Today I’m continuing to read Silas Marner very slowly…we’re in Chapter 1. If you want to read from the beginning search for the tag ‘Silas Marner’.
Yesterday we’d just been thinking about the boys pestering Marner and their fear that he might be able to put some kind of spell on them.
They had, perhaps, heard their fathers and mothers hint
that Silas Marner could cure folks’ rheumatism if he had a mind, and
add, still more darkly, that if you could only speak the devil fair
enough, he might save you the cost of the doctor. Such strange
lingering echoes of the old demon-worship might perhaps even now be
caught by the diligent listener among the grey-haired peasantry; for
the rude mind with difficulty associates the ideas of power and
benignity. A shadowy conception of power that by much persuasion
can be induced to refrain from inflicting harm, is the shape most
easily taken by the sense of the Invisible in the minds of men who
have always been pressed close by primitive wants, and to whom a
life of hard toil has never been illuminated by any enthusiastic
religious faith. To them pain and mishap present a far wider range
of possibilities than gladness and enjoyment: their imagination is
almost barren of the images that feed desire and hope, but is all
overgrown by recollections that are a perpetual pasture to fear.
“Is there anything you can fancy that you would like to eat?” I
once said to an old labouring man, who was in his last illness, and
who had refused all the food his wife had offered him. “No,” he
answered, “I’ve never been used to nothing but common victual, and
I can’t eat that.” Experience had bred no fancies in him that
could raise the phantasm of appetite.
Lots of things could go wrong here and I’ve had experiences in Shared Reading groups where they have. Sometimes readers think the writer is snob. But we’ve come a long way since George Eliot wrote the book in 1861. Then, the class of people known for hundreds of years as the ‘peasantry’ still existed, uneducated country people whose lives were often of intense drudgery and hardship. I think we’d have to go to an undeveloped third world country to find such people now, though lots of us, educated to a greater or lesser degree extent here in the first world, still share some of the superstitions George Eliot is talking about here. Thinking also about a general red-top sense of paranoia about world conspiracies, the popularity of The Da Vinci Code and a lingering popular interest in horoscopes. But this is more serious than that, isn’t it? This is about the restrictions caused by true hardship on the growth of the imagination:
To them pain and mishap present a far wider range of possibilities than gladness and enjoyment: their imagination is almost barren of the images that feed desire and hope, but is all overgrown by recollections that are a perpetual pasture to fear.
This is one of those moments of human understanding I love finding in George Eliot, and why it is necessary to go so slowly.
My first job is to make the translation into something I can picture and which will make the writing live for me. I try to think about such minds… where have I met them?
This sentence might have been written about some of the children in Care of Local Authority that I’ve met over the years. The experience of such children, especially children who have been in many foster-placements, and with whom adults have failed to make bonds, is one of ‘pain and mishap’ ; that is the very material from which their lives seem to have been made. How should such children imagine other types of experience?
Their imagination is almost barren of the images that feed desire and hope.
What are ‘the images’ that feed desire and hope?
If I think back to my own childhood, the images often centre about my grandparents. Moments of love or pleasure, say, travelling with my grandmother on the bus round Wirral as she took me with her to her cleaning jobs in posh ladies houses (I am such a person now myself, she might come here to clean), stopping off at various country pubs for a half of bitter for her, packet of crisps and a bottle of pop for me. The names of those pubs: The Seven Stars, The Fish, The Malt Shovel, The Shrew. Her love shown in the food she bought for me, sausages, a custard slice, mixed broken biscuits. The time she spent with me as we cleanedthe brasses on a Saturday morning. My grandfather, Syd, showing me how much he enjoyed a pear and so I loved pears too, and Forget-Me-Knots, and Blackbirds. the images then – things put into my mind by experience – are people, time, love and language.
One of The Reader’s Patrons, Frank Cottrell Boyce, told me that when making the film ‘Welcome to Sarajevo’, he had met a woman who had been in a child in the terrible orphanages of Ceaisescu’s Romania. She had grown up to be a lovely, and loving woman, working to rescue children from the war zone. ‘How did you learn to love?’ he asked her. ‘Growing up in those conditions?’. ‘I had Heidi,’ the woman replied. ‘In the orphanage there was a copy of Heidi, so I knew that adults could be loving and kind, that children could be loved.’
But of course to read Heidi, or any book, you need to be literate: you need a basic education. I’m going back to Silas in a moment but before I do, I want to mention The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class by Jonathan Rose. If you don’t know this terrific book, go and get hold of a copy right away. There are some amazingly moving accounts of what education meant to the poorest people – people like my grandparents, and their parents, (factory-hands, labourers, domestic servants). Learning to read, says one man, was ‘like coming up from the bottom of the ocean and seeing the universe for the first time.’
I go back to the text and reread that sentence and notice this time that George Eliot is using a metaphor of growth.
their imagination is almost barren of the images that feed desire and hope, but is all overgrown by recollections that are a perpetual pasture to fear.
‘Barren,’ ‘overgrown’ and ‘pasture’ all point to an implied potential cycle of growth in the human mind. It isn’t that the peasantry are fixed as ‘rude'( basic, rough) minds: that’s how experience has grown them. Experience, as in the life of the old man who had only eaten ‘common victual’, determines our appetites.
Just going to read the next paragraph before closing the book for today; it’s really a quick sketch of the village: a bit cut-off from the world, old-fashioned and middle-of-the-road:
And Raveloe was a village where many of the old echoes lingered,
undrowned by new voices. Not that it was one of those barren
parishes lying on the outskirts of civilization–inhabited by
meagre sheep and thinly-scattered shepherds: on the contrary, it lay
in the rich central plain of what we are pleased to call Merry
England, and held farms which, speaking from a spiritual point of
view, paid highly-desirable tithes. But it was nestled in a snug
well-wooded hollow, quite an hour’s journey on horseback from any
turnpike, where it was never reached by the vibrations of the
coach-horn, or of public opinion. It was an important-looking
village, with a fine old church and large churchyard in the heart of
it, and two or three large brick-and-stone homesteads, with
well-walled orchards and ornamental weathercocks, standing close
upon the road, and lifting more imposing fronts than the rectory,
which peeped from among the trees on the other side of the
churchyard:–a village which showed at once the summits of its
social life, and told the practised eye that there was no great park
and manor-house in the vicinity, but that there were several chiefs
in Raveloe who could farm badly quite at their ease, drawing enough
money from their bad farming, in those war times, to live in a
rollicking fashion, and keep a jolly Christmas, Whitsun, and Easter
The irritation at bad farming by the ‘several chiefs’ who lived in ‘a rollicking fashion’ comes direct from George Eliot’s own experience. As herself, as Mary Ann Evans, she was the daughter of a very competent and hard-working Estate Manager in just such a part of the Midlands. She’s describing something like the very place she grew up. Imagination comes from real experience.
Oh dear time’s up. More tomorrow.