Adam Bede | Study Guide

George Eliot

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Adam Bede | Context


Setting and Dialect

George Eliot drew on her own childhood memories of growing up in the Western Midlands of England in creating her rural landscapes. She also reimagines her father's childhood farther north in the county of Derbyshire. She reproduces that region's dialect, which she heard her father speak to her uncles. To create Adam Bede she also researched 18th-century fashion, details of the weather in 1799, and national and international events occurring in that year to create novelistic verisimilitude (the appearance of realism). She enlarged her own deep knowledge of rural life with information gathered from agricultural texts such as The Book of the Farm (1842) and A Six Month Tour through the North of England (1770), as well as issues of the Gentleman's Magazine from 1799–1801. One issue of that journal described the 21st birthday party of the Duke of Rutland, which Eliot uses as a factual and believable basis for Arthur Donnithorne's coming-of-age celebration in the book.

Dissenters and Methodists

Dissenters, or nonconformists, were English Protestants who had broken with the established Anglican Church or Church of England, established by King Henry VIII in 1534. Dissenters included Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Unitarians, as well as independent groups such as the Quakers. English dissent began in the 14th century, even before the Protestant Reformation, but in the 16th century dissenters wanted to make a stronger break with Catholicism. Members of this group became known as Puritans. English Puritans also disliked the idea of a state church and began holding their own meetings. During a period of civil war in the 17th century, the dissenters abolished the Church of England, although it was brought back as the state religion with the restoration of the monarchy. In 1689 Parliament passed the Toleration Act, which allowed freedom of religion for all Protestants who believed in the Trinity of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Roman Catholicism continued to be marginalized until 1829, when Catholics were given freedom to practice their religion openly as a minority faith.

Methodism originated with Anglican clergyman John Wesley. His was an 18th-century movement to reform the Church of England from within. Methodists so named themselves because of their "methodical" devotion and study. Wesley emphasized the idea that all human beings can gain salvation and that the Holy Spirit enables them to love God and fellow beings perfectly in this life. He preached the idea of personal salvation—an instantaneous transformation of personality occurring through intense faith. John Wesley was at first reluctant to sanction women preachers, but by the 1760s Sarah Crosby (1729–1804) and Mary Bosanquet Fletcher (1739–1815) gained Wesley's permission to preach. Many women preachers followed them, and Dinah Morris is a fictional example of such a Methodist evangelist.

While Wesley hoped Methodism could remain under the tent of the Anglican Church, his sect was marginalized by the mainstream, and in 1795, four years after Wesley's death, the Methodists officially broke away and started their own religion. After Wesley's death the Methodists began to discourage women preachers and stopped them from preaching altogether in 1803, although some women—for example, Mary Barritt Taft (1772–1851)—continued their work and brought a number of new ministers into the fold. Thus, it would have been conceivable for someone as strong in her faith as Dinah Morris to continue preaching, but perhaps her easy acceptance of the Church's doctrine against women taking an active role reflects George Eliot's inability to show her in a dual role of wife/mother and religious leader.

Tenant Farming and Enclosure

Tenant farming in England in the 18th and 19th centuries was a system under which landowners, or gentry, provided land, management, assets, and sometimes capital to tenants who provided their labor, some joint management, and sometimes capital to the farming enterprise. The profits of farming were shared between tenant and landlord. Payment to the landowner might be in the form of cash or products, and the tenant farmer might also pay cash rent.

In Adam Bede the Poyser family has tenanted the Hall Farm for generations. Leases were of different duration, and an ideal lease was 21 years. Short-term leases or tenancy-at-will gave landlords more control over the rents they would charge, the amount and kind of land leased to tenants, and the way in which the land would be cultivated in an era in which technology was rapidly changing farming methods. That the Poysers have such a short lease (three years) reflects Squire Donnithorne's oppressive style of management. Mrs. Poyser complains of his neglect of the property and refusal to make needed repairs on the house and farm buildings. Such behavior speaks to Donnithorne's greed, stinginess, and bad management practices. Mrs. Poyser speaks for all of Donnithorne's tenants in Chapter 32 when she has her "say out," telling the landlord what she thinks of him when he tries to force her husband to renegotiate the terms of his lease at the Poysers' disadvantage.

Transportation as a Punishment

"Transportation" of prisoners—or exile—was an alternative punishment whereby criminals sentenced to hang could receive an alternative punishment of transportation to a British colony. During the 18th century the British sent people to penal colonies in America. Sentences ranged from seven years to life in a penal colony. After the American Revolution (1775–83) and beginning in 1787, penal colonies were instead established in Australia, with some 160,000 men, women, and children, sometimes as young as nine, sent there for punishment. Women suffered particularly because if they did not end up as menial workers under backbreaking conditions, they were forced into prostitution through rape or necessity of survival. The majority of female convicts sent there—80 percent—had been convicted only of petty theft.

The harsh punishment of death by hanging for Hetty Sorrel would have been unusual. Under a 1624 statute, created to prevent women from murdering their illegitimate children, an unmarried woman hiding the death of her infant automatically would be presumed guilty of child murder and not tried under common-law rules of evidence, thus putting her at a disadvantage. A woman who had sought help in the birth of a child would generally be tried under the common law, because asking for help would have been evidence she did not attempt to hide her baby's death. Thus, the subsequent death of the baby might have been accidental or might have occurred under extenuating circumstances. Under common law a verdict of manslaughter was possible, and the convicted person was not necessarily punished by death. No such verdict, however, could be returned under the 1624 law, and for this reason conviction under that statute was rare. Thus, it makes sense for Hetty's sentence in the book to be reduced to transportation.

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