What distinguishes a truly great classic for me is that no-matter how many times I read it, I can still discover something fresh within its pages. It’s why I love George Eliot’s Middlemarch so much and why I never tire of going back to it. This is a novel stuffed with big ideas, from Darwin’s natural selection to advances in medical sciences, from the Great Reform Act to industrialisation; all organised within a central metaphor of “the web” of society. Yet it’s also a very human novel; one that deals with ambition and the loneliness of failure whether in love or theological research or the desire to bring great benefit to mankind.
To read it is to see Eliot’s creative imagination as its most mature. But you can see in Adam Bede, the novel she wrote some 14 years earlier, (it was in fact her first full length novel) her first steps towards the themes and approaches that will become prevalent in Middlemarch.
I first read Adam Bede more than 30 years ago. What I remember mostly is how sorry I felt for poor gullible Hetty Sorrel, a milkmaid who dreamed of love and a life beyond the drudgery of the cowshed and dairy only to be abandoned by the dastardly squire’s son. Reading it now however it’s evident that in focusing so much on the doomed love triangle between Hetty, the carpenter Adam Bede and Captain Arthur Donnithorne, I overlooked many of the key themes of the novel. In particular I failed to notice how Eliot in this book – just as in Middlemarch – considers the idea of vocation and how individuals can achieve a sense of fulfilment through work.
A commitment to working hard is one of the chief differences between the ‘good’ characters in Adam Bede and those whose behaviour we are lead to despise. Most of the ‘admirable’ characters are hard-working peasants who labour on farms, in mills, or in shops, like Mr and Mrs Poyser who are renowned for the way they manage their farm on the Donnithorne estate or like the millworker Dinah who selflessly visits the sick and the sick at heart to give succour wherever she can. In contrast Captain Donnithorne, the handsome heir to a substantial estate, dreams of doing good things when he comes into his inheritance but actually does little other than ride and visit his prospective tenants. It’s not until he goes off to join the militia that he seems to find fulfilment.
If there was ever any doubt that this is a novel about work, the first chapter of the novel gives us the key to Eliot’s intention. It’s set in a place of work – a carpenter’s shop – where, as they bend over their workbenches, discuss the idea of duty. The work ethic runs particularly deep through the veins of the foreman Adam Bede. When his co-workers stop work instantly they her the church clock mark the end of their day. Adam alone continues working, chastising them for their lack of dedication “as if they took no pleasure i’ their work and was afraid o’ doing a stroke too much … just as if he’d never but a bit of pride and delight in ‘s work.” (Chap 1). Though the other carpenters tease him, what Adam shows is his belief in the intrinsic value of work and of a job well done. It’s a lesson he repeats just a few chapters later. Arriving home to find his father has gone off drinking instead of finishing a coffin promised for the following morning, Adam rejects bed and supper in order to get the job done.
What signifies how long it takes me? Isn’t the coffin promised? Can they bury the man without a coffin? I’d work my right hand off sooner than deceive people with lies i’ that way. It makes me mad to think on’t. (Chap 12)
Adam’s dedication flows partly from a sense of responsibility and because he knows he needs a secure financial base before he can marry Hetty. His industrious manner enables him eventually to rise from being a mere employee to own his own business. But he also sees a higher order value in work, one that is connected to the long term improvement of human lives: “It’s all I’ve got to think of now—to do my work well and make the world a bit better place for them as can enjoy it.” (Chap 48).
Adam’s attitude to work is similar in many ways to the estate manager Caleb Garth in Middlemarch. He too regards his work of managing other people’s land as a mark of honour.
It’s a fine thing to come to a man when he’s seen into the nature of business: to have the chance of getting a bit of the country into good fettle … and putting men into the right way with their farming and getting a bit of cgood contributing and solid building work done – that those who are living and those who come after will be the better for … I hold it the most honourable work that is … it’s a great gift of God (Book 4, Chap 40)
What both Adam and Caleb represent is the honesty and integrity of work and a belief in its ability to be a force for good. Where many other nineteenth century novels show work as a physical activity (often making a social point about its exploitative nature) what Eliot seems to do in these two novels feels rather different. Instead of portraying work itself, she shows the idea of work as a vocation, in order to underline her belief that all individuals need to think beyond themselves. Endeavours that fulfil the intellectual, spiritual and emotional needs of the individual are important – but what is even more critical is that in doing so they contribute to the general and long term improvement of other human lives.