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My only merit must lie in the faithfulness with which I represent to you the humble experience of an ordinary fellow mortalWhen Scenes of Clerical Life George Eliot's first novel was published anonymously in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine in 1857 it was immediately recognized in the words of Saturday Review as ‘the production of a peculiar and remarkable writer' The first readers including Dickens and Thackeray were struck by its humorous irony the truthfulness of its presentation of the lives of ordinary men and women and its compassionate acceptance of human weaknessThe three stories that make up the Scenes ‘The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton' ‘Mr Gilfil's Love Story' and ‘Janet's Repentance' foreshadow George Eliot's major work and their success gave her the confidence to become one of the greatest English novelists


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    “It is so much easier to say that a thing is black than to discriminate the particular shade of brown blue or green to which it really belongs It is so much easier to make up your mind that your neighbor is good for nothing than to enter into all the circumstances that would oblige you to modify that opinion”Eliot uses her characteristic empathy to look behind the “scenes of clerical life” portrayed in this volume She tells three stories connected in that they take place in and around the fictional English town of Milby and each concerns a certain Anglican clergyman whose religious views are under criticism In “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton” we watch the Reverend picked apart by his parishioners and then see how his good deeds lead to misfortune It is unsparingly tragic“Mr Gilfil’s Love Story” is also sad but is high romance than tragedy full of chivalry and unselfish passion The culmination is reached in “Janet’s Repentance” By this time your heart has been pummeled by the first two “scenes” and you are ready for a happy ending But Eliot true to form has created a real life heroine and hero They struggle with their own “sins” and their purgatory is harrowing but this final installment ends with a beautiful triumph of the soulEach story has a long drawn out build up and a couple of times I was confused by the timeframe or narrative point of view Otherwise I found them gorgeous dense and moving and I loved all threeI can’t resist a few thoughts Have you ever received a gift box that you thought contained one item but turned out to have multiple extra gifts tucked under the wrapping? That’s what a George Eliot story is like You think it is one gift but when you open it you realize it’s overflowing with extra little surprise gems And I could say that reading this book took effort but that would be like complaining about the trouble it takes to unwrap all those extra gifts Like almost missing one of hidden items in the gift package as I read I often thought “Oh that sentence And I almost read too fast and missed its impact”Here’s an example of one such loaded sentence “I at least hardly ever look at a bent old man or a wizened old woman but I see also with my mind’s eye that Past of which they are the shrunken remnant and the unfinished romance of rosy cheeks and bright eyes seems sometimes of feeble interest and significance compared with that drama of hope and love which has long ago reached its catastrophe and left the poor soul like a dim and dusty stage with all its sweet garden scenes and fair perspectives overturned and thrust out of sight”Not the fastest reading right? But worth it don’t you think?I also kept thinking of the Virginia Woolf quote that Eliot’s Middlemarch was “one of the few English novels written for grown up people” which I believe applies to all of Eliot’s work What does Woolf mean by this? One possibility is that being a grown up is about handling the truth things don’t happen the way you plan everyone dies people are complicated than you think they are Eliot is particularly good at that last one A quote from the author presented in the introduction may provide the key to her grown up empathetic style In a letter to a friend she wrote “our moral progress may be measured by the degree in which we sympathize with individual suffering and individual joy”Each of the stories in this book was about unique and specific individuals Each surprised me And maybe they helped me to grow up just a little bit