dogs, but may climb over walls and peep in at windows with impunity’:

‘…the life at the Hall has changed its focus, and no longer radiates from the parlour, but from the kitchen and the farmyard.

Plenty of life is there! though this is the drowsiest time of the year, just before hay-harvest; and it is the drowsiest time of the day too, for it is close upon three by the sun, and it is half-past three by Mrs Poyser’s handsome eight-day clock. But there is always a stronger sense of life when the sun is brilliant after rain; and now he is pouring down his beams, and making sparkles among the wet straw, and lighting up every patch of vivid green moss on the red tiles of the cow-shed, and turning even the muddy water that is hurrying along the channel to the drain into a mirror for the yellow-billed ducks, who are seizing the opportunity of getting a drink with as much body in it as possible.’

In the farm’s ‘house-place’:

‘Everything was looking at its brightest at this moment, for the sun shone right on the pewter dishes, and from their reflecting surfaces pleasant jets of light were thrown on mellow oak and bright brass; – and on a still pleasanter object than these; for some of the rays fell on Dinah’s finely-moulded cheek, and lit up her pale red hair to auburn, as she bent over the heavy household linen which she was mending for her aunt.’

I am reading Adam Bede, and it is lighting up my hours, my days, my mind. George Eliot loves people. For all their faults and frailties and failings, she loves them. Even when the sharper cuts of her perception and prodigious intellect fall critically upon a character, the understanding and compassion informing her words warm, deepen and clarify – like awakening light.

Do you feel it too – that glimmering illumination, with its insistent realness of shadow; that luminous, incisive light filling the edges of your vision?

Penguin Classics edition of 'Adam Bede' by George Eliot, edited by Stephen Gill

Penguin Classics edition of ‘Adam Bede’ by George Eliot, edited by Stephen Gill

“So that ye may have
Clear images before your gladden’d eyes
Of nature’s unambitious underwood
And flowers that prosper in the shade. And when
I speak of such among the flock as swerved
Or fell, those only shall be singled out
Upon whose lapse, or error, something more
Than brotherly forgiveness may attend.”

– William Wordsworth (from The Excursion)

(George Eliot’s chosen epigraph for Adam Bede – quoted on the title page of Volume 1).


13 thoughts on “Adam Bede – ‘Clear images before your gladden’d eyes’

  1. I never think of George Eliot like this – I haven’t read much, to be honest, outside hurried study stuff, but now I’m really looking forward to finally settling down with my timeworn 1890s edition (just a pound in a box outside a bookshop many years ago!) and basking in its golden light. Thanks for shining a torch into the shadowy shelves of my bookcase…

    I’m glad that Barter Books was able to offer a little sustenance, and Northumberland – we nearly made it up there this year but got as far as the very lovely and unassuming Teesdale, still a highlight of the summer’s travels. I hope there is lots of comfort to be found in the latest haul from the bookshop, and that autumn will be generous with apple-light and mellowness until there’s space for blog-brewing…

    • Thanks so much for your lovely message – more food for cheering thoughts… I’ve loved glimpsing moments from your latest travels to the north, via your wonderful photos and all the treasures discovered whilst you were there… My Barter Books haul this year has been small (well… compared to previous years!) due to time constraints etc., but – my goodness, yes, that couple of hours we managed to snatch there was so sustaining. Exactly what I needed to calm jittery anxiety. And all that vast variety of books was a timely reminder of the richness of life, and all the reasons to keep on filling your little boat with stuff that buoys it up, despite what felt at the time like a very Hardyesque universe whose sport hadn’t finished with us yet! I added some wonderful load-lighteners to my haul – and am very much looking forward to the travels they’ll take me on, when I get the chance to sit down and read them…

      I love the sound of your timeworn 1890s edition of Adam Bede! What a great find! I hope that, when you do come to read it, you find that same sense of illumination George Eliot’s writing gives me. I love her work. To me, Silas Marner is one of the warmest, most spun-with-true-gold books I’ve ever read, The Mill on the Floss is not to be missed under any circumstances – and Middlemarch is just her astonishing tour de force. In Adam Bede, she gives us – as in Middlemarch – a whole community; an entire village, and all the people connected to it, to get to know as if we are inhabitants of that place ourselves. It’s not a novel for anyone seeking fast-paced narrative; but for anyone who loves slow-unfolding depth of place and people, and the leisure to embed yourself fully in a gradual, day by day, tangible world of community and real heart, it’s bliss to read. When time always feels like it’s in short supply, it’s good to be slowed down…

      Hope you’re enjoying the beautiful, autumn sunshine – it’s already been an inspiration, helping the blog-brewing process. Blogging is proving to be a refuge, and I’ve got lots of draft posts from earlier to finish – lots to juggle, but I think one or two posts might be surfacing sooner than I expected!

      • I’m really looking forward to either Adam or Middlemarch – yet to decide! Slow-unfolding tales are always appreciated.

        Talking of load-lighteners for the little boat, you might enjoy Goldfrapp’s album ‘Tales of Us’ which is out today – it’s really beautiful and cinematic, lots of strings and a proper dreamscape… (particularly Thea which has hints of KB). I think the samples are up on itunes or amazon.

        Good to hear the blog is doing good works!

        • Middlemarch is amazing! I think it’s George Eliot’s most brilliant achievement. In all of English literature, it’s right up there at the top with the very best. It has such astonishing breadth and realness – breathtakingly good! I bought a lovely Folio Society edition a few years back – for all those re-reads I’ve been promising myself (the last time I read it was far too long ago…) It’s a novel that I know will take me to ever new discoveries, revealing more of its riches each time I read it, and as life and experience unfolds… I must put it at the top of the re-read pile!

          A really big thank you for the tip about Goldfrapp’s new album! I’ve had a listen to the samples on Amazon – and to ‘Annabel’ on YouTube. Stunning! I love what I’ve heard of all the songs (my son was sitting beside me when I played ‘Annabel’ and he was transfixed – he started singing the tune immediately after the first time he heard it; an indicator that he has felt the music to be something special…) That cinematic, dreamscape element you mention is so mesmerisingly beautiful. And I was so moved by the beautiful short film for ‘Annabel’ made by Alison Goldfrapp and Lisa Gunning. I heard Alison Goldfrapp being interviewed on Woman’s Hour this morning – wonderful to hear about the album’s inspirations – about ‘Annabel’ being based on Kathleen Winter’s novel – and about the album’s various story connections to books, fairytale, folklore and noir. Perfect listening, especially right now – a definite load-lightener. Thank you! (Great to see that the album is available on vinyl too!)

  2. “Adam Bede”, despite the tragic story it enfolds, seemed to me when I read it a delightful pastoral idyll: there is a great affection in the writing. The pace is utterly unhurried: it evoked a world where there is time for everything.

    I do not know Northumberland very well, and haven’t been to Barter Books, but there really is nothing like a good bookshop to raise the spirits! Once the BBC comes to its senses and invites me on to Desert Island Discs, I shall choose a well-stocked second-hand bookshop as my luxury item!

    All the best, Himadri

    • Kirsty is being extremely tardy with that invitation, isn’t she Himadri! Your luxury item sounds like heaven to me – but, there could be a problem… Would you ever want to leave that desert island???

      One of the very many interesting things about Adam Bede is the way in which George Eliot breaks off from the narrative about half way through, to talk directly to the reader about her artistic intentions; to state her aim to capture reality, and her endeavour to depict life and people as they actually are, with as much truth and veracity as possible. She talks about how she delights in and is inspired by ‘…this rare, precious quality of truthfulness…in many Dutch paintings, which lofty-minded people despise.’ She writes: ‘I find a source of delicious sympathy in these faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence, which has been the fate of so many more among my fellow-mortals than a life of pomp or of absolute indigence, of tragic suffering or of world-stirring actions’ – a really interesting cultural-influence-connection between Adam Bede and Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree – which Hardy subtitled ‘A Rural Painting of the Dutch School.’ Another novel filled with affection for its characters and the rural life it depicts – and which aims to shed light on the stories and events of lives lived ‘in the shade.’ I haven’t finished Adam Bede yet (my reading was brought to a pause due to circumstances) but its warmth still pervades… and its unhurried pace waits patiently for my return to its pages… I feel as if Adam is waiting along those country lanes somewhere, chewing on a blade of grass, planning his next piece of furniture carving – and patiently watching for me to catch up when I’m ready!

      All the best,

  3. Hi Melanie, only just finding a moment to pop in here – I probably won’t get many more for a while as I start studying soon. I loved reading your thoughts on Adam Bede, I haven’t read it yet but I absolutely adore Middlemarch – it is, as you say, one our greatest novels. I’d love to be in a virtual book club with you – the discussions would be almost as joyful as the reading I’m sure. I hope that whatever difficulties you’re experiencing at the moment pass quickly – it sounds like you could do with some rest and ease. Take care x

    • Selina, thanks so much for this lovely, encouraging message – and for taking the time amongst all the busyness of your days to visit here (it’s very much appreciated). I so empathise with that time-squeezed feeling; all that chasing around of elusive “spare” moments quiet enough to mine out thoughts – whilst trying to muster the energy and focus to arrange them into some kind of order on the blogs. I’ve been (very slowly) working my way around blog posts I’ve missed during the past weeks (months??!!) on favourite blogs – and have been looking forward to catching up with your latest at The Mucky Root (always a refuge filled with a beautiful sense of noticing and reflecting).

      I knew you’d be a Middlemarch fan! Truly a novel to adore! I’m going to make it my plan to re-read it before too long – it’ll be like being absorbed back into a whole world of place and people, as real as returning home. A virtual book club would be wonderful (if both of us could stretch Time – or travel by Tardis occasionally – it would be very tempting to form one!) When I had more energy, I used to be a regular member of a great online book group – some of the lovely folk who comment here are fellow members – it was a joy to discuss books with them – but you’d have to ask them whether discussing books with me was joyful or not! 😕 I’m so touched that you think it would be!

      Lots of luck with your studies – make sure you make time for rest and quiet wandering in between it all. Take care. x

  4. Hi Melanie, great post, except I found myself distracted by reading your personal words and hoping that whatever the current shadow is, it will soon pass. Wishing you and your family well… x

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