(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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....

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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.