Adam Bede | George Eliot #EliotReadalong

With a drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past. This is what I undertake to do for you, reader.

Adam Bede was my lucky choice for the last Classics Club Spin. I was thrilled to then discover that Nick @One Catholic Life was hosting an Eliot Readalong throughout 2023. So I patiently waited until the 1st January to begin. Like Nick, Adam Bede is one of the unread Eliot’s on my TBR, I also knew very little about the story. The back blurb prepared me for a love triangle, ‘an old tale’ that ‘becomes one of fresh heartbreak, innocent hopes, best attentions gone awry, and better selves lost and restored.’

I was happy to leave it at that and eagerly began my journey into the Midlands circa 1800.

But then I needed to know where the village of Hayslope was. What did it look like now? Was the village green still there? The pub? The church?

The first thing I discovered was that Hayslope does not exist. It’s a fictional village. But it IS based on a real village – Ellastone on the Derbyshire/Staffordshire border by the River Dove. The very same village that George Eliot’s father, Robert Evans and his brother Samual lived and worked in as carpenters. Her aunt Elizabeth was a Methodist preacher who did in fact stay all night in prison with a condemned murderess, Mary Voce, who was hanged for killing her baby.

It was partly from reminiscences of her father’s talk and from her uncle Samuel’s wife’s preaching experiences that the author constructed the very powerful and moving story of Adam Bede. Adam and Seth Bede were her father and uncle idealised.

The Living Age, Volume 303, 1919, pg 417.

Ellastone now celebrates this heritage.

‘Adam Bede cottage’, the name given to the house that her uncle lived in can be seen above (it has had many additions since then) – along with St Peter’s Church, the local pub and the River Dove bridge. And thanks to local man Ed Barker there is an ‘Adam Bede Walk’ booklet and tour, that is now on my to-do list next time I visit the UK.

Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult….Examine your words well, and you will find that even when you have no motive to be false, it is a very hard thing to say the exact truth, even about your own immediate feelings — much harder than to say something fine about them which is not the exact truth.

The basic story (complete with a spoiler alert) is that Adam, upright conscientious and hard-working falls in love with Hetty, his neighbour’s niece. She’s a bit flighty, flirty and well, silly. She’s also beautiful, which seems to be the main reason why someone as sensible as Adam falls for her rather the intelligent, gentle daughter of his boss, who just happens to be plain.

Naturally Hetty has no interest whatsoever in Adam. She has her sights aimed much higher – the Squire’s grandson, Arthur, no less. Meanwhile Adam’s brother Seth has taken up Methodism and has fallen for the new female preacher, Dinah. Religion is her love though, and poor Seth doesn’t stand a chance.

The affair between Hetty and Arthur ends exactly as you think it will. Arthur is allowed to have some misgivings and moral conscience and Adam is allowed to rant and rage. Hetty just gets a broken heart…and a baby. In shame, Hetty runs away to find Arthur. When she hears his regiment has been sent to Ireland, her utter despair causes her to act with negligence. The baby dies.

Because, dear, trouble comes to us all in this life: we set our hearts on things which it isn’t God’s will for us to have, and then we go sorrowing; the people we love are taken from us, and we can joy in nothing because they are not with us; sickness comes, and we faint under the burden of our feeble bodies; we go astray and do wrong, and bring ourselves into trouble with our fellow men. There is no man or woman born into this world to whom some of these trials do not fall.

Now, it could be possible to criticise Eliot for the unhappy fate of the main female characters in Adam Bede, but as soon as I read ‘love triangle’ I knew that it would be the woman who came off worse. Of course, it is the woman who has to bear the burden of an illegitimate child while the man simply gets to go off in some disgrace and fight in the army. Of course it is the woman who ends up in prison on death row and and of course it is the man who gets to ‘save’ her by commuting the sentence to transportation to NSW. As if that was a better deal!

Even dear Dinah cheerfully gives up her preaching position when the men of her church decide that female preachers just won’t do.

Speaking of preaching, there are times when the moral lessons and religious ideology are laid on pretty thick. And Eliot caught the Realism disguised as Romanticism bug. The whole novel is a homage to nature, simple living and the purity of the common folk. She even has her characters discussing the 1798 Lyrical Ballads published by Wordsworth and Coleridge (a collaborative collection of poems now deemed by scholars as the beginning of English Romanticism. It contained ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ along with a preface stating they preferred to write about ‘low and rustic life’ in ‘the language really used by men’. It is also where Wordsworth wrote in the 1800 edition that poetry was a ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’.)

All of this might make it sound like I didn’t enjoy Adam Bede. I actually did. But it is flawed.

To the modern reader the plot is fairly straight forward and predictable and the ending is a bit too twee for my taste. But along the way we meet some interesting characters trying to live an honest, wholesome life. They experience joys and sorrows and the everyday unremarkable routines of life. It is this ordinariness that gives their story its charm. Perhaps I also suffer from finding beauty in mundane, commonplace things!

From the TBR: Adam Bede has been on my TBR pile since 2019

Favourite Quotes:

When death, the great Reconciler, has come, it is never our tenderness that we repent of, but our severity.

What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life–to strengthen each other in all labor, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?

Favourite Character:

  • The English countryside.

…it was still scarcely four o’clock when he stood before the tall narrow gate leading into the delicious labyrinthine wood which skirted one side of the Chase, and which was called Fir-tree Grove, not because the firs were many, but because they were few. It was a wood of beeches and limes, with here and there a light silver-stemmed birch—just the sort of wood most haunted by the nymphs: you see their white sunlit limbs gleaming athwart the boughs, or peeping from behind the smooth-sweeping outline of a tall lime; you hear their soft liquid laughter—but if you look with a too curious sacrilegious eye, they vanish behind the silvery beeches, they make you believe that their voice was only a running brooklet, perhaps they metamorphose themselves into a tawny squirrel that scampers away and mocks you from the topmost bough. It was not a grove with measured grass or rolled gravel for you to tread upon, but with narrow, hollow-shaped, earthy paths, edged with faint dashes of delicate moss—paths which look as if they were made by the free will of the trees and underwood, moving reverently aside to look at the tall queen of the white-footed nymphs.

Favourite of Forget: I enjoyed reading Adam Bede and I am glad I finally got to it, but it is not a keeper.

Title: Adam Bede
Author: George Eliot
Published: 3 January 2017 (originally published February 1859)
ISBN: 9780099577287
Imprint: Vintage Classics
Format: Paperback
Pages: 624
Dates Read - 2 January 2023 - 23 January 2023
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

18 thoughts on “Adam Bede | George Eliot #EliotReadalong

    1. I did my own self-guided tour of Lyme Regis combining a Persuasion and French Lieutenants Woman walk back in 2007. I love walking in the footsteps of much loved characters & books.


    1. I adored reading Middlemarch in my twenties, but I do wonder how I would feel about it now. I will decide in July whether or not I join in the Middlemarch readalong. One will I have the time and two do I want to risk ruining such a lovely reading memory!!


  1. I read Mill on the Floss last year, so I had some idea of what to expect from Adam Bede. Still, I thought her characterizations, especially those of the women, were well done. And of course we know that it is the women who have to pay the consequences in those times. This just makes me want to share this book with young women as a reminder that things were much, much worse long ago.

    I especially thank you for sharing the background information about England.


  2. Look, any book with the English countryside as a “character” is going to be a draw for me. Sorry it was flawed, though. I have The Painted Veil on my CCSpin list, and have yet to read anything by Eliot! (Oh, dear!)


  3. I really enjoyed this one, I’d read only Middlemarch for years then was given Daniel Deronda and took it from there, buying and reading them as I found them. I rather fell for Adam, I think because he reminded me of Gabriel Oak from Far from the Madding Crowd by Hardy!


    1. I saw a BBC production of Daniel Deronda and thought I might like to read it for myself one day, but it’s not on my TBR, so will not happen this year! (Look at that resolve!!)
      I can see how one could fall for Adam – I see that a very young looking Iain Glen played Adam in an old BBC production, although I pictured him broader, darker and taller.


  4. I love her writing but haven’t read Adam Bede yet, I’ll definitely get there though. Dorothea Brooke and Maggie Tulliver are such heroines of mine!


  5. Bill walked around the Palais de Justice to see if he could work out how Maigret cut through to his office in the Police building. I couldn’t. I had much more fun that same trip touring Orwell’s Catalonia battlefield, and the Hydra of Charmian Clift (and Leonard Cohen).
    I read/listen to C19th fiction as often as I can. Despite my atheism I enjoy their discussions of religion and especially their ‘dissenting’ protestants.
    I’m not sure I’d call a desperate woman who killed her baby a murderess. And although the Second Fleet in particular was a hell hole for women convicts, I still think commutation of a death sentence to transportation was worthwhile.

    Liked by 1 person

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