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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901

George Eliot’s first fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life, comprises three scenes, or sketches, of individual clergy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century English Midlands: “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton,” “Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story,” and “Janet’s Repentance.” Each story explores one clergyman’s struggles with the hypocrisy of society, the demands of institutional religion, the challenges of provincial life, the nature of true love, and the meaning of true religion.

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“The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton” opens twenty-five years before Amos Barton appears in the village of Milby at Shepperton Church. In that earlier time, the church itself was stately and beautiful, and the Sabbath services were conducted according to an older liturgy and hymns sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments rather than an organ. By the time Amos Barton arrives, the church building and the liturgy have become more modern, reflecting the struggles between the various reform movements of the Anglican Church in the mid-nineteenth century.

Amos Barton is a circuit rider—serving three churches—who barely makes enough money from his work to feed and clothe his wife and six children. Not a handsome man, he is the subject of gossip because he is a bad dresser, a deficient speaker, and a thoughtless husband and father. In contrast, his wife Milly (Amelia), a beautiful and graceful soul, holds the household together and is greatly admired—and often pitied—by her neighbors. She works so hard performing the daily chores and keeping the creditors at bay that her health suffers. So concerned with the spiritual health of his parishioners, Barton fails to notice his wife’s ill health until it is too late.

Milly’s health and Barton’s reputation suffer when a wealthy neighbor, Countess Czerlaski, moves into their already crowded household after losing her own. She treats the Bartons, especially Milly, like servants, and her stay with the family causes a great scandal in the village. Both his neighbors and his fellow clergy lose respect for Barton, who welcomes the countess into his home out of kindness and pastoral compassion. Pregnant with their seventh child, Milly falls ill from the extra work. Although she bears the baby prematurely, she eventually dies, and Barton is forlorn, recognizing that he had not loved Milly enough. Not long after Milly’s death, Barton loses his position, and he and his children must move to a parish in a manufacturing town.

“Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story” deals with the life and love of Maynard Gilfil, the parish priest who preceded Amos Barton in Milby. More respected and liked than Barton, Gilfil seldom asked his parishioners for money or about the eternal state of their souls. He performed his spiritual tasks with brevity, preaching short sermons without much reference to the religious topics of his day.

Before coming to Milby, Gilfil had served as a chaplain for Sir Christopher Cheverel at Cheverel Manor. A few years earlier in Italy, the childless Cheverels adopted Caterina, a young Italian orphan whom they were raising as their own daughter. The Cheverels’ nephew, Captain Anthony Wybrow, and Gilfil grew up like brothers with Caterina. As Caterina blossoms into a young woman, Gilfil falls in love with her, and she falls in love with Anthony.

Anthony, however, is engaged to Lady Assher, a wealthy and impetuous socialite in his own social class. At the same time, Anthony has been making love to Caterina. Angry, hurt, and jealous, Caterina confronts Anthony about his plans, and he...

(The entire section contains 901 words.)

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