Late 1857. George Eliot prepares her assault on the novel. The form is mature, and she is mature—approaching forty. The pen feels as natural in her hand as a fork, yet, despite the power and the pleasure she draws from wielding it, this supreme literary form is forbidding. An intellectual, unquestionably, but an artist? George Henry Lewes, the man with whom she shares her life (and whose undivorced status has caused much of society to close its doors to the couple—doors that will swing open again when she is famous), is encouraging her: The three increasingly ambitious stories she has turned out as Scenes of Clerical Life have stilled any doubts as to her flair for drama and dialogue. A delighted public is snapping up the book. Dickens has written to the mysterious author: “The exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humour and the pathos of those stories, I have never seen the like of”; as for her pseudonym, “I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman.” Clever man. Now, she tells her publisher, she seeks a “large canvas.” She has in mind an incident her Methodist aunt recounted to her two decades earlier, of “how she had visited a condemned criminal,—a very ignorant girl, who had murdered her child and refused to confess; how she had stayed with her praying through the night, and how the poor creature at last broke out into tears, and confessed her crime.” She sets the action at the turn of the century, in the north central England of her pious girlhood, researching the customs, the agriculture, the botany of the region; she reads Robert Southey’s The Life of Wesley, taking diligent notes on Methodism. Then she writes rapidly and confidently—the greatest and most harrowing section, as she will later relate, goes even faster than the rest—finishing the book in just over a year. Adam Bede goes on sale in February 1859 and is not only a tremendous success (the most popular of Eliot’s novels during her lifetime) but something more, something every first novelist aspires to (preposterously, crazily, but why else break your heart locking yourself away for years on such a dubious labor?): one of the glories of the form.
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