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Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot
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Feb 09, 2012

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Scenes of Clerical Life is really a compilation of three novellas, each as adequate as the last.

The first novella, The Sad Fortunes of Rev. Amos Barton, suffers most of Eliot's tendency to take a survey of provincial life. It, like the other novellas, takes an expansive view of Shepperton and Milby, and will tell the story through vignettes and conversations of secondary and tertiary characters. They help to create a vivid environment and are more or less necessary for the form of realism she ultimately championed. The character of Reverend Barton himself is humorously pathetic - in that masterful balance of compassion and snarky condescension that Eliot seems to have nailed quite early on in her career - but is not incredibly present. Much of the narrative deals with gossip, imputation, slander and the like in a way similar to, but also inferior to, The Mill on the Floss and the rumors about Maggie Tulliver. The first novella is gently humorous in parts and possesses enough insight about imputation, but it is oddly unsympathetic; tedious, yet padded in very strange machinations plot-wise. There's a noticeable thematic left-turn near the novella's end: it veers away from rumor and toward Barton's regret at his negligence (which we hardly see in the novella). Whether or not it's because Eliot saw difficulty in continuing down the established thematic direction, I'm unsure. But it did feel somewhat like an act of cowardice.

The second novella, Mr. Gilfil's Love Story is the most standard fare of the three. It, too, hardly deals with its title protagonist; instead it focuses on the lovelorn, self-absorbed Caterina who finds herself between a man who loves her (Mr. Gilfil) and the man she thinks is leading her on. This one doesn't have quite the same humor, and once again uses death to very, very dated dramatic effect. The point it makes about Caterina's self-involvement and her wickedness is a point well taken: many "leading me on" accusations are completely unfounded, and often the tortured love-lorn soul is just another myopic plebeian with self-absorption problems. Eliot doesn't portray her this cruelly, granted, but the "wronged" here isn't necessarily wronged, which is always a point worth reiterating.

The third novella, and by far the strongest, Janet's Repentance tells the story of a Dissenting, Evangelical priest who enters a town that is more or less religiously divided. The three novels are set in a climate of religious sectarianism and Anglican-based paranoia; as if the threat of Evangelical infiltration was some sort of "red scare" to be confronted. But Janet's Repentance has the darkly hilarious Mr. Dempster, and Janet, a woman so confused by the concept of loyalty. Mr. Tryan is suitably reverential, but transcends the cliche of being pious-with-a-bad-past. Eliot uses Tryan to ask: is over-working yourself to death in the name of charity really the best way to utilize your piety? Wouldn't a little self-indulgence contribute more piety in the world, e.g. better housing accommodations and a fuller diet? Chapter 10 of this novella includes some astounding insights about the marketplace of ideas, about 'puritanical egoism', and our ill-bred romanticizing of heroes. Janet's Repentance eloquently makes a case about the simple remedy sympathy can be to many mental, emotional, and societal ills. It is a very strong end after two take-it-or-leave-it stories. So, in short: all in all another perfectly welcome offering from George Eliot.
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