I have previously reviewed the delights of ‘Middlemarch’ (see blogpost dated 1/1/17), which is generally regarded as the pinnacle of George Eliot’s literary achievements and undoubtedly it is a masterpiece. I also catapulted ‘Adam Bede’ onto my favourites shelf (see post dated 10/6/17) and so I came to ‘Silas Marner’, the author’s third novel (originally published in 1861) with high expectations and again, I was not disappointed. In truth, this book is another sublime tale by Eliot, with at its core a challenging moral conundrum, which has further bolstered my admiration of her work.
Eliot has ‘form’ in conferring unflattering characteristics on wealthy scoundrels, counterbalancing a virtuous example of the poor and comparatively powerless, but the story of the ‘Weaver of Raveloe’ is far more than a simple exposition of right and wrong, good and bad. Rather, like the main character’s fine linen, it is an intricately woven piece of artisanship, which demonstrates the redeeming and noble capacity of good people to do the right thing, even in the absence of personal gain. Such egalitarian principles may not be the social norm’, but in the small communities described by Eliot, they do establish reputations and reinforce social standing.
Silas Marner arrives at Raveloe chastened by a false accusation of theft in his pious, former community, who turned against him despite a lack of evidence. As a consequence, Marner moves away, turns inward and maintains only limited contact with his new neighbours, to sell his linens and buy food. By design, Marner’s becomes an isolated, frugal and reclusive life. Yet, even in the absence of contact with his peers, the central character discovers he cannot avoid the shaping of a local reputation, born of rumour and the imagination of villagers. The theft of his life’s savings, however, brings Marner to an even lower point in his life, from which his resilience will be ultimately tested.
The parallel plotline, deftly created by the author, concerns the sons of the local Squire Cass, whose privileged, profligate lifestyle is diametrically opposed to that of Silas Marner and yet converge they must upon the introduction of a two year-old orphan, who becomes the pivotal character for the respective storylines. Disregarding local opinions, Marner takes responsibility for the child (under the existing ‘Poor Law’ this would otherwise have fallen on the parish) and here strong female characters come onto play. I’m especially fond of Dolly Winthrop, local matriarch, who befriends Marner and takes the ardent bachelor in hand, to support the child-rearing and steer him into the heart of the village. ‘Eppie’ as she is christened gives new life to Marner and he in turn selflessly dedicates himself to her.
Only on the cusp of her adulthood are the ties of love tested by those of blood. A decision about whether to accept an opportunity for social elevation is a theme Eliot returns to in ‘Middlemarch’, written some ten years later and the author again mines a very fertile seam here, highlighting the apparently arbitrary nature class and of life’s chances. However, there are a number of underlying messages to be gleaned from this nineteenth century parable. Among them,‘life is what one makes of it’; 'it's never too late to change'; and ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. In any event, such masterful storytelling continues to resonate with our own time and great writing will always have an audience. Another for my favourites shelf.