This morning I’m going back to Silas Marner (find an online text here) … and thinking about class. But is it class? Or is it education? Or is it education of the feelings? Eppie is the daughter of a drug-addict mother and a nogoodnik posh-boy father. She’s got, like most of us, a pretty mixed gene pool. So there’s nature for you.
Now, as to nurture:
The tender and peculiar love with which Silas had reared her in almost inseparable companionship with himself, aided by the seclusion of their dwelling, had preserved her from the lowering influences of the village talk and habits, and had kept her mind in that freshness which is sometimes falsely supposed to be an invariable attribute of rusticity. Perfect love has a breath of poetry which can exalt the relations of the least-instructed human beings; and this breath of poetry had surrounded Eppie from the time when she had followed the bright gleam that beckoned her to Silas’s hearth; so that it is not surprising if, in other things besides her delicate prettiness, she was not quite a common village maiden, but had a touch of refinement and fervour which came from no other teaching than that of tenderly-nurtured unvitiated feeling.
I notice with a slight flinch ‘she was not quite a common village maiden’ and have to stop myself and try to think carefully about what this means so as not to knee-jerk a class-based response. I ask myself, what is fervour? What is refinement?
What’s meant by refinement, I wonder? It seems a class word, about being posh, but when I look it up it’s about being pure or full of feeling. I think of Jeanette Winterson, (read her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal) little fighting kid of Accrington, and I’d say, she had her own kind of refinement. And what is fervour? It, too, is a feeling word, warmth, heat of feeling. I think of Jeanette as different from many other Accrington kids -why? She felt a lot and what she felt propelled her – few other homeless gay kids of her time got themselves into Oxford to read English. What Jeanette didn’t have was the kind of love Silas gives to Eppie. I look back at the beginning of the paragraph:
The tender and peculiar love with which Silas had reared her in almost inseparable companionship with himself, aided by the seclusion of their dwelling, had preserved her from the lowering influences of the village talk and habits, and had kept her mind in that freshness which is sometimes falsely supposed to be an invariable attribute of rusticity.
Still something for me to worry about in lowering influences? I’ll come back to that. Eppie grows up in a tiny world made up Silas – himself cut off from most of the village – and visits from Dolly Winthrop. The seclusion of their dwelling sets her apart physically, mentally and emotionally. What are village talk and habits, I wonder? The modern equivalent is life with the Kardashians, I suppose. Silly, commonplace, superficial influences about bums and jewellry. No one at the most serious times of their lives, real love, real pain, will be getting through life’s biggest or deepest moments with those influences uppermost. But they are there, lowering away, on a day-to-day basis. Eppie is set aside from all that by being in an intense parent-child relationship which is full of love.
I take some time here because it is easy to read badly, too fast, and make modern, mocking judgements about class. Eppie’s refinement and fervour
came from no other teaching than that of tenderly-nurtured unvitiated feeling.
‘Unvitiated’ = uncorrupted, pure, unsullied.
Perhaps such feeling is only possible at some distance from the world of Kardashians, or whatever the nineteenth century equivalent was? I’m thinking about Wordsworth – whom George Eliot read.
She was too childish and simple for her imagination to rove into questions about her unknown father; for a long while it did not even occur to her that she must have had a father; and the first time that the idea of her mother having had a husband presented itself to her, was when Silas showed her the wedding-ring which had been taken from the wasted finger, and had been carefully preserved by him in a little lackered box shaped like a shoe. He delivered this box into Eppie’s charge when she had grown up, and she often opened it to look at the ring: but still she thought hardly at all about the father of whom it was the symbol. Had she not a father very close to her, who loved her better than any real fathers in the village seemed to love their daughters? On the contrary, who her mother was, and how she came to die in that forlornness, were questions that often pressed on Eppie’s mind. Her knowledge of Mrs. Winthrop, who was her nearest friend next to Silas, made her feel that a mother must be very precious; and she had again and again asked Silas to tell her how her mother looked, whom she was like, and how he had found her against the furze bush, led towards it by the little footsteps and the outstretched arms. The furze bush was there still; and this afternoon, when Eppie came out with Silas into the sunshine, it was the first object that arrested her eyes and thoughts.
It’s interesting that Eppie never thinks about her biological father – she has no need to, because she has Silas, ‘who loved her better than any real fathers in the village seemed to love their daughters.’ The mother is a missing element, only known indirectly as a model in Dolly Winthrop and it is this missing element that Eppie is driven to seek, asking,
again and again asked Silas to tell her how her mother looked, whom she was like, and how he had found her against the furze bush, led towards it by the little footsteps and the outstretched arms.
Now we enter some pages of dialogue and plot, which I’m going to read through fast – Eppie raising the subject of her likely marriage and Silas doing his best not to be frightened at the change that is bound to come.
And so to the next chapter, XVII, where the scene changes and we are back with the posh folks. Nancy née Lammeter and her sister Priscilla are also discussing gardens, and also dairies, and finally, Nancy’s inability to bear children; then Nancy is left alone, reading her bible and letting her thoughts wander. They wander towards this issue of having children and her husband’s response to it. And this, George Eliot seems to imply, is in itself a kind of prayerful meditation:
But Nancy’s Sunday thoughts were rarely quite out of keeping with the devout and reverential intention implied by the book spread open before her. She was not theologically instructed enough to discern very clearly the relation between the sacred documents of the past which she opened without method, and her own obscure, simple life; but the spirit of rectitude, and the sense of responsibility for the effect of her conduct on others, which were strong elements in Nancy’s character, had made it a habit with her to scrutinize her past feelings and actions with self-questioning solicitude.
I look up rectitude. It means straightness. Nancy’s a person who tries to be straight and decent, and has self-knowledge, examining herself and her actions.
Her mind not being courted by a great variety of subjects, she filled the vacant moments by living inwardly, again and again, through all her remembered experience, especially through the fifteen years of her married time, in which her life and its significance had been doubled. She recalled the small details, the words, tones, and looks, in the critical scenes which had opened a new epoch for her by giving her a deeper insight into the relations and trials of life, or which had called on her for some little effort of forbearance, or of painful adherence to an imagined or real duty– asking herself continually whether she had been in any respect blamable. This excessive rumination and self-questioning is perhaps a morbid habit inevitable to a mind of much moral sensibility when shut out from its due share of outward activity and of practical claims on its affections–inevitable to a noble-hearted, childless woman, when her lot is narrow. “I can do so little–have I done it all well?” is the perpetually recurring thought; and there are no voices calling her away from that soliloquy, no peremptory demands to divert energy from vain regret or superfluous scruple.
George Eliot is very interested in the lot of women who have nothing to do. In real life she was Marian Evans, an incredibly intelligent, self-educated midlands woman, who in her early years had run her father’s house, and in mid-life developed a career in the London literary world ,editing the Westminster Review before beginning her work as a novelist at the age of thirty-nine. She had no children.
I’ve gone away from the book! Back to the text, go back, go back!
But will pick up here next time – lots to do today, garden calling.