Overshadowed by her full-length novels, George Eliot’s short fiction is a writer’s apprenticeship, as is that of Jane Austen. Whereas Austen’s short pieces merely prefigure the themes and methods of her mature work, “Amos Barton,” “Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story,” and “Janet’s Repentance”—the three long stories that comprise Scenes of Clerical Life—show that from the start of her career George Eliot had identified the literary landscape that would prove so fertile under her cultivation. In this first book she records the commonplace struggles of commonplace people and the incremental blessings bestowed on society by provincial folk who “lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unremembered tombs.” Her concern with the crosscurrents that complicate the flow of even the most seemingly simple lives gives evidence that, though George Eliot had rejected orthodox Christianity, she retained her ardor for the “religion of humanity.”
For example, in “Amos Barton,” George Eliot demonstrates that humble folk can attain that wisdom through suffering which in Greek tragedy is the reward only of kings and heroes. The plight of the title character, a dull, bald curate “more apt to fall into a blunder than into a sin,” is too ordinary to be tragic: He has a large family, a small income, and a weak mind. The problems Barton inflicts on his congregation at Shepperton are likewise far from monstrous. An ineffective pastor, he busies himself with doctrines of salvation rather than helping his flock through the here and now. Dazzled by the patronizing attentions of the Countess Czerlaski, a cardboard aristocrat whom the villagers very sensibly mistrust, he fails to notice that his wife, Milly, a domestic angel whom Shepperton adores as much as it dislikes the countess, is literally working herself to death before his eyes. Thus, Barton alienates even his lukewarm partisans. Having lost Milly, however, he learns the one great lesson of a minister, and in George Eliot’s view, of any responsible human being: that to respect and cherish one’s fellow mortals is the divinest task one can perform. The parish in its turn responds sympathetically to the bereaved man as it never had to the mediocre pastor: “Amos failed to touch the spring of goodness by his sermons, but he touched it effectually by his sorrows.” Still, Shepperton, as George Eliot realistically portrays it, is part of a world where fortune does not necessarily reward moral progress. Amos finds communion only to lose it. Deprived of his curacy by the holder of the living, who wants to bestow it elsewhere, Amos must leave the village he has just come to value for a new life in a large manufacturing town unsanctified by past experience.
“Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story”
“Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story” reminds the reader that suffering can stunt a noble nature as effectively as it can elevate a mean one. As the story opens, its protagonist, Amos Barton’s predecessor at Shepperton, is an eccentric old man, generous with sarcasms and sugarplums, long on practical kindness but short on professional piety; but after a brief introduction, George Eliot’s narrator takes the reader back to the end of the eighteenth century, away from prosaic Shepperton to the gothic grandeur of Cheverel Manor, and shows that Mr. Gilfil’s emotions, like his body, have not forever been gnarled and crusty. A stalwart young country clergyman favored by his guardian Sir Christopher Cheverel, the young Maynard Gilfil loves Caterina Sarti, an Italian orphan whom the Cheverels have reared as half...
(The entire section is 1483 words.)