Silas Marner (George Eliot, 1861)

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4*

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this. Despite being George Eliot’s favourite of her works (her, indeed! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Eliot), Silas Marner is definitely a lesser known novel than, say, Middlemarch or Adam Bede.

Though a short book – my Wordsworth Classics copy is 163 pages – there was certainly some tedium involved. This was in the form of several long, drawn out passages of what seemed, at first instance, to be entirely irrelevant descriptions of people or events, in no way germane to the overall narrative of the novel. But, I revisited some of these passages after finishing the book, and found myself getting a better sense of how and why they were there, and, on quite a few occasions, even laughing. The prose contains a fair amount of humour, and re-reading certain bits of it undoubtedly allowed me to appreciate this more. The scenes in the local tavern, of the banter and jesting between the inhabitants of Raveloe, had an almost filmic quality, reminding me a little of the Shire from the Lord of the Rings. Through her flawless capturing of the frolic and gaiety of provincial life, I got a sense that Eliot was both poking light fun at the villagers, and conveying a feeling of genuine affection for their quirks and foibles, as well as for their attachment to the land (this was set pre-Industrial Revolution). I particularly enjoyed the way she peppered the text with acute, witty insights into various facets of human nature:

I suppose one reason why we are seldom able to comfort our neighbours with our words is that our good will gets adulterated, in spite of ourselves, before it can pass our lips. We can send black puddings and pettitoes without giving them a flavour of our own egoism; but language is a stream that is almost sure to smack of a mingled soil.

In short, I loved Silas Marner. It had a deceptive simplicity, was so eloquently written, and contained characters as cannily as observed as you can find. Though I did feel a slight clunkiness in the writing style at times, this was likely more indicative of my laziness as a reader than of Eliot’s proficiency as a writer!

As far as the plot is concerned – the eponymous Silas Marner is a linen weaver, residing in a remote stone cottage in the small, rural village of Raveloe (a fictional place, somewhere in the West Midlands). He’s perceived as bit of an oddity, not least because he’s a weaver – which appears a strange profession to the villagers – but also because he is an outsider (he comes from the North), and never quite ingratiated himself with the villagers or their customs. Day in and day out, he sits indoors, working tirelessly over his loom (he lives this life for fifteen years). He gradually amasses a relatively decent fortune (him being the only weaver in the village and all), and his relationship with his gold becomes his sole source of joy and meaning. He develops an obsessive habit of counting his money and gazing at it for hours on end, until, one evening – as he settles down to carry out this bizarre ritual – he discovers the money has disappeared. This event serves as the catalyst for the rest of the novel (the pacing definitely picks up from hereon). Silas has no choice but to seek the villagers’ help in tracking down the stolen gold, and, slowly, they begin to warm to him, out of a mixture of both pity and curiosity. Shortly after, Silas finds a small, golden-haired child (whom he names ‘Eppie’) sitting on his hearth, and believes her to be the fruit of some divine intervention, a manifestation of the stolen gold being returned to him. Long story short, he decides to bring up the girl, he learns to love and have faith again, and together he and Eppie live out their days in happiness.

I’ve missed out a lot of the background, so as not to spoil too much. In essence, Silas’ backstory involved him being unjustly thrown out of the Calvinist congregation he was part of, as a result of being framed for a theft. Upon moving to Raveloe, he renounced all religion, and led a wooden, emotionally absent existence, the highlight of which was counting his gold. The story is thus very much about his transition and socialisation after adopting Eppie. This being quite a common theme in literature, I was reminded a bit of a Dostoevsky short story I read years ago called The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, in which a disenchanted, misanthropic man’s encounter with a small child inspired a complete transformation of character. There is a loveliness to the concept, and to the way that Eliot depicts the tenderness with which Silas cares for Eppie. I wonder if perhaps she was making some kind of ahead-of-its-time statement about the meaning and portrayal of traditional masculinity. There is no rationale behind Silas’ decision to raise Eppie – it is a deeply emotional impulse; he simply feels he must. His characterisation contrasts starkly with that of Godfrey Cass, the other major male character (the wealthy Squire’s son, and biological father of Eppie), who, after years of denying his illegitimate child, rationalises himself into telling the truth. This decision is based largely on his realisation that ‘truth always outs’, as opposed to any particular sentiment of affection or desire to nurture.

The commentary on social class also cannot be missed, and is definitely one of the most interesting themes in the novel. When Godfrey Cass decides after eighteen years to come clean, claim Eppie as his own, and offer her the life of privilege that she supposedly ‘missed out’ on, he and his wife Nancy, in all of their deliberating about the potential outcomes of this course of action, do not even consider the possibility that Silas, the man who has lovingly raised Eppie from the very beginning, may object. We cannot help but laugh in incredulity at the arrogance of this assumption:

It had never occurred to him that Silas would rather part with his life than with Eppie. Surely the weaver would wish the best to the child he had taken so much trouble with, and would be glad that such good fortune should happen to her: she would always be very grateful to him, and he would be well provided for to the end of his life – provided for as the excellent part he had done by the child deserved.

Then:

…but we must remember that many of the impressions which Godfrey was likely to father concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means….

Eliot’s omniscient narration allows us, to an extent, to feel empathy even for these sorts of attitudes. Eliot was a passionate observer of human behaviour. In Silas Marner, she delves into the innermost emotions of her characters, in a gentle, and yet honest and direct manner. When Godfrey and Nancy Cass visit Silas’ cottage to reveal the truth about Eppie, Eppie politely declines their offer of being parents to her. She sincerely thanks the Cass’ for their proposal, but plainly tells them: “I can’t feel as I’ve got any father but one”. Our empathy falls to the Cass’, particularly Godfrey, whose stream of consciousness is narrated throughout this experience. We pity the Cass’ not because of this outcome; we pity them for their flawed belief that things could turn out any differently. Eppie’s good-natured rejection is touching, particularly in juxtaposition with Silas’ understandably angry outburst. The Cass’ most likely assume that Eppie’s refinement is due to her genteel lineage; we know, however, that it is a result of being raised by Silas. This subversion is portrayed brilliantly.

Reading a bit about Eliot/Evans, I was surprised to learn just how unusual her life was for the time in which she lived. She was educated until the age of sixteen, was allowed complete access to the library of Arbury Hall (the estate for which her father was manager) and was later in an open marriage with the philosopher George Henry Lewes. I wouldn’t necessarily have guessed all of this from reading Silas Marner. The narrative – while critical of social class – still came across as somewhat moralistic in parts. Having said that, when you look closely at the novel’s female characters, Eliot’s modern outlook can be somewhat sensed. Eppie, Nancy Cass, Priscilla Lammeter – these are all women who differ greatly in their values and ways of living. They are each of them strong-willed (Eppie in her devotion to her community despite the offer of a life of privilege, Nancy in her moral strictures and Priscilla in her decision never to marry), and though not in radical ways, they were still presented with depth, nuance and a certain toughness – in spite of the patriarchal world in which they live.

A final point that I deliberated over, perhaps a little too extensively, was the racial heritage of Silas Marner. There were several descriptions of his appearance being starkly different to that of the residents of Raveloe, and though this may well be down to the way his body was said to have contorted because of his weaving, his ‘otherness’ was a recurring motif. The references to him as ‘pallid’ do not necessarily confirm that he was white; ‘pallid’ simply means pale (a relative term – someone of a dark complexion can surely look pale), generally as a result of poor health. If anything, this emphasis on his complexion lends weight to the possibility of him being from elsewhere. The overarching narrative of the story – the villagers’ initial suspicion of him, the portrayal of him as ‘mysterious’, the myths surrounding his knowledge of herbs, and his gradual acceptance – seems to fit in with the idea that he was not in fact white.

Ultimately, the nostalgic feel, detailed descriptions and warming story – all filled with substance – made Silas Marner an intellectually and emotionally rich read.

 

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