Realism and research in Adam Bede

In Adam Bede, George Eliot sets out her commitment to realism as a literary genre – a commitment she would continue to develop over the course of her career. Dr Rohan Maitzen explains how detailed research and Eliot’s own experience fed into the realist project, enabling her to express her beliefs about religion, sympathy and understanding.

Adam Bede (1859) was George Eliot’s first full-length novel but not her first fiction: that distinction goes to Scenes of Clerical Life, a collection of three novellas published in 1856. By that time Eliot had established herself as an editor, essayist, and reviewer, but though, as she later reflected, ‘it had always been a vague dream of mine that some time or other I might write a novel,’ she feared she was ‘deficient in dramatic power’.[1] Adam Bede’s gripping story of seduction and infanticide proved Eliot had no need to worry – and while Scenes of Clerical Life had been well-received, it was Adam Bede that became a bestseller.

George Eliot’s realism

Adam 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

Double page from George Eliot's essay 'The Natural History of German Life', as printed in 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.

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In Chapter 17 of Adam Bede, Eliot pauses her unfolding story to expand on this principle, urging artists not to focus only on ‘divine beauty of form’ but to ‘give the loving pains of a life to the faithful representing of commonplace things’, so as to help us all learn to accept and sympathise with our ‘fellow-mortals, every one ... as they are.’ Because for Eliot realism is a philosophy rather than a literary style, it is compatible with this kind of metafictional interruption. Indeed, by prompting us to think about how a novel is written, rather than immersing us in its illusions, narrative intrusions can enhance the realistic effect. Adam Bede opens with just such a moment: ‘With this drop of ink at the end of my pen,’ says the narrator,

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

Page containing the opening of Chapter 17, from George Eliot's handwritten copy of Adam Bede

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'. 

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Realism and Research

The 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.[2] 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 Bede

Much 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’.

She followed this, however, by saying that despite her interest in Christianity, her ‘most rooted conviction is, that the immediate object and the proper sphere of all our highest emotions are our struggling fellow-men and this earthly existence’. In Eliot’s humanistic view, ordinary people (not supernatural agents) shape the world for better or worse. Because of this, people’s religious beliefs are much less important than – and may even impede – their capacity for sympathy. Thus her novels often feature clergyman of imperfect faith, like Mr Irwine in Adam Bede, or imperfect behaviour, like Mr Farebrother in Middlemarch, whose flaws do not unfit them for their sacred duties but rather highlight that theirs is a fundamentally human benevolence. Dinah may be devout, but the good she does is attributable to her, not to God. When the pretty dairy-maid Hetty Sorrel – seduced and then abandoned by the local squire, Arthur Donnithorne – is imprisoned for infanticide, Dinah’s compassion, rather than divine intervention, brings about the small miracle of Hetty’s repentance. Some readers find it disappointing that, at the end of the novel, Dinah (who until then has been determinedly single, dedicating herself to her public work) gives up preaching and retreats into domesticity as Adam’s wife. However, this step not only reflects historical developments in Methodism, but also confirms Eliot’s commitment to a secular morality: the apparatus of the church and the authority of the preacher yield to a recognition of our own personal accountability for what she calls in Middlemarch ‘the growing good of the world’ (Finale).

Letter from George Eliot to Francois D'Albert-Durade, 6 December 1859

Handwritten 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.

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Minutes of the 1803 Methodist Conference

Page 187, volume 2, containing printed minutes of the 1803 Methodist Conference

Minutes from the annual Methodist Conference of 1803, which ruled that women should no longer preach.

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The politics and literature of infanticide

Dinah 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.

Alarmed (and alarmist) discussions of infanticide in the press in the 1850s and 1860s made Eliot’s historical plot highly topical, but infanticide was hardly a new literary subject. Eliot’s readers would have been familiar especially with Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian (1818), to which Adam Bede was frequently compared – and not usually to Eliot’s advantage. In Scott’s novel, heroic Jeanie Deans walks to London to seek a pardon from the queen for her condemned sister Effie: all of the novel’s sympathies are on virtuous Jeanie’s side, while erring Effie remains peripheral to the action. In contrast, Eliot focuses on Hetty, so that we see not just her crime but the complicated mixture of selfish motives and social contexts that lead up to it. The pressure on readers to understand rather than simply to judge Hetty seemed morally dubious to many Victorian critics, but this approach is consistent with the moral demands of Eliot’s realism: the challenge is to see Hetty clearly, with all her faults, and then to sympathise and forgive. Dinah is a model in this effort, including for Adam Bede himself, who had hoped to marry Hetty and who had loved and trusted Arthur Donnithorne, her seducer. Adam’s suffering at Hetty’s catastrophe humanises his initially rather rigid morality, while his eventual marriage to Dinah completes her transformation into an agent of domestic rather than divine influence.

Imprisonment of Mary Voce

Newspaper sheet from the The Bury and Norwich Post, featuring a small notice about the imprisonment of Mary Voce within one of the columns

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. 

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[1] 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'.

[2] Joseph Wiesenfarth, ‘George Eliot’s Notes for Adam Bede’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 32.2, (1977), 127–165.

  • Rohan Maitzen
  • Dr Rohan Maitzen is an Associate Professor of English at Dalhousie University, where she specializes in Victorian literature. Her publications include Gender, Genre, and Victorian Historiography and The Victorian Art of Fiction: Nineteenth-Century Essays on the Novel; recent research projects have focused on George Eliot and moral philosophy, and on the Anglo-Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. She works as an editor for the journal Open Letters Monthly and maintains Novel Readings, an academic and literary blog.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.