Encouraged by George Henry Lewes, Mary Ann (Marian) Evans purposed to write publishable fiction and began with a title that came to her in the middle of one night, “The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton.” She conceived a story that would be the first in a series of sketches called Scenes from Clerical Life. Once completed, the story was accepted by Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine to run anonymously in two installments, January and February 1857. Only after John Blackwood pressed for the author’s identity (after Adam Bede) did she put forth her now familiar pseudonym, George Eliot: “George” in honor of her partner’s Christian name, and “Eliot” as a “good mouth-filling, easily pronounced word” (Cross, I:310). Most readers were sure that the stories had been penned by an actual clergyman, so realistic were their portrayals of clerical life.
Eliot believed that literature should depict truth, especially the reality of everyday life, with all of its ordinariness, flaws, and obtuseness. Therefore, Amos Barton is an unglamorous, mediocre man; he is “in no respect an ideal of exceptional character . . . far from remarkable,—a man whose virtues were not heroic . . . but [he] was palpably and unmistakably commonplace.” His deficiencies as a minister include a pompous oratorical style, and many of his ideas have no relevance or lucidity for his parishioners. Worse, he is a grammatical buffoon. Barton incomprehensively “preached Low-Church doctrine—as evangelical as anything to be heard in the Independent Chapel,” that is, a belief in the infallibility of the Bible and an emphasis on the personal experience between parishioner and God. But he is also High Church, meaning that he performs rituals such as treating communion as an instrument of grace that imparts salvation to its partakers. He also insists on ecclesiastical authority, which most Low Church followers reject. For these reasons he is ineffectual as a pastor; he is duplicitous and lacks a single conviction of his own. This character reflects the way Eliot perceived Christianity in her day.
In contrast, Eliot describes Barton’s angelic wife, Milly, as a gift to him and all humanity: “Happy the man, you would have thought, whose eye will rest on her in the pauses of his fireside reading—whose hot aching forehead will be soothed by the contact of her cool soft hand—who will recover himself from dejection at his mistakes and failures in the loving light of her unreproaching eyes.” Milly is Eliot’s notion of a true Christian, one who practices charity with sympathy and humility. Inexplicably, Amos allows a countess to stay with them, when they can barely feed and clothe their own brood of six children. Milly literally works herself to death in caring for all of them. Eliot, in subscribing to the theories of positivism that discounted the possibility of spiritual intervention, creates a good woman who does good deeds but, without spiritual wherewithal beyond herself, becomes depleted and dies. Milly is buried like a Madonna figure, with her dead baby in her arms. At this point the readers, like the parishioners of Shepperton, sympathize with the reverend’s suffering and are motivated to treat others with compassion. Milly’s sacrificial death brings out the best in Barton’s neighbors: “Amos failed to touch the spring of goodness by his sermons, but he touched it effectually by his sorrows.” The neighbors reach out to comfort and help with his children, but not before they instigate the loss of his job. His reduction to sheer humanity establishes him as one of them. This, to Eliot, is the best that humans can do: learn to sympathize with others, realize and accept our own frailties, and make better choices prompted by feelingbased ethics.
“The greatest benefit we owe to the artist,” Eliot wrote, “is the extension of our sympathies” (Essays, 270). By being initiated into literary realism, readers may be moved to do what is ethical in their own lives. This was Eliot’s “religion of humanity” that impelled the production of her first short story. She had finished translating two philosophical discourses with premises that, in effect, raided Christianity of the power of the cross. The first was David Strauss’s Life of Jesus (1846), which considered the Gospels to be no more than myths that contained some kernels of truth. Strauss discounted all that was supernatural in the Bible, seeing it merely as the product of an unsophisticated, ignorant culture. This assertion undermined one of the foundational truths shared by the Evangelical sect—of which Eliot was once a follower—the absolute authority of a literal interpretation of the Bible. At the center of Evangelicalism is Jesus, the only begotten son of God, who gave his life on the cross for the remission of human sin and then arose from the dead. Removing the spiritual from Christianity, for Eliot and many Victorians like her, left a quandary as to what, if anything, to retain from faith. For her, the answer came from her study and translation of Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1854), which identified benevolence, humanity, and ethics as the enduring, useful values of Christianity. To believe this is to completely deny the centrality of the Cross to any of those virtues and leads the question, What is Christianity without Christ?
Eliot was also a determinist, perceiving a universe that is absolutely rational and believing that everything happens because of what has gone before, that no one makes moral choices or exercises free will. However, Eliot believed that studying the past can help people learn from mistakes and thereby positively infl uence the future. This is why she sets “Amos Burton” in the past, so that readers can learn from the reverend’s mistakes and make informed decisions accordingly. The reverend is a pathetic representative of Christianity, as impecunious in his faith as he is in his emotional and financial provision for his family. He is spiritually detached from humanity. In his own suffering, he never prays, never asks God to provide for the material needs of his family, never trusts God for anything. Indeed, neither does Milly, nor do any of the people of Shepperton. In her own life, Eliot herself no longer looked for the divine but found divinity in all humanity. The purpose of literature, as Eliot explained in a letter was a moral one, to encourage uplifting feelings that would lead people to do what is socially right. This is what she set out to do in writing fiction.
After “Amos Barton,” Eliot wrote “Mr. Gilfil’s Love- Story” and “Janet’s Repentance,” which were bound in a book in 1858.
Cross, John. George Eliot’s Life as Reflected in Her Letters and Journals. 4 vols. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1884.
Gribble, Jennifer. Introduction. Scenes of Clerical Life, by George Eliot, ix–xxxvii. London: Penguin, 1999.
Eliot, George. Essays of George Eliot. Edited by Thomas Pinney. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.
———. Scenes of Clerical Life. 1858. Edited and with an and introduction by David Lodge. London: Penguin, 1973. Haight, Gordon S. George Eliot: A Biography. Oxford University Press, 1968.
———, ed. The George Eliot Letters. 9 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954.
McCormick, Kathryn. “George Eliot’s First Fiction, Targetting Blackwood’s,” Bibliotheck 21 (1996): 69–80.