I’ve been reading Silas Marner very slowly (search ‘Silas Marner’) and intermittently here for a few months. We’re at the end of chapter 14. you can find the whole text here. For previous posts, search ‘Silas Marner’.
Silas has been brought back into the life of the Raveloe village community by the presence of Eppie:
Silas began now to think of Raveloe life entirely in relation to Eppie: she must have everything that was a good in Raveloe; and he listened docilely, that he might come to understand better what this life was, from which, for fifteen years, he had stood aloof as from a strange thing, with which he could have no communion: as some man who has a precious plant to which he would give a nurturing home in a new soil, thinks of the rain, and the sunshine, and all influences, in relation to his nursling, and asks industriously for all knowledge that will help him to satisfy the wants of the searching roots, or to guard leaf and bud from invading harm. The disposition to hoard had been utterly crushed at the very first by the loss of his long-stored gold: the coins he earned afterwards seemed as irrelevant as stones brought to complete a house suddenly buried by an earthquake; the sense of bereavement was too heavy upon him for the old thrill of satisfaction to arise again at the touch of the newly-earned coin. And now something had come to replace his hoard which gave a growing purpose to the earnings, drawing his hope and joy continually onward beyond the money. In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s.
I’m most interested in the angels here at the end of the chapter, angels which are no longer seen but which are to be found ‘in old days.’
George Eliot is remembering a specific story from the Bible (the rescue of Lot from Sodom and Gomorrah: Genesis 15 And when the morning arose, then the angels hastened Lot, saying, “Arise, take thy wife and thy two daughters who are here, lest thou be consumed in the iniquity of the city.)
Literature performs the act of translation – from one person to another, from one time and place to another, from one way of thinking to another. I look up translation in the Etymological dictionary:
translate (v.) early 14c., “to remove from one place to another,” also “to turn from one language to another,” from Old French translater and directly from Latin translatus “carried over,” serving as past participle of transferre “to bring over, carry over” (see transfer), from trans “across, beyond” (see trans-) + latus “borne, carried”)
Translation carries meaning from one language to another, and language can mean ‘way of understanding’ as much as vocabulary, syntax and grammar. This is George Eliot translating from the Christian to the human, with no loss of power.
In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now.
In 1861, when the novel was published, the idea of angels was a strong one – it was a strong one in my childhood in the 1960s! Go to any Victorian cemetery and you will see plenty of statues of angels, white-winged, – they were a live idea, which had come – I imagine – from widespread reading of the Bible. When George Eliot writes that sentence is there a sort of sorrow in it? A sense of loss? We are living, she seems to intimate, in a world which has lost something powerful and saving. There is no manifestation, now, of those great powers which shaped the Bible stories. that diminishes us, and leaves us alone and vulnerable.
Does anything carry over, is there any translation of human experience from ‘old days’ when there were angels, and God, to ‘now’ , when we don’t see such things?
But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s.
George Eliot was writing from real life. In her private life, under her real name, Marian Evans had no children. But she had become the stepmother of George Henry Lewes’ boys in 1855 and so had five years of unexpected and close relationship with those children by the time she wrote that sentence. She knew from inside her own experience that children, a child, might make a future or heal a traumatic past for an adult.
Isn’t that the work of an angel? The action – the function – is angelic: leading forth to a future. It wasn’t just those stepchildren for George Eliot, though she id love them. It was the writing. It was the books that also gave her a loving, purposive life. that too is mirrored in what she has written here.
Silas doesn’t just receive this angelic function – he partly creates it by his love for Eppie. I look back at the rest of the paragraph and see him becoming something very like a mother, a gardener, a writer. Motherhood too is a function – not tied here to gender – but to action. He is now living with a purpose and that purpose is about creative growth:
as some man who has a precious plant to which he would give a nurturing home in a new soil, thinks of the rain, and the sunshine, and all influences, in relation to his nursling, and asks industriously for all knowledge that will help him to satisfy the wants of the searching roots, or to guard leaf and bud from invading harm.
I compare the smallness of the ‘little hand’ against the hugeness of a life saved from destruction. George Eliot, knowing the language of Christianity, having been a devout Christian as a young woman, but having now rejected the basic premise of religion, yet carries something with her of that way of thinking. At the ege of thirty-nine, before she began to write fiction, with a damaged and scarred emotional life behind her and in love now with the man she would call husband for the rest of her life, she wrote in a letter to an old friend;
I feel, too, that all the terrible pain I have gone through in past years, partly from the defects of my own nature, partly from outward things, has probably been a preparation for some special work that I may do before I die.
Who could have said what that ‘special work’ was?
Are there miracles ‘now’ ? Yes, every day.