The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton, by George Eliot

Chapter 1

Shepperton Church was a very different-looking building five-and-twenty years ago. To be sure, its substantial stone tower looks at you through its intelligent eye, the clock, with the friendly expression of former days; but in everything else what changes! Now there is a wide span of slated roof flanking the old steeple; the windows are tall and symmetrical; the outer doors are resplendent with oak-graining, the inner doors reverentially noiseless with a garment of red baize; and the walls, you are convinced, no lichen will ever again effect a settlement on — they are smooth and innutrient as the summit of the Rev. Amos Barton’s head, after ten years of baldness and supererogatory soap. Pass through the baize doors and you will see the nave filled with well-shaped benches, understood to be free seats; while in certain eligible corners, less directly under the fire of the clergyman’s eye, there are pews reserved for the Shepperton gentility. Ample galleries are supported on iron pillars, and in one of them stands the crowning glory, the very clasp or aigrette of Shepperton church-adornment — namely, an organ, not very much out of repair, on which a collector of small rents, differentiated by the force of circumstances into an organist, will accompany the alacrity of your departure after the blessing, by a sacred minuet or an easy ‘Gloria’.

Immense improvement! says the well-regulated mind, which unintermittingly rejoices in the New Police, the Tithe Commutation Act, the penny-post, and all guarantees of human advancement, and has no moments when conservative-reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, revelling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture. Mine, I fear, is not a well-regulated mind: it has an occasional tenderness for old abuses; it lingers with a certain fondness over the days of nasal clerks and top-booted parsons, and has a sigh for the departed shades of vulgar errors. So it is not surprising that I recall with a fond sadness Shepperton Church as it was in the old days, with its outer coat of rough stucco, its red-tiled roof, its heterogeneous windows patched with desultory bits of painted glass, and its little flight of steps with their wooden rail running up the outer wall, and leading to the school-children’s gallery.

Then inside, what dear old quaintnesses! which I began to look at with delight, even when I was so crude a members of the congregation, that my nurse found it necessary to provide for the reinforcement of my devotional patience by smuggling bread-and-butter into the sacred edifice. There was the chancel, guarded by two little cherubims looking uncomfortably squeezed between arch and wall, and adorned with the escutcheons of the Oldinport family, which showed me inexhaustible possibilities of meaning in their blood-red hands, their death’s-heads and cross-bones, their leopards’ paws, and Maltese crosses. There were inscriptions on the panels of the singing-gallery, telling of benefactions to the poor of Shepperton, with an involuted elegance of capitals and final flourishes, which my alphabetic erudition traced with ever-new delight. No benches in those days; but huge roomy pews, round which devout church-goers sat during ‘lessons’, trying to look anywhere else than into each other’s eyes. No low partitions allowing you, with a dreary absence of contrast and mystery, to see everything at all moments; but tall dark panels, under whose shadow I sank with a sense of retirement through the Litany, only to feel with more intensity my burst into the conspicuousness of public life when I was made to stand up on the seat during the psalms or the singing. And the singing was no mechanical affair of official routine; it had a drama. As the moment of psalmody approached, by some process to me as mysterious and untraceable as the opening of the flowers or the breaking-out of the stars, a slate appeared in front of the gallery, advertising in bold characters the psalm about to be sung, lest the sonorous announcement of the clerk should still leave the bucolic mind in doubt on that head. Then followed the migration of the clerk to the gallery, where, in company with a bassoon, two key-bugles, a carpenter understood to have an amazing power of singing ‘counter’, and two lesser musical stars, he formed the complement of a choir regarded in Shepperton as one of distinguished attraction, occasionally known to draw hearers from the next parish. The innovation of hymn-books was as yet undreamed of; even the New Version was regarded with a sort of melancholy tolerance, as part of the common degeneracy in a time when prices had dwindled, and a cotton gown was no longer stout enough to last a lifetime; for the lyrical taste of the best heads in Shepperton had been formed on Sternhold and Hopkins. But the greatest triumphs of the Shepperton choir were reserved for the Sundays when the slate announced an ANTHEM, with a dignified abstinence from particularization, both words and music lying far beyond the reach of the most ambitious amateur in the congregation: an anthem in which the key-bugles always ran away at a great pace, while the bassoon every now and then boomed a flying shot after them.

As for the clergyman, Mr. Gilfil, an excellent old gentleman, who smoked very long pipes and preached very short sermons, I must not speak of him, or I might be tempted to tell the story of his life, which had its little romance, as most lives have between the ages of teetotum and tobacco. And at present I am concerned with quite another sort of clergyman — the Rev. Amos Barton, who did not come to Shepperton until long after Mr. Gilfil had departed this life — until after an interval in which Evangelicalism and the Catholic Question had begun to agitate the rustic mind with controversial debates. A Popish blacksmith had produced a strong Protestant reaction by declaring that, as soon as the Emancipation Bill was passed, he should do a great stroke of business in gridirons; and the disinclination of the Shepperton parishioners generally to dim the unique glory of St Lawrence, rendered the Church and Constitution an affair of their business and bosoms. A zealous Evangelical preacher had made the old sounding-board vibrate with quite a different sort of elocution from Mr. Gilfil’s; the hymn-book had almost superseded the Old and New Versions; and the great square pews were crowded with new faces from distant corners of the parish — perhaps from Dissenting chapels.

You are not imagining, I hope, that Amos Barton was the incumbent of Shepperton. He was no such thing. Those were days when a man could hold three small livings, starve a curate a-piece on two of them, and live badly himself on the third. It was so with the Vicar of Shepperton; a vicar given to bricks and mortar, and thereby running into debt far away in a northern county — who executed his vicarial functions towards Shepperton by pocketing the sum of thirty-five pounds ten per annum, the net surplus remaining to him from the proceeds of that living, after the disbursement of eighty pounds as the annual stipend of his curate. And now, pray, can you solve me the following problem? Given a man with a wife and six children: let him be obliged always to exhibit himself when outside his own door in a suit of black broadcloth, such as will not undermine the foundations of the Establishment by a paltry plebeian glossiness or an unseemly whiteness at the edges; in a snowy cravat, which is a serious investment of labour in the hemming, starching, and ironing departments; and in a hat which shows no symptom of taking to the hideous doctrine of expediency, and shaping itself according to circumstances; let him have a parish large enough to create an external necessity for abundant shoe-leather, and an internal necessity for abundant beef and mutton, as well as poor enough to require frequent priestly consolation in the shape of shillings and sixpences; and, lastly, let him be compelled, by his own pride and other people’s, to dress his wife and children with gentility from bonnet-strings to shoe-strings. By what process of division can the sum of eighty pounds per annum be made to yield a quotient which will cover that man’s weekly expenses? This was the problem presented by the position of the Rev. Amos Barton, as curate of Shepperton, rather more than twenty years ago.

What was thought of this problem, and of the man who had to work it out, by some of the well-to-do inhabitants of Shepperton, two years or more after Mr. Barton’s arrival among them, you shall hear, if you will accompany me to Cross Farm, and to the fireside of Mrs. Patten, a childless old lady, who had got rich chiefly by the negative process of spending nothing. Mrs. Patten’s passive accumulation of wealth, through all sorts of ‘bad times’, on the farm of which she had been sole tenant since her husband’s death, her epigrammatic neighbour, Mrs. Hackit, sarcastically accounted for by supposing that ‘sixpences grew on the bents of Cross Farm;’ while Mr. Hackit, expressing his views more literally, reminded his wife that ‘money breeds money’. Mr. and Mrs. Hackit, from the neighbouring farm, are Mrs. Patten’s guests this evening; so is Mr. Pilgrim, the doctor from the nearest market-town, who, though occasionally affecting aristocratic airs, and giving late dinners with enigmatic side-dishes and poisonous port, is never so comfortable as when he is relaxing his professional legs in one of those excellent farmhouses where the mice are sleek and the mistress sickly. And he is at this moment in clover.

For the flickering of Mrs. Patten’s bright fire is reflected in her bright copper tea-kettle, the home-made muffins glisten with an inviting succulence, and Mrs. Patten’s niece, a single lady of fifty, who has refused the most ineligible offers out of devotion to her aged aunt, is pouring the rich cream into the fragrant tea with a discreet liberality.

Reader! did you ever taste such a cup of tea as Miss Gibbs is this moment handing to Mr. Pilgrim? Do you know the dulcet strength, the animating blandness of tea sufficiently blended with real farmhouse cream? No — most likely you are a miserable town-bred reader, who think of cream as a thinnish white fluid, delivered in infinitesimal pennyworths down area steps; or perhaps, from a presentiment of calves’ brains, you refrain from any lacteal addition, and rasp your tongue with unmitigated bohea. You have a vague idea of a milch cow as probably a white-plaster animal standing in a butterman’s window, and you know nothing of the sweet history of genuine cream, such as Miss Gibbs’s: how it was this morning in the udders of the large sleek beasts, as they stood lowing a patient entreaty under the milking-shed; how it fell with a pleasant rhythm into Betty’s pail, sending a delicious incense into the cool air; how it was carried into that temple of moist cleanliness, the dairy, where it quietly separated itself from the meaner elements of milk, and lay in mellowed whiteness, ready for the skimming-dish which transferred it to Miss Gibbs’s glass cream-jug. If I am right in my conjecture, you are unacquainted with the highest possibilities of tea; and Mr. Pilgrim, who is holding that cup in his hands, has an idea beyond you.

Mrs. Hackit declines cream; she has so long abstained from it with an eye to the weekly butter-money, that abstinence, wedded to habit, has begotten aversion. She is a thin woman with a chronic liver-complaint, which would have secured her Mr. Pilgrim’s entire regard and unreserved good word, even if he had not been in awe of her tongue, which was as sharp as his own lancet. She has brought her knitting — no frivolous fancy knitting, but a substantial woollen stocking; the click-click of her knitting-needles is the running accompaniment to all her conversation, and in her utmost enjoyment of spoiling a friend’s self-satisfaction, she was never known to spoil a stocking. Mrs. Patten does not admire this excessive click-clicking activity. Quiescence in an easy-chair, under the sense of compound interest perpetually accumulating, has long seemed an ample function to her, and she does her malevolence gently. She is a pretty little old woman of eighty, with a close cap and tiny flat white curls round her face, as natty and unsoiled and invariable as the waxen image of a little old lady under a glass-case; once a lady’s-maid, and married for her beauty. She used to adore her husband, and now she adores her money, cherishing a quiet blood-relation’s hatred for her niece, Janet Gibbs, who, she knows, expects a large legacy, and whom she is determined to disappoint. Her money shall all go in a lump to a distant relation of her husband’s, and Janet shall be saved the trouble of pretending to cry, by finding that she is left with a miserable pittance.

Mrs. Patten has more respect for her neighbour Mr. Hackit than for most people. Mr. Hackit is a shrewd substantial man, whose advice about crops is always worth listening to, and who is too well off to want to borrow money.

And now that we are snug and warm with this little tea-party, while it is freezing with February bitterness outside, we will listen to what they are talking about.

‘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?’

‘O, a passill o’ nonsense,’ said Mr. Hackit, sticking one thumb between the buttons of his capacious waistcoat, and retaining a pinch of snuff with the other — for he was but moderately given to ‘the cups that cheer but not inebriate’, and had already finished his tea; ‘they began to sing the wedding psalm for a new-married couple, as pretty a psalm an’ as pretty a tune as any in the prayer-book. It’s been sung for every new-married couple since I was a boy. And what can be better?’ Here Mr. Hackit stretched out his left arm, threw back his head, and broke into melody —

 ‘O what a happy thing it is,
 And joyful for to see,
 Brethren to dwell together in
 Friendship and unity.

But Mr. Barton is all for th’ hymns, and a sort o’ music as I can’t join in at all.’

‘And so,’ said Mr. Pilgrim, recalling Mr. Hackit from lyrical reminiscences to narrative, ‘he called out Silence! did he? when he got into the pulpit; and gave a hymn out himself to some meeting-house tune?’

‘Yes,’ said Mrs. Hackit, stooping towards the candle to pick up a stitch, ‘and turned as red as a turkey-cock. I often say, when he preaches about meekness, he gives himself a slap in the face. He’s like me — he’s got a temper of his own.’

‘Rather a low-bred fellow, I think, Barton,’ said Mr. Pilgrim, who hated the Reverend Amos for two reasons — because he had called in a new doctor, recently settled in Shepperton; and because, being himself a dabbler in drugs, he had the credit of having cured a patient of Mr. Pilgrim’s. ‘They say his father was a Dissenting shoemaker; and he’s half a Dissenter himself. Why, doesn’t he preach extempore in that cottage up here, of a Sunday evening?’

‘Tchuh!’— this was Mr. Hackit’s favourite interjection —‘that preaching without book’s no good, only when a man has a gift, and has the Bible at his fingers’ ends. It was all very well for Parry — he’d a gift; and in my youth I’ve heard the Ranters out o’ doors in Yorkshire go on for an hour or two on end, without ever sticking fast a minute. There was one clever chap, I remember, as used to say, “You’re like the woodpigeon; it says do, do, do all day, and never sets about any work itself.” That’s bringing it home to people. But our parson’s no gift at all that way; he can preach as good a sermon as need be heard when he writes it down. But when he tries to preach wi’out book, he rambles about, and doesn’t stick to his text; and every now and then he flounders about like a sheep as has cast itself, and can’t get on’ts legs again. You wouldn’t like that, Mrs. Patten, if you was to go to church now?’

‘Eh, dear,’ said Mrs. Patten, falling back in her chair, and lifting up her little withered hands, ‘what ‘ud Mr. Gilfil say, if he was worthy to know the changes as have come about i’ the Church these last ten years? I don’t understand these new sort o’ doctrines. When Mr. Barton comes to see me, he talks about nothing but my sins and my need o’ marcy. Now, Mr. Hackit, I’ve never been a sinner. From the fust beginning, when I went into service, I al’ys did my duty by my emplyers. I was a good wife as any in the county — never aggravated my husband. The cheese-factor used to say my cheese was al’ys to be depended on. I’ve known women, as their cheeses swelled a shame to be seen, when their husbands had counted on the cheese-money to make up their rent; and yet they’d three gowns to my one. If I’m not to be saved, I know a many as are in a bad way. But it’s well for me as I can’t go to church any longer, for if th’ old singers are to be done away with, there’ll be nothing left as it was in Mr. Patten’s time; and what’s more, I hear you’ve settled to pull the church down and build it up new?’

Now the fact was that the Rev. Amos Barton, on his last visit to Mrs. Patten, had urged her to enlarge her promised subscription of twenty pounds, representing to her that she was only a steward of her riches, and that she could not spend them more for the glory of God than by giving a heavy subscription towards the rebuilding of Shepperton Church — a practical precept which was not likely to smooth the way to her acceptance of his theological doctrine. Mr. Hackit, who had more doctrinal enlightenment than Mrs. Patten, had been a little shocked by the heathenism of her speech, and was glad of the new turn given to the subject by this question, addressed to him as church-warden and an authority in all parochial matters.

‘Ah,’ he answered, ‘the parson’s bothered us into it at last, and we’re to begin pulling down this spring. But we haven’t got money enough yet. I was for waiting till we’d made up the sum, and, for my part, I think the congregation’s fell off o’ late; though Mr. Barton says that’s because there’s been no room for the people when they’ve come. You see, the congregation got so large in Parry’s time, the people stood in the aisles; but there’s never any crowd now, as I can see.’

‘Well,’ said Mrs. Hackit, whose good-nature began to act now that it was a little in contradiction with the dominant tone of the conversation, ‘I like Mr. Barton. I think he’s a good sort o’ man, for all he’s not overburthen’d i’ th’ upper storey; and his wife’s as nice a lady-like woman as I’d wish to see. How nice she keeps her children! and little enough money to do’t with; and a delicate creatur’— six children, and another a-coming. I don’t know how they make both ends meet, I’m sure, now her aunt has left ’em. But I sent ’em a cheese and a sack o’ potatoes last week; that’s something towards filling the little mouths.’

‘Ah!’ said Mr. Hackit, ‘and my wife makes Mr. Barton a good stiff glass o’ brandy-and-water, when he comes into supper after his cottage preaching. The parson likes it; it puts a bit o’ colour into ‘is face, and makes him look a deal handsomer.’

This allusion to brandy-and-water suggested to Miss Gibbs the introduction of the liquor decanters, now that the tea was cleared away; for in bucolic society five-and-twenty years ago, the human animal of the male sex was understood to be perpetually athirst, and ‘something to drink’ was as necessary a ‘condition of thought’ as Time and Space.

‘Now, that cottage preaching,’ said Mr. Pilgrim, mixing himself a strong glass of ‘cold without,’ ‘I was talking about it to our Parson Ely the other day, and he doesn’t approve of it at all. He said it did as much harm as good to give a too familiar aspect to religious teaching. That was what Ely said — it does as much harm as good to give a too familiar aspect to religious teaching.’

Mr. Pilgrim generally spoke with an intermittent kind of splutter; indeed, one of his patients had observed that it was a pity such a clever man had a ‘pediment’ in his speech. But when he came to what he conceived the pith of his argument or the point of his joke, he mouthed out his words with slow emphasis; as a hen, when advertising her accouchement, passes at irregular intervals from pianissimo semiquavers to fortissimo crotchets. He thought this speech of Mr. Ely’s particularly metaphysical and profound, and the more decisive of the question because it was a generality which represented no particulars to his mind.

‘Well, I don’t know about that,’ said Mrs. Hackit, who had always the courage of her opinion, ‘but I know, some of our labourers and stockingers as used never to come to church, come to the cottage, and that’s better than never hearing anything good from week’s end to week’s end. And there’s that Track Society’s as Mr. Barton has begun — I’ve seen more o’ the poor people with going tracking, than all the time I’ve lived in the parish before. And there’d need be something done among ’em; for the drinking at them Benefit Clubs is shameful. There’s hardly a steady man or steady woman either, but what’s a dissenter.’

During this speech of Mrs. Hackit’s, Mr. Pilgrim had emitted a succession of little snorts, something like the treble grunts of a guinea-pig, which were always with him the sign of suppressed disapproval. But he never contradicted Mrs. Hackit — a woman whose ‘pot-luck’ was always to be relied on, and who on her side had unlimited reliance on bleeding, blistering, and draughts.

Mrs. Patten, however, felt equal disapprobation, and had no reasons for suppressing it.

‘Well,’ she remarked, ‘I’ve heared of no good from interfering with one’s neighbours, poor or rich. And I hate the sight o’ women going about trapesing from house to house in all weathers, wet or dry, and coming in with their petticoats dagged and their shoes all over mud. Janet wanted to join in the tracking, but I told her I’d have nobody tracking out o’ my house; when I’m gone, she may do as she likes. I never dagged my petticoats in my life, and I’ve no opinion o’ that sort o’ religion.’

‘No,’ said Mr. Hackit, who was fond of soothing the acerbities of the feminine mind with a jocose compliment, ‘you held your petticoats so high, to show your tight ankles: it isn’t everybody as likes to show her ankles.’

This joke met with general acceptance, even from the snubbed Janet, whose ankles were only tight in the sense of looking extremely squeezed by her boots. But Janet seemed always to identify herself with her aunt’s personality, holding her own under protest.

Under cover of the general laughter the gentlemen replenished their glasses, Mr. Pilgrim attempting to give his the character of a stirrup-cup by observing that he ‘must be going’. Miss Gibbs seized this opportunity of telling Mrs. Hackit that she suspected Betty, the dairymaid, of frying the best bacon for the shepherd, when he sat up with her to ‘help brew’; whereupon Mrs. Hackit replied that she had always thought Betty false; and Mrs. Patten said there was no bacon stolen when she was able to manage. Mr. Hackit, who often complained that he ‘never saw the like to women with their maids — he never had any trouble with his men’, avoided listening to this discussion, by raising the question of vetches with Mr. Pilgrim. The stream of conversation had thus diverged: and no more was said about the Rev. Amos Barton, who is the main object of interest to us just now. So we may leave Cross Farm without waiting till Mrs. Hackit, resolutely donning her clogs and wrappings, renders it incumbent on Mr. Pilgrim also to fulfil his frequent threat of going.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:42