One of the most off-putting things about some Victorian novels is the use of dialect. It’s so hard to wade through, I try to skip most of it. The worst offender has got to be Emily Bronte in Wuthering Heights, but anything of George Eliot’s or Thomas Hardy’s that takes place in a pub, or involves country folk talking to each other for any length of time, comes a close second. My advice is get through it as fast as you can. Just rush.
It can be hard for group members in a Shared Reading group to master the reading of dialect – if there’s someone who can do it well, let them have the reins. If not, read it all yourself, fast, and get on to the next bit.
I’m in Silas Marner Chapter 6 this morning, and Silas has run down to the pub to tell everyone his money has been stolen. It’s a long night in The Rainbow, despite the good ale. I read fast, almost skipping, though the talk in the bar (though got interested in the story of the parson who was drunk and so got the words of the marriage service wrong: are they still married?
…when he come to put the questions, he put ’em by the rule o’ contrairy, like, and he says, “Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded wife?” says he, and then he says, “Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded husband?” says he. But the partic’larest thing of all is, as nobody took any notice on it but me, and they answered straight off “yes”
This troubles Mr Macey, who is led to a serious question any group might want to stop and consider:
I says to myself, “Is’t the meanin’ or the words as makes folks fast i’ wedlock?” For the parson meant right, and the bride and bridegroom meant right. But then, when I come to think on it, meanin’ goes but a little way i’ most things, for you may mean to stick things together and your glue may be bad, and then where are you? And so I says to mysen, “It isn’t the meanin’, it’s the glue.”
But on we go, speeding through paragraphs about gossip, ghosts, horses, land and villagers and I’m not very interested, so I wouldn’t stop here, I’d just rev up, get into fifth gear and motor through as fast as I could. Only when Silas bursts in through the door, at the beginning of Chapter Seven, do I start to get involved again. He’s brought into the room, soaking wet, half out of his mind, sat by the fire, and listened to. And here George Eliot does what she is very good at doing: she notices the possible, tiny, beginning of human change:
This strangely novel situation of opening his trouble to his Raveloe neighbours, of sitting in the warmth of a hearth not his own, and feeling the presence of faces and voices which were his nearest promise of help, had doubtless its influence on Marner, in spite of his passionate preoccupation with his loss. Our consciousness rarely registers the beginning of a growth within us any more than without us: there have been many circulations of the sap before we detect the smallest sign of the bud.
‘Had doubtless its influence’ she writes, as if she wishes to mark the every day necessity for doubt – how could such a small thing make any difference in life? That word, ‘doubtless’, is a marker of our normal norms, where unkindness is allowed, and where small kindnesses aren’t always recognised for the powers they might be.
Of course nothing may come of this moment of neighbourliness; much depends on what happens next. But the noticing of such a moment’s possibility gives me pause for thought. We don’t know what might grow from any act of kindness (or unkindness). But as George Eliot famously writes at the end of Middlemarch, ‘the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.’ We need to make those unhistoric acts as good as we can, as if they were world-changers. We need to do that despite the fact that we can’t see anything happening in the moment: ‘ there have been many circulations of the sap before we detect the smallest sign of the bud.’
I’m thinking now of a line I read yesterday at our meeting of The Reader’s criminal justice team. These colleagues work in prisons and probation hostels across the country and don’t get to meet as a team very often. It was a pleasure for me to spend a day with them, listening to their shared experience of making Shared Reading happen in some of the country’s most difficult places. I read a little from Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, still in my mind from last Saturday’s Spark Series course.
Jeanette writes of the moment she accidentally read a few lines from T.S. Eliot’s Murder in The Cathedral, at sixteen she has realised she is gay and is about tot be thrown out of the house by her abusive adoptive mother. Where will she live, how will she eat, do her A levels? then she reads : ‘this is one moment /but know that another/ shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.’
The reading of those lines is a seminal moment for Winterson, and I had thought it might resonate with my colleagues and possibly for the people they read with in criminal justice settings, as it also had done with me.
This may well be one such moment for Silas. And perhaps there are others with a sudden painful joy ahead.
Silas accuses Jem Rodney of taking his guineas – on the grounds that he has been often to Silas’ cottage. But Jem’s been in the pub all night, as everyone present can attest.
“Aye, aye,” said Mr. Macey; “let’s have no accusing o’ the innicent. That isn’t the law. There must be folks to swear again’ a man before he can be ta’en up. Let’s have no accusing o’ the innicent, Master Marner.”
Memory was not so utterly torpid in Silas that it could not be awakened by these words. With a movement of compunction as new and strange to him as everything else within the last hour, he started from his chair and went close up to Jem, looking at him as if he wanted to assure himself of the expression in his face.
“I was wrong,” he said–“yes, yes–I ought to have thought. There’s nothing to witness against you, Jem. Only you’d been into my house oftener than anybody else, and so you came into my head. I don’t accuse you–I won’t accuse anybody–only,” he added, lifting up his hands to his head, and turning away with bewildered misery, “I try–I try to think where my guineas can be.”
I found this very moving when I read this morning – the freshness and live-ness of Silas, willing to be wrought upon by the live situation. He has been like a mechanical creature, almost a mere part of the loom, for fifteen years. Now suddenly he is coming to life.