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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008
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Scenes of Clerical Life (73 Edition)

by George Eliot

Classic Review

A review by Unknown Author

[Ed note: This review first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly May 1858].

Fiction represents the character of the age to which it belongs, not merely by actual delineations of its times, like those of Tom Jones and The Newcomes, but also in an indirect, though scarcely less positive manner, by its exhibition of the influence of the times upon its own form and general direction, whatever the scene or period it may have chosen for itself. The story of "Hypatia" is laid in Alexandria almost two thousand years ago, but the book reflects the crudities of modern English thought; and even Mr. Thackeray, the greatest living master of costume, succeeds in making his Esmond only a joint-production of the Addisonian age and our own. Thus the novels of the last few years exhibit very clearly the spirit that characterizes the period of regard for men and women as men and women, without reference to rank, beauty, fortune, or privilege. Novelists recognize that Nature is a better romance-maker than the fancy, and the public is learning that men and women are better than heroes and heroines, not only to live with, but also to read of. Now and then, therefore, we get a novel, like these Scenes of Clerical Life, in which the fictitious element is securely based upon a broad groundwork of actual truth, truth as well in detail as in general.

It is not often, however, even yet, that we find a writer wholly unembarrassed by and in revolt against the old theory of the necessity of perfection in some one at least of the characters of his story. "Neither Luther nor John Bunyan," says the author of this book, "would have satisfied the modern demand for an ideal hero, who believes nothing but what is true, feels nothing but what is excellent, and does nothing but what is graceful."

Sometimes, indeed, a daring romance-writer ventures, during the earlier chapters of his story, to represent a heroine without beauty and without wealth, or a hero with some mortal blemish. But after a time his resolution fails; -- each new chapter gives a new charm to the ordinary face; the eyes grow "liquid" and "lustrous," always having been "large"; the nose, "naturally delicate," exhibits its "fine-cut lines"; the mouth acquires an indescribable expression of loveliness; and the reader's hoped-for Fright is transformed by Folly or Miss Pickering into a commonplace, tiresome, novelesque Beauty. Even Miss Bronte relented toward Jane Eyre; and weaker novelists are continually repeating, but with the ommision of the moral, the story of the "Ugly Duck." Unquestionably, there is the excuse to be made for this great error, that it betrays the seeking after an Ideal. Dangerous word! The ideal standard of excellence is, to be sure, fortunately changing, and the unreal ideal will soon be confined to the second-rate writers for second-rate readers. But all the great novelists of the two last generations indulged themselves and their readers in these unrealities. It is vastly easier to invent a consistent character than to represent an inconsistent one; -- a hero is easier to make (so all historians have found) than a man.

Suppose, however, novelists could be placed in a society made up of their favorite characters, -- forced into real, lifelike intercourse with them; -- Richardson, for instance, with his Harriet Byron or Clarissa, attended by Sir Charles; Miss Burney with Lord Orville and Evelina; Miss Edgeworth with Caroline Percy, and that marvellous hero, Count Altenburg; Scott with the automatons that he called Waverly and Flora McIvor. Suppose they were brought together to share the comforts (cold comforts they would be) of life, to pass days together, to meet every morning at breakfast; with what a ludicrous sense of relief, at the close of this purgatorial period, would not the unhappy novelists have fled from these deserted heroes and heroines, and the precious proprieties of their romance, to the very driest and mustiest of human bores, -- gratefully rejoicing that the world was not filled with such creatures as they themselves had set before it as ideals!

To copy Nature faithfully and heartily is certainly not less needful when stories are presented in words than when they are told on canvas or in marble. In the Scenes from Clerical Life we have a happy example of such copying. The three stories embraced under this title are written vigorously, with a just appreciation of the romance of reality, and with honest adherence to truth of representation in the sombre as well as the brighter portions of life. It demands not only a large intellect, but a large heart, to gain such a candid and inclusive appreciation of life and character as they display. The greater part of each story reads like a reminiscence of real life, and the personages introduced show little sign of being "rubbed down" or "touched up and varnished" for effect. The narrative is easy and direct, full of humor and pathos; and the descriptions of simple life in a country village are often charming from their freshness, vivacity, and sweetness. More than this, these stories give proof of that wide range of experience which does not so much depend on an extended or varied acquaintance with the world, as upon an intelligent and comprehensive sympathy, which makes each new person with whom one is connected a new illustration of the unsolved problems of life and a new link in the unending chain of human development.

The book is one that deserves a more elegant form than that which the Messrs. Harper have given it in their reprint.


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