Wrote the publisher John Blackwood in February 1857 to a shy and ambitious new author, whom he had not yet met, George Eliot. Shielded by this pseudonymn, Mary Ann Evans made her fictional début when Scenes of Clerical Life appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine the same year. These are Eliot’s earliest studies of what became enduring themes: the impact of religious controversy and social change in provincial life, and the power of love to transform the lives of individual men and women. In ‘The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton’, Amos learns only after her death the value of Milly’s selfless love; ‘Mr Gilfil’s Love Story’ tells of a clergyman’s life-long devotion to the memory of Caterina, destroyed by her passion for another lover; in ‘Janet’s Repentance’, the life of the alchoholic Janet Dempster is decisively changed by the attractiveness of Rev. Tryan, an evangelical preacher.
Adam Bede was soon to appear and bring George Eliot great fame and fortune. In the meantime the Scenes won acclaim from a discerning readership including Charles Dickens: ‘I hope you will excuse my writing to you to express my admiration … The exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humour and the pathos of those stories, I have never seen the like of.’