Saturday, February 20, 2010

Mr Gilfil's Love-Story

Mr. Gilfil's Love Storyis the second of three short stories that make up George Eliot's first attempt at fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life. I mentioned in my post on The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton that it sort of struck me as a writing exercise. Well, this one does too. It's almost as if Eliot said, "okay, this time I'm going to write about the gentry, now that I've tackled the poorer end of the clergy."

During most of the story, I was wondering why it was titled as it was because the main character is not Mr Maynard Gilfil but Caterina, an Italian orphan who was adopted by Lord and Lady Cheverel, patrons of Mr Gilfil. Caterina is a tiny surrogate daughter to the Cheverel with the voice of an angel and the passions of a Carmen. She is fatally attracted to Captain Anthony Wybrow, the nephew and heir of the Cheverels, a pompous, empty-headed Greek God who breaks her heart. Mr Gilfil, makes up the third player in this lovers triangle, having devoted his life to worshipping Caterina, or Tina as everyone calls her. His heart is true, he is strong and noble and long-suffering, and Caterina is foolish, headstrong, and blind. I think the most interesting characters are actually Lord and Lady Cheverel, who transcend stereotype and are truly interesting, complex, realistic people.

My only criticism of these first two stories of Eliot's is that as a narrator she seems to keep both her characters and the reader at arms length. She describes what her characters are thinking and feeling, but unlike Austen, for example, with her use of free indirect discourse, I never feel like I can get inside any character's head, hence I can find their stories interesting but I have no real empathy for them.

On the other hand, the stories are replete with Eliot's articulate, compassionate prose, which makes her one of my favorite authors. Here are a couple of passages that I particularly liked.

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.
(Chapter 1)

In both The Sad Fortunes of Rev. Amos Barton and Mr Gilfil's Love-Story, Eliot's narrator tells a story that took place a good fifty years, and I think the quote above illustrates Eliot's interest in this type of story.

In this way - in these broken confessions and answering words of comfort - the hours wore on, from the deep black night to the chill early twilight, and from early twilight to the first yellow streak of morning parting the purple cloud. Mr Gilfil felt as if in the long hours of that night the bond that united his love for ever and alone to Caterina had acquired fresh strength and sanctity. It is so with the human relations that rest on the deep emotional sympathy of affection: every new day and night of joy or sorrow is a new ground, a new consecration, for the love that is nourished by memories as well as hopes - the love to which perpetual repetition is not a weariness but a want, and to which a separated joy is the beginning of pain.
(Chapter 19)

I like Eliot's equating love (i.e., "human relations that res on the deep emotional sympathy of affection") with sanctity, and that love is consecrated continually.

Contented speckled hens, industriously scratching for the rarely-found corn, may sometimes do more for a sick heart than a grove of nightingales; there is something irresistibly calming in the unsentimental cheeriness of top-knotted pullets, unpetted sheep-dogs, and patient cart-horses enjoying a drink of muddy water.
(Chapter 20)

I love how Eliot describes how the ordinariness of life being lived can soothe and heal a distressed soul. She is definitely more Elinor than Marianne here!


  1. I have this book.I bought it in 1995 (still have the till receipt inside the book!)and have not read it. I bought it because I was doing an Open University course on 19th century Evangelicalism and it was a recommended book. I see that I've underlined passages in the introduction and in 'Janet's Repentence' - apparently understanding the Evangelical Movement is "of importance in understanding not only 'Scenes' but also George Eliot's moral and intellectual development".

    I remember thinking at the time that it would be interesting to actually read 'Scenes' but didn't have time then, or in any of the years since then. Strange how something that seems interesting can just sit on the shelf for so long unread.

    Thanks for reminding me about 'Scenes'.

  2. Thank you for telling us about this book. I have never heard of it or seen in before. It sounds like an interesting book and perhaps I will have to look into it.

  3. Margaret - I have books like that myself--bought for a specific interest and never got read but I'm not ready to part with them. BTW, I started Janet's Repentence yesterday, and it's much harder to read than the other two--denser, more characters, and more focused on the Evangelical Movement. I fear it will be tough going, but I will persevere.