the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places
Thursday, April 23, 2009
What Eliot Spitzer and I Have in Common: A Review of George Eliot's Adam Bede
Adam Bede, George Eliot (1859)[*****]. I have been unsuccessfully mulling for several days how to review in one paragraph Adam Bede -- one of my favorite books, and my introduction to George Eliot some twenty-five years ago in Gordon's* Intro to Lit. Today I took a break in the middle of my day -- a day of feeding my family, pleasant housework, hiking in the woods along a burbling creek, preparing an asparagus bed in the garden, commiserating with a neighbor about "young people these days" -- to read the feature story in the most recent Newsweek entitled"The Confessions of Eliot Spitzer." The subtitle is "How Could I?" -- and of course, everyone has a theory, none of them particularly satisfying or believable. This particular story is supposed to be sympathetic to Spitzer, who is apparently trying to make some sort of a come-back or something, but it doesn't succeed very well. And then it came to me: Eliot Spitzer needs George Eliot! Only she could make us understand "how he could;" only she could unblinkingly yet sympathetically tell us the truth about "how he could," pulling no punches while at the same time refraining from judgement and righteousness. Her treatment of Arthur Donnithorne was the thing that struck me most deeply the first time I read Adam Bede, and was the only thing I remembered -- the rest (thanks to my sieve-like memory) was all new. But I feel both certain (and chagrined) that my earnest, feminist, nineteen year-old self was humorless and critical of the misogynist Bartle Massey, who only delighted me this time around (and who is most certainly gay, yes? And in love with Adam, right?) And I don't recall if I adored Mrs. Poyser so much the first time I read Adam Bede -- somehow I think I was probably not nearly as taken with her, and by her tidy home and sparkling, well-run dairy. I doubt that I appreciated then how much Eliot makes of such a small, quiet world -- how rich and full and satisfying she paints the work and the friendship of the Poysers and the Bedes. I feel quite certain that twenty-five years ago, I entirely missed the discussion in the Poyser kitchen "on the secrets of good brewing, the folly of stinginess in 'hopping,' and the doubtful economy of a farmer's making his own malt" -- but I had to read it out loud to Julie this time (who, by the way, was in the same Intro to Lit with Gordon, though we barely new each other yet), and we both smiled knowingly. People often don't understand my life, but reading Adam Bede was like every pleasant, contented thing about it rolled into one gorgeous story. I will admit, I don't think Eliot does drama as well as she does quotidian -- the thunderstorm raging when Dorothea and Will finally declare their love in Middlemarch inappropriately cracked me up, and a few of the Hetty Sorel scenes in Adam Bede felt a little over-wrought as well. And the epilogue felt awfully neat, even if it made me cry (and help me forgive Jo Rawlings). But still and all ... big happy sigh.
*Gordon was my professor at Earlham College, and continues to be a mentor and friend. I write all my reviews first for his email book review group, which he very graciously allowed me to crash about a year and a half ago.