Monday, August 7, 2017

'Silas Marner' by George Eliot

Embittered by a false accusation, disappointed in friendship and love, the weaver Silas Marner retreats into a long twilight life alone with his loom. . . and his gold. Silas hoards a treasure that kills his spirit until fate steals it from him and replaces it with a golden-haired founding child. Where she came from, who her parents were, and who really stole the gold are the secrets that permeate this moving tale of guilt and innocence. A moral allegory of the redemptive power of love, it is also a finely drawn picture of early nineteenth-century England in the days when spinning wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses, and of a simple way of life that was soon to disappear.

What a beautiful pastoral tale, with characters who take whimsical old folklore to heart as if it's factual, and live their lives by it. The setting seems straight out of Mother Goose nursery rhymes. It's a feel-good story, but also written to get us wondering whether the the traditional things to which we ascribe meaning and happiness are really legitimate.

It's the sort of book where you can't help summing up the whole plot if someone asks, 'What's it about?' However, even though spoilers aren't really an issue, I'll make sure to reveal as few as possible.

As a young man, Silas Marner was betrayed in a nasty manner. Set up by a former best friend, for a crime he didn't commit, he scoots off to the faraway village of Raveloe, where he licks his wounds for fifteen years. He's deeply hurt not only by his friend's deception but by what he perceives as God's decision not to clear his name. It was an instant mindset change from devout believer to disillusioned atheist, and Silas got himself a reputation for being eccentric, aloof, and a tad creepy.

His sole pleasure is hoarding away the money he earns from his cloth weaving business, but one day it's stolen. Grievously let down for a second time, Silas is devastated until it seems the divine powers see fit to restore it, no longer as cold, hard cash, but in the shape of a golden haired little girl. Of course Silas knows there must be some more logical explanation for her arrival by his hearth, but nothing comes to light for several years, during which he becomes her beloved dad.

Little Eppie (short for Hephzibah) is a delight. As Silas brings her up, we see him begin to look at life through her loving and curious eyes - and Eppie takes joy in common pleasures such as birds and flowers. If we really enter into the spirit of the story, it's inevitable that we catch it too. Maybe one of the best things to do for an unhappy person is to encourage them to look at the world through your more optimistic eyes, and kids do this unconsciously. George Eliot pulled it off brilliantly with her invention of Eppie and Silas, for nobody needed little girl therapy more than he did. It could be one of the pioneer daddy/daughter stories.

The story of Eppie's biological father is quite fascinating. Godfrey Cass, the squire's son, is a wishy-washy young man who doesn't stand up and take responsibility for her, for reasons you'll see. Since Eliot presents all Godfrey's faults, I was wondering why we can't help liking him a tiny bit just the same. After all, we despise other guys like him in literature. I'm sure it's because he compares favourably to his brother Dunstan. It's typical of Godfrey to worm out of facing up to things, and he gets us readers doing it for him too. We decide he may be pathetic, but at least he's not a rotten egg all through. Sometimes it seems reasonable to call a guy a hero just because he's not as bad as his brother.

The story is really interesting from a historical perspective, happening as it does near the end of the Napoleonic war and on the very cusp of the industrial revolution, when cottage industries like Silas' began to struggle.

There's the food. Some of us wouldn't have the stomach to live in nineteenth century, rural England. Even supposedly delicious Christmas cooking included such fare as lardy cakes, black pudding and pigs' trotters. I could be wheedled into sampling the first, but the other two are out of the question. These folk loved their food though. We're told, 'The rich ate and drank freely, and accepted gout and apoplexy as things that ran mysteriously in respectable families.'

Another thing that made me grin about these Raveloe villagers is their attitude to church attendance. Even though they're devout Anglicans, they have the best excuse not to turn up every Sunday in the calendar. It's an omission of generosity. They don't want to show such a greedy desire to get a good standing with heaven that they get an undue advantage over their neighbours. I've got to remember that one next time I feel like staying in bed on a Sunday :)

And there's the wealth thing. Eliot presents several people with excellent social standing and lots of money who aren't happy. And there are people with no social standing and no money who are happy, and it's because the quality which truly brings happiness has nothing to do with money. Even when Silas used to get his thrills from hoarding his crock of gold, he seemed to know instinctively that nothing he could spend it on would buy satisfaction. (Although I do wish he'd gone to a good optometrist in London to get a pair of spectacles. But he just put up with his signature near-sightedness all through the book, possibly regarding it as his lot from above. Come on Silas, admit that money is handy for some things.)

Whatever criticism scholars might level at George Eliot over the years, this book convinces me that I might've got along really well with her. Her character development is the reasonable type, where people don't have turnarounds that encompass an entire personality change. Godfrey is a spoiled git at the start, and he's slightly less of a git by the finish. Here's what we're told about his dissatisfaction. 'I suppose it's the way of all men and women who reach middle age without a clear perception that life never can be thoroughly joyous.' I reckon Eliot just used Godfrey to sum up the crux of a midlife crisis, although they wouldn't have recognised it as such back then.  

By the end, Eppie knows her priorities without giving the matter a thought, which is the opposite to her birth father. It's almost enough to make us wish we could pack up, go back in time and live next door to Eppie and Silas. Then we remember the lack of basic mod cons such as electricity and hot running water, and decide maybe not. But the nearest thing is to put this book up among my bad mood busters, and highly recommend it for George Eliot's wise insights into human nature as well as the sweet story.

Now for some good quotes from various characters, major and minor.

Jem Rodney (when he's briefly accused of stealing Silas' gold): What could I ha' done with his money? I could as easy steal the parson's surplice and wear it. (Good point about thefts in small settlements. This guy is the village mole catcher. How's that for a nice old English job description?)

Squire Cass (to his son, Godfrey): You hardly know your own mind enough to make both your legs walk one way. (That was spot on, and spoken without knowing a fraction of Godfrey's messy dilemma.)

Ben Winthrop: When I've got a pot o' good ale I like to swaller it and do my insides good, instead o' smelling and staring at it to see if I can find fault wi' the brewing. (A sound attitude about being critical. This guy's wife also has plenty of simple wisdom, but I've given her a post of her own)

Miss Priscilla Lammeter: You'll never be low when you've got a dairy. (An interesting cure for depression.)

Silas Marner: When a man turns a blessing from his door, it falls to them as takes it in. (Bravo! What a suitable last word.)



  1. Thanks for another great review Paula! I've never read George Eliot although I have Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss on my bookshelf. I'm not sure why I've hesitated, but Silas Marner sounds like a great introduction to her writing. Helena

    1. Hi Helena,
      I'd recommend this as an excellent one to start with. Very short compared compared to those other two you mention, and a sweet way of getting introduced to GE 😊 Now I'm in the mood for her, I might read or re-read a bit more soon too. She really gets stuck into human character.