The Sad Fortunes of the Revd Amos Barton was, according to its introduction, George Eliot’s “first work of narrative fiction”—a novella really, not a novel.
The Revd Amos Barton is the curate in a small English town, and as always a central feature of the small English town is its gossip. Gossip is one of our main sources of information, even though we also have the benefit of an omniscient first-person narrator, who himself (herself?) grew up in the town. That narrator is telling us about the past, and to do so, zaps us into the drawing room (or whatever) of some local personality (e.g., “Mrs Patten, a childless old lady, who had gotten rich chiefly by the negative process of spending nothing”), sets the scene in the present tense (e.g., “the home-made muffins glisten with an inviting succulence”), and then give us the dirt:
‘So,’ said Mr Pilgrim, with his mouth only half empty of muffin, ‘you had a row in Shepperton Church last Sunday. I was at Jim Hood’s, the bassoon-man’s, this morning, attending his wife, and he swears he’ll be revenged on the parson—a confounded, methodistical, meddlesome chap who must be putting his finger in every pie. What was it all about?’
I found it all very effective. Almost every chapter brings us to a new house, full of chatty country folk tucking into tea with cream (I want to try this, now, but Eliot tells me I need to experience it with freshly skimmed cream). It’s February, so it’s cold, and they’re all sitting round fires. It’s so pleasant. Once in a while we find out they aren’t quite accurate in their rumor-mongering (Barton’s father “was not a shoemaker, as Mr Pilgrim had reported,” but a cabinet-maker), but we have that omniscient narrator to tell us all that.
I read Middlemarch ages ago, in high school, and I remember really liking it but don’t remember Eliot being quite as funny as she is here (probably only an issue with my memory). Hesperus liked this part so much they excerpted some of it for the back cover:
And, after all, the Revd Amos never came near the borders of a vice. His very faults were middling—he was not very ungrammatical. It was not in his nature to be superlative in anything; unless, indeed, he was superlatively middling, the quintessential extract of mediocrity. If there was any one point on which he showed an inclination to be excessive, it was confidence in his own shrewdness and ability in practical matters, so that he was very full of plans which were something like his moves in chess—admirably well calculated, supposing the state of the case were otherwise.
That last is a really awesome Victorian smack. I want to use it.
Which brings us to another point: the ridiculous mediocrity of Amos Barton. Everything we hear about him is a bit disappointing, in that none of it makes him sound very interesting or very much worth feeling bad about the “sad fortunes” of. He’s homely, balding, middle aged—“even the smallpox that has attacked [his face] seems to have been of a mongrel, indefinite kind.” He dresses badly, speaks badly, spells badly, preaches badly. His theology is a little questionable, along with not exactly being popular among his parishioners. Don’t hold your breath for some redeeming quality, though as the grieving widower the Revd appears a bit better.
That is not to say that Barton is particularly bad either, just mediocre, and certainly Eliot found it more profitable to focus most of the story on the two women surrounding him instead: his wife, Milly, and the Countess. Both of them much more generally superlative, even if the Countess isn’t nearly as romantic a personage as the townsfolk suspect. Barton almost feels invisible compared with these women—and all the others, too, Mrs Hackit, Mrs Patten, Nanny, even little Patty. They are all more substantial in their actions and feelings. We hardly hear anything out of the Revd Amos other than the preaching and the scolding of the workhouse residents. Not exactly endearing.
But then the other men are more substantial too, when I think about it. Even the one scene with the roomful of clergymen sniping at each other made them more real and personal than Barton.