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Sunday, February 9, 2020

Adam Bede by George Eliot

Adam Bede by George Eliot is the story of the title character, his family and his friends. I found this novel to be excellent. It is an interesting tale populated with interesting characters that has a lot to say about life. The more that I read of Eliot, the more I am liking her work. I had previously read Middlemarch,The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner.


Though the novel was first published in 1859, most the story takes place around 1799. It is set in the fictional English town of Hayslope and centers on several characters. Adam is a carpenter who is principled, sensible and stoic. His brother is Seth Bede. Seth is younger and is more of an abstract thinker then Adam. Dinah Morris is a Methodist preacher of strong faith who is very charitable, both materially and emotionally. Hetty Sorrel is a girl from a middle - class farm family. Hetty is shallow, self- centered and is a simplistic thinker. Arthur Donnithorne Is a member of the lower gentry who is generally kind and amiable but who also shows great character weakness. Parson Irwine is the local vicar who takes a pragmatic and down – to – earth approach to religion.

Much of the early plot involves romantic entanglements. Adam falls in love with Hetty. However, unbeknownst to the other characters, Arthur and Hetty begin a clandestine affair. Though Arthur seems to have genuine feelings for Hetty, he realizes that their social situation to be an unsurmountable obstacle to marriage, he breaks off the relationship under pressure from Adam and leaves with his military unit for Ireland.  For her part, Hetty is more interested in the increase in social status that a union with Arthur would bring her. Unknown to Arthur, after he leaves for Ireland, the reader becomes aware that Hetty is pregnant. Adam does not know of the pregnancy and he proposes to and becomes engaged to Hetty. Serious complications and tragedy eventually ensue. Many pages are devoted to Hetty’s and Adam’s mental anguish. In the meantime, Seth has fallen in love with Dinah who gently rebuffs his offer of marriage in favor of a life devoted to God and charity. 

Later, Hetty runs away in an attempt to find Arthur and hide her pregnancy. When the child is born on the road Hetty eventually abandons it and the child dies. Hetty's subsequent trial for murder and its aftermath is the subject of the later parts  of the novel. 

There is a lot to this book. Many of the characters are marvelously drawn. Adam  is portrayed as strong and competent. He is religious while at the same time he shies away from the more outward and public side of religion such as preaching. When it comes to Hetty however, he seems unable to see through her narcissism. The pain that he feels as the situation deteriorates leaves him emotionally helpless. This contrast with his otherwise strong and wise nature is so well done.

I found Arthur’s character to be the most interesting. He initially is shown to be a man who tries to do the right thing.  He treats those of lower social class fairly and behaves benevolently toward them. He wants to be liked and is indeed liked by both his peers as well as those who are on the lower social scale. However, he ultimately shows great flaws. Though he develops a strong romantic attraction for Hetty, he is unwilling to buck social conventions and marry her. Thus, he breaks of his liaison with her much too late. Aside from his actions in regards to Hetty, Arthur is a character that is easy to like. However, his actions towards Hetty are certainly questionable. He seems to genuinely fall for her, but through it all, he knows that he cannot, or will not, marry her. Thus, he leads her on. He realizes that what is doing this but cannot help herself. Throughout Hetty’s crises, he is away in Ireland and unaware of dire situation that she finds herself in. In the end he tries to make amends for a terrible situation. 

One of the themes here is how outward appearance can be deceiving. Hetty is portrayed as beautiful and able to give the impression that she is a person of depth, while in actuality she is a superficial person. In contrast, some physically unattractive characters are shown to be virtuous and substantive.

Hetty’s alluring beauty is described,

but there is one order of beauty which seems made to turn the heads not only of men, but of all intelligent mammals, even of women. It is a beauty like that of kittens, or very small downy ducks making gentle rippling noises with their soft bills, or babies just beginning to toddle and to engage in conscious mischief— a beauty with which you can never be angry, but that you feel ready to crush for inability to comprehend the state of mind into which it throws you. Hetty Sorrel's was that sort of beauty….It is of little use for me to tell you that Hetty's cheek was like a rose-petal, that dimples played about her pouting lips, that her large dark eyes hid a soft roguishness under their long lashes, and that her curly hair, though all pushed back under her round cap while she was at work, stole back in dark delicate rings on her forehead, and about her white shell-like ears; it is of little use for me to say how lovely was the contour of her pink-and-white neckerchief, tucked into her low plum-coloured stuff bodice, or how the linen butter-making apron, with its bib, seemed a thing to be imitated in silk by duchesses, since it fell in such charming lines, or how her brown stockings and thick-soled buckled shoes lost all that clumsiness which they must certainly have had when empty of her foot and ankle— of little use, unless you have seen a woman who affected you as Hetty affected her beholders, for otherwise, though you might conjure up the image of a lovely woman, she would not in the least resemble that distracting kittenlike maiden. I might mention all the divine charms of a bright spring day, but if you had never in your life utterly forgotten yourself in straining your eyes after the mounting lark, or in wandering through the still lanes when the fresh-opened blossoms fill them with a sacred silent beauty like that of fretted aisles, where would be the use of my descriptive catalogue? I could never make you know what I meant by a bright spring day. Hetty's was a spring-tide beauty; it was the beauty of young frisking things, round-limbed, gambolling, circumventing you by a false air of innocence— the innocence of a young star-browed calf, for example, that, being inclined for a promenade out of bounds, leads you a severe steeplechase over hedge and ditch, and only comes to a stand in the middle of a bog. And they are the prettiest attitudes and movements into which a pretty girl is thrown in making up butter— tossing movements that give a charming curve to the arm, and a sideward inclination of the round white neck; little patting and rolling movements with the palm of the hand, and nice adaptations and finishings which cannot at all be effected without a great play of the pouting mouth and the dark eyes. And then the butter itself seems to communicate a fresh charm— it is so pure, so sweet-scented; it is turned off the mould with such a beautiful firm surface, like marble in a pale yellow light! 

I think that the above is so well written. The point about how some things, such as a bright spring day, a lark, a calf, Hetty’s beauty are indescribable in words, is effectively and artfully communicated. I also think that the false air of innocence is important, as Hetty is far from innocent. This takes on increased meaning in light of the fact that Hetty has ensnared several ethical men by her charms. 

Another important underlying thread here seems to be the comparison between the practical and pragmatic as compared with the theoretical and emotional. Dinah is a preacher. She has lots of ideas about her religion and expresses them in her preaching. She also puts a lot of emotion into her words and actions. In contrast, Adam and Parson Irwine are also religious people. However, their religion is more practical and down - to - earth.  Adam sees God’s will as being expressed through his carpentry. He also does not talk a lot about God. Instead he tries to just do what is right and remind others to do the same in private conversation. Likewise, Parson Irwine also eschews passionate religious fervor. He tends to believe in practical applications of religion and charity. Both types of people are portrayed as virtuous in this book. Both types effect good throughout the narrative. It may be that Eliot is trying to say that it takes both types to make the world go around. 

One other interesting point is that by the time that this book was written, Eliot had left any organized religion and had become an atheist. However, her treatment of religious people in this book is thoughtful and mostly  positive. My understanding is that Eliot was very much interested in morality and ethics and was very committed to living a moral life. It may be that Eliot was trying to make a bigger point about morality, practicality and theoretical thinking in general. Perhaps she thought that the point she was making transcended religious belief or the lack thereof. 

I rate this book very high as classics go. I thought that it was almost as good as Eliot’s Middlemarch, and better then The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner. I found the plot and characters very interesting and thought provoking. The themes were also worthwhile. I would recommend this book to readers who liked Middlemarch as well as Nineteenth Century literature in general. 

Saturday, February 1, 2020

They Were Her Property by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers

They Were Her Property by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers is an examination on the role that free white women played in the institution of slavery in America’s Antebellum South. The book was first published in 2019. There is a little bit of a story as to why I read this work that relates to some of my thoughts on its content as well as my thoughts on some of the social and historical debates going on these days.  

An online friend of mine was reading this book in her book club.  My friend had read almost no history before. Certain things about this book led her, and myself, to consider the possibility that this book might be agenda driven and not based upon serious scholarship. Because I am someone who reads a fair amount of history, my friend asked me if I would like to also read the book and assess what I thought about it. Why were such concerns relevant to this work? Lately there has been some revisionist history, partially driven by a social and political theories. The most prominent example of what I am talking about is something called the 1619 Project. The project is a series of articles accompanied with educational materials that seeks to reassess slavery within the context of American History. The creators of the project have been accused, I believe with some justification, of biased scholarship that is agenda driven that looked to find evidence aimed at proving points that are not based upon truth. Several prominent historians who are experts on American History have been critical of that project. The subject of this book could possibly be viewed as having a tangential connection to the 1619 Project and other agenda driven interpretations of history that have recently been popping up.

In addition, this book is obviously critical of the actions of many white women in Antebellum America. Unfortunately, among certain quarters of what I have been referring to as the postmodern left, white women are currently being stereotyped and assigned a kind of collective guilt. The reasons and the history for this is beyond the scope of this post. However, a book such as this will set off alarm bells for folks who are paying attention to the current discourse.

If these concerns had merit it would mean this work would be too biased to take seriously.  In addition, a postmodern reasoning disregards many ways that are traditionally used to determine truth and sets up all sorts of truth finding mechanisms that are not based on reason or objectivity. At the very least, this means that works written from a postmodern point of view need to be approached differently from other works. 

I should note that I have no professional qualifications to assess the quality of history scholarship. What I have is an amateur’s interest. I do hold a bachelor's degree in history. I once took a graduate level class in historiography. I read a lot of history. I read a lot of American history. However, the Antebellum South is not my prime area of interest.  In terms of postmodernism I have read a fair amount of the theory and arguments behind it. This includes postmodernist takes on history. I have also read a fair amount from the critics of postmodernism. I have followed the debate over the 1619 Project closely and have read its controversial parts as well as content written by its critics. Thus, my evaluation of this book is not a professional one, just my own views based on my own reading and interests. 

With all that, having read the book as well as looking through what others are saying about it online, I feel good about giving it a clean bill of health. First of all, its main premise, that is that white, free women in the pre – Civil War America were active participants in almost all aspects of slavery, is a worthy topic that is worthy of examination. There is a narrative that has sprung up both with some historians and in popular culture that free women of this period were more or less innocent bystanders and were also an oppressed group. Reexamining that narrative is a legitimate line of inquiry.  

More importantly, this seems to be a serious work of history. It is heavily researched. Almost every fact and account presented is footnoted. Conclusions and opinions are supported by facts. It contains  none of what I would call postmodernist reasoning nor is there what I would call postmodernist rhetoric. I did think that the book had a couple of flaws, which I will touch on below, however, I do not believe that these flaws relate to the above concerns. There is also the question of whether the current debates on these issues led to the writing of this book in the first place. I cannot say if this is the case or not, however, I do not believe that is important as the book itself is a solid work of history. 

The question arises, should I even bring any of this up? Most history books that I write about, unless I mention some kind of bad scholarship or bias, are assumed to be good works of scholarship. The reason that I have devoted some words to this is that, as I mentioned above, a superficial look at the subject of this book is going to lead to many people connecting it to the current debates on these issues. I thought that it was important to address these issues so that they do not distract from the content of the book itself. 

As mentioned above, in this book the author looks at the role that white free women had upon slavery and enslaved people in pre – Civil War America. She also contrasts what she found to what she considers a false narrative that has sprung up around the topic. 

While Jones-Rogers uses a variety of sources including newspaper articles, letters and public records, she also relies heavily on interviews conducted as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). This project took place in the 1930s and conducted numerous interviews of formally enslaved persons as well as a few free people who lived in this time and place.  Obviously, these interviews are of great interest to anyone interested in this topic. 

As a result, this book is full of accounts of women who actively participated in the slave trade and who owned slaves. A picture is drawn of a society where many women owned slaves. The author points out that some past historians have depicted a situation where women owned slaves on paper and with the real control exerted by male their relatives. However, Jones-Rogers shows that often, women exercised day to day control of slaves, and at times sought, through legal means, to keep the slaves from falling under control of their husbands. Furthermore, the book is full of accounts of women actively participating in the buying and selling of slaves. Unsurprisingly, the actions of women varied, with some women slaveholders eschewing punishment and cruelty while others acting in cruel and brutal ways. 

In regards to crueler Mistresses, the author writes, 

Formerly enslaved people also remembered their female owners as powerful disciplinarians who used a variety of techniques that resembled those of male slave owners . Addy Gill was enslaved in Millburnie , North Carolina , and she recalled that her mistress Louise Krenshaw “ done the whuppin on Mr . Krenshaw’s plantation an she was mighty rough at times . ”

Some of the worst behavior was committed by free women who were brothel owners who forced female slaves into lives of sexual slavery and prostitution. An entire section of the book is also dedicated to the use of slave women as wet nurses for white women who could not breastfeed their own children. This trade was almost exclusively conducted and controlled by free white women. 


The biggest issue with this book is that is does not contain enough statistics. This makes it difficult to build a comprehensive picture. In defense of the author, I am not sure that such statistics exist from this time and place.  The book is filled with hundreds of individual cases. These cases are almost all footnoted and tied to what seem like good sources. There are so many individual accounts that it is clear that the author is on to something. In addition, many of the individual accounts seem to illustrate situations that were considered to be usual occurrences. While this kind of evidence will always lead to gaps in our knowledge, it is valuable.  Because of the lack of these statistics however, a book like this can only advance knowledge so far. Jones-Rogers has convinced me that a lot of women own and exercised control of slaves. Many participated in the slave trade. Like male slave owners, some were crueler then others. Furthermore, the narrative that white women were almost exclusively innocent bystanders is questionable, at least in a lot of cases.  However, we really can only approximate the extent of all this and we do not know how, on a large scale, it all this compares to the actions of men. The biggest flaw in the book, is that sometimes the author generalizes a little too much based upon this insufficient evidence. At one point the author writes, 

Southern slave-owning women had existed in a world in which slavery and the ownership of human beings constituted core elements of their identities.

I thought that this was a very worthwhile book. It offers an valuable look at  gender, human nature and the differences and similarities between the behavior of men verses women.  It sheds light on an important and little talked about subject. It is extremely well researched. It is also very interesting and will likely keep a reader’s attention. Though a book confined to a fairly narrow subject, this is a good read for those already interested in slavery, or gender roles throughout history.