Continuing my slow reading of George Eliot’s Silas Marner. You’ll find a whole e-text here and previous posts can be found by typing ‘Silas Marner’ into the search box.
We are at the beginning of chapter three, where the story moves from its concentration on Silas Marner’s story to the wider world of Raveloe and other people, other classes. I guess this is the kind of George Eliot writing that can put people off – long sentences, which if you skim read can seem a bit historical and dull. Just go with it, and go slowly, readers, she’s setting scene and having a little laugh at the way class works at this time, too.
I’m struck, in these opening paragraphs of the new thread of the story, by this commentary:
our old-fashioned country life had many different aspects, as all life must have when it is spread over a various surface, and breathed on variously by multitudinous currents, from the winds of heaven to the thoughts of men, which are for ever moving and crossing each other with incalculable results.
Here’s a characteristic George Eliot voice, thinking a typical George Eliot thought. Worth stopping, amidst the hams and winter feasts and visits, to have a moment with this thought. It’s seen from so high up – like someone looking from outer space. As if life in Raveloe, and all places in the long ago past, could be easily seen as if by a scientist looking at a tiny world through a microscope. I’m interested in the strong sense of complexity here, those ‘multitudinous currents’, and the word ‘incalculable’ (which comes back later, at the end of Middlemarch). If life is so complicated, if everything so affects everything else, and if none of that can be calculated… then… what are the implications for us, who must live and act and make choices? George Eliot doesn’t labour this point here, but I’m interested, as someone who has knows her work, to see this thought which became her main working life subject matter, here, present so explicit in this early novella.
I read on. The next paragraph, beginning ‘For the Squire’s wife had died long ago,’ is dense as Christmas pudding. You can’t take much of it at once, because it is packed with information. So read slowly. Take it one sentence at a time and make sure you’ve got it before you go on to the next. Not every sentence requires you to stop and think or talk, but some do. For example, there’s the quick aside which refers to any domestic set-up:
the wife and mother which is the fountain of wholesome love and fear in parlour and kitchen
I was not surprised to read ‘wholesome love’ but I was surprised to read the word that follows. So I’d stop my reading here and have a think about this bit. Why ‘fear’? because someone has to take strict hold of household economy, and make sure that while everyone has enough nothing is wasted, that servants aren’t able to become thieves, that chaos doesn’t rule. That coupling of ‘love and fear’ is one of the many cross-current complexities that George Eliot is very good at noticing. Worth a think about what a good mother actually is?
But the paragraph pushes on into plot, into story. To paraphrase: Squire Cass has spent too much time in the pub, has two sons, one of them a bad ‘un, the other possibly going bad, a shame because if he married Nancy Lammeter, she might just have been the saving of that family. She’d have introduced the ‘love and fear’ the Cass family need.
The next paragraph zooms in to a particular time and place and we see a close-up of Godfrey: a new scene is opening. What’s worth noticing is the violence. We’ve had the strangeness and sadness of Silas’ mental state, we’ve had the comfortable plenty of the old fashioned cut-off village, and now we have three men living in a house with no wife and mother, all drinking heavily and a powerful undercurrent of violence. There’s a problem with money, a problem with honesty: Godfrey has lent Dunstan money, but the money want his to lend – it wasn’t paid by one of the tenants and meant for the Squire. Godfrey needs to pay the money back, Dunstan won’t or can’t give it to him. And there is more:
Godfrey bit his lips and clenched his fist. “Don’t come near me with that look, else I’ll knock you down.”
“Oh no, you won’t,” said Dunsey, turning away on his heel, however. “Because I’m such a good-natured brother, you know. I might get you turned out of house and home, and cut off with a shilling any day. I might tell the Squire how his handsome son was married to that nice young woman, Molly Farren, and was very unhappy because he couldn’t live with his drunken wife, and I should slip into your place as comfortable as could be. But you see, I don’t do it–I’m so easy and good-natured. You’ll take any trouble for me. You’ll get the hundred pounds for me–I know you will.”
What! a secret marriage! Brotherly hatred, drink, lies! Life in Raveloe suddenly looks more complicated than we had originally thought.
In a Shared Reading group at this point I’d be letting the reading pick up speed. We’ve had a couple of sessions on the opening chapters of the book, we’ve got our ears tuned to the way George Eliot writes her sentences, and the plot is beginning to demand some pace. What I’m looking for now as I read is a moment of thought and when I find it, I’ll want to stop and try to follow, to think on it, or on any points of confusion.
I read on. Dunstan is blackmailing his brother, but it seems as though that may be coming to an end. I’d stop here to consider the problem of being in a bind where coming clean might be, eventually, the only option. Has anyone ever seen anything like this in real life? It’s not just Dunstan who is blackmailing Godfrey, it is Molly, his abandoned wife:
“I’ll tell you what it is,” said Godfrey, quivering, and pale again, “my patience is pretty near at an end. If you’d a little more sharpness in you, you might know that you may urge a man a bit too far, and make one leap as easy as another. I don’t know but what it is so now: I may as well tell the Squire everything myself– I should get you off my back, if I got nothing else. And, after all, he’ll know some time. She’s been threatening to come herself and tell him. So, don’t flatter yourself that your secrecy’s worth any price you choose to ask. You drain me of money till I have got nothing to pacify her with, and she’ll do as she threatens some day. It’s all one. I’ll tell my father everything myself, and you may go to the devil.”
How long does it take to ‘fess up? How much pressure need be applied? It’s almost as if we’re invited to watch Godfrey under the microscope – what courses of action, in this mess of complexity are open to him, and what will make him choose one?
The next paragraph is a telling one, so we’ll save that for tomorrow.