Chapter numbers appear in parentheses following quotations.
The three stories in George Eliot’s first published work of fiction Scenes of Clerical Life are all set in the past, though the focus is primarily psychological (and after that moral) having little engagement with historical events. Her stories did indeed owe a sufficient number of details to her own memories of childhood in Chilvers Coton that the locals figured out who had written the book and her published asked her to apologize to John Gwyther, the model for the pock-marked curate prone to solecisms. By removing her narratives to a previous generation, Eliot has taken a single step in the direction of the “once upon a time” of legend. Yet we think of nostalgia as differing from immediate lived experience by the editing of the unpleasant and an unrealistic generalized tone of satisfaction, and, indeed, many find in the past a lost perfection. In these tales, however, displacement in time implies a reduction in humanity, in living conditions, and, most of all, in insight, yet, by this very diminution, she generates a warm affectionate glow about her scenes, a sort of sentimentality that affects contemporary readers no less than her own generation.
Eliot has been paired with Flaubert as the source, through Henry James and Marcel Proust, of the modern novel.  Conscious of her role as an innovator, Eliot had earlier written a devastating attack on “ Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”  which criticizes the lack of reality in popular novels, the idealization of the heroine, the overblown unnatural language, and the facile moral tags. Though surely less guilty of the second of these weaknesses than Georgiana Chatterton whose “Ossianic” rhetorical flight attributed to an four and a half year old she quotes,  Eliot is more susceptible to the first and last.
At the outset of “The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton” the significance of the displacement to the past (which is true of all three narratives) is emphasized. With a swelling rhetoric of romantic conservatism, the narrator enumerates the changes a generation has brought to the fictional Milby. Change, of course, is inevitable and universal, but Eliot’s narrator assumes an attitude of “Toryism by the sly,” (I) meaning an imaginative preference for the past, for “dear old quaintnesses.” (I) Part of this indulgent regard for the attractively inferior aspects of the past is a fondness for the slightly absurd curate, the Rev. Barton. With six children he is hard put to put food on the table, he is in need of an income though, apart from his bad complexion and errors in usage, he seems to have little true vocation. What he makes is a pittance since he is a mere curate, serving as a sub-contractor to the actual vicar, a man of far more substantial assets. Apart from being associated with low church practices, he is "sadly unsuited to the practice of his profession," and, worse, he tends to be thoughtless of his hard-working and loyal wife Milly. His friendship with a dubious countess which seems to the reader to arise from a mild sort of snobbery and pride excites suspicion of graver sins among the town gossips.
These shortcomings in the good cleric and the hierarchy for which he labors, though, are cast upon a benighted past, toward which the author adopts a condescending attitude very similar to that of contemporary American who think that in the 1950s everyone was corny and tasteless but that “things were much simpler then.” Finally redeemed in the eyes of the community through his suffering at the loss of his wife, the Rev. Barton never presents a spectacle other than pathetic, the reader’s sentiments being engaged more sluggishly than the residents of Milby or perhaps more shallowly. His failings were gently comic like those of all but the real villains in Trollope. At the story’s end one might well agree with Mrs. Hackit’s opinion expressed in the first chapter, “I think he’s a good sort o’ man, for all he’s not over-burthened i’ the upper story.”
This essential goodness is rewarded in the end in an utterly conventional way. All the children have done well; they prosper like those in other people’s Christmas letters. His wife’s passing, apparently the sole rough spot of the good cleric’s life having concluded, he slowly slides toward his end in comfort, even the departed Milly is replaced by the satisfying surrogate of a faithful daughter.
Eliot distances her working class characters by the use of Midland dialect which creates an image of country folk, outside the sophisticated ambits of the author and reader. The exchange in the first chapter of “Mr. Gilfil’s Love-Story” is typical. Already somewhat comic through her professions of leech-breeding and lollipop vending, Dame Fripp describes for simple comic effect, unrelated to the main trajectory of the story, her motives for keeping a pet pig: “A bit o’ company’s meat and drink too, an’ he follers me about, and grunts when I spake to’m, just like a Christian.” (I)
This lady’s amiable qualities emerge in the course of telling how her loyalty was won by Mr. Gilfil with a gift of bacon, after which the narrator describes the vicar’s more general spiritual influence. He performs his duties responsibly if somewhat mechanically, selecting a sermon from his stack without reference to its content and delivering it while the farmers dozed, secure in the sense that their presence alone would magically benefit their relation to God. And the freethinker Eliot diffidently compares them to an audience of her own day. Following the service, they were, she says, “perhaps almost as much the better for this simple weekly tribute to what they knew of good and right, as many a more wakeful and critical congregation of the present day. “
The theme of the story, Mr. Gilfil’s youthful romance, unsuspected by those who knew him in later life, may remind some readers of Mr. Chips, another muddling commonplace sort of fellow whose onetime passionate attachment is described in Hilton’s unabashedly sentimental novel. Just as Barton’s story centered about the recognition of the curate’s flawed humanity, revealed only in suffering, this second story indicates the depth of feeling to which an apparently inconsequential cleric is susceptible. He, like Barton, settles into the decrescendo of old age in which “the dear old vicar” “had something of the knotted whimsical character of the poor lopped oak.” (Epilogue) The image neatly expresses the affectionate yet superior attitude consistent through these stories.
The final story “Janet’s Repentance,” though it also concerns a local priest, differs from the first two stories in that it introduces a markedly more vicious antagonist in Mr. Dempster and it focuses on a female character. Yet it maintains the same tone toward the narrative’s era. “Pray, reader, dismiss from your mind all the refined and fashionable ideas associated with this advanced state of things, and transport your imagination to a time when Milby had no gas-lights . . .” (II) Here it is the male, the Rev. Tryan, who expires, leaving Janet to survive to a dignified old age, sustained by contact with the young, evidence herself of her husband’s cure of one soul at least.
This book through its displacement of the stories to a diminished past steps away from the advance into literary realism marked by Flaubert and Balzac. The fact that each tale describes a single crisis, the death of Milly Barton and that of Caterina Gilfil in the first two and the expulsion of Janet Dempster and her subsequent loyalty to Mr. Tryan in the third, and that after these decisive events, life is largely uneventful is enough to suggest the fairy tale character of the stories. In her essay Eliot had scolded the “lady novelists” of the “the mind-and-millinery species” for lacking plausible plots. She ridiculed a work that mixed a realistic modern setting with “mere shreds from the most heterogeneous romances.” Yet her own readers may catch a scent of romance (or may it be anti-romance?) in the fact that each of her heroines is a submissive wife for whom the solidity of Victorian marriage is the only desirable course of life.
Every story also follows a simple pattern of retributive justice. The townspeople who had failed to appreciate Mr. Barton perceive his value through his suffering, and he lives to a ripe old age. The depth of feeling inherent with the heart of the aging Mr. Gilfil emerges through the story of his onetime love as the unassuming fellow plods through his paces without asking for more. And the vicious yahoo Mr. Dempster dies wretchedly while his repentant wife sobers up and receives a second chance at life. Eliot brings each piece to a conclusion without surprising or disturbing her readers or causing them to think.
Though Eliot had decried the “oracular” and “white neck-cloth” species of novels for their obtrusive moralizing (of high and low church persuasion respectively), her own clergymen are all characters whose grasp of theology of or of even the very best pastoral practices has little significance. Each demonstrates spirituality through love and common humanity which, however admirable a value, and however consistent with what we have of the words of Christ, certainly challenges no one.
Eliot indeed wrote about people in modest circumstances while the authors she criticized “write in elegant boudoirs.” These stories of village people and village events, like the later work of American regionalists, depicted the high drama that plays out in every village, indeed for the sympathetic sensibility, in every life. Yet her initial explorations in Scenes of Clerical Life are tentative and qualified. By casting her stories into a nostalgically remembered recent past she creates about their characters a genial warmth that allows their travails to bear a measure of grace and charm. By including the reader with herself as a pair who have most assuredly “gone on” she encourages a view of the puppets of the past as largely entertaining, while her themes are restrained, gentle and accessible. The monument of Middlemarch can scarcely be recognized in embryo.
1. See, for instance, Barbara Smalley, George Eliot and Flaubert: Pioneers of the Modern Novel , 1974.
2. Published under her own name, as all of her early nonfiction had been, in The Westminster Review, vol. 66, October 1856, 442-461.
3. From Compensation. In the twenty-first century, virtually any rhetoric beyond the most simple and colloquial may strike many as “unrealistic” fustian