I did it, y’all! I finished reading George Eliot’s 1859 novel Adam Bede. And here’s another cool thing: IT WAS REALLY GOOD.
I couldn’t have imagined how much I would enjoy this book when I was at 5% completion. Or even after the first three chapters or so. In fact, I considered abandoning the book and making a substitution on my Classics Club list (something I have yet to do.) So if you decide to give this book a try one day, know that it gets MUCH BETTER. When the book opens we are in a woodworking shop of local men with nearly unintelligible accents, so it’s really hard to read, and then we get a weird chapter introducing many of the characters to a “stranger” coming through town with lots of exposition. It’s not until one of the main characters, Dinah, starts preaching, that things get rolling.
The story is basically a love triangle gone wrong, horribly wrong. I didn’t anticipate how dark it would go at the outset, so that was a neat surprise. (No spoilers from me!) Tall, dark, and handsome Adam Bede lives with his affable younger brother, Seth, and their self-pitying mother, Lisbeth. He’s a woodworker, hard-working, honest, driven, and universally respected in their village. He’s got eyes for pretty Hetty, a seventeen-year-old relation of the well-liked farming family the Poysers. Everyone thinks she’s the prettiest thing they’ve ever seen, and she knows it, and uses it to her advantage when she can. Naive and rather silly, she only has eyes for the local son of the gentry, Arthur Donnithorne.
Hetty was quite used to the thought that people liked to look at her… She knew still better, that Adam Bede- tall, upright, clever, brave Adam Bede – who carried such authority with all the people round about, and whom her uncle was always delighted to see of an evening, saying that “Adam knew a fine sight more o’ the natur o’things than those as thought themselves his betters” – she knew that this Adam, who was often rather stern to other people and not much given to run after the lasses, could be made to turn pale or red any day by a word or look from her.
She wanted the finer things in life, finer than a man of Adam’s means could give her. And she was also increasingly aware that handsome, wealthy Arthur was making eyes at her in church and finding excuses to come visit the farm. Arthur who should know better than to encourage a silly, naive young girl from a different class, who could never be true marriage material to him.
Meanwhile, Adam’s brother Seth is in love with the serious but loving Dinah, niece to the Poysers, who is a Methodist and a woman preaching in public. But she has told him that if she “could think of any man as more than a Christian brother, I think it would be you. But my heart is not free to marry…. God has called me to minister to others, not to have any joys or sorrows of my own, but to rejoice with them that do rejoice, and to weep with those that weep.” Dinah has a real connection to Seth and Adam’s mother Lisbeth, comforting her when her husband dies early on in the story. She spends the night with them at the cottage, and in the morning when Adam comes down, he sees her in a bit of a different light.
For the first moment or two he made no answer, but looked at her with the concentrated, examining glance which a man gives to an object in which he has suddenly begun to be interested. Dinah, for the first time in her life, felt a painful self-consciousness; there was something in the dark penetrating glance of this strong man so different from the mildness and timidity of his brother Seth. A faint blush came, which deepened as she wondered at it.
Interesting! This passage struck me and I filed it away for later.
Things really pick up during and after the big birthday bash for Arthur Donnithorne. Everyone is invited no matter their social standing, and everyone is happy to see the young man come of age and come closer to finally being master of the estate, as his grandfather is a miserly curmudgeon, not well liked and not seen as a good steward of the land or the tenant farmers. The last three books, the last half, of the novel really pick up the pace and the action, and I didn’t want to put it down at times. Hetty and Arthur do become romantically entangled, most unwisely, and the consequences are devastating to many. Will there be a happy ending for anyone? Will good old Adam Bede finally enjoy the love of a decent woman who deserves him?
After a choppy start, I came to really enjoy this novel. It deals with class and education, religion and gender roles, but mostly it’s a story of a rural community of decent people and the danger that comes with upsetting the established social order. I would definitely recommend it if you have already read Middlemarch; but if you haven’t yet, then please save your George Eliot energy for that sublime classic. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐