Despite years of long and extensive reading, there are some authors, with whom I could not become friends. I have no idea why, because they write about subjects and settings that immensely interest me and are often much loved by many whose tastes and opinions I admire. But for whatever reasons things simply do not come together and they simply do not work for me! George Elliot is one such author. My grandmother, whose bookish tastes, my family says I have inherited loved, all her works. Many of my friends, both from the bloggish and non blogish world have often pointed out to the nuanced writing that her books brought forth. But I remained, unmoved. Mill on Floss, made me want to throw the book at something and I gave up on Middlemarch, like 100 pages into the book. I was not meant to appreciate Ms. Elliot and there was not much I can do about it. Then last week, casting around for something Trollopian to read, but not Trollope, GoodReads threw up a suggestion of Scenes of Clerical Life by George Elliot. I was about to pass on and then for some reason, decided to give it a shot. It seemed like a short novel; only 200 pages (My error; I misread the 404 pages!) so it was not like I would lose much. Thus I began my journey around the Parish of Milby, the first ever novel by Ms. Elliot!
Set in the last 20 years of 18th century, the book, which consists of 3 separate novellas, interwoven through the time and place and common characters, takes the reader through many different ideas of Church, Local Politics, Spirituality, and Domestic Abuse. The first narrative called “The Sad Fortunes of Reverend Amos Barton” tells the tale of an ordinary Curate in the parish church of Stepperton, near the the village of Milby. Amos Barton, has lofty ideals but neither posses brilliance of oratory or a commanding personality to morph his ideas and to make them palatable to his Parishoners and develop a following among them. He is married to a wonderful and devoted woman, Milly, who has borne him 6 children and their circumstances are strained due to the ever increasing family and the small stipend derived from the Curacy. However, Reverend Amos Barton, goes about his work with much zeal as he is convinced that he has an obligation to imbue his congregation with what he believes to be the Orthodox Church views! More troubles are however fated for the Bartons as their worldly and pretentious friend Countess Caroline Czerlaski takes up residence with them after quarreling with her brother, making the financial situation even more difficult and hurting Milly’s health as the latter is stressed physically and mentally in trying to make everyone around her comfortable, culminating in an terrible tragedy for the family! The second novella, “Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story” begins with the death of the much loved Maynard Gilfil, who was the Vicar of Shepperton many years before Mr. Barton. Mr. Gilfil however unlike his successor was much loved and much mourned on his death. He had lead an admirable life fulfilling his duties and sometimes, going beyond it, never afraid to laugh and find amusement at whimsical nonsense, always concealing a deep personal tragedy that marked his life, at a very young age. Around 1788, when he was a young Chaplin at the Cheverel Manor, he fell in love with the Caterina Sarti, an Italian orphan brought up by Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel, who took her into their care following the death of her father. Tina, as she was called, while having a very affectionate regard for Mr. Gilfil, was however in love with Captain Anthony Wybrow, nephew and heir of Sir Christopher Cheverel. Captain Wybrow, was a man of selfish principles, whose only aim was to secure Sir Christopher’s good humor and consequently his wealth and had no qualms, in abandoning his “feelings” for Tina, when Sir Christopher, unbeknownst of the feelings of Tina, directed Captain’s Wybrow’s attention and hence approval to a suitable match. This engagement, broods no good and leaves behind a slew of tragedies, destroying the happiness of all directly and indirectly involved. The third and final novella, “Janet’s Repentance” is set in the town of Milby. The first chapter advises the reader, of the brewing storm between the people of Milby, who are divided in two fractions – one supporting the traditional teachings of Mr. Crewe and the others, supporting the newly appointed Curate at Paddingford Common, Mr. Edgar Tryan, who is an Evangalican preacher and whose opponents view him as a dissenter. The strongest opponent of Mr. Tryan is Richard Dempster, a shrewd, strong tempered lawyer, who in companionship with others comes up with schemes to destroy Mr. Tryan’s plans. Mr. Dempster is supported by his wife Janet, who however opposes Mr. Tryan out of her affection for Mr. and Mrs. Crew who have been her oldest and kindest friend. Beautiful and kind Janet has not had a easy life, especially after marrying Dempster, who turns out to be an alcoholic with a violent temper, who has been subjecting Janet to domestic violence for 15 years of their marriage. Deprived of children and constantly subject to severe physical violence, with no support system except an old mother, Janet, herself turns into an alcoholic to numb herself of the mental and physical degradation. As things, take a turn for worse for Janet and she falls further into the abyss, rescue, comes in the most unexpected manner, giving her back, hope and spiritual sustenance.
George Elliot finally weaved her magic on me and I am still reeling from her talent, her insightfulnes and her ability to write prose as if she was painting a picture through words! I have no idea, if and when I will read her other works, but for now this first novel of her’s has rendered me speechless. I do not like reading tragedies, but her tragedies, are woven in hope and the rejuvenating spirit of love, that sustains us, even when we lose the loved ones! The first novella, requires patience as it is one of her less confident works and does not do much to keep your interest from wandering. However, it is a short novella and by the second one, you are for sure hooked. The brilliance of Ms. Elliot I think lies in the characters she drew – in short novellas, where there is only limited ability to bring out the protagonists, she not only brings them to life, but she makes us feel that we have known them, and known them well for a very long time. Another thing that really really impressed me was her prose, her wonderful description of gardens, and chapels and homes! Here’s a sample of what I mean – the castellated house of grey-tinted stone, with the flickering sunbeams sending dashes of golden light across the many-shaped panes in the mullioned windows, and a great beech leaning athwart one of the flanking towers, and breaking, with its dark flattened boughs, the too formal symmetry of the front; the broad gravel-walk winding on the right, by a row of tall pines, alongside the pool—on the left branching out among swelling grassy mounds, surmounted by clumps of trees, where the red t of the Scotch fir glows in the descending sunlight against the bright green of limes and acacias; the great pool, where a pair of swans are swimming lazily with one leg tucked under a wing, and where the open water-lilies lie calmly accepting the kisses of the fluttering light-sparkles; the lawn, with its smooth emerald greenness, sloping down to the rougher and browner herbage of the park, from which it is invisibly fenced by a little stream that winds away from the pool, and disappears under a wooden bridge in the distant pleasure-ground; and on this lawn our two ladies, whose part in the landscape the painter, standing at a favourable point of view in the park, would represent with a few little dabs of red and white and blue. Despite the somber subjects, Ms. Elliot also carefully manages to add in humor and satire at the then society and its follies – “What a resource it is under fatigue and irritation to have your drawing-room well supplied with small mats, which would always be ready if you ever wanted to set anything on them!” Most importantly, Ms. Elliot seemed to have been blessed with a deep understanding of man’s heart and the ability to express it to the T – “Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside itself—it only requires opportunity“. There is so much I can say about this book and so many things I can quote and in spite of all my enthusiasm, I know these works are not perfect – there are some cliched events and convenient deaths and sometimes, things get too much descriptive. Yet such is the power of the writing of Ms. Elliot, that you only want and only will remember the brilliant parts, making you feel, that this is a work of absolute marvel!