This collection of three stories, about the lives and work of clergymen in and near the small English town of Milby, was George Eliot’s first fictional work. As the Penguin Classics cover notes, it may seem odd that she chose church life for her stories, since she had broken with orthodox Christian belief some time earlier. After reading scholarly analyses of the Gospels, George Eliot had become convinced that they were essentially mythological stories. And, the introductory essay by David Lodg
There is none of that tone in the Clerical Life stories. They are, instead, beautiful stories of compassion and kindness, in which the church figures are more often portrayed sympathetically than otherwise. The plot of each can be told in a sentence. In the first story, the feelings of the parishioners toward their mediocre but well-meaning curate shift from laughing disregard to tender concern after calamity befalls his household. George Eliot had a rare power for making the commonplace moving and profound, and that power was already evident in this book.
If the plots are simple ones, Eliot’s purpose and message are somewhat less so. Two of the stories begin with energetic rifts in the community over some item of worship or church practice (e.g., Will the congregation sing a psalm or a more modern hymn for a newly married couple? Will Sunday evening lectures by the curate be tolerated? Will extemporaneous sermons in the evangelical style corrupt the congregation?). As people take sides against their neighbors over these issues, while giggling or sleeping through the sermons themselves, you the reader are lulled at first into imagining that Eliot’s project is a straightforward satire on the irrelevancy of much of what the Church does. It isn’t. Just as you’re chuckling or shaking your head at one of the characters along with the chorus of gossipy townspeople, something happens to jar you into recognition of a profound human need. And as your sympathy is awakened, so is the town’s; characters cast off their pettiness, and their better natures shine forth. Even the selfish and flawed characters reveal admirable capacities. You’re left regretting your own assumptions about the characters, having, as in Middlemarch, been taught a lesson by Eliot about hasty judgments.
What, then, is Eliot’s point about the Church? Why did she choose clerical life as the backdrop for her stories? My sense is that she’s conveying that, in the religion of humanity she’s espousing, Christian doctrine actually gets a lot of it right, and may be one of its best expressions. And by furnishing plentiful chances to serve others, life in a church community provides an avenue toward your own growth and fulfillment. It’s as if she’s saying that religious precepts, even if founded on mistaken beliefs, call us in the right direction for any kind of purposeful achievement in life: “No man can begin to mould himself on a faith or an idea without rising to a higher order of experience: a principle of subordination, of self-mastery, has been introduced into his nature; he is no longer a mere bundle of impressions, desires, and impulses.” Eliot’s claim for the mediocre curate in her first story is, at first, a modest one made with her characteristic gentle humor: by having the illusion that he is admired and doing much good, he is sustained to do a little good. By the end of the story, however, when he has unintentionally provided an occasion for his parishioners’ sympathy and generosity, he has done immense good.
Is there anything in Eliot’s writing relevant to today’s reader? If I were to describe my generation in broad terms, I would say that not many of us delve regularly into the Bible in search of enlightenment, yet we often still find ourselves drawn to church, especially as we reach parenting years. If this is a correct perception, then Eliot has a lot to say to us.
Even aside from its message, there is much to admire in Scenes of Clerical Life, especially if you enjoy Victorian literature. If the stories are not fast-paced, they are compelling, and told with an utter command of the English language that it is hard to find in today’s novels. Sentences go on for a paragraph, paragraphs go on for a page, but her prose throughout is lucid and elegant. I also especially enjoy her occasional interjections of dry but gentle humor. This is a good litmus test: if you find these two sentences delightful and amusing, you will probably like the book. If you find them annoying, it may not be for you. Passage #1: “Coffee despatched, the two young men walked out through the open window, and joined the ladies on the lawn, while Sir Christopher made his way to the library, solemnly followed by Rupert, his pet bloodhound, who, in his habitual place at the Baronet’s right hand, behaved with great urbanity during dinner; but when the cloth was drawn, invariably disappeared under the table, apparently regarding the claret-jug as a mere human weakness, which he winked at, but refused to sanction.” Passage #2: “The rooks were cawing with many-voiced monotony, apparently – by a remarkable approximation to human intelligence – finding great conversational resources in the change of weather.” I love the passages, and the book.