I’m continuing my reading of Silas Marner today. You’ll find a full text here. Search previous posts looking for the tag ‘Silas Marner’.
What’s happened so far (in under thirty words): Silas – a hand-loom weaver – has been unfairly accused and cast out by his city community, now lives in country village Raveloe, where he is an object of suspicion.
Even people whose lives have been made various by learning, sometimes find it hard to keep a fast hold on their habitual views of life, on their faith in the Invisible, nay, on the sense that their past joys and sorrows are a real experience, when they are suddenly transported to a new land, where the beings around them know nothing of their history, and share none of their ideas– where their mother earth shows another lap, and human life has other forms than those on which their souls have been nourished.
I think one of the reasons many people find George Eliot hard to read is that there isn’t much padding, every sentence is generally doing something important. You have to keep concentrating. It’s like highwire walking – every step is important and you must keep your confidence up. Here at the opening of Chapter Two the first sentence asks us to do a lot of imagining. I’m going to take it slowly, bit by bit.
‘Even people whose lives have been made various by learning…’ In Chapter One I had noticed that education was a key part of the thinking about how human minds work, why sometimes people seek magical or superstitious explanations and what a hard thin life does to the imagination. Now comes this sentence which seems to pick up that thought and continue a conversation the author has been having. Beginning the sentence with ‘even’ places it in full flow, as it were, as if responding to something that has already been said. What is that which is already understood? It is that Silas – while full of feeling and with a gift for herbal medicine – has no formal learning, doesn’t know anything beyond his own experience, can’t think widely, is narrow. People ‘whose lives have been made various by learning’ have expanded their horizons and their imagining selves. But even such people
sometimes find it hard to keep a fast hold on their habitual views of life, on their faith in the Invisible, nay, on the sense that their past joys and sorrows are a real experience, when they are suddenly transported to a new land
I thought immediately of refugees, because of our current world problem, because of ‘suddenly transported to a new land’. I also thought of what George Eliot would have been imagining as she wrote those words. Of course, there were refugees in 1860 (and her great last novel, Daniel Deronda, is about European Jewish settlers in London and the founding of the Jewish state.) I thought more personally of Marian Evans ( as the author was called in her non-writing life) falling in love with a married man, and deciding to throw everything over in living with him, and escaping to the Continent in order to avoid gossip and opprobrium. She was cast out by a wider society and by her own family. suddenly, after days of hectic couch travel you are in Switerzerland, and no longer have anything or anyone you previously knew. A person finding themselves in that position, might well find it ‘hard to keep a fast hold on their habitual views of life, on their faith in the Invisible, nay, on the sense that their past joys and sorrows are a real experience.’ Of course, for arian, there was even so, the joy of loving and being loved by her life partner, George Henry Lewes.
The implied comparison is coming. If an educated person, with lots of experience to draw on, can feel so badly dislocated, how much harder must it be for Silas?
And what could be more unlike that Lantern Yard world than the world in Raveloe?–orchards looking lazy with neglected plenty; the large church in the wide churchyard, which men gazed at lounging at their own doors in service-time; the purple-faced farmers jogging along the lanes or turning in at the Rainbow; homesteads, where men supped heavily and slept in the light of the evening hearth, and where women seemed to be laying up a stock of linen for the life to come.
Raveloe is another world compared to the hard northern town from Silas has had to escape. It seems another time, earlier, pastoral, pre-industrial revolution, almost in the paradisal golden age. There is ‘church’ here, but like everything else it seems pretty laid-back (men lounge at their doors rather than go there), an there’s plenty of eating and drinking, and a profound love of linen! and then this demanding sentence:
There were no lips in Raveloe from which a word could fall that would stir Silas Marner’s benumbed faith to a sense of pain.
No one here believes as he believed? No one here is a person whose speech can affect him? He is cut off from his past, from the people who made his world and his faith real. He is not feeling anything. He’s gone into something like a state of suspended animation.
I’m drawing on my own experience for imagination here. I remember when I lost faith with the feminist commune I lived in during my early twenties. That losing of faith seemed a massive jarring wrench from one kind of life and set of beliefs to another. It had been – or my involvement in it had been – sect-like. Then I changed my mind. If I was in my new world, it didn’t jar or hurt but if I met one of my erstwhile sisters on the street, or saw her approaching in the supermarket, then great pain, agitation, sense of the brokenness. Of course you don’t want that painful ripped apart feeling. I avoided seeing those women for a very long time. In Raveloe, Silas doesn’t have to remember, doesn’t have to think doesn’t have to feel.
I am also remembering the Gillian Clarke poem ‘Miracle on St David’s Day’ which I wrote about here.
sits not listening, not seeing, not feeling.
In her neat clothes, the woman is absent
This is Silas. He has mechanical work to do, inside the safe space of his loom. Nothing reminds him of the past. And why would you want the numbness to wear off? Why not go on, numb to pain? The people here don’t seem to need God in the same way the town people did, their country lives are more generously filled, ‘orchards looking lazy with neglected plenty’. And the women’s desire for stocks of linen means that Silas can stay at his loom for ever if he wants.
I’m thinking back yesterday to The Winter’s Tale, and Hermione in a similar state of suspended animation. A human who has entered such a state of lock-down perhaps needs an external power to break it open, because if you’ve closed down because of great pain, and close down is mechanism that saves you feeling great hurt, how would you ever get out of it by yourself?
I think if I had to decide one big question for my life it would be: ‘how do people change?’ What needs to happen to bring change about? All this lies ahead.