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Scenes From Clerical Life, by George Eliot
Fiction represents the character of the age to which it
belongs, not merely by actual delineations of its times, like those of Tom Jones and The
Newcomes, but also in an indirect, though scarcely less positive manner, by
its exhibition of the influence of the times upon its own form and general
direction, whatever the scene or period it may have chosen for itself. The
story of "Hypatia" is laid in Alexandria almost two thousand years ago, but the
book reflects the crudities of modern English thought; and even Mr. Thackeray,
the greatest living master of costume, succeeds in making his Esmond
only a joint-production of the Addisonian age and our own. Thus the novels of
the last few years exhibit very clearly the spirit that characterizes the
period of regard for men and women as men and women, without reference to rank,
beauty, fortune, or privilege. Novelists recognize that Nature is a better
romance-maker than the fancy, and the public is learning that men and women are
better than heroes and heroines, not only to live with, but also to read of.
Now and then, therefore, we get a novel, like these Scenes of Clerical
Life, in which the fictitious element is securely based upon a broad
groundwork of actual truth, truth as well in detail as in general.
It is not often, however, even yet, that we find a writer wholly unembarrassed
by and in revolt against the old theory of the necessity of perfection in some
one at least of the characters of his story. "Neither Luther nor John Bunyan,"
says the author of this book, "would have satisfied the modern demand for an
ideal hero, who believes nothing but what is true, feels nothing but what is
excellent, and does nothing but what is graceful."
Sometimes, indeed, a daring romance-writer ventures, during the earlier
chapters of his story, to represent a heroine without beauty and without
wealth, or a hero with some mortal blemish. But after a time his resolution
fails;--each new chapter gives a new charm to the ordinary face; the eyes grow
"liquid" and "lustrous," always having been "large"; the nose, "naturally
delicate," exhibits its "fine-cut lines"; the mouth acquires an indescribable
expression of loveliness; and the reader's hoped-for Fright is transformed by
Folly or Miss Pickering into a commonplace, tiresome, novelesque Beauty. Even
Miss Bronte relented toward Jane Eyre; and weaker novelists are continually
repeating, but with the ommision of the moral, the story of the "Ugly Duck."
Unquestionably, there is the excuse to be made for this great error, that it
betrays the seeking after an Ideal. Dangerous word! The ideal standard of
excellence is, to be sure, fortunately changing, and the unreal ideal will soon
be confined to the second-rate writers for second-rate readers. But all the
great novelists of the two last generations indulged themselves and their
readers in these unrealities. It is vastly easier to invent a consistent
character than to represent an inconsistent one;--a hero is easier to make (so
all historians have found) than a man.
Suppose, however, novelists could be placed in a society made up of their
favorite characters,--forced into real, lifelike intercourse with
them;--Richardson, for instance, with his Harriet Byron or Clarissa, attended
by Sir Charles; Miss Burney with Lord Orville and Evelina; Miss Edgeworth with
Caroline Percy, and that marvellous hero, Count Altenburg; Scott with the
automatons that he called Waverly and Flora McIvor. Suppose they were brought
together to share the comforts (cold comforts they would be) of life, to pass
days together, to meet every morning at breakfast; with what a ludicrous sense
of relief, at the close of this purgatorial period, would not the unhappy
novelists have fled from these deserted heroes and heroines, and the precious
proprieties of their romance, to the very driest and mustiest of human
bores,--gratefully rejoicing that the world was not filled with such creatures
as they themselves had set before it as ideals!
To copy Nature faithfully and heartily is certainly not less needful when
stories are presented in words than when they are told on canvas or in marble.
In the Scenes from Clerical Life we have a happy example of such
copying. The three stories embraced under this title are written vigorously,
with a just appreciation of the romance of reality, and with honest adherence
to truth of representation in the sombre as well as the brighter portions of
life. It demands not only a large intellect, but a large heart, to gain such a
candid and inclusive appreciation of life and character as they display. The
greater part of each story reads like a reminiscence of real life, and the
personages introduced show little sign of being "rubbed down" or "touched up
and varnished" for effect. The narrative is easy and direct, full of humor and
pathos; and the descriptions of simple life in a country village are often
charming from their freshness, vivacity, and sweetness. More than this, these
stories give proof of that wide range of experience which does not so much
depend on an extended or varied acquaintance with the world, as upon an
intelligent and comprehensive sympathy, which makes each new person with whom
one is connected a new illustration of the unsolved problems of life and a new
link in the unending chain of human development.
The book is one that deserves a more elegant form than that which the Messrs.
Harper have given it in their reprint.
The Atlantic Monthly, May 1858.