Virago Modern Classic #312
Brother Jacob is George Eliot’s shortest and most obscure work.
I’m pleased that Virago reissued it back in the day – if they hadn’t it probably would have passed me by.
My edition runs to just 74 pages, but it contains a fable, a morality tale in four acts:
On a visit to town young David Faux sees a high class confectioner’s shop. It leads him to believe that confectioners must be the happiest and most popular of tradesmen, and so when it comes to the time for him to take up a trade he becomes a confectionery. But when David finds that the realitly of life as a confectioner has more work and less status than he imagined, he decides that his future lies elsewhere.
The prose in this section is rich and lovely. George Eliot must have had a sweet tooth! But David’s discontent stops things getting sickly and sets the real story in motion.
David decides that his future lies in the West Indies, But how does he get there? Easy! He tricks his slow-witted brother Jacob so that he can steal his mother’s life savings. And then, of course, he vanishes.
A swift change to a much darker style and tone. Interesting, well executed and things play out well. But not so easy to engage. David is unpleasant and Jacob is dull. No heroes here!
Some years later and some miles away a new confectioner’s shop opens. The proprietor, Edward Freely, establishes himself in society and is clearly set to make a great match with the local squire’s daughter.
A lovely portrait of a community. Of course, with the short format, it is reasonably clear who Edward Freely must be and what is likely to happen next. After all, the title is “Brother Jacob”.
Sure enough, Jacob arrives. He, quite disingenuously, identifies the confectioner as his brother David Faux. Not a gentleman merchant, but a working class thief and cheat. The confectioner disappears, never to be heard from again.
A tidy ending, but a little downbeat.
Brother Jacob has a few flaws common in short works. There is little room for character development and the story quickly becomes predictable. But it is engaging and very readable.
The core idea wouldn’t have been enough to sustain a novel, but does provide a sound basis for this little volume.
Not essential, but very interesting.