There is a note about "Adam Bede" which one does not find so strongly in any other figure of George Eliot's books. Perhaps it is due to the fact that five of her principal figures were drawn from dearly-loved originals. Mrs. Poyser, the famous, the inimitable, was Mrs. Evans, George Eliot's mother. Adam Bede was her father. Seth her uncle, and Bartle Massey, the crusty, kind-hearted old schoolmaster, was her own dominie in childhood.
Nearly all great books are very simple when the plot is told baldly, and "Adam Bede" is no exception. The story is one of an enchantingly pretty, frivolous, kitten-like niece of a farmer. The strong Adam, a carpenter, is deeply in love with her, endowing her in his mind with all the virtues her beauty seems to suggest. But the young squire is no more insensible than most young men to her adorable prettiness, and from a light flirtation he drifts into a love affair which is much more disturbing both to his peace and Hetty's. Adam discovers what is going on, and insists on Arthur's breaking off entirely with Hetty. In spite of the difference in rank, the two young men have been friends since boyhood, and this is the first quarrel they have had.
Arthur goes away, and Hetty is as miserable as such a frivolous little thing can be when all her dreams are swept away at one blow. However, when Adam renews his suit she accepts him, in a miserable yearning for change of any kind. Time goes on, and they are within a month of their marriage, when Hetty, who has been growing more and more silent and serious, disappears. The next her friends hear of her is that she is in prison, charged with child murder.
She is found guilty, and goes to the gallows, and it is only at the last moment that Arthur gallops up with a reprieve.
But this is not all the story. All through the book, like a shining thread of gold, runs the character of Dinah Morris, the Methodist preacher. She was drawn from George Eliot's own aunt, and in her portrayal the author has surpassed herself. To show a girl who uses Biblical language in her ordinary speech, who is always praying and exhorting, and even preaching in public, who acts as the good angel of everybody's life, bringing peace and light wherever she goes; who has no wishes or passions or faults, and gives up her whole life to well-doing, besides being a poorly-paid hand in a mill, and yet to render her a thoroughly attractive figure, without one vestige of priggishness, is a notable achievement. Dinah is never irritating, not even when she is refusing to do things which we never hesitate about. Perhaps one of the principal reasons why, after its marvellous picture of emotions - for instance, Hetty's during her desperate flight - "Adam Bede " is a great book is that it gives us the picture of a saint, with all the attributes of sainthood - so unreasonable as we find them in ordinary life - and yet never for one moment puts us against her.
Whenever anybody is ill or sorry, Dinah is certain to be on the spot; and one great feature about her is that she not only prays, but does household work and sews and makes people comfortable bodily before ever she expects them to feel devout. She does not want Mrs. Bede, for instance, sitting dirty, tired, and untidy in a disordered kitchen, grieving for the death of her husband, to fall upon her knees and pray until the room has been put straight, and the poor old woman has been washed and put into a clean cap and given her tea.
For a large portion of the book, Dinah drops out of the foreground, probably because no one is very unhappy; but so soon as Hetty is in trouble, Dinah appears again. She it is who alone can soften the sullen, defiant, utterly wretched child, for Hetty is a child. And when the poor little thing is sent away, it is Dinah who takes her place at the Hall Farm, and grows into everybody's hearts, even, after a long time, into that of Adam.
These are the central figures, but in thinking of the book one remembers many another - Mr. Irwine, the genial, good-hearted, not very devout rector, with his rather terrific and queenly mother, and his two plain sisters. Arthur Donnithorne, who cannot live without approbation, and is so free from any dread that he could do harm, that when he finds he has done it he hardly knows how to support his existence. Mrs. Bede, the loving, complaining, silly old mother; gentle Seth, whose heart is set on Dinah; Martin Poyser, the sturdy farmer, and his sturdy children; and, above all, Mrs. Poyser of the sharp tongue and the soft heart, with her memorable sayings.
Before ever "Chantecler" crowed to Paris footlights, Mrs. Poyser had said that Mr. Craig, the gardener, was like a cock that thought the sun rose to hear him crow, and that she had nothing to say against him, only that it was a pity " he couldna be hatched o'er again, and hatched different." But gems are studded thickly over Mrs. Poyser's speech, of which, thank goodness, she is never sparing. Her outburst of rage to the old Squire, who will never repair the farm, is alone worth reading the book. Its tenor may be gathered by its conclusion : "An' you may be right i' thinking it'll take but little to save your soul, for it'll be the smallest savin' y'iver made, wi' all your scrapin'."