The exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humour and the pathos of these stories, I have never seen the like of; and they have impressed me in a manner that I should find it very difficult to describe to you, if I had the impertinence to try. These are not my words, but Charles Dickens', written to Mary Ann Evans not long after the publication of Scenes of Clerical Life. (Fox that he was, Dickens was also one of the first to guess that "George Eliot" was, in fact, female: "I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman.") History has dulled the impact of this letter for us, for now the name of Eliot is almost as recognizable as that of Dickens, and it's not difficult to find David Copperfield and Middlemarch sitting together on the Classics shelf at Barnes & Noble. But make no mistake: this was England's most popular novelist writing to an incognito, a Fair Unknown who might turn out to be nobody at all. For him to go on so about these rough fictions is praise indeed. Yes, "rough" is what I wrote, and "rough" is the word I would use to characterize these stories, especially in comparison with Eliot's later work. None of them are masterpieces, and they can be a little disappointing to those who are acquainted with the author at her best. But it is important to remember that these were not only Eliot's first published works of fiction, but her first attempts at fiction, period! For them to have been as good as they are-and to have been published, moreover-is truly remarkable. With this in mind, it's not surprising that someone so naturally talented went on to write masterpieces like Silas Marner and Middlemarch. I'll deal with each of the stories in turn. "The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton" is the shortest of the three, and a curiously successful piece. I say curious because many of its elements seem tired and cliché in theory, and yet somehow Eliot makes them all work. The story, as might be expected from the title, is a tragedy involving a singularly ineffective clergyman who undergoes trials of money, of reputation, and of the heart. Amos is a decent fellow who, Eliot tells us, "was more apt to fall into a blunder than into a sin," but he is lacking in imagination, compassion, or anything else that might make him a good preacher, or a great man. His wife is an angelic woman in the vein of Dickens (no wonder he liked these stories!) who just doesn't seem to have any flaws, except for a slight envy of dressier females. Like several other characters in the story, she seems to be a "type," and yet in a strictly fictional sense she convinces me that she is worth caring about. The same is true of the ending: even while the intellectual side of me was busy condemning it as maudlin and sentimental, my heart was breaking over it. I wept. Over the first story this great lady ever wrote. Now that, my friend, is power. And then there is this passage, one that proved foundational for Eliot's fiction in general: Yet these commonplace people-many of them-bear a conscience, and have felt the sublime prompting to do the painful right; they have their unspoken sorrows, and their sacred joys; their hearts have perhaps gone out towards their first-born, and they have mourned over the irreclaimable dead. Nay, is there not a pathos in their very insignificance-in our comparison of their dim and narrow existence with the glorious possibilities of that human nature which they share? Depend upon it, you would gain unspeakably if you would learn with me to see some of the poetry and the pathos, the tragedy and the comedy, lying in the experience of a human soul that looks out through dull grey eyes, and that speaks in a voice of quite ordinary tones. This is the Eliot I know and love: the sympathy pouring out like rain, the call to find significance in the commonplace, the slight idealism buoyed by realism. The Eliot of "Mr. Gilfil's Love Story," the second tale, is a different beast altogether. This is the Eliot who was fascinated by unrequited love, murderous passion, grand old buildings, Italian opera arias-a more sensationalist side that rarely came out in her novels. Even though the events take place during steamy, sticky summer days, and moreover are enclosed in a bittersweet, autumnal frame story, it all reminded me of a Gothic melodrama, and not a particularly good one at that. At the same time (oddly enough) some of the situations and characters are reminiscent of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. Like Fanny Price, Caterina "Tina" Sarti is a poor little thing who has been taken in by a kindly baronet and his wife (Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel). Like Fanny, she has two suitors-a loving clergyman (the Maynard Gilfil of the title) and a dashing rogue who may not love her as much as he professes to (Captain Anthony Wybrow)-only unlike Fanny, Tina falls for the rogue. In the third and longest of the stories, "Janet's Repentance," Eliot returns to the larger social vision that suffused the discourse of "Amos Barton." In these two stories, she is clearly on her home turf, in a way that she wasn't in the middle tale. Again she is concerned with the importance, the virtues, and the failings of everyday people. Here she takes as her setting the somewhat larger municipality of Milby, a town at war with itself, not because of land or politics, but because of religion. The whole affair is rather complicated, but at its core is this question: is one saved because of works or faith? Like the other two stories, this one has its ups and downs, but can seem a little more wearying because of the length of the piece. But as always the side characters are brilliantly sketched, captured in a perfectly everyday sort of way, and despite some sentimentality the central conflict is fascinating. The two main characters are Mr. Tryan, the evangelical minister who has rocked the town by preaching a gospel of grace, and Janet Dempster, the abused wife of one of Tryan's greatest opponents. Although both Janet and Tryan seem to live full lives, serving others and bringing joy, inside they are both uncertain of their futures, doubtful of the impact they are making, lacking in hope-in short, they are depressed. Tryan is buoyed a bit by his faith; Janet does not have even that. From what I have read of her, Eliot herself seems to have struggled with depression herself, and she certainly deals with the subject in a harrowing and believable fashion. But there is hope too, as there usually is in an Eliot tale. There is redemption. And this is where the theology comes in. Interestingly, although all three Scenes feature clergymen as primary or secondary characters, this is the only one that pictures one as an agent of grace, the only one where theology really plays a role. Eliot explains the teaching of "salvation by faith" beautifully, better than many a Christian could, and yet I was left wondering whether the value she saw in it was something essential to the doctrine or merely pragmatic. She seems to view it as a good thing mostly because it allows her characters to look outside themselves. If salvation by works could accomplish the same, no doubt she would praise it as well. In any case, this is certainly the most thought-provoking of the scenes, just as Amos Barton is the most moving and Mr. Gilfil's Love Story the most exciting. I think everyone should read Eliot. I am not sure, however, that everyone should read Scenes of Clerical Life. It should be read only by those who are familiar with her later, greater novels. They will know how to separate the wheat from the chaff.