Saturday, January 30, 2010

Hetty Sorrel Confronts her Past

Lest any think that Hetty Sorrel has forgotten the babe she so cruelly abandoned, here is the episode from Hetty Sorrel, or, To Hell with Adam Bede (Ruth Raven, in which she confindes all to her esteemed medical friend, the elderly Dr Benjamin Isaacs. The scene takes place in Rio de Janeiro, where the two have been examining the Carioca Aqueduct, one of the wonders of the modern world. Hetty is now a widow and pregnant, and, understandably, full of doubts as to whether she is worthy of Woman's Highest Calling- motherhood. The reader may be surprised to hear that Hetty had converse with Dinah Morris after her exile to Australia: this is one of several facts that Adam Bede thought fit not to disclose to George Eliot when that lady interviewed him in his old age.


‘I murdered my child,’ I said. ‘I did not lose it.’

A genteel-looking couple at a nearby table must have understood some English, for they first froze and then moved discreetly to a distance.

‘Tell me the way of it,’ were all the Doctor’s words.

‘I was seventeen years old, and an orphan. I had been raised by Uncle and Aunt Poyser on their farm, along with their other children. They were kind people, but always so busy that they did not always see what was going on under their noses. People were always indulgent towards me because of my looks. I have often been told that I look innocent. So, I was not, you see, one of those poor despised orphans we hear about in fairy tales; on the contrary, I was always encouraged to think well of myself and only given the most pleasant tasks.

‘Arthur Donnithorne was twenty at that time, a captain in the army, grandson to the squire, young, handsome, pleasant and beloved by all. He looked as innocent as I did, though he must have known whores. I am fortunate he did not pox me, I suppose. I met him when I was beginning to enjoy the attentions of men and to crave them. It is difficult for me to untangle how much of this was natural, and how much was because I was a vain and selfish girl who wanted finery and advancement.’

‘Hetty,’ said the Doctor. ‘Did you ever know your father and mother?’

‘No,’ said I, ‘I did not.’

‘What were you told about them?’

‘That my father was a ne’er-do-well and squandered my mother’s fortune before drinking himself to death, and that my mother died of something called the inflammation. I was told, moreover, that my mother was headstrong and unmanageable, and that I resembled her in all things. Nonetheless, I wonder whether her case were not similar to mine.’

‘Why do you wonder that?’

‘Because I have asked the neighbours in secret, and at the time of my supposed conception he was living off an old mistress of his in London. I believe that, in his absence, my mother had become vulnerable to the attentions of one above her in station.’

The Doctor’s silence told me that this was all too likely a possibility. I went on:

‘As I told you, Aunt Poyser was a most industrious woman, and I did not feel encouraged to waste her time by asking idle questions about fellows and the like; but I must not make her virtues into an excuse for my wrongdoing. I was not wholly ignorant about how babies were made: being brought up on a farm has that advantage. Besides, some of my acquaintances had some experience with the grosser passions. Bess Cranage had been tumbled once or twice.’

‘Had she, indeed? And how did Bess Cranage do to prevent a round belly? Or did she expect to be married to the first caller?’

‘She told me that most of the young fellows did as Onan, as she called it, or else they went in by the back door. I did not find either of those ideas attractive.’

‘Hmm. At least they had a strategy. I gather you did not.’

‘Bess was dealing with her equals in rank. If they did not do they were told, she could box their ears for ‘em. I could not box the ears of the squire’s grandson, even if I wanted to. Why did I not want to, do you suppose?’

‘I can think of several answers to that. What is yours?’

‘It’s not that he was of a higher rank than me, as everyone seems to think, for, foolish girl that I was, I fancied that I was soon to join him in that rank. No. The real reason I could not repulse him was that he was an orphan like me. His higher rank was merely the reason why he could never think of me as a wife, though I told myself otherwise.

‘ He courted me in the usual fashion of men who woo where they do not intend to wed: jewels, trinkets, melting looks, kisses so soft that they could have been those of another girl, and pleading, flattering words. Why not, Hetty? Why won’t you trust me? Will you not sit by me on the grass? Until finally I was beside him on the grass, which in less time than it takes to tell became under him on the grass. I do not suppose that he considered me a trollop, for he would have taken more pains to give pleasure to a trollop lest she laugh at him.’

‘Hetty, you know full well that you would have gathered up your skirts and run home to Aunt Poyser if he had attempted anything of the kind.’

‘Very like. Well, it fell out as it always does in such stories. He came to his senses and grew more distant. He even wrote me a letter of farewell- dictated, I have no doubt, by Adam Bede, who was always running after me at that time, and who could be mighty persuasive with his fists. I gave up hope, and agreed to marry Adam for want of better prospects; but then I began to be aware of my condition and ran from my home, for fear of bringing shame upon my honest family. I hoped that if I found Donnithorne he would do right by me, as we said in those days, by which of course we meant marriage.

‘I came to Windsor, where I had been told his regiment was based, but was told that they had gone to Ireland. After roving around the countryside penniless and distracted, I gave birth somehow or other; but instead of staying with the kind woman who had taken pity on me, I took my baby to a lonely place, half buried it in leaves and the like, and so left it. It is difficult for me to remember my exact thoughts at the time, for I seemed to have at least three conflicting ideas in my head: one, that I might go back at live my old life with the Poysers as though nothing had happened; two, that I might drown myself then and there; and three, that someone might find the baby and rescue it alive, which was a thought that I entertained for perhaps two seconds at the most.’

‘Those were your thoughts. Can you remember anything of your feelings?’

‘That was the strangest thing of all. I felt nothing. If you should ever meet with Dinah Morris, who saw me when I was in prison awaiting the gallows, she will testify that I said over and over that my heart was cold, my heart was hard, and that I felt nothing. By this I am convinced that what was said on my by all sides was true, that I was and am a hard, unfeeling wretch, devoid of the natural warm affections of womankind. Dinah managed to make me feel something when she visited me that night in my cell, but after all it was only fear. I am not afraid of hell fire any more, for I do not believe in such fables, but I fear that I may be a lost soul, by which I mean that I can never be as other folk. The strongest evidence of this is that I not able to love my Aunt Poyser’s little girl, Totty, that was adored by all. Does this not betoken a lack of natural maternal feeling?’

Dr Isaacs replied:

‘Few girls of seventeen, in my experience, are much taken up with spoilt, fidgeting, whining brats belonging to other people. If they were, we would be in a worse plight than we now are, for young mothers would be dropping their progeny under every hedge. As for what you call your cold, hard heart- forgive me, you are speaking like a Methodist. I can only speak as a doctor. It is precisely this lack of feeling that tells me that you are not a wicked murderess. If you were such, you would now be relating your agonies, your tormented mind, your turmoil of feelings &c, &c. No, Hetty. You have been very gravely ill and- I will not lie to you- you may be ill again some day, but if I ought to do with it you will be watched over and cared for so that neither you nor your babe will come to harm.

‘You speak of coldness and hardness, but I call it numbness, and it is a very sure sign of melancholy madness. The sufferer feels no connexion with the people about her, not even for the infant life that we are told must command her tenderness as though by instinct. The condition is bad enough when it visits mothers after what is called an easy birth in the comfort of home, but when the sufferer is weighed down by many other burdens- shame, fear, inexperience, lack of shelter- the whole fabric of her being may collapse and bring down others in its ruin.’

I was silent for a while. Then, ‘Dr Isaacs, what does your religion say of child murder? Is it not a life for a life?’

‘You must remember that I am not a religious man. Ay, it is indeed a life for a life, but there is no punishment if the perpetrator is out of her wits, and it is held as a general rule that in the vast majority of cases a mother that would kill her own babe must be mad. The three great religions sprung from Abraham agree, however, in their abhorrence of the base practice of exposure, by which societies systematically rid themselves of their unwanted children- this is a very great evil in a nation, for it betokens a lack of will to provide for the needy.

‘ But I think, Hetty, you are asking me whether I believe that women in your predicament should be sent to the gallows; on the contrary, I would not have them come anywhere near the gallows, but be treated with by the most competent doctors. Better yet would it be to help them and their babies long before they were brought to such a pass.’

The Doctor rose to his feet and paced up and down as though addressing a public meeting; which he was, in fact, as quite a little knot of spectators had gathered around us. He continued:

‘Let us have women doctors, for God’s sake! And don’t let ‘em be female versions of myself either, but let them come from far and wide and be of all colours and conditions, so that there is never a lack of a woman for a girl to talk to. Let us do away, also, with this lying to children whenever they ask how babies are made, but let us give them honest answers always. And as for French letters- I assume that you know by now what they are- let us tear them out of the hands of the rakes, make them strong and reliable, and place them in the reticule of every woman of breeding age! Ay, and at a pinch, and as the last of the last of the very last resorts, let the potential life be aborted long before it becomes life indeed!’

At this the spectators began to cheer, throwing their hats in the air if they had them to throw, though I dare say they understood not one word in twenty. With cries of Bravo and Bem dito ringing in our ears we made our way back to our ship. What the good Doctor told me was like a poultice to my heart: the pain was somewhat relieved, but the scars must ever remain.

I cannot say that I wholly approve of what he said about the potential life, but when I spoke to my cousin Dinah about it (I rather leap ahead of myself, here), she said very earnestly and to my great surprise that there might be something to be said for it in extreme cases, for she had seen some sorry instances in her ministry among the poor, when both mother and baby had died when the former at least might have been saved, and she hoped to converse in person one day with Dr Isaacs who, if not a religious man, was at least a serious one.

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