All entries for Monday 16 August 2010

August 16, 2010

"The terror of wandering out into the world": George Eliot's Adam Bede

Following on from my previous post on George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, next up is Eliot's Adam Bede (1859). Written the year before Mill, Adam Bede provides a nice complement, with many resonances of theme, tone, and style between the two.

In many ways, Adam Bede is situated as very much a precursor to Mill, especially in the characterisation of the central female figure which becomes, I think, much better developed in Mill. The title Adam Bede is somewhat misleading, because although Adam's narrative provides the overriding arch of the novel, much of the narrative focuses on Hetty Sorrel; Eliot seems drawn towards centralising Hetty, but doesn't quite give Hetty's character the full interior development that we get with Maggie in Mill. Reading the novel this time around, I was struck by how very silent Hetty is: although the third-person focalization of the narrative gives us a sense of "Hetty's world" (as chapter IX is titled), it's striking how little she says to those around her, her dialogue mostly limited to a yes or no here and there.

Adam Bede

Yet whilst in this sense I think Mill achieves something that isn't quite realised in AB, in one of the central themes, the love affair between Hetty and Arthur Donnithorne, AB resonates with Mill in ways that situate the former as something like Mill's grown-up sister. Like Maggie, Hetty too is restricted from walking freely and her aunt doesn't like her to go out walking much, scolding her for being late home. But her walks to visit the lady's maid up at the Donnithorne residence bring Hetty into the path of Arthur, the heir to the estate. As with Maggie and Philip, what follows is a series of the illicit meeting between lovers on woodland walks, and it is implied that Hetty and Arthur meet frequently in this way for a couple of months; but where the relationship in Mill remained sexually innocent, here things are carried further with the resulting "dreadful consequence" of Hetty's pregnancy. The novel quite explicitly realises the social presumptions of the sexual dangers of women "out walking", that women’s wandering is dangerous and risks compromising women’s sexual purity.

In a bitter mirroring of these circumstances, Hetty gives birth to the resultant baby whilst wandering alone and on foot, on her journey in search of Arthur who has long gone away with his regiment to Windsor; and then, when she finds that they have left for Ireland, Hetty must make her way back again. It's this journey that I spend most time on in the thesis, so I don't want to say too much about it here. One thing I haven't been able to explore (yet? at all? with time rapidly running away from me, I imagine it's going to be the latter) in amongst the social meanings of women walking - associations with madness and wildness, being subject to condemning remarks and so on- is the fact of Hetty's being heavily pregnant on this journey. In a period in which the visible presence of a woman in the streets leaves her open to comment, criticism, and in which birth entails "confinement", how much does Hetty's pregnant body further transgress social codes of respectability? What did it mean to be, specifically, a pregnant woman out walking?

In contrast with Hetty's (mostly) limited mobility, Dinah Morris stands as a challenge to social conventions. As a Methodist preacher, she is afforded a mobility rarely seen amongst other female characters, moving between the Stoniton and Hayslope locales in the Midlands, as well as further afield up to Leeds. This goes hand in hand with her position outside of the typical notion of femininity: dedicating herself to religious work, she is in a position to refuse taking a husband and she lives an independent life. This isn't exactly condoned by those around her: her aunt Poyser bemoans her wandering ways and her refusal to marry, which would make her settle down, root her in one place; but, she can live this life without accusations of impropriety and unrespectability. Still, though, it seems Eliot is uneasy with Dinah's position and at the end of the novel draws her into a conventional conclusion, although at least reaches something of a compromise whereby Dinah marries Adam but he allows her to keep up the preaching, mobile lifestyle - that is, until the wider forces of patriarchy step in and ban women preachers altogether, and so Dinah ultimately ends up with the same fate as all other women, being a wife and mother safely confined within her home-place. 

Also in contrast to Hetty's journeying is that of Adam, whose walking provides a nice gender contrast. This is especially noticeable in the journey that follows Hetty's: after a few chapters of her weary toiling on foot, Adam sets out in search of her, briskly walking 10 miles with ease and enjoyment. Her struggle and endurance are utterly at odds with his ability to so easily walk a long distance. Whilst women are constrained from much walking, and condemned when they do, walking in men is a celebrated feature: right at the start of the novel, we see Casson singing Adam's praises to the stranger on horseback, and amongst his list of positive attributes is Adam's ability to walk forty miles a day. This episode of Adam following after Hetty, trying to trace her movement, reminded me of a frequent trope in later mid-Century novels (Braddon and also Collins, I think) whereby a woman runs away and is followed by a man, detective or otherwise: only this becomes so much easier with the advent of railways, where one can go from station to station, following pre-laid route after pre-laid route, and rely on the inevitability of someone having spotted a woman alone on the train as something of an oddity. For poor Adam, there is no regularised, standard route to follow, and he can only guess at where she might have taken a carriage or cart from (not knowing, of course, that she set off after her first coach ride on foot). If you're going to get lost in the nineteenth-century novel, do so before Industrialised transport comes along.

Hetty is, however, ultimately the greatest traveller of all in Adam Bede: for her punishment for the abandonment (and thus, murder) of her child is transportation to Australia. The narrative doesn't follow, and we're left only to imagine how great "the terror of wandering out into the world" would be for Hetty making this final journey.


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