Silas Marner Day 34: Dead Donkey or Live Fish?

snowy trees norway jan 2018
Snow and trees and sky and silence, Holmenkollen, Norway 2018

Long time since I stopped reading Silas Marner – which, looking back seems to be October 1st. Things got very busy and I was reading a lot of poetry. But last night I thought tomorrow I’ll go back to Silas and my heart warmed.  When we stopped, I was reading Chapter 16, where  we shoot into the future and find  Silas and Eppie grown into father and daughter and Dolly Winthrop gently quizzing Silas on what went wrong in that terrible early part of his life.

I was writing about how to read prose in a Shared Reading group – not sticking to a set number of pages or the plan you’ve made in advance, but trying to follow the rhythms of prose-thinking as it unfolds in the room. Some parts of a novel will be very fast movers, others – sentences, words, paragraphs, will need you to slow down and absorb or reflect for good while. Last time we read we’d been looking at this section, and as there’s been a long break, I’d like to start again and go back over it. Silas has been explaining about  the drawing of lots in Lantern Yard, and his subsequent rejection of both people and God.

“Oh, dear, dear,” said Dolly in a grieved voice, as if she were hearing an unfavourable report of a sick man’s case. She was silent for some minutes; at last she said–

“There’s wise folks, happen, as know how it all is; the parson knows, I’ll be bound; but it takes big words to tell them things, and such as poor folks can’t make much out on. I can never rightly know the meaning o’ what I hear at church, only a bit here and there, but I know it’s good words–I do. But what lies upo’ your mind–it’s this, Master Marner: as, if Them above had done the right thing by you, They’d never ha’ let you be turned out for a wicked thief when you was innicent.”

“Ah!” said Silas, who had now come to understand Dolly’s phraseology, “that was what fell on me like as if it had been red-hot iron; because, you see, there was nobody as cared for me or clave to me above nor below. And him as I’d gone out and in wi’ for ten year and more, since when we was lads and went halves–mine own familiar friend in whom I trusted, had lifted up his heel again’ me, and worked to ruin me.”

Dolly is uneducated and humble but highly intelligent and especially intelligent in human matters. She might not understand some of the parson’s big words but she rightly identifies what is causing Silas’ pain:

But what lies upo’ your mind–it’s this, Master Marner: as, if Them above had done the right thing by you, They’d never ha’ let you be turned out for a wicked thief when you was innicent.

How could a just God, taking part, as the God of Lantern Yard was said to do, in all human affairs, right down to the drawing of lots, have found Silas to be guilty when he wasn’t? Thus God, Dolly rightly infers, has not ‘done the right thing’. How can Silas believe in any such God?

“Ah!” said Silas, who had now come to understand Dolly’s phraseology, “that was what fell on me like as if it had been red-hot iron; because, you see, there was nobody as cared for me or clave to me above nor below. And him as I’d gone out and in wi’ for ten year and more, since when we was lads and went halves–mine own familiar friend in whom I trusted, had lifted up his heel again’ me, and worked to ruin me.”

For Silas, the loss of faith in God comes after the loss of faith in human beings and indeed the two seem connected, ‘there was nobody as cared for me or clave to me above nor below’. Perhaps it all comes down to the human in the end. In a group I’d be asking someone to read this sentence again so we could get the marrow of it:

And him as I’d gone out and in wi’ for ten year and more, since when we was lads and went halves–mine own familiar friend in whom I trusted, had lifted up his heel again’ me, and worked to ruin me.”

That ten year and more, for man of twenty, is half a life. As lads they went halves –  sharing whatever food  they had; they were familiars, the one seeming to represent part of the other. And that relationship and the trust it was grounded in had been broken, and not by accident.  That ‘familiar friend…lifted up his heel again me’. This was not bad luck, not random ill-chance, but a deliberate attack by one who you thought loved you.  How could you  trust again? No doubt, in our Shared Reading group, we will want to stay here a little while, sharing thoughts and feels and experiences of trust or its breakage. How long this takes will depend on who is in the room and what they want to talk about.

But now let’s read on;

“Eh, but he was a bad un–I can’t think as there’s another such,” said Dolly. “But I’m o’ercome, Master Marner; I’m like as if I’d waked and didn’t know whether it was night or morning. I feel somehow as sure as I do when I’ve laid something up though I can’t justly put my hand on it, as there was a rights in what happened to you, if one could but make it out; and you’d no call to lose heart as you did. But we’ll talk on it again; for sometimes things come into my head when I’m leeching or poulticing, or such, as I could never think on when I was sitting still.”

Dolly was too useful a woman not to have many opportunities of illumination of the kind she alluded to, and she was not long before she recurred to the subject.

“Master Marner,” she said, one day that she came to bring home Eppie’s washing, “I’ve been sore puzzled for a good bit wi’ that trouble o’ yourn and the drawing o’ lots; and it got twisted back’ards and for’ards, as I didn’t know which end to lay hold on. But it come to me all clear like, that night when I was sitting up wi’ poor Bessy Fawkes, as is dead and left her children behind, God help ’em–it come to me as clear as daylight; but whether I’ve got hold on it now, or can anyways bring it to my tongue’s end, that I don’t know. For I’ve often a deal inside me as’ll never come out; and for what you talk o’ your folks in your old country niver saying prayers by heart nor saying ’em out of a book, they must be wonderful cliver; for if I didn’t know “Our Father”, and little bits o’ good words as I can carry out o’ church wi’ me, I might down o’ my knees every night, but nothing could I say.”

In a nineteenth century novel the sentences are generally  hard for contemporary readers and in a Shared Reading group we need to take care to  be sure that everyone is getting the gist, and getting to opportunity to go more deeply in. Sometimes I’ll ask – can anyone put that into modern English please? Sometimes I’ll simply say, can someone read the first sentence again? It’s hard to understand.

Someone will read it again, or I will. Gradually we get to the marrow. The key to Dolly’s speech here is  in the centre of it:

“Eh, but he was a bad un–I can’t think as there’s another such,” said Dolly. “But I’m o’ercome, Master Marner; I’m like as if I’d waked and didn’t know whether it was night or morning. I feel somehow as sure as I do when I’ve laid something up though I can’t justly put my hand on it, as there was a rights in what happened to you, if one could but make it out; and you’d no call to lose heart as you did. But we’ll talk on it again; for sometimes things come into my head when I’m leeching or poulticing, or such, as I could never think on when I was sitting still.”

‘I feel…there was a rights in what happened to you, if one could but make it out’  There’s the key! Look at the verb: feel. She can’t think, as she says. But she can feel something about this situation which needs to come out.

I’d be asking my group to talk about the difference in these kinds of knowing –  thinking and feeling, the knowledge that comes to  you when you are leeching or poulticing (modern translation: in Tesco or doing the ironing). Reader Leaders needs to know  that something about ‘feeling’ as a way of knowing is important, and it is more important that  knowing what ‘poulticing’ is or the history of leeching, for Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Leech Gatherer’.  Knowing facts is not important, knowing how human beings feel and think and have their being is.  We might stay in this spot – not getting much reading done, not getting to the end of the chapter or the section I’d planned, for the rest of the session. Better to  be chasing a live fish than listing the bodyparts of a dead donkey, surely?  Where the excitement of  the thought, the feeling,  goes, that’s where our shared attention should be.

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