Saturday, 7 November 2009

William Morris and 'Adam Bede'

Today’s Institute of English Studies conference devoted to George Eliot’s Adam Bede affords us an opportunity to think through William Morris’s judgement on this novel, which is recorded in May Morris’s account of her father’s literary enthusiasms in volume XXII of the Collected Works: ‘Of George Eliot he could only read with any great enjoyment the “Scenes from Clerical Life” and “Silas Marner”. “Adam Bede” he thought cruel and perhaps this irked him the more because he knew that cruelty was no part of the writer’s character’ (p.xxvi).

May does not elaborate further, but I would imagine that it was the novel’s treatment of its ‘fallen’ 17-year-old village lass Hetty Sorrel, who is first sentenced to death for the murder of her baby, then transported to Australia, which struck Morris as cruel – an assessment in which many later readers of the book, and particularly feminist critics, have also concurred.

I wonder, then, whether Morris in his own ‘Pilgrims of Hope’ isn’t trying to tell the Adam Bede story differently, with a more positive and less ‘cruel’ inflection. His hero Richard is, after all, the illegitimate offspring of a country woman and her rich seducer; so that this Hetty Sorrel figure not only does not kill her child, but gives birth to a son who heroically commits himself to the forward movement of history in his own society and who aims ultimately to abolish the very class divisions which made his parents’ own flawed relationship possible in the first place. Had the mother known of her son’s future, he tells us later, ‘As some old woman of old hadst thou wondered, who hath brought forth a god of the earth’ (XI). This is a powerful rewriting of George Eliot’s Hetty indeed!

But, alas, such cross-class sexual tragedies are not so soon abolished after all. Richard’s mother may be a redeemed Hetty, but his wife later turns out to be a Hetty Sorrel too, as a lower-class woman who gets emotionally and perhaps sexually involved with the suave gentleman Arthur when the latter joins the socialist movement. Is Morris’s use of the same Christian name as Hetty’s seducer Arthur Donnithorne in George Eliot’s novel just accident here? I suspect not. You can rewrite or mend one aspect of Hetty’s sad and ‘cruel’ fate, it seems, but it then only crops out again elsewhere in the text. Insofar as ‘Pilgrims of Hope’ is a reworking of Adam Bede, it can thus alas only be a flawed and partial one.


Elrond said...

Might Ellen in 'News from Nowhere' be a utopian rewrite of Maggie Tulliver in 'The Mill on the Floss'? Maggie falls disastrously out of her community after a compromising boat journey downstream with a man named Guest; Ellen is successfully reintegrated into her community after a boat journey upstream with a man named Guest!

Anonymous said...

In 1929 May Morris sent a copy of George Eliot's 'Felix Holt' as a Christmas present to Gudrun Jonsdottir (as noted in the latter's memoir of 'May Morris and Miss Lobb in Iceland'). Is it possible to reconstruct any more of May's views of George Eliot and her fiction?