Silas Marner Day 25: literature makes history disappear

Inlua flourishing in the Old English Garden at Calderstones, 7 July

This morning, after my days with mind-bending Traherne, I’m returning to the solidity of Silas Marner. I’ve been reading Silas very slowly here (search ‘Silas Marner) intermittently for a few months, and have this is my twenty-fifth session on it.  Writing ‘Silas Marner Day 25’ in the title of this post made me think about the reality of such a reading in a group: on a weekly basis, that’s half a year!  But a Shared Reading session would cover more ground than I do here, wouldn’t it?  Yes, probably.  But not necessarily. Slowing down is key part of Shared Reading and why would you want to rush this?

But there’s a hard balance between  deep thinking, or what might be called personal reflection, and the story. ‘Get on with story!’ said Terry, a young man living in a hostel, in one of my early groups. We were reading Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce and had stopped to talk about life after death. Terry was so frustrated  by the diversion of our  talk that he picked the book up and started trying to read the next chapter. Terry couldn’t read. But his desperation for ‘what happens next’ provoked him into a serious attempt.

Everyone feels that need for continuing the narrative and it is easy to agree to the forward pull.  I don’t myself plan in advance what I am going to stop and talk about  in a Shared Reading session, I just read and see what happens, see how the mood and the meaning take me. But I stop a lot. I would hardly make any progress with the story. So many sentences offer the opportunity of  meaningful thought, and that’s what I want to bring about in my groups.

So here we are at the opening of chapter fourteen. Molly has brought her child to Raveloe, Godfrey Cass has denied (to himself)  his  paternity, the child has ended up with Silas, and Silas wants to keep it.

There was a pauper’s burial that week in Raveloe, and up Kench Yard at Batherley it was known that the dark-haired woman with the fair child, who had lately come to lodge there, was gone away again. That was all the express note taken that Molly had disappeared from the eyes of men. But the unwept death which, to the general lot, seemed as trivial as the summer-shed leaf, was charged with the force of destiny to certain human lives that we know of, shaping their joys and sorrows even to the end.

Would you stop here, so close to the beginning of the chapter, with everyone only just settling to their tea and biscuits? I would. I want to think about  people who might disappear from view and no one notice. I want to think about the ‘unwept death’.  And I want to think are we really as different from the Victorians as we think we are? That couldn’t happen now, could it – that a woman and child would have no social connectors? That a woman could appear as a lodger or a tenant for a short while and then disappear? that no note would be taken when two humans disappear ‘from the eyes of men’? Worse than that, it could not still be the case that such a death might seem  ‘as trivial as the summer-shed leaf’, could it?

For me, in leading a Shared Reading group who are reading this book, a key aim would be to make links with the human experience, so that we wouldn’t think of the characters, the author, as somehow different to ourselves. I want to make making links between ‘now’ and ‘then’. A key aim in my leadership of the group is to make Raveloe, and the entire world of Silas Marner deeply recognisable, here and now. I perform or call for translations into our  own language. Do we still have pauper’s burials now we have the welfare state? We do, and they are called public health funerals.

A question I might want to ask to slow things down is:What is moving in those opening lines, which bit is most like poetry?  I hop someone will find the word ‘unwept’, and we will have the chance to talk about the prefix ‘un’ – it gives us the verb, ‘wept’, but it takes it away. It makes us feel the loss of no one to cry for her.

Now I read on:

Silas Marner’s determination to keep the “tramp’s child” was matter of hardly less surprise and iterated talk in the village than the robbery of his money. That softening of feeling towards him which dated from his misfortune, that merging of suspicion and dislike in a rather contemptuous pity for him as lone and crazy, was now accompanied with a more active sympathy, especially amongst the women. Notable mothers, who knew what it was to keep children “whole and sweet”; lazy mothers, who knew what it was to be interrupted in folding their arms and scratching their elbows by the mischievous propensities of children just firm on their legs, were equally interested in conjecturing how a lone man would manage with a two-year-old child on his hands, and were equally ready with their suggestions: the notable chiefly telling him what he had better do, and the lazy ones being emphatic in telling him what he would never be able to do.

Lots of stuff here!  Oh dear, how ever will we finish this book, with me wanting to stop every ten lines. But really – worth noticing two human psychology things here, way before the discipline, through the  practice and writing of William James, was born. George Eliot is brilliant at noticing and recording how humans work.

In this paragraph, first how groups change their behaviour, second how individuals take a positive or negative stance. Taking the first of these first. Silas was an outcast; people began to ‘soften’ towards him when he was robbed. the village had got to the point where it had merged ‘suspicion and dislike in a rather contemptuous pity for him as lone and crazy’.

No one would call that sympathy, yet George Eliot nearly does. She refers back to this state when she says it was  ‘now accompanied with a more active sympathy’. Does ‘more active’ imply that the previous state of feeling  towards him was an inactive sympathy? Can contemptuous pity change into  more active sympathy? If so, hurray! We need to understand how and why.  What is pity? What is sympathy? ( I look them up in the  online etymological dictionary – they are deeply connected at root) How do we distinguish those things, and how – why – do they merge into each other?

These are useful  social questions for a group of humans to ask, in a world where ‘diseases of despair’ , as The Times calls them this morning are rising at such an alarming rate.

The next  point is about a distinction between ‘notable’ or ‘lazy’ mothers – a distinction bound to get some people’s backs up.  I’m sure I am a lazy one and have nothing to  protect on that score. But leave motherhood aside for a moment – because it’s painful to be critcised there, for many.  Aren’t lots of humans, let us say at work, ‘notable’ or ‘lazy’? Isn’t that a  natural bell curve distribution in any field?

What’s interesting is how George Eliot jumps to the nub of things in a way that contemporary psychology would  recognise. The ‘notable’ believe things can be done. Those who are ‘lazy’ believe things can’t be done.  What I love is how both groups are united in the slightly malicious pleasure they take in imagining a man dealing with a two-year old child. That conversation is taking place right now as a  real  twenty-first century woman plans a weekend away with her girlfriends. ‘Let’s see how he gets on.’ Well, we will. Silas is becoming a single parent dad, which not what we think of when we think of a Victorian stereotype.


One thought on “Silas Marner Day 25: literature makes history disappear

  1. A C.M.H.P., H.V., V.H.A., R.A. August 8, 2017 / 9:08 am

    Hi Jane,

    Poem to go with story.

    All that is gold does not glitter,
    Not all those that wander are lost,
    The old that is strong does not wither,
    Deep roots are not reached by frost.

    From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
    A light from the shadows shall spring,
    Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
    The crownless shall again be King.


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