First published: 1858
Edition(s) used: Scenes of Clerical Life, edited by David Lodge. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1973
Genre(s): Short fiction
Subgenre(s): Literary fiction; stories
Core issue(s): Clerical life; grace; Incarnation; love; redemption
Amos Barton, the protagonist in “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton”
Amelia “Milly” Barton, Amos’s wife
Countess Czerlaski, the Bartons’neighbor
Maynard Gilfil, the protagonist in “Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story”
Caterina, Maynard’s beloved
Sir Christopher Cheverel, Maynard’s patron
Captain Anthony Wybrow, Sir Christopher’s nephew
Janet Dempster, the protagonist in “Janet’s Repentance”
Robert Dempster, Janet’s husband
Mr. Tryan, an Evangelical curate
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.
“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...
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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 unfeelingly declares his intention to marry Lady Assher. Searching for a way out of his dilemma and knowing Gilfil’s affections for Caterina, Anthony suggests that Sir Christopher orchestrate Gilfil and Caterina’s marriage. When Sir Christopher proposes this plan to Gilfil, the chaplain exposes Anthony’s deceptions and refuses to marry Caterina under such conditions. Meanwhile, Caterina, angered at Anthony’s deceptions, plots to kill him. Before she can murder him, Anthony succumbs to a heart attack, and Caterina becomes physically ill and spiritually bereft. After Gilfil nurtures her back to spiritual and physical health, Caterina falls in love with him. They marry, but Caterina dies several months after their wedding, leaving Mr. Gilfil once more alone in his vicarage.
Like the previous two scenes, “Janet’s Repentance” is set in Milby and deals with the conflict between Anglicanism and Evangelicalism. Tryan, the new vicar in the chapel on Paddiford Common, preaches extemporaneously, has religious meetings in people’s cottages, and fills the aisles of his church with Dissenters. Tryan lives a life of self-sacrifice, bringing mercy to the poor.
Local lawyer Robert Dempster opposes Tryan and his kind of religion. Dempster hatches an anti-Tryan plan at the Red Lion pub, where he drinks steadily and heavily every night. Janet Dempster, Robert’s wife, supports her husband in his crusade until she meets Tryan one day. When they exchange glances, Janet recognizes the soul of a fellow sufferer.
Because Janet does not live up to his ideal as a wife, Robert frequently beats her. When Robert throws Janet out of the house in a drunken rage one night, she seeks refuge with a neighbor, who eventually calls Tryan. Tryan’s story of suffering emboldens Janet to live a life of self-sacrifice rather than self-despair. After Tryan dies, Janet, like many of Eliot’s heroines, undertakes a life of love, mercy, and service.
Although Scenes of Clerical Life is Eliot’s first fiction about religion, she had been thinking about religion for at least a decade prior to the publication of Scenes of Clerical Life. In 1846, she translated D. F. Strauss’s groundbreaking Das Leben Jesu (1835) as The Life of Jesus Christ Critically Examined; eight years later, she translated Ludwig Feuerbach’s Das Wesen des Christentums (1841; The Essence of Christianity, 1854). Both of these works, critical of the foundations of traditional Christianity, influenced Eliot’s portrait of the bankruptcy of traditional religion in Scenes of Clerical Life.
Moreover, by the time Eliot published Scenes of Clerical Life, the Anglican Church was facing challenges on all sides. The Tractarian, or Oxford, movement of the 1830’s sought to reform the Anglican Church along Catholic lines. This High Church movement emphasized the power and authority of the bishops. The Low Church, or Evangelical, movement, on the other hand, tried to move the Anglican Church in a more Protestant direction, challenging the power of the bishops and asserting the authority of individual believers.
In each of the novellas in Scenes of Clerical Life, the village of Milby struggles with these issues, most starkly in “Janet’s Repentance.” The Evangelical clergymen Amos Barton, Maynard Gilfil, and Tryan represent the freedom from stifling liturgy and corrupt episcopal power of the Anglican Church. Although Eliot portrays each cleric as less than heroic, each of them brings new perspectives on the meaning of true religion to Milby. True religion, in these novellas, is the religion of kindness and humanity.
Sources for Further Study
- Hardy, Barbara. The Novels of George Eliot. London: Athlone Press, 1963. Hardy’s splendid critical work remains the best introduction to Eliot’s fiction.
- Hertz, Neil. George Eliot’s Pulse. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003. Hertz offers a brilliant reading of the ways that Eliot uses particular narrative techniques to develop specific themes.
- Karl, Frederick R. George Eliot. New York: Norton, 1995. Still the best critical and intellectual biography of Eliot.
- Noble, Thomas A. George Eliot’s “Scenes of Clerical Life.” New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965. The only full-length treatment of Eliot’s first fictions, Noble’s book examines the reception of the work and the book’s impact on Eliot’s later work.
- Oldfield, Derek, and Sybil Oldfield. “Scenes of Clerical Life: The Diagram and the Picture.” In Critical Essays on George Eliot, edited by Barbara Hardy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969. Shows how Eliot uses the German philosopher Feuerbach’s ideas about religion to structure Scenes of Clerical Life.