February 21, 2018

George Eliot and Silas Marner

On this day in 1861, George Eliot's Silas Marner was published. Though generally viewed as one of Eliot's minor works, Henry James found Silas Marner "more nearly a masterpiece" than her other books, and it was as popular among readers when it came out as her earlier Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss. The book has also attracted attention for the parallel found between the old weaver's life and Eliot's own, both suffering from unwanted notoriety and finding release through love.

Eliot wrote that the "millet-seed of thought" for her story was the childhood memory of a linen-weaver with "a stoop and expression of face that led me to think that he was an alien from his fellows." She first envisioned a "legendary tale" made of once-upon-a-time ingredients: the lonely weaver, ostracized and coldhearted; his hoard of gold, cruelly stolen; his golden-haired foundling, Eppie; his discovery of love and the 'all that glisters is not gold' theme. Instead, she chose to tell the story realistically -- with such success, said V. S. Pritchett, that "We follow the people out of the hedgerows and the lanes into the kitchen. We see the endless meals, the eternal cup of tea; and the dog rests his head on our boot or flies barking to the yard. . . ."

Eliot too was a victim of isolation, gossip and finger-pointing -- for her outspoken agnosticism, for being the mistress and then spouse of a married man, even for her physical unattractiveness, described by some as "plain," by herself as that of "a withered cabbage in a flower garden." Henry James went further, and deeper: "She is magnificently ugly--deliciously hideous . . . in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her." The man with whom she did eventually fall in love, George Henry Lewes, was a writer and radical thinker who brought his own finger-pointers to the relationship: his first marriage had been a communal one, his wife had several children by one of the other men, his physical appearance such that some referred to him as "Ape," or "the ugliest man in London."

From her relationship to Lewes, and from suddenly becoming, just the year before writing Silas Marner, a happy, middle-aged parent to Lewes's three children, Eliot took her theme: to "set in a strong light the remedial influences of pure natural human relations." At the end of the novel Silas concludes that such light is enough to keep all that is dark at bay:
    "Well, yes, Master Marner," said Dolly, who sat with a placid listening face, now bordered by grey hairs; "I doubt it may. It's the will o' Them above as a many things should be dark to us; but there's some things as I've never felt i' the dark about, and they're mostly what comes i' the day's work. You were hard done by that once, Master Marner, and it seems as you'll never know the rights of it; but that doesn't hinder there being a rights, Master Marner, for all it's dark to you and me."

    "No," said Silas, "no; that doesn't hinder. Since the time the child was sent to me and I've come to love her as myself, I've had light enough to trusten by; and now she says she'll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die."

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