This is one of George Eliot's Scenes of a Clerical Life, the others being Janet's Repentance which I posted about here, the other Mr Gilfil's Secret which is next on my list.
These are among Eliot's earliest works and, indeed, Amos Barton was her first work of narrative fiction. Its full title then was 'The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton' and it was published, unsigned, in the 1857 edition of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. It was a year later that it, and the other two I have just mentioned, were collected together published as one book.
Amos Barton is a curate sent to assist at Shepperton Church. The vicar of Shepperton gave £80 a year as an annual stipend to his curate and given that Amos was married with six children and who was 'obliged to always exhibit himself when outside his own door in a suit of black broadcloth' poverty looms. He is not a charismatic man and lacks personality and charm and is not overly popular with his parishioners though he does his limited best. He does, however, have a lovely charming wife, Milly, which makes people look on him more kindly.
'She was a lovely woman Mrs Amos Barton, a large fair gentle madonna with thick, close chestnut curls beside her well-rounded cheeks and with large tender, short sighted eyes. The flowing lines of her tall figure made the limpest dress look graceful..... happy the man whose eye will rest on her in the pauses of his fireside reading......Amos was an affectionate husband and, in his way, valued his wife as his best treasure"
Amos and Milly have been taken up as friends by the Countess Czerlaski who now resides with her half-brother in Shepperton, having been widowed in her thirties. She is on the look out for another husband, but has begun to feel that there is very little likelihood of this happening. She has a limited income and relies on her brother to house her. They entertain the Bartons and Amos has spoken of his admiration of her to fellow clergymen, who are secretly rather contemptuous of his outpourings. There is gossip in the village that perhaps she is not really a Countess and that her brother is not a blood relation at all, but worse. After a quarrel with her brother who has decided to marry the Countess's maid, she decamps and goes to live with the Bartons at the vicarage. Their poverty stricken existence becomes worse as she makes no payment for her board and lodging and gradually those parishioners who would help the Bartons in their financial difficulties, fall by the wayside as rumours of a scandalous nature begin to surface. It is even hinted that Amos helps the Countess on with her stockings in the morning. Amos is aware of the change of feeling towards him but he could hardly hint a departure to his guest and he felt some indignation towards those who would think evil of him.
Eventually the Countess leaves having had an argument with the maid of all work who is not backward in telling her what she thinks of her behaviour and, as Milly is pregnant with her seventh child and ill, the neighbours begin to thaw towards the Bartons and help them once more. However, the damage has been done and Amos lost the opportunity of moving to a better living because of the scandal. It is almost inevitable that Milly and the baby die and that Amos is told his curacy is at an end and has to seek employment elsewhere just when he has found friends and assistance among his flock.
In many ways this is a bleak little book full of sorrow and trouble, with a hero not designed to appeal to the imagination or to find a place in the reader's heart, and yet I found myself drawn into this little gem as I had with Janet's Repentance. It is clear that no matter how noble a woman George Eliot was, how respected for her intelligence and intellectual ability and how contemptuous she was of a society that would exclude her, she really yearned to be part of it and to be accepted. In both these books we have a 'fallen woman' treated badly. With Janet she redeemed herself by nursing her brutal, drunken husband. Here, the Countess is forced to leave Shepperton by the gossip and scandal. We have another such woman, beyond the pale, in Daniel Deronda which I will write about another time. GE uses her writing to say what she thinks of the way her heroines and, of course, herself have been treated.
As always, beautifully and scrupulously written, no words wasted and somehow she makes the reader warm to Amos and feel for him and his poor orphaned children with the the eldest child, Patty being left with the responsibility of taking care of her father. It is a melancholy ending. Amos goes to bid farewell to his wife at her grave as he knows he has to leave:
"Milly Milly dost thou hear me? I didn't love thee enough, I wasn't tender enough to thee, but I think of it all now" The sobs came and choked his utterance and the warm tears fell.
and then the last page:
Years later he visited the grave again, this time he held on his arm a 'young woman, with a sweet grave face which strongly recalled the expression of Mrs Barton's . Amos himself was much changed, his thin circlet of hair was nearly white and his walk was no longer firm and upright. But his glance was clam and even cheerful and his linen told of a woman's care. Milly did not take all her love from he earth when she died. She had left some of it in Patty's heart.
I will admit to a tear in the eye when reading this last page. A slim book, in which really nothing of great moment happens, but written with great understanding and sympathy. I liked it very much indeed.