Summer reading is supposed to be fun and light, to enhance the enjoyment of sun and leisure. On the other hand, what better time to dive into something heavy than when there’s extra reading time? It was summer the year I read Atlas Shrugged (tiny print, 1100 pages). I’ve tackled The Lord of the Rings trilogy in summer (and other times). This summer I just finished a re-read, after several decades, of Adam Bede by George Eliot.
I read it on my Kindle, where it was free, so it didn’t have pagination, but the library lists it as 509 pages. It was first published in England 1859, near the same period as Jane Austen. George Eliot was also a female author, Mary Anne Evans, using a male name in order to be taken seriously (although women were published during that time). Technically she wrote in the Victorian period, while Jane Austen wrote in the Regency period, although Adam Bede takes place during the earlier period. Another difference is that Austen mainly wrote about the noble class. Adam Bede includes some characters from that class, but the main focus is on craftsmen and farmers and common workers. Adam Bede and his brother are journeyman carpenters.
This was a book club choice, which was my reason for picking it up again. I didn’t love it the first time through, although it was memorable. But this time there were things I appreciated more. The main part I remembered, which I found annoyingly unbelievable, was that a young woman, Hetty, who makes butter at her uncle’s dairy farm, gets pregnant and gives birth—and no one knows. The pregnancy follows a brief affair with the local heir to the estate, Arthur. This was taboo on every level, since he could not marry a young woman so far beneath his class. For her own comfort, she then turns to an engagement to Adam Bede, who has loved her all along. But then she discovers the pregnancy. Months go by, and just weeks before the wedding (I’m reckoning at least seven months into the pregnancy, maybe eight), she sets out to find Arthur and ask for help, so that she doesn’t end up a destitute beggar. But his regiment has moved on, and she is out of resources to keep seeking him. She sleeps in haystacks and occasional inns on her way to a young preacher woman, who had been kind to her.
Mistaking a home for an inn, she is allowed by a kind couple to stay, and that night she gives birth. Within a day she has gone back out on the road. She had previously considered killing herself by throwing herself in a pond, but couldn’t do it. Now, with a baby, she considered throwing the baby in the pond, but she can’t do actual killing. She ends up partially burying the baby under some sticks and bark, and half hopes someone will find the baby alive and rescue it. A farmer does find the baby, but it doesn’t survive. Hetty is tracked down and arrested for killing her baby.
None of the family she lived with, nor her fiancé, had any clue that she was pregnant—far enough along that the baby is born alive without help of hospital or special resuscitation. (As far as I can tell, she never feeds it.) I know dresses in that day were high waisted and hid a lot of figure flaws. But I went through multiple pregnancies as a tall person who showed later and less than shorter women (and this woman was described always as small, rounded, and pretty in a kitten-like way), and there was simply no disguising the situation that final trimester. No one noticed anything?
Nevertheless, the way the hypothetical but common situation was handled in this book is an interesting comparison to today.
The young woman and the “gentleman” both knowingly engaged in self-indulgent uncivilized behavior—that they shrank from having anyone learn about. Adam had discovered them kissing, on the day before Arthur was to leave for his regiment, which resulted in a fistfight over honor along with a requirement for Arthur to write to Hetty making it clear to her the relationship could never go further. Adam had no reason to believe the affair had gone further, and didn’t even consider the possibility, because he couldn’t believe evil of the woman he loved. It was inconceivable that two otherwise honorable people could do the heinous act of sex outside of marriage.
So there is tremendous pressure on a young woman who has submitted to passions and finds herself pregnant. She will be rejected by family and polite society. Her baby will also be an outcast. She will be unemployable. It was not unheard of for gentry to have a “natural child” whose care and keeping they paid for, usually anonymously. But clearly the woman who gets pregnant out of wedlock suffers much more than the man involved.
In this story, Arthur does indeed suffer. He finds out about Hetty’s trial just at its end and is unable to help. She is hanged as the law requires. But his shame and guilt are such that he turns over the running of the estate to a trusted friend and leaves for war. He suffers deprivations and illness, forgoes any idea of future love relationships, willingly suffers his self-imposed banishment for many years.
The minds of the characters, even the most flawed ones, are not evil. At worst they are selfish, weak, and overly concerned about opinions of others and personal comfort. That such characters could get into this situation is both unsurprising and pitiable.
One thing the book handled well was the repentance process. There’s a scene where the young woman preacher, Dinah, goes to the prison to be with Hetty. Her loving way of presenting the possibility of repentance and accepting God’s forgiveness is quite beautiful. Loving without condemning is key. And among a mainly civilized people is surprisingly rare. The telling of Adam’s movement from craving vengeance to forgiveness is beautifully and believably done. I’m glad I re-read the book just for that.
Is there a better way to discourage the family-decaying behavior so widely accepted today without the life-condemning consequences of Adam Bede’s world? For the sake of civilization, I hope so.
There’s a hierarchy of outcomes (outlined in more detail at the Spherical Model). Marriage is the first option (and in a civilized world, class level isn’t a preventive to marriage between the two parents). If that is neither possible nor desirable, the best way to provide a two-parent home for the precious child is adoption. And in a civilized society, where families and children are highly valued, families willing to adopt exceed available adoptive children. (That is mostly true today, despite arguments about unwanted children; the ordeal to adopt is a significant sacrifice.) Being raised by the repentant mother, with help from extended family and community (especially church community—not government subsidy) is a third option. It guarantees less for the child, but the mother is likely to be lovingly attached to the child, and, depending on how she lives her life, she may encounter a possible marriage partner who will adopt the child as his own.
Other outcomes tend to be less and less civilized. And the drain on social and economic capital becomes increasingly greater.
What is needed is valuing and strengthening marriage, condemning behaviors that decay the family (sex outside marriage always fits in that category), but not condemning people. Persuade people, with love, toward better behavior—toward love of civilization, toward love of God, who loves them and recommends the path, not to control our lives and prevent enjoyment, but to offer us lives with the greatest abundance of happiness.
How to have an abundance of happiness in our world is a story we need to get better at telling.