Writers’ Terror of Writing a Derivative Novel: Comparing George Elliot’s ‘Adam Bede’ and Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’


220px-John_Collier_-_Hetty_SorrelI’ve always meant to read ‘Adam Bede’; I don’t know why really, except that I’ve seen it described in various places as one of George Eliot’s best novels, and while I was a little disappointed in ‘Middlemarch’ and ‘The Mill on the Floss’, I’ve always admired her as a woman who defied conventional morality in mid Victorian times. That took some courage indeed.

I’m about three quarters of the way through reading it now. It’s a very interesting book, and the historical detail is intriguing; but I can’t take to the rather shadowy heroine, Dinah Shore, at all. She is intended to be the next thing to a saint; I know it is notoriously hard to write about an interesting thoroughly good and unselfish person, and George Eliot deserves credit for trying; this particularly as she is depicting a devoutly religious person, while she herself was agnostic. But I have to say this conventional spirituality is another sticking point for me; oblique references are made to damnation, and the idea of a Creator who is capable of meting out that fate raises my hackles.

Unfortunately, too, the same is true of the eponymous hero; I find his Protestant Ethic type of morality unappealing, even rebarbative; I daresay he is the sole of virtue and totally admirable, but if I find anyone sympathetic in the story, it is the pretty, silly Hetty Sorrel, so tragically deceived by her own hopes regarding the enduring nature of the charming but vain and selfish Arthur Donnithorne’s love for her.

I suspect that this reaction may be fairly typical; I haven’t read any literary criticism of the book yet. Still, it isn’t of this that I wanted to write, but about the influence that this novel so obviously had on Elizabeth Gaskell, and in her writing of a novel about which I have so often bored the reader – that’s right, ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ again!

I was startled when I came across some of the similarities in the character types and also, in incident in the two novels. This in turn led me to think about the modern obsession with avoiding at all costs, writing something ‘derivative’, the dread that so many writers have of being accused of copying some theme or idea.

Elizabeth Gaskell, according to the biography of her by Winifred Gerin, read ‘Adam Bede’ sometime in 1857, and her admiration was complete. She wrote of it: ‘I think I have a feeling that it is not worth while trying to write, while there are such books as Adam Bede’ (I had the same sort of feeling myself after rereading ‘Bodily Harm’ by Margaret Attwood).300px-Whaling-dangers_of_the_whale_fishery

Eighteen-fifty-seven was the year in which Elizabeth Gaskell visited Whitby (Yorkshire, UK, for non UK readers of this blog) and decided to write a story about the whaling community there during the French Revolutionary Wars, and the activities of the press gang on a whaling community at that time. ‘Adam Bede’ is also set during the French Revolutionary Wars, and in partly in Yorkshire, but it is focused on in an inland farming community. However, in other ways the influence of George Elliot’s novel on Elizabeth Gaskell is very obvious, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel is also partly about the local farming community.

Both novels deal with a rather foolish, very pretty, poorly educated young girl from a farming background who often works as dairymaid and who is loved by a steady admirer whose love she spurs in favour of the love of an unreliable, charming, dashing but superficial one with military connections.

In ‘Adam Bede’ these characters are respectively Hetty Sorrel, Adam Bede and Arthur Donnithorne, and in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ they are Sylvia Robson, Philip Hepburn and Charley Kinraid.

It is true that ‘Adam Bede’ deals with the then highly popular theme of the innocent girl seduced by the ‘gentleman’ and left pregnant, while ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ deals with the then equally popular story of the ‘returned sailor’ who comes back from years at sea to find he has seemingly been betrayed, his sweetheart having married someone else.

However, in both, besides the threesome of flighty, heedless girl and her two contrasting rival lovers, there is another main female character, a spiritual and deeply religious young woman who comes to love the steady, hard working man.

In ‘Adam Bede’ this is the lay preacher Dinah Shore (who is also very good looking, but indifferent to this and its affect on men) and in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ this role is fulfilled by plain Hester Rose, a Quaker who routinely does good works, and Hepburn’s fellow worker in the haberdashery shop.

I haven’t read to the end of ‘Adam Bede’ yet, but I know that Dinah Shore and Adam Bede finally come together in marital happiness, whereas Hester Rose’s love for Hepburn remains unrequited. Both novels contain comedic elements but an underlying tragic theme.

Both also focus much attention on the views of dissenters and various religious debates in the late eighteenth century; both have human and ineffective vicars.

All sorts of incidental details in Elizabeth Gaskell’s story illustrate the continuing influence of ‘Adam Bede’. For instance, Hetty Sorrel comes from a farming family; so does Sylvia Robson; Hetty often works as dairymaid, and is courted by Arthur Donnithorne in the dairy; the same is true of Sylvia Robson, courted by Charley Kinraid in hers. The intensity of the relationship between Hetty and Arthur is increased when they come together at a party celebrating his twenty-first birthday; Sylvia and Kinraid’s relationship takes a serious turn when they meet again at the Corney’s New Year’s party.

Adam Bede comes to suspect that Hetty has an unknown lover when he sees that she has a locket with someone’s hair in it; Philip Hepburn sees that Sylvia comes out of the room where she has been kissing Kinraid wearing a new ribbon he has given her.12618f13

Both women are confronted by their steady and jealous admirers about the unreliability of their preferred lovers; Hetty says to Adam Bede, ‘How durst you say so?’ and Sylvia says to Philip Hepburn, ‘How dare you come here wi’ yo’r backbiting tales?’

In ‘Adam Bede’ a culminating moment of the general merrymaking at Arthur’s coming of age party is the absurd hornpipe danced by Wiry Ben. In ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ the New Year’s party is concluded by Charley Kinraid dancing a hornpipe amongst the platters on the floor.

And so on, even down to the similar use of unusual phrases; for instance, in ‘Adam Bede’ the author writes of Adam’s love for Hetty ‘Tender and deep as his love for Hetty had been, so deep that the roots of it would never be torn away…’ and then we have in ‘Sylvia’s Loves’ of Sylvia’s love for Kinraid, ‘She had torn up her love for him by the roots, but she felt she could never forget that it had been…’

Of course, there are even more dissimilarities between the two novels besides the obvious one of the one being set inland, the other being set in a whaling community; Sylvia Robson may be initially vain and headstrong, but she is not a superficial character, while Hetty Sorrel is; Philip Hepburn gives in to his jealousy and overprotective feelings for Sylvia and acts against his sense of honour, while Adam Bede resists the temptation and so on.

There are, however, numerous other similarities of phrase, incident and character in the novels, and I think I have made the point that two novels can have certain strong similarities without this necessarily being a disgrace. It has often been pointed out that there are only so many plots (in an earlier post, I listed these) and so many types of character (it would be interesting to try and break these down into basic types, and list those).

Just as I said then, I think that modern authors should not allow themselves to become too paranoid about writing something that has certain similarities to something already written, or even to be afraid to explore a different treatment of an idea they come across in any already published book; still, I must admit I have fallen into that error myself.

A couple of years ago, I was fascinated by the idea of writing a dystopia which involved a bad fair warrior, a good dark warrior, a female Amazon type, a society shattered by a series of earthquakes, and various other features. When I came to read Rebecca Lochlann’s brilliant ‘Child of the Erinyes’ series, I found all these features there; in dismay, I broke off from writing any more of the said dystopia (fortunately I had only written about 10,000 words), imagining my cringing embarrassment if readers assumed I had copied the ideas.13076894

I now think that was a mistaken decision, and one of these days I ought to return to the idea (though I make no claims that my series would be as good as ‘Child of the Erinyes); different treatments using partly similar elements in a plot make for vastly different novels; the classics George Elliot’s ‘Adam Bede’ and Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ are encouraging evidence of that.

It is certainly true that some of the contemporary critics did see a similarity between some of the themes in ‘Adam Bede’ and those in ‘Sylvia’s Loves’ ; though I haven’t read any literary criticism of Adam Bede, I have read a fair amount for Gaskell’s novel, and came across some comparisons there.

For instance, a review in ‘the Reader’ of 1863 states of Gaskell’s character Philip Hepburn: ‘the conception is feeble, and the execution indistinct. Philip Hepburn is Sylvia’s lover and nothing more…we cannot help comparing him with Adam Bede, and the difference between the two impressions of character is the difference between one character written in loose sand, and one engraved on a gem…there is a superficial resemblance to George Elliot’s Hetty in the heroine, which is quite lost sight of as we advance.’

Perhaps, in light of such reviews, Elizabeth Gaskell was wise never to read them. Probably, comparisons are inevitable for writers; it is a part of the way the human mind works, even if comparisons are notoriously invidious; but I think it would be unfortunate if writers were put off writing a book because they have come on one with a similar theme, or even, to hesitate in writing a book using a theme they have come across which they would like to treat with a different approach.

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