Continuing my survey of George Eliot’s Adam Bede, I now turn to a second important female lead: Hetty Sorrel. Ultimately (that is, by the end of the book), I hope to make some conclusion about the author through her treatment of these two characters.
The introduction of the young Hetty into the plot of the novel doesn’t come for several chapters (or around 60 pages in my edition). The change in scope toward adding this character represents—in my reading of the text—a change most of all in tone. At this point in the plot, we have seen the calm and rational rejection by Dinah of Seth Bede, relative to male-female relations. However, Hetty’s opportunities for romantic consorting seem to be founded on—and cause for—emotional distress.
Enter Captain Donnithorne, in Chapter 7, “The Dairy”:
Hetty blushed a deep rose-colour when Captain Donnithorne entered the dairy and spoke to her; but it was not at all a distressed blush, for it was inwreathed with smiles and dimples, and with sparkles from under long curled dark eye-lashes; and while her aunt was discoursing to him about the limited amount of milk that was to be spared for butter and cheese so long as the calves were not all weaned, and the large quantity but inferior quality of milk yielded by the short-horn, which had been bought on experiment, together with other matters which must be interesting to a young gentleman who would one day be a land-lord, Hetty tossed and patted her pound of butter with quite a self-possessed, coquettish air, slily conscious that no turn of her head was lost.
Eliot then goes into a long description of Hetty’s beauty, complete with her characteristic personal views on the matter, with direct address to the reader. And as the commentary progresses, I get the feeling that the author is tantalizing the audience with will-she-love-hims and what-comes-nexts. From the beginning, there is no doubt of the soap operatic nature of the plot; the ‘narrative interjections’ as I might call them, imply as much.
Fast forward in time a bit and to provide some background on Adam relevant to Hetty, Dinah is visiting his mother in an effort to console her over the death of her husband (and Adam’s father). When speaking with Adam that night, the following description is given:
Dinah, with her sympathetic divination, knew quite well that Adam was longing to hear if Hetty had said anything about their trouble; she was too rigorously truthful for benevolent invention, but she had contrived to say something in which Hetty was tacitly included. Love has a way of cheating itself consciously, like a child who plays at solitary hide-and-seek; it is pleased with assurances that it all the while disbelieves.
In chapter 9, aptly subtitled “Hetty’s World”, we are provided with a measure of the inside mind of Hetty Sorrel, and the vanities which might later set her up for destruction.
“Hetty was quite used to the thought that people liked to look at her,” Eliot claims. In fact, she’s quite aware of the beauty that she has been given, and—to the extent that a young girl of the working/lower class can—uses it to her advantage. There was Kyle Britton at Hayslope Church, Mr. Craig the gardener (though he was “near forty”), and Adam Bede. Nevertheless, her view of the world is formed by social and familial pressures:
Hetty was quite certain her uncle wanted her to marry him. For those were times when there was no rigid demarcation of rank between the farmer and the respectable artisan…
…and though she [Mrs. Poyser] and her husband might have viewed the subject differently if Hetty had been a daughter of their own, it was clear that they would have welcomed the match with Adam for a penniless niece. For what could Hetty have been but a servant elsewhere, if her uncle had not taken her in and brought her up as a domestic help to her aunt…
Yet, she is not terribly interested in Adam, but “she liked to feel that this strong, skilful, keen-eyed man was in her power…” In her mind, she is fully in control of this admirer, and “took care to entice him back into the net by little airs of meekness and timidity, as if she were in trouble as his neglect.” Subtle mastery over her admirers is a matter of pride for Hetty. In her prescribed world of milking cows and babysitting younger family members, she has but one natural advantage.
In my next entry on Adam Bede, I will attempt to look at how the entry of Arthur Donnithorne changes this equation for Hetty.