Wednesday, 2 November 2016

So, Amos Barton...Thoughts on a Short Novel by George Eliot

So, Amos Barton

A number of years ago an unknown neighbour left a massive copy of Middlemarch by George Eliot on the table in the lobby. (Strictly against the rules, I might add.)

Against my better judgement, knowing I would never read it, yet with a flicker of wishfulness that I wasn’t so intimidated by old and difficult books, so sure that I would find them dull or “beyond me”, and thus confirm my doubt that I had anything but the most pedestrian intelligence, I picked it up.

And put it down.

It remained on my shelf, amongst unread Hardy and untouched Austen, for a period of time. I don’t remember how long or how short. I do remember hefting it off the shelf one brave day and taking my usual reading position and starting in on the first page.

The language was enormous. Never mind that it was nearly a hundred and fifty years old. It was the tongue of an energetic master, a whip-strong language with a mind behind it bursting with energy and observation and thought. At first I was astonished, and thrilled, and moved, but then, wandering into chapter one, I was soon well lost. There was too much I couldn’t understand, too much I had to fight to put any meaning to at all.

I put the book away.

Sometime later, I picked it up again. And then again, always getting at most thirty pages in. I knew that if only I could get over the hump, I would love this book. Or at least, I hoped so. Finally I did the only thing left to me.

I took it to my mother’s in Manitoba, with only nonfiction besides, and stretches of time when there would be nothing else to do. It came alive.

I stopped worrying about the odd bit I didn’t get. I got into the music of her way of expressing herself. I allowed myself to be swept into poor Miss Brooke’s life. I thrilled at the way the author was able not only to collect together all the elements of a world but to make true sense of them, and to do it with words and phrases that seemed plucked out of heaven itself. It was an epiphany.

Fast forward ten years or so. In my cupboard wait two more Eliot books, Silas Marner and The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton. Both much shorter books than Middlemarch, though in an omnibus edition the three do fill the hand and weary the arm. Nevertheless! I had been holding onto these as after dinner mints—the kind long forgotten in pocket lint—and the time had finally come.

I got through Silas Marner unscathed and happy, though it had been a near thing. Poor old Silas. A good man, and I’m glad things worked out. But Amos Barton, now, that was another kettle of fish.

I finished it last night. I am going to tell you, sort of, how it ends, but I am also going to tell you how it begins and how it middles.

This is a very short tale, the earliest of the three, and perhaps Eliot was just learning her craft. Maybe no one had told her that you don’t write books like this. Her betters would surely not let her get away with it now.

We float into a thought-line, that of an opinionated and powerful narrator, identitiy never disclosed, the author herself, of course, who muses on the place and people, takes us into and out of their conversations as the subject matter pertains or fails to pertain to Amos Barton himself. She shows his strengths and his foibles equally, shows the people around him—those who love, those who mock, and those whose loyalties wobble when times are tough. She shows his wonderful wife and their thoughtless friend and the slow diminution of his wife’s health. And then the wife dies.

At this terrible moment, all of these (or many of these) ordinary gossiping not helpful people are touched by his grief and pitch in to buoy him through his poverty and sorrow. At last he is redeemed in their eyes, and his future, though bleached with loss, seems sure.

And then he loses his position as curate, and goes away. We see him once more and he seems at ease with his lot, but his daughter, his eldest daughter, has devoted her life to his care since she was ten years old. She has traded her own life for her mother’s, and though at least she is spared the whole health-whittling thing of childbirth ... it is not a happy end.

It is not so much a story as a wandering character study, though of course it is a story, too, and as with the others, Eliot’s voice is sublime. But for Amos Barton you must not skip the annoying characters or just find the plotline and ignore the descriptions (as of course I would never do) because this book is just life, unfolding in all its meaness and all its happiness and all its regrets, and the author pulls no punches, and no great lesson is learned, and we all just get older in the end.

So I can’t get it out of my head. She didn’t fix things. Not at all. She just laid them out.

Brava, Madame George.

No comments: