First Love, First Light: Seduced by Adam Bede
I have not addressed the wider world for many moons. I lost any belief that I have new things to say, nor could I find any convincing reason why anyone should heed them if I had. Writing my memoir was an exercise to keep an old brain flexible, and discover whether my life had really had the importance I ascribed to it. It always seemed hell bent on commanding my energies towards something that evaporated as soon as it was accomplished. Anyway…
In recovering my own innocence, so that my disillusionment should shine the brighter, I have been revisiting the books that I now realise shaped not merely my ideas but my very life itself. I searched out what started as fiction and became my reality. The first critical vision of noble loyalty (whether accurate historically is beside the point) was John of Gaunt in Anya Seton’s Katherine. What a mensch he was! But that was all courtly, braided, curtailed and remote from my own world. It fed a kind of velvet dream but could not be dragged back into every daylight. It was a scented sachet of a book that spread lavender at unexpected moments, mostly a vision of an England I longed to know. A place of history and self confidence, a romantic hero of constancy.
Far more binding were the ropes of Adam Bede. In my school we were only permitted to read ‘approved fiction’ that were ranked in a dusty room under the keys held by the Latin teacher- the book room. There we could sort through Dickens, Trollope, Walter Scott in uniform bindings and bear away one book that we could read when prep was over but before the bell release. Adam Bede was my literary initiation. I was smitten at fourteen with a complete hero, but equally with a world I felt I knew. It was the recovery of the best beloved, both exultant joy and weepful gratitude!
I have just re-read it, with some trepidation, for I was afraid to lose the first work that gave me not only a world, but a passion for what literature was. I suspect I was unconscious of that directly, but it lay as undisturbed as the thatched hayricks await the need for food before they are dismantled and borne away. I do crave the recovery of that food, my own innocence that can be aroused, and here is where trepidation begins because I doubt that many now would read it without a curled lip- oh really! Too much! People aren’t like that!
Innocence is now disdained in fiction, yet George Eliot was far from innocent when she wrote her first real novel. Yes, like most writers her first work is autobiographical, but for a sophisticate critic, long a Londoner, always a travelling, now in Berlin at the Opera, now with Franz Liszt for breakfast, she immerses herself back in ‘Loamshire’ in the village of Hayslope and gives us her own innocence amongst the characters that are scattered in steady farmsteads or tumbling cottages, where bright brooks well from the ground and all travel takes much walking. They all have dogs, Gyp, Juno, and Vixen and the dogs are ever present, monitoring and observing.
This was my first visit to rural England, where the seasons turn with dependable benevolence, and currents are harvested by small children in stained pinafores, and workers treated after the fields lie to stubble. It was that steady antiquity of tradition that I longed to be part of, and to be encompassed by. I realised again the power of its portrait, back along. In South Africa there was no such antiquity, nor communities of such steadiness. We were all tossed by more violent seasons, and more cogent fears, and a spectacular landscape in which we had had small part. The country was not shaped to fold its cloak of steeples and hedges about our shoulders; we had hardly penetrated its autonomy. We could love it for its beauty, its wild storms, its cirrus or cumulo-nimbus skies, but if we walked away it would not notice our departure.
So the England of Adam Bede held out such a hand of comfort. But here’s the thing. It still does. It no more exists now, than it did for a 60’s South African. But in the mind rural Loamshire remains perfect, for what it said about George Eliot’s love of her country, her family’s experience among such people. There will be many (probably most) who would find the book improbable, for its almost universal redemption of error, or disgrace. The Methodist sermons of Dinah the preacher are overlong for today’s literary scrimping, that must apostrophe for scant concentrations but they reflected George Eliot’s own rejection of her father’s Church observance, and the hostility she faced. She was exploring their appeal as much for herself as the rough workers who gathered on the hillsides to be captivated by a woman in a white cap and grey dress.
Then there are the long entertainments of dialect and the acidic or philosophical in Mrs Poyser’s pithy put-downs. George Eliot had a wicked enjoyment of language, its metaphors and disrespect; her characters did not ‘give-over’ nor, even when moved to change, do so easily. So at then end when all ends well, I was not provoked to disbelief. They were their best selves in a society small enough to temper, and close enough to reject. Rather pleased they had survived their trials, more or less unchanged.
I did not start this piece with a review in mind, but rather an examination of my own naïveté, and in the hope of taking up the pen with greater conviction. I might now, and allow myself to entertain rather than follow the plot of my life. I shall do what George Eliot does, reading a reader’s thought, break off and speak directly to counter their misgivings, plead for my prejudices as though prejudice is permissible, and acknowledge that the point of a book is to share what is important to the writer, not conform to expectations. If a reader knows beforehand what they seek, they might as well write it themselves.
My mother did not often speak of her monotonous schooldays in Staffordshire, where she boarded for six long years without ever going back to Uganda for holidays. Instead she and her sister spent them with a Welsh Methodist preacher’s family where Sundays meant chapel and no swimming. But she did tell me of school Easter Sundays walking to church in heavy cloaks, with the snow falling on the daffodils and on the straw boater, and ‘Let us pray’ dripped melted snow onto the prayer books. That was why Easter was always more important than Christmas. Literature is built of single moments and may need nothing more than capturing them, without asking for more.
By di ablewhite, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13434662
By Joan Sykes, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13882295