Adam Bede Historical Context 📖

George Eliot was apt in capturing the society of the era ‘Adam Bede’ is set in and the interplay of morality, politics, religion, and lifestyle that put the plot in context.

Adam Bede

George Eliot

Adam Bede, published in the year 1859 was set in England in the year 1799 which is sixty years before its publication. The duration of events in the novel spanned eight years in two separate centuries from 1799 to 1807. In line with her belief in literary realism, George Eliot researched that period intensively to ensure that she gave as close a representation of the historical context and reality of the setting as possible.

War and Politics in Adam Bede

The reigning monarch of Great Britain in the setting of Adam Bede is King George III. The early 19th century has political tensions across Europe with Britain and France leading opposing sides of several coalitions and the tensions culminate into the Napoleonic wars that started in 1803.

Although the English countryside of Hayslope does not feel the direct physical impact of the war, they are still affected by the war in some ways—for instance, one of their most admired young gentlemen is missed when he departs to serve in the army.  The people of Hayslope although simple country folks are not entirely unconscious of the politics in the Kingdom and Europe.

Political analysis makes up part of the leisure conversations they have at supper, and George Eliot at these times expresses through the characters, some of the political opinions of the English lower-class people.

For instance, in the Harvest Supper at the Hall Farm, Mr. Craig remarks that some of the politicians at the helm of affairs are as much enemies to Britain as “Bony” is, alluding to Napoleon Bonaparte (Chapter LIII, page 484). To put this sentiment into perspective, Napoleon is a sworn enemy leading the French forces against British forces in the Napoleonic wars. And likening some British politicians to such an enemy speaks of the unpopularity of the political leaders among the lower class.

There is also the instance of the occasional political ignorance of the lower class indicated in Adam Bede as Mr Craig blames bad governance on the ministers. However, Mrs Poyser in her customary wit replies “It’s hardwork to tell which is Old Harry when everyone’s got boots on” meaning that sometimes it is hard to differentiate individual faults in a collective venture. (Chapter LIII, page 484)

Still, on the political issue of Britain and France as belligerents in the early 19th century, George Eliot depicts the ignorant view of some British country folks of the time, who have ridiculously negative notions about the entire people of France. Mr. Craig says a monkey could wear the regimental of a French soldier and would perfectly blend in with the rest of the French soldiers without any difference. Mr. Poyser believes “them French are a wicked sort o’ folks”.

But to balance the viewpoints, George Eliot gives a counter view of the French people through the character Adam Bede who tells of how the well-traveled Mr. Irwine says the French have  “plenty o’ fine fellows among ‘em” and how France is above Britain in some aspects of knowledge and innovation. (Chapter LIII, “The Harvest Supper”, page 485).


The late 1700s in the English midlands was a time when religious dissenters and separatist congregations from the Church of England were gaining popularity among the people, especially those in the lower class.

The particular religious dissenters George Eliot focuses on in Adam Bede is the Methodist Movement founded by John Wesley. Eliot does not go into the theological and doctrinal details of the religious dissent but simply tells how the evangelism of the Methodists was targeted more towards the poor and downtrodden people.

At the time, the Methodists did not have as much physical Church buildings as the Church of England and were known to preach in open fields and hold meetings and gatherings in private houses and George Eliot aptly captures this in Adam Bede.

The Methodist movement permitted both men and women to preach and in Adam Bede we meet Dinah Morris a dedicated female preacher who captivates people with her compassionate and unpretentious preaching. However, in the year 1803, stakeholders of the Methodist movement hold a conference and resolve to prohibit women from preaching and we see this in the story of Adam Bede as it draws to an end–we meet Dinah Morris again in 1807 who has given up preaching as a consequence of the resolution.

In the novel, George Eliot depicts and defends the simplistic religious disposition, void of sophisticated philosophical and analytical arguments, of the average people of the time. In her description of Seth and Dinah, George Eliot writes: 

I cannot pretend that Seth and Dinah were anything else than Methodists—not indeed of that modern type which reads quarterly reviews and attends in chapels with pillared porticoes, but of a very old-fashioned kind. They believed in present miracles, in instantaneous conversions, in revelations by dreams and visions;  they drew lots, and sought for Divine guidance by opening the Bible at  hazard; having a literal way of interpreting the Scriptures, which is not at all sanctioned by approved commentators; and it is impossible for me to represent their diction as correct, or their instruction            as liberal. Still—if I have read religious history aright—faith, hope, and charity have not always been found in a direct ratio with a sensibility to the three concords, and it is possible—thank Heaven!—to have very erroneous theories and very sublime feelings.

The narrator’s description of Dinah and Seth in Chapter III, page 34

This is in line with religious beliefs of the time that had not been subjected to modern-day debates and apologetics. And George Eliot commends this simplistic approach to religion.

Social Dynamics

In the 18th to 19th century setting of Adam Bede, social issues like class distinctions, morality, gender, and religion had an entirely different dynamic from what is obtainable in this 21st century, the consequences of some of the events in the story would have been different if it were in modern times.

It was unconventional for people in the upper class to marry from the lower class. This is partly why Adam is furious with Arthur for seducing Hetty and deceptively leading her on when he knows there is no prospect of marriage between them as they are from different social classes.

On morality, it was expected of individuals to remain celibate until after marriage, Adam being a social conformist is betrothed to Hetty whose beauty enchants him but he does not have any sexual intercourse with her or any expectation of such during their courtship.

Closely linked to this, pregnancy out of wedlock, which is an indication of premarital sex was very shameful and scandalous and it is this sense of shame that spurs some women to hide their premarital pregnancies from their family and folks and then attempt infanticide after childbirth. We see this in Adam Bede as Hetty runs away because of her pre-marital pregnancy and would rather face hopeless wanderings, the biting cold, hunger, starvation, and even death, than face discovery of her situation by her family and folks.

The verdict on Hetty for infanticide is an example of the stringent morality of the time. Unfortunately, there was still a rise in such crimes in the early 19th century despite this. The fictional character, Hetty was inspired by a real person named Mary Voce who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1803 for killing her child.

Gender and religion interplay with each other in Adam Bede, there is a religious movement that allows women to preach but the society finds it such is the distortion of gender roles and expectations and that eventually led to the prohibition of women’s preaching.

Also on gender roles, the expectation of marriage on a woman was to manage her husband’s home and servants and this is alluded to in many instances in Adam Bede. For instance, Adam’s defense of women against Mr Massey’s misogynistic comments is “Don’t be so hard on the creaturs God has made to be companions for us. A working man ‘ud be badly off without a wife to see to th’ house and the victual, make things clean and comfortable.” (Chapter XXI, page 220).


When was Adam Bede written?

Adam Bede was written by Mary Ann Evans with the pen name George Eliot. She wrote the novel between 1857 and 1858. It was then published in 1859 in three volumes.

Why is Adam Bede famous?

Adam Bede is famous for its literary realism and for depicting the beauty of the English countryside. It was made more famous by the commendations it got across Europe and from Queen Victoria herself. Its adaptations on radio and television also helped in making the novel more famous.

What are Adam Bede themes?

Adam Bede has a wide array of themes which include, religion, gender, social stratification, morality, beauty, love, forgiveness, family, and repercussions. It is a story of ordinary people and places with a lot of lessons for everyone. But the most prominent of these themes is beauty and how our perception interplays with inner and outer beauty.

Onyekachi Osuji
About Onyekachi Osuji
Onyekachi is a lecturer of Public Administration and a Literature enthusiast. After gaining accreditation in English Literature, Onyeka analyzes novels on Book Analysis, whilst working as an academic and writing short stories.
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