Realism and research in Adam Bede
- Article by: Rohan Maitzen
- Theme: The novel 1832–1880
- Published: 15 May 2014
George Eliot’s realismAdam Bede is an early example of the realism for which George Eliot became celebrated. The exact meaning of ‘realism’, however, has been much debated. In an essay on the artist and critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), Eliot herself defined realism as ‘the doctrine that all truth and beauty are to be attained by a humble and faithful study of nature.’ To her, realism did not mean a naïve belief that writing can transparently represent the real world, but the conviction that writing should not falsify or romanticise it. Eliot regarded realism as a moral choice, as well as an aesthetic one; as she explains in her essay ‘The Natural History of German Life’ (1856), ‘Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.’
'The Natural History of German Life': essay by George Eliot from The Westminster Review
In her essay ‘The Natural History of German Life’, George Eliot suggests that the purpose of literature is to expand readers’ moral sympathies and imaginations.
I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the eighteenth of June, in the year of our Lord 1799.
Manuscript of Adam Bede by George Eliot
In Chapter 17 of Adam Bede, titled 'In which the story pauses a little', Eliot writes that her 'strongest effort is... to give a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind'.View images from this item (11)
Realism and ResearchThe specificity of that date points to another important dimension of Eliot’s realism: giving a ‘faithful account’ includes paying scrupulous attention to contexts and settings, especially historical backgrounds. Though for some aspects of Adam Bede, such as the landscape and local dialects of the Midlands, Eliot could draw on her own childhood memories, she also (as scholar Joseph Wiesenfarth has documented) took research notes on late 18th-century fashion, on details of the weather in 1799 (‘August seems to have been a rainy month’), and on national and international events, including the publication of Wordsworth’s first volume of poetry, the building of Joseph Arkwright’s spinning mill and the death of George Washington. She immersed herself in the culture and practices of rural life, reading agricultural texts such as The Book of the Farm and A Six Month Tour through the North of England, as well as issues of the Gentleman’s Magazine from 1799 to 1801. The January 1799 issue of this publication contained a description of the 21st birthday celebrations of the Duke of Rutland, which Eliot used as the inspiration for Arthur Donnithorne’s Birthday Feast. From A Six Month Tour, she copied into her notebook that ‘all [in the north of England] drink tea’ – and she used that detail in Adam Bede. Eliot’s research had a greater purpose than simple accuracy: she believed that only through a rich understanding of their actual conditions (including the history that led to them) could people work effectively — realistically — for social or political change.
Methodism and the Church in Adam BedeMuch of Eliot’s research for Adam Bede focused on Methodism, the evangelical form of Protestantism founded by John Wesley in the early 18th century. One of the central characters in Adam Bede is the young Methodist preacher Dinah Morris, who is as passionate in her service to God as she is selfless about bringing comfort to those in need or sorrow. As Eliot had long ago given up her own Christian faith, her idealised picture of Dinah might seem paradoxical. But Eliot had an abiding interest in religion’s social function as well as deep respect for the church as an institution which had, at its best, given form and direction to people’s highest moral aspirations. In a letter to her friend Francois d’Albert-Durade, written in 1859, she explained the place of religion in Adam Bede by saying that she ‘no longer [has] any antagonism towards any faith in which human sorrow and human longing for purity have expressed themselves… I have the profoundest interest in the inward life of sincere Christians in all ages’.
Letter from George Eliot to Francois D'Albert-Durade, 6 December 1859
In this letter to her friend Francois d’Albert-Durade, written shortly after the publication of Adam Bede, Eliot explains how her views on religion have changed over the course of her life.View images from this item (4)
Minutes of the 1803 Methodist Conference
Minutes from the annual Methodist Conference of 1803, which ruled that women should no longer preach.View images from this item (1)
The politics and literature of infanticideDinah was based in part on Eliot’s Methodist aunt Elizabeth Evans, who told her niece the story that became the germ of Adam Bede. In 1802, Evans had visited in prison a young woman named Mary Voce, who was to be executed the following day for the murder of her baby. Evans stayed with Voce throughout the night, praying with her and eventually bringing about her confession. The next day, she accompanied Voce to the gallows.
Imprisonment of Mary Voce
Newspaper notice from 1802 reporting the conviction of Mary Voce for the murder of her infant child. This case provided Eliot with the germ of Adam Bede.View images from this item (1)
Footnotes George Eliot: Selected Critical Writings, ed. by Rosemary Ashton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp.322-25. This quotation comes from a journal entry dated 6 December 1857, and titled 'How I Came To Write Fiction'.
 Joseph Wiesenfarth, ‘George Eliot’s Notes for Adam Bede’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 32.2, (1977), 127-165.
The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.