Reading at Work: Janet’s Repentence

pink rhodo
One of the great rhodoendrons in Calderstones Park at the moment –  the colour comination of  orangey pink with the grey green leaves is very satisfying

Yesterday was a senior team awayday. We clear our diaries and go to the house of one of us for a day of  asking questions, sketching answes, making plans.  It’s time out, time to think. We began, as we often begin our meetings, by reading together for half an hour.

One of my teammates had been reading The Guardian article on meetings, and we  were a little alarmed because she’d used the Harvard Business Review meeting cost calculator  to work out exactly how much our  day away from the office was costing us.  Yes, good to know, we conceded nervously. Better be worth it, then.

In a context of  value for money how come reading together for half an hour, or perhaps even  as much as forty-five minutes, is good value? The Guardian article offers  mindfulness as a possible way to  help people become calm and productive and gives some examples of  that practice in use.  Shared Reading is similar (usually calming, often feels meditative) but because it is shared, and because it is words (ie consciousness) you get some thing else, too.

We are reading Janet’s Repentence by George Eliot. We often have only a scant half hour every two weeks, so we’ve been reading it pretty slowly.  We seem to read just enough to give us something to connect through – a page or less each time. Yesterday we read  a tiny section from Chapter 8, where My Tryan is visiting Mr Jerome to ask for his support on what is going to be a difficult public occasion. The Jerome’s little granddaughter Lizzie makes a surprise appearance:

It is a pretty surprise, when one visits an elderly couple, to see a little figure enter in a white frock with a blond head as smooth as satin, round blue eyes, and a cheek like an apple blossom. A toddling little girl is a centre of common feeling which makes the most dissimilar people understand each other; and Mr. Tryan looked at Lizzie with that quiet pleasure which is always genuine.

‘Here we are, here we are!’ said proud grandpapa. ‘You didn’t think we’d got such a little gell as this, did you, Mr. Tryan? Why, it seems but th’ other day since her mother was just such another. This is our little Lizzie, this is. Come an’ shake hands wi’ Mr. Tryan, Lizzie; come.’

We stopped to talk about the  sentence about the toddling little girl: we all recognised what George Eliot calls the ‘centre of common feeling’ – we’d all seen it a hundred times on family occasions.  That ‘centre of common feeling’ makes ‘the most dissimilar people understand each other’.

We stayed here for most of our reading time, thinking on what this means in practice. We  talked about families and children and dogs and difficulties. In what sense do we ‘understand’ each other in the presence of a beloved child? This is understanding of the heart, some meaning that doesn’t often get put into words, isn’t it?

As we spoke, the book itself became for us – on our costs-a-lot-of-time business away day – what the little girl is in the adult conversation –  ‘a centre of common feeling’.  for any team trying to work together that’s an invaluable bit of equipment.

A little later, watching Liverpool  beat Roma on aggregate and win a place in the European Cup Final 2018,  I sat in The Dovey in a room full of people singing to a TV screen and to each other and thought  here’s the match, LFC, a centre of common feeling of a  different sort, more primal, less personally revealing and involving no sharing of thought, only the heart-beat of the singing and the adrenalin of mock battle. Which was pretty good! We love the footy and  our team, but do we love it as much for its powers as a conduit for our feelings of connectedness as we do for the footwork?  Those feelings  were powerful last night. Come on, Red Men!


Experiencing the click: what language adds to consciousness

treading your own path.JPG
The traveler, treading her own path in the snowy wastes, Norway, January 2018

I had really intended to carry on reading Silas Marner this morning but I’m preparing for a staff teaching session later in the day and found myself really wanting to read Wordsworth, so I’m going with that flow.

I’ve been thinking about how reading  helps a reader know herself. I’m sure there are a number of key ways, and this is only one of them.

There’s a click that needs to happen which  makes you think, I’ve got to understand this… this… whatever it is, this person I’m in, this life, this Jane.  Time is partly that something. Time and the pain of repeated mistakes. Time and patterns.  You are in The Matrix. You might stay  in it forever. Or perhaps something will happen to make you realise – click – you are in the Matrix. Only once you know you are in, can you start think of getting out.

For me, one of the moments of  click came long ago  in Middlemarch, Book 4, Chapter 42, when I read these terrible words about human wastage. A man in trouble doesn’t respond to the touch of his wife’s hand on his arm because he fears she pities him and he can’t stand the thought of being pitied:

 it is in these acts called trivialities that the seeds of joy are forever wasted, until men and women look round with haggard faces at the devastation their own waste has made, and say, the earth bears no harvest of sweetness – calling their denial knowledge.

I think it was during the writing of my Ph.D   – so between the ages of twenty-seven and thirty – that that particular click happened.  That wasn’t  my first reading of Middlemarch, when this half sentence probably passed me by. But by the time I was rereading the novel as part of my doctoral study, life  had  battered me into learning  something about joy, and wastage, and devastation and calling denial knowledge.  Perhaps without the heavy thumping of pain! mistake! pain! error! in my own and other people’s lives, and deaths, I’d never have had the understanding.

But, like the hero of Les Murray’s poem about his autistic son, ‘It Allows a Portrait in Linescan At Fifteen’, by the time I was  writing that Ph.D I knew I had to learn  to stay  alive,

I gotta get smart! looking terrified into the years. I gotta get smart!

How did I come to that understanding?

First, I had the experiences that  led to that ‘gotta get smart’  feeling. Then I read the words:

 it is in these acts called trivialities that the seeds of joy are forever wasted, until men and women look round with haggard faces at the devastation their own waste has made, and say, the earth bears no harvest of sweetness – calling their denial knowledge.

Experiences, feelings, words. That’s a possible pattern.

The words here gave voice to the feeling. If I hadn’t read Middlemarch, I’d still have had the feeling, which  was a response to stuff that happened, and is an evolutionary tool for survival. Feel this! Feel this! Note it!  But seeing it written, as many people in Shared Reading groups have told me over the years, makes some sort of difference.

It is partly ‘someone else has felt this’.  That, too, may be an evolutionary tool. If one person gets a stomach ache from eating those bitter green berries it might be bad luck or it might be the after effect of too many sweet white tubers from yesterday. But if twenty people feel sick after eating bitter green berries, you know it’s probably the berries.

The recognition of ‘I know that’, or ‘That’s me, that is!’, or ‘I’ve felt that!’ is a powerful one. Yes, it’s probably the validation of one’s feelings and experience in another, but it’s more than that, it is also the explosion into consciousness through language of self-validation, of knowing your self. Language brings more of us into the light. Language helps us know.

I was thinking of how a person might gather self-knowledge and remembered  that when Wordsworth starting writing The Prelude he began by looking at himself:

When, as becomes a man who would prepare
For such a glorious work, I through myself
Make rigorous inquisition, the report
Is often chearing; for I neither seem
To lack that first great gift, the vital soul,
Nor general truths which are themselves a sort
Of elements and agents, under-powers,
Subordinate helpers of the living mind.
Nor am I naked in external things,
Forms, images, nor numerous other aids
Of less regard, though won perhaps with toil,
And needful to build up a poet’s praise.
Time, place, and manners, these I seek, and these
I find in plenteous store, but nowhere such
As may be singled out with steady choice—

He’s got a lot and feels pretty cheerful about it until he realises he hasn’t got the main thing – a subject, ‘time, place and manners, these I seek…’ and  pretty quickly the sense of not having or being able to fix on a subject, ‘singled out with steady choice’ begins to wear him down:

The true questioning of self is hard:
This is my lot; for either still I find
Some imperfection in the chosen theme,
Or see of absolute accomplishment
Much wanting—so much wanting—in myself
That I recoil and droop, and seek repose
In indolence from vain perplexity,
Unprofitably travelling toward the grave,
Like a false steward who hath much received
And renders nothing back.

There’s a feeling of wastage here, isn’t there? Of loss? Even deceit or cheating? A steward is a person to looks after something (often a house or homestead)  for someone else. A steward would have bed and board, a home. and yet this false one, give nothing back, you’re in an unequal and untrue  relationship. Agh ! Stuck! Agh! Idiot! Agh! Can’t do it! And he doesn’t give up. and that not giving up  leads, almost despite Wordsworth’s conscious thought, to an opening, when he starts guiltily kicking himself:

—Was it for this
That one, the fairest of all Rivers, lov’d
To blend his murmurs with my Nurse’s song,
And from his alder shades and rocky falls,
And from his fords and shallows, sent a voice
That flow’d along my dreams? For this, didst Thou,
O Derwent! travelling over the green Plains
Near my ’sweet Birthplace’, didst thou, beauteous Stream
Make ceaseless music through the night and day
Which with its steady cadence, tempering
Our human waywardness, compos’d my thoughts
To more than infant softness, giving me,
Among the fretful dwellings of mankind,
A knowledge, a dim earnest, of the calm
That Nature breathes among the hills and groves.

He’s off now, with a subject, and the subject is, though he doesn’t know it yet,   what am I and how did I come to be it? And how did he get to his subject?  He got there by looking very hard at what he had and what he didn’t have…He had the feeling right at the beginning of the poem  (‘oh, there is blessing in this gentle breeze’), the feeling of    hhmmmmmm going to do something going to get something going… then the hits the wall of, oh, no subject. (Most young writers will know this moment) I wonder how long – hours, weeks, months or years, he was stuck at this point?

see of absolute accomplishment
Much wanting—so much wanting—in myself
That I recoil and droop, and seek repose
In indolence from vain perplexity,

But the stubbornness of not giving up, of keeping looking, questioning, asking  gets him beyond it and into – despite himself – something else.

This is too rushed for a big subject but time’s up.

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.


George Eliot’s people in one of Bion’s groups: Silas Marner Day 23


Pine at water’s edge, Kotor Bay, 22 July

I’ve been reading Silas Marner intermittently here for a couple of months – search ‘Silas Marner’ to get  the posts. Last time, I’d read, in chapter XII, the journey of Molly, the opium-addicted secret wife of Godfrey Cass, towards Raveloe; her collapse, the child’s wandering into Silas’s cottage, Silas’  fit and finding of the child, his feeding of her…

Chapter XIII  begins with Silas carrying the child to Squire Cass’s house. So, here’s Godfrey Cass, a man at a  high-spirited Christmas party:

But now all eyes at that end of the room were bent on Silas Marner; the Squire himself had risen, and asked angrily, “How’s this?– what’s this?–what do you do coming in here in this way?”

“I’m come for the doctor–I want the doctor,” Silas had said, in the first moment, to Mr. Crackenthorp.

“Why, what’s the matter, Marner?” said the rector. “The doctor’s here; but say quietly what you want him for.”

“It’s a woman,” said Silas, speaking low, and half-breathlessly, just as Godfrey came up. “She’s dead, I think–dead in the snow at the Stone-pits–not far from my door.”

Godfrey felt a great throb: there was one terror in his mind at that moment: it was, that the woman might not be dead. That was an evil terror–an ugly inmate to have found a nestling-place in Godfrey’s kindly disposition; but no disposition is a security from evil wishes to a man whose happiness hangs on duplicity.

Godfrey has recognised the baby as his own child, recognises the woman as his wife and  finds – here at a Christmas social, in his own house, himself  wishing she  is dead. That evil thought seems  out of place  – ‘an ugly inmate to have found a nesting-place in Godfrey’s kindly disposition’ – but is the natural result of his  duplicity: ‘no disposition is a security from evil wishes to a man whose happiness hangs on duplicity’. I look up ‘duplicity’, a word I suppose to be connected to two-facedness, to doubleness.  Having a ‘kindly’ disposition is no security against  being double, being split. And the secret split part of Godfrey is in terror lest it be exposed and outsiders should see he is  man living two lives.

As we are reading this in a Shared Reading group, I wonder what I would do  with this moment? I want to stay here a while because  there is something about Godfrey’s position that I want to make explicit. This is about not judging him as a  bad ‘un but recognising something of him in myself. It’s all very well having the kindly disposition. But what you going to do about the bits you don’t want anyone to see? The easiest thing to do here is judge him as if he had nothing to do with me. I’d want to open up that area of thinking, and might simply do it by going back over the passage – reading again. Perhaps the comparison between ‘kindly’ and  ‘evil terror’. Interesting that it is terror, presumably the fear of being exposed, that  makes him evil.  He’s not thinking rationally but rather acting naturally and instantly, saving himself, preserving his doubleness.

I try to think of very small faults that I don’t mind talking about, and that anyone will recognise – secretly eating biscuits when I’m supposed to be on a diet is a perennial good one – so that such thoughts  are admissible and do not seem to frightening,  or too exposing. We can then all make private connections that do not have to be spoken out loud.  Using myself as an illustration of the way in which literature serves to make me think, I hope, then serves as model to others. I don’t require anything. I just believe  that what works for me will work for others. Once the pattern  is possibility in your mind, you might  use it.

Then I return to the text: I’ll reread some.

Godfrey felt a great throb: there was one terror in his mind at that moment: it was, that the woman might not be dead. That was an evil terror–an ugly inmate to have found a nestling-place in Godfrey’s kindly disposition; but no disposition is a security from evil wishes to a man whose happiness hangs on duplicity.

The doubleness began somewhere, once, long ago,  as a piece of armour ( I’m thinking back to Bion – mental debris, stuff we create or bring along that makes the truth of our living difficult to see) perhaps when Godfrey first took up with Molly, perhaps before that. The doubleness isnt just about keeping his secret marriage a secret, but keeping some part of himself a secret…presumably the relationship with Molly came from that secret place.

I’m thinking too of ways in which Silas (or any of us) also has doubleness. Silas has had two or more lives and they have been sundered. He didn’t become two people after being cast out of his  church in Lantern Yard, he became a sort of half-person, or less. When the child wandered into his cottage his first thought was of his own childhood, his baby sister, whom he had carried around and cared  for…as Cass’s fight to preserve his doubleness pushes the two parts of his life further away, Silas is finding that two parts of his life are knitting up:

By this time, however, the ladies had pressed forward, curious to know what could have brought the solitary linen-weaver there under such strange circumstances, and interested in the pretty child, who, half alarmed and half attracted by the brightness and the numerous company, now frowned and hid her face, now lifted up her head again and looked round placably, until a touch or a coaxing word brought back the frown, and made her bury her face with new determination.

“What child is it?” said several ladies at once, and, among the rest, Nancy Lammeter, addressing Godfrey.

“I don’t know–some poor woman’s who has been found in the snow, I believe,” was the answer Godfrey wrung from himself with a terrible effort. (“After all, am I certain?” he hastened to add, silently, in anticipation of his own conscience.)

“Why, you’d better leave the child here, then, Master Marner,” said good-natured Mrs. Kimble, hesitating, however, to take those dingy clothes into contact with her own ornamented satin bodice. “I’ll tell one o’ the girls to fetch it.”

“No–no–I can’t part with it, I can’t let it go,” said Silas, abruptly. “It’s come to me–I’ve a right to keep it.”

The proposition to take the child from him had come to Silas quite unexpectedly, and his speech, uttered under a strong sudden impulse, was almost like a revelation to himself: a minute before, he had no distinct intention about the child.

In these few lines the men become what they are: Godfrey, denying his own child, against his own better instincts, his words of deceit ‘wrung from himself with a terrible effort’. The doubleness is deeply in him now. ‘After all, am I certain?” he hastened to add, silently, in anticipation of his own conscience.’ Of course he is, but the question let’s him let himself off the hook. Let’s him salve his conscience. He cannot be straight, true.  the doubleness is  overwhelmingly written into him. You wonder – well I do – what might help him change?  Here, now, nothing.

And in the same moment, Silas, changes. A man who had become  almost less than human, a spider weaving , weaving all day, for gold , gold , gold, to  enjoy the brightness of at night, suddenly finds this child which has come in place of the gold makes him claim her:

“No–no–I can’t part with it, I can’t let it go,” said Silas, abruptly. “It’s come to me–I’ve a right to keep it.”…

…his speech, uttered under a strong sudden impulse, was almost like a revelation to himself: a minute before, he had no distinct intention about the child.

I’m thinking of these characters in a novel as like people in one of Bion’s group – the a-z of human being laid out for us all to read.  Here’s one man, Godfrey Cass, bullied by his father, no love in his family life, finding love of some sort once with Molly,  and since abandoning her… abandoning his child and now denying her, even as the mother is dead or dying. The fibres of good life, of liveliness are wasting, drying up  in him. He’s becoming the insect like creature that we have seen Silas as… And at the same time , the  fibres of life are filling out again for Silas, who has been three times over broken – his mother and little sister dead, his life in Lantern Yard broken up by false accusation,  his gold stolen from  his  own home… and yet this impulse ‘almost like a revelation to him’ comes from his deepest self and is irrefutable, almost a revelation.

As Godfrey  lies even to himself in the deepest parts of his being, Silas’s nature and need is revealed to himself, the single truth emerges. He wants to love something:

“No–no–I can’t part with it, I can’t let it go,” said Silas, abruptly. “It’s come to me–I’ve a right to keep it.”…

I’d like to see someone try to take this child from him.



Silas Marner Day 19: Let Us Now Praise Powerful Women*

Hydrangea and Madonna  lilies doing a good domestic job in the drain corner

Been reading Silas Marner intermittently here on the blog. Read the previous posts by typing Silas Marner into the search box. I’m picking up in Chapter X, where we learn how what was, to everyone else in the village, the subject of interesting, idle gossip (the robbery of Silas’s gold) is, to Silas himself, a possibly life-threatening trauma:

To any one who had observed him before he lost his gold, it might have seemed that so withered and shrunken a life as his could hardly be susceptible of a bruise, could hardly endure any subtraction but such as would put an end to it altogether. But in reality it had been an eager life, filled with immediate purpose which fenced him in from the wide, cheerless unknown. It had been a clinging life; and though the object round which its fibres had clung was a dead disrupted thing, it satisfied the need for clinging. But now the fence was broken down–the support was snatched away. Marner’s thoughts could no longer move in their old round, and were baffled by a blank like that which meets a plodding ant when the earth has broken away on its homeward path.

There is no getting over this.

I’d noticed before that Silas, locked into his loom, had been likened to a spider. Now he’s suffering like an ant. That ‘blank’ that meets the ant ‘when the earth has broken away on its homeward path’ is memorable: there’s something so pathetic about the inability of the creature to  get over, get round, see beyond the breakage which has  stopped it. I always feel a bit scared when I see that – and  that feeling of fear must be because its only a step away from imagining what I might look like to someone much, much bigger, when I am butting up against my insurmountable problems. The  clash of those two perspectives – the stuck and the  bigger picture – is painful. But here we are  – as a not-Silas, imagining perhaps  ‘you could get over it’, but as Silas, just feeling ‘never get over it’. As Emily Dickinson says, ‘the feet,mechanical, go round.’

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

However, Marner does  gain something from his terrible loss, and that is the  kindness of his village neighbours.  It would be difficult to find a modern equivalent to this – maybe workmates’ kindness? For those of us in work, possibly, there can community at work. Maybe in a  street where people are largely unemployed and are also a relativity static population, so have the chance of knowing each other? But for many of us  – no. This wouldn’t happen. We’re not connected enough. Hence the growing UK epidemic of loneliness.

But for Silas, the feel of the village changes: people stop thinking him a witch and start thinking of him as ‘a poor mushed creatur’: and thus along with gifts of black pudding and pigs pettitoes,

Neighbours … showed a disposition not only to greet Silas and discuss his misfortune at some length when they encountered him in the village, but also to take the trouble of calling at his cottage and getting him to repeat all the details on the very spot; and then they would try to cheer him by saying, “Well, Master Marner, you’re no worse off nor other poor folks, after all; and if you was to be crippled, the parish ‘ud give you a ‘lowance.”

One of the neighbours we meet now is Mrs Dolly Winthrop – one of the greatest women in literature, and on a par for me with Paulina, the  powerful matriarchal force at the centre of The Winter’s Tale. Dolly is a do-er,  full of energy and  kindness: all respects a woman of scrupulous conscience, so eager for duties that life seemed to offer them too scantily unless she rose at half-past four, though this threw a scarcity of work over the more advanced hours of the morning, which it was a constant problem with her to remove. Yet she had not the vixenish temper which is sometimes supposed to be a necessary condition of such habits: she was a very mild, patient woman, whose nature it was to seek out all the sadder and more serious elements of life, and pasture her mind upon them.

Dolly is ‘eager for duties’, ( this is like Paulina,  faced with a mad and dangerous King, deciding he must be spoken to and resolving ‘He must be told on’t, and he shall. The office becomes a woman best: I’ll take it upon me.’) In the days when most women had no access to careers, women like Paulina and Dolly, who might be running NHS Trusts or Government Departments now, had to use their considerable energy in private life, in relationship management. George Eliot (like Shakespeare?) adores such women.

Before we go back to Silas  I want to notice the use of the verb ‘pasture’ at the end of the section above. We’ve already noticed natural-process metaphors of the seed/harvest type, but  ‘pasture’ is a strange one, isn’t it? It makes Dolly’s mind like a farm animal (for these are the animals that are put to pasture), and that makes Dolly like a workhorse, cow, beast of burden? Patient, mild, but working. Strong. And her mind, when her nature makes her ‘seek out all the sadder and more serious elements of life’, gets to work on those sad and serious things, which is a great place for human mind to be.  It doesn’t feel a quick mind, it feels slow and steady, even ruminant. But strong and present. It will do a good job.

There’s a thought here, which I really don’t have time to write out carefully today, about this kind of ‘work’, a kind of work George Eliot herself was particularly good at: the application of intellect and heart to profound human problems.

Yesterday I spent several hours in a Design Team meeting at Calderstones, with a gender balance of three women and eleven men.  The men were architects, structural engineers, mechanical engineers, health and safety men, quantity surveyors… they were practical men who know about electrical cables and trenches,  bat droppings in roof spaces, loads on beams and lengths of ducting. I was suddenly aware that they were men operating, as it were,  a piece of machinery (the machine: the design/build meeting) which men have been operating for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.  Groups of men like this designed the pyramids and put up stonehenge as well as most of the houses we’ve ever had, and I was aware of a culture of men, and the long history of that culture: men in their  structures and specific and hierarchical roles, they all knew where they were and what their bit of the job was, and they got a lot of stuff built. The women in the room were two of us Reader people, ‘the client’, and  the architectural assistant, and that made me think…

What were the women doing all those thousands of years while the men were holding design-build meetings and digging  trenches and  felling oak trees?  They were having babies and  hoeing turnips, looking after toddlers and making clay pots, running dairies and being prostitutes, nursing the sick, laying out the dead, picking  barley. But the boys are having design-build meetings and thinking about smoke escape routes, and drainage and value-engineering.  As Talking Heads sing,

The girls don’t want to play like that,
They just want to talk to the boys.
They just want to do what is in their hearts,
And the girls want to be with the girls.

And very powerful and naturally intelligent women, like George Eliot (aka Marian Evans) and Dolly Winthrop… what did they do with their brains back in the day  when women could not become structural engineers? Marian Evans  could cook a Harvest Home supper for 60 and bottle preserves with the best of them, and by night she used her brain, teaching herself,  as a  young woman, German, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Italian and complex mathematics at home from books. She was of a class that could buy books, and her father (a design-build man if ever there was one) recognised the brightness of his daughter, and gave her an account at the local bookshop and got her access to the library of his employer at Arbury Hall. But a Dolly Winthrop, with a such a brain, growing up in the peasant class in a rural village? Well, let us see what George Eliot makes of her.

But first, going back to the book, we turn again  to Silas, and see how he will take to Dolly, with her nature and her mind, coming into his life:

Formerly, his heart had been as a locked casket with its treasure inside; but now the casket was empty, and the lock was broken. Left groping in darkness, with his prop utterly gone, Silas had inevitably a sense, though a dull and half-despairing one, that if any help came to him it must come from without; and there was a slight stirring of expectation at the sight of his fellow-men, a faint consciousness of dependence on their goodwill. He opened the door wide to admit Dolly, but without otherwise returning her greeting than by moving the armchair a few inches as a sign that she was to sit down in it.

Interesting that before his loss Silas didn’t have any sense of dependence on the goodwill of fellow-men, but now  with nothing else to turn to, he has ‘a faint consciousness of dependence on their goodwill’.

Excellent. Silas is partially set up for some sort of help, and Dolly is primed to give it.

*My title today calls on James Agee’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Silas Marner Day 18 : Acting on the Better Will

Lilies golden light 19 June

Been reading Silas Marner intermittently here on the blog. Read the previous posts by typing Silas Marner into the search box.

I’m picking up in Chapter IX, and first notice how carefully I need to read this account of Squire Cass. It would be easy to read what you think is there rather than what George Eliot really wants us to see. The Squire is

a tall, stout man of sixty, with a face in which the knit brow and rather hard glance seemed contradicted by the slack and feeble mouth. His person showed marks of habitual neglect, his dress was slovenly; and yet there was something in the presence of the old Squire distinguishable from that of the ordinary farmers in the parish, who were perhaps every whit as refined as he, but, having slouched their way through life with a consciousness of being in the vicinity of their “betters”, wanted that self-possession and authoritativeness of voice and carriage which belonged to a man who thought of superiors as remote existences with whom he had personally little more to do than with America or the stars. The Squire had been used to parish homage all his life, used to the presupposition that his family, his tankards, and everything that was his, were the oldest and best; and as he never associated with any gentry higher than himself, his opinion was not disturbed by comparison.

My first glance reading seemed to say – ‘there was something about him’ despite his slovenly dress etc. But when I reread I saw that really there was nothing about him except ‘self-possession and authoritativeness of voice and carriage’. I stopped for a while to think about this. The ordinary farmers were just as ‘good’ as Cass – ‘every whit as refined as he’, which is a joke because he is not  very refined at all, and neither are the other farmers… it’s just that Cass comes with a self-belief grown by  generations of  entitlement –  ‘the presupposition that his family, his tankards, and everything that was his, were the oldest and best’. And it’s a hierarchy that stops at himself, too, because Cass never meets anyone above him … so he is always top dog in his own world. That’s what’s coming in the room with him, despite his slovenly clothes and ‘slack and feeble mouth’.

On I read…Squire Cass gets annoyed about the loss of the horse, loss of the money, and berates himself for being ‘too good a  father.’

Godfrey was silent. He was not likely to be very penetrating in his judgments, but he had always had a sense that his father’s indulgence had not been kindness, and had had a vague longing for some discipline that would have checked his own errant weakness and helped his better will.

I wonder where the thought ‘he was not likely to be very penetrating in his judgments’ comes from? Not from Godfrey Cass himself,  from George Eliot then, from the narrator of this story. The George Eliot voice is also inside Godfrey, knowing his thoughts, as well as judging him from a more external point of view. So the sentence continues  ‘but he had always had a sense that his father’s indulgence had not been kindness’. Not only that, he had ‘a vague longing for some discipline that would have checked his own errant weakness and helped his better will’. This is really interesting to me because I am interested in learning how people change. The language here, of not knowing, but somehow sensing or feeling or knowing vaguely, points to a  kind of unknown knowledge that might be in a person – a clue to being happier?  Because the morality here – ‘errant weakness/better will’ – is not morality for its own sake. Godfrey Cass is not a happy man. Being good might be good for him.

Godfrey left the room, hardly knowing whether he were more relieved by the sense that the interview was ended without having made any change in his position, or more uneasy that he had entangled himself still further in prevarication and deceit. What had passed about his proposing to Nancy had raised a new alarm, lest by some after-dinner words of his father’s to Mr. Lammeter he should be thrown into the embarrassment of being obliged absolutely to decline her when she seemed to be within his reach. He fled to his usual refuge, that of hoping for some unforeseen turn of fortune, some favourable chance which would save him from unpleasant consequences– perhaps even justify his insincerity by manifesting its prudence. And in this point of trusting to some throw of fortune’s dice, Godfrey can hardly be called specially old-fashioned. Favourable Chance, I fancy, is the god of all men who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in. Let even a polished man of these days get into a position he is ashamed to avow, and his mind will be bent on all the possible issues that may deliver him from the calculable results of that position. Let him live outside his income, or shirk the resolute honest work that brings wages, and he will presently find himself dreaming of a possible benefactor, a possible simpleton who may be cajoled into using his interest, a possible state of mind in some possible person not yet forthcoming. Let him neglect the responsibilities of his office, and he will inevitably anchor himself on the chance that the thing left undone may turn out not to be of the supposed importance. Let him betray his friend’s confidence, and he will adore that same cunning complexity called Chance, which gives him the hope that his friend will never know. Let him forsake a decent craft that he may pursue the gentilities of a profession to which nature never called him, and his religion will infallibly be the worship of blessed Chance, which he will believe in as the mighty creator of success. The evil principle deprecated in that religion is the orderly sequence by which the seed brings forth a crop after its kind.

Interesting that chance is so set up against law – any law? ‘Favourable Chance, I fancy, is the god of all men who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in.’ is the difference about sticking true to some belief, not so much what the belief is? But the ultimate law for George Eliot here, is the law of consequences in human action,’the orderly sequence by which the seed brings forth a crop after its kind.’

In the religion of chance there is no such law – one hopes for a lucky break. But in the religion of consequences, you know that if you do x, then y will follow.  The sense of the  consequence following – pursuing  – Godfrey is getting a bit frightening. Is his sense of self-worth strong enough to make him take action?

Thinking of the way Godfrey has been brought up by Squire Cass, partly bullied, partly over-indulged. Thinking of the potential good that there might be in Godfrey and which he himself senses.  After all, many men would not have married the alcoholic woman he (presumably) got pregnant. He married her out of ‘compunction’.  That compunction may be a form of  weakness and an attempt to halt the process whereby ‘the seed brings forth a crop after its kind’. Compunction is an  interesting word –  being sharply pricked  – being hurt by remorse… I wonder what  a person like Godfrey, with some sense of  ‘could do better’ – can do to change? and is that going to be possible?  What would need to be in place? Is the pain of compunction what is needed,  or the discipline he somehow vaguely longs for but cannot self-supply?  How is he going to shore up his ‘better will’?

Often we need outside help, new habits, a voice over the shoulder helping us create those new habits…I’m wondering about Miss Nancy Lammeter, could she be the discipline Godfrey needs? … But then, Godfrey is already  married!


Silas Marner day 17: Fathers and Sons

front garden
‘All experience is an arch wherethrough…’ Front garden, evening, June 12

I’m late this morning – I’m writing on the train to Bristol, where I’m going to visit The Reader’s South West colleagues. This little Midland train is a commuter train, full of people heading into work at Birmingham. We’re in George Eliot country.

Been reading Silas Marner intermittently here on the blog. Read the previous posts by typing Silas Marner into the search box.

I’m picking up in Chapter VIII, where Godfrey Cass has been skirting around the idea of telling his father all his troubles, his will holding fast to the idea of a confession…more or less. But Godfrey is scared of his father, and I’m interested in the sentences George Eliot gives us to sketch in their relationship – perhaps a clue as to the way our Godfrey grew up (and to brother Dunstan, too). No free-standing adult wants to blame their parents for who or what they are, and yet, every child owes much to its parenting.

The old Squire was an implacable man: he made resolutions in violent anger, and he was not to be moved from them after his anger had subsided– as fiery volcanic matters cool and harden into rock.

I want to look up t he word ‘implacable’  here. I know it means something like ‘ not to be moved.’ (looked it up here – much more to do with lack of peaceableness). You can’t easily make peace with him. That strength which he has – his violent anger, his rock-hard resolution – is not at all the strength of peace or secure self. Is this a model for boys to grow up with?

Like many violent and implacable men, he allowed evils to grow under favour of his own heedlessness, till they pressed upon him with exasperating force, and then he turned round with fierce severity and became unrelentingly hard. This was his system with his tenants: he allowed them to get into arrears, neglect their fences, reduce their stock, sell their straw, and otherwise go the wrong way,–and then, when he became short of money in consequence of this indulgence, he took the hardest measures and would listen to no appeal.

George Eliot is describing a class of humans, like a biologist identifying traits in a type of fish: these are the recognisable, classifiable, behaviours of a certain type of man. ‘He allowed evils to grow under favour of his own heedlessness,’ shows us a relationship between perhaps deliberate – certainly agreeable, chosen – lack of care and attention, which seems rather mild and perhaps no more than morally lazy, but results in ‘evils.’ I can’t help but see this applying to his sons, Godfrey and Dunstan, who have grown – perhaps not  evil, but in Godfrey’s case  not good, and in Dunstan’s case bad – under their father’s care: was he heedless? Godfrey certainly knows his father’s character, though that does not make him sympathetic to his father’s flaws;

Godfrey knew all this, and felt it with the greater force because he had constantly suffered annoyance from witnessing his father’s sudden fits of unrelentingness, for which his own habitual irresolution deprived him of all sympathy. (He was not critical of the faulty indulgence which preceded these fits; that seemed to him natural enough.)

The father’s ‘unrelentingness’ is contrasted with Godfrey’s ‘irresolution’. These are opposites which seems to drive each other further apart. You might think they might mutually correcting – that someone who was irresolute might learn from who had something like the opposite – but isn’t ‘unrelenting’ going too far in the other direction to help? On the other hand, ‘he was not critical of the faulty indulgence which preceded these fits; that seemed to him natural enough’ – Godfrey only sees part of his father’s behaviour, and it suits him to do so, because the ‘faulty indulgence’  must sometimes throw some good in Godfrey’s own direction – and as he is irresolute so me must be temporarily glad of that indulgence, despite knowing that the angry unrelentingness will come.

Thinking about the kind of discussion that might happen at this point, I’d want to ask  questions about how we make these choices to put up with (a) because we sometimes get (b). What wanting (b) very badly might do to our ability to judge the morality of  (a). Good to think of some examples of this from our own real lives.

But then, press on with Godfrey.

Still there was just the chance, Godfrey thought, that his father’s pride might see this marriage in a light that would induce him to hush it up, rather than turn his son out and make the family the talk of the country for ten miles round.

Godfrey has to reckon up his father’s likely behaviour – will his anger come, or will he be more worried about family shame? So his thoughts go round;

This was the view of the case that Godfrey managed to keep before him pretty closely till midnight, and he went to sleep thinking that he had done with inward debating. But when he awoke in the still morning darkness he found it impossible to reawaken his evening thoughts; it was as if they had been tired out and were not to be roused to further work.

I laughed i recognition at this. You spend all evening going over it. you manage to get to sleep thinking it is settled, then you wake to a kind of deadness – that’s not it, you’re thinking and last night’s resolutions seem to have disappeared. I liked the sleeping metaphor – Godfrey can’t reawaken his thoughts – ‘as if they had been tired out’.  I wonder if this edging towards the making of language about personal morality and choice. I ask myself   -is that what it feels like when my will goes absent? not dead – just sleeping, but not to be roused? a kind of exhaustion, or a kind of laziness?

Instead of arguments for confession, he could now feel the presence of nothing but its evil consequences: the old dread of disgrace came back–the old shrinking from the thought of raising a hopeless barrier between himself and Nancy– the old disposition to rely on chances which might be favourable to him, and save him from betrayal. Why, after all, should he cut off the hope of them by his own act? He had seen the matter in a wrong light yesterday.

Resolution – thought, rationality, determination – choice – ? – is asleep ,  and what Godfrey is aware of is a kind of gut feeling: ‘he could now feel the presence of nothing but its evil consequences: the old dread of disgrace came back.’ This is a feeling of fear.  The grown up child of the father with the implacable anger is afraid. The implacability seems written into the nature of the universe. Mostly, it comes between Godfrey and the possibility of love – Nancy. As the universe is implacable, you can only rely on luck, whim, chance: there’s no arguing your case, no sense that you could affect the course of things. thus ‘ the old disposition to rely on chances which might be favourable to him, and save him.’

He had been in a rage with Dunstan, and had thought of nothing but a thorough break-up of their mutual understanding; but what it would be really wisest for him to do, was to try and soften his father’s anger against Dunsey, and keep things as nearly as possible in their old condition. If Dunsey did not come back for a few days (and Godfrey did not know but that the rascal had enough money in his pocket to enable him to keep away still longer), everything might blow over.

Let’s work round the  old man, the child thinks.  Poor Godfrey. It doesn’t bode well.

Silas Marner Day 16: Forensic Detail

Artemisia bearing the storms,  11 June

Been reading Silas Marner intermittently here. Read the previous posts by typing Silas Marner into the search box.

I’m picking up in Chapter VIII, where the village of Raveloe, both inside and outside The Rainbow,  is coming to terms with Silas Marner’s robbery.  If we were reading in a Shared Reading group, I’m sure, while I’d be pushing on, pushing on…we’d want to have a laugh about the ear-rings and the tendency to blame a stranger, especially if he looked as though he had ‘a swarthy foreignness of complexion which boded little honesty’.

But we read on to meet with Godfrey Cass, out  chasing his brother Dunstan, and the money he might have made from the sale of wildfire. In this conversation between Cass and fellow horse-enthusiast, Bryce, who  tells Godfrey about the death of the horse during the hunt, I was struck by the little insertion of  a hugely important feeling:

“And so you _did_ give him leave to sell the horse, eh?” said Bryce.
“Yes; I wanted to part with the horse – he was always a little too hard in the mouth for me,” said Godfrey; his pride making him wince under the idea that Bryce guessed the sale to be a matter of necessity. “I was going to see after him–I thought some mischief had happened. I’ll go back now,” he added, turning the horse’s head, and wishing he could get rid of Bryce; for he felt that the long-dreaded crisis in his life was close upon him. “You’re coming on to Raveloe, aren’t you?”

Chatting, holding your end up, keeping a game-face on and all the time feeling ‘that the long-dreaded crisis in his life was close upon him.’ George Eliot carries on with the chat until Bryce turns off on his own road.  That’s a place to stop and consider why a human would squash that terrible feeling into such a small space. And what can happen next?  He’s got to face it.

Godfrey rode along slowly, representing to himself the scene of confession to his father from which he felt that there was now no longer any escape. The revelation about the money must be made the very next morning; and if he withheld the rest, Dunstan would be sure to come back shortly, and, finding that he must bear the brunt of his father’s anger, would tell the whole story out of spite, even though he had nothing to gain by it. There was one step, perhaps, by which he might still win Dunstan’s silence and put off the evil day: he might tell his father that he had himself spent the money paid to him by Fowler; and as he had never been guilty of such an offence before, the affair would blow over after a little storming. But Godfrey could not bend himself to this. He felt that in letting Dunstan have the money, he had already been guilty of a breach of trust hardly less culpable than that of spending the money directly for his own behoof; and yet there was a distinction between the two acts which made him feel that the one was so much more blackening than the other as to be intolerable to him.

“I don’t pretend to be a good fellow,” he said to himself; “but I’m not a scoundrel–at least, I’ll stop short somewhere. I’ll bear the consequences of what I _have_ done sooner than make believe I’ve done what I never would have done. I’d never have spent the money for my own pleasure–I was tortured into it.”

We have got to remember that Godfrey  has been blackmailed by his brother. Yes, as he does, here. Not good but not a scoundrel, he tells himself, and with some self-pity, ‘I was tortured into it.’

Blackmail is a particularly difficult moral knot, isn’t it? In my shared Reading group I’d want to stop here for some time, thinking hard about this bit.

Maybe spelling it out:

  1. Godfrey is secretly married to an addict – an act of ‘compunction’, which he bitterly regrets  -what was behind that, I wonder? If you are ‘not a scoundrel’ but end oup having to marry someone you don’t love… what you been up to?
  2. Dunstan has been blackmailing him about this
  3. Godfrey took rent from one of his father’s tennants and gave it to Dunstan – not good, but not a scoundrel ? – Is this man misjudging himself? is he more  of a scoundrel than he thinks?
  4. Father  now going after the tennant because no rent has come through
  5. Godfrey agrees to sell horse to raise cash
  6. Dunstan kills horse in accident
  7. Dunstan steals Silas Marner’s money and disappears – no one knows he did it
  8. Godfrey has no horse, no money and no idea where his brother is…and still mainly concerned to get off with as little trouble as possible… because he’s not a scoundrel…

What would you do?

Godfrey decides to confess everything. This is what matters most in today’s reading, and I’d  be steering my group to this point – we’ve got to get to this point, today!

Through the remainder of this day Godfrey, with only occasional fluctuations, kept his will bent in the direction of a complete avowal to his father, and he withheld the story of Wildfire’s loss till the next morning, that it might serve him as an introduction to heavier matter. The old Squire was accustomed to his son’s frequent absence from home, and thought neither Dunstan’s nor Wildfire’s non-appearance a matter calling for remark. Godfrey said to himself again and again, that if he let slip this one opportunity of confession, he might never have another; the revelation might be made even in a more odious way than by Dunstan’s malignity: _she_ might come as she had threatened to do. And then he tried to make the scene easier to himself by rehearsal: he made up his mind how he would pass from the admission of his weakness in letting Dunstan have the money to the fact that Dunstan had a hold on him which he had been unable to shake off, and how he would work up his father to expect something very bad before he told him the fact.

I’d want to spread this out, to look in forensic detail at Godfrey Cass’s thinking. So I’d take it one sentence at a time:

Through the remainder of this day Godfrey, with only occasional fluctuations, kept his will bent in the direction of a complete avowal to his father, and he withheld the story of Wildfire’s loss till the next morning, that it might serve him as an introduction to heavier matter.

First, I’d want to imagine those ‘occasional fluctuations’ of the will. What a long day it must have been for Godfrey, waiting to confess.  What is will, I’d want to ask my group members to consider? How do you exert it, or does it control you? Who can resist the prompting for a biscuit/fag/drink/desire to do what you want? Is it will that helps us do this? And how much is will actually habit?

Thinking also of the self-control that is needed not to mention the loss of Wildfire. Godfrey is managing the situation and to a large extent his own feelings in order to produce the outcome he wants – as little trouble from his  father as possible.

Next, I’d want to look at this:

Godfrey said to himself again and again, that if he let slip this one opportunity of confession, he might never have another; the revelation might be made even in a more odious way than by Dunstan’s malignity: she might come as she had threatened to do.

This repetition  – again and again – is clearly connected to the bending of Godfrey’s  will. And the thing of which he is most frightened – that ‘she might come as she had threatened to do.’, is the thing he uses to hold his will to the point. He is scared.

And then he tried to make the scene easier to himself by rehearsal: he made up his mind how he would pass from the admission of his weakness in letting Dunstan have the money to the fact that Dunstan had a hold on him which he had been unable to shake off, and how he would work up his father to expect something very bad before he told him the fact.

Rehearsing is a very  good idea. But the planning of how to  manage his father – ‘he would work up his father to expect something very bad before he told him the fact’ – is manipulative. He’s thinking ahead in order to try to control his father’s emotional response. We have to ask ourselves what kind of man is Squire Cass that he has brought these sons into being? And behind that  there is a question about the validity of class as way of deciding what people are. George Eliot doesn’t believe that class means much. That there is a social hierarchy is a fact, there are higher and lower folks in the village, but  what people really are doesn’t seem closely connected to that hierarchy. But those are thoughts for another day.

Silas Marner Day 15: A Long Night in the Pub & and the end of Middlemarch

alb close.JPG
Albertine 5 June
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.

Silas Marner Day 14: False hope, real shock


Albertine Rose Buds and the Sky at 6.00am, 4 June

I had a marvellous day of reading yesterday at  the Ashoka Headquarters on Old Ford Road,  Bethnall Green, London. twelve of us spent the day reading parts of Jeanette Winterson’s powerful memoir and meditation on inner life, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, and some poems by a favourite poet of hers, and mine, George Herbert.  It was  really pleasing at the end of the day to hear several group members talking about going off right now to find a bookshop where they could buy Winterson’s book. I think everyone enjoyed an intense reading experience and the personal reflection and reality thrown up by the Herbert poems and Jeanette’s memoir. I really began to think: we need a weekend of this, not just a day.

Thanks to all participants – I really enjoyed reading in your company! Thanks also to Ashoka, for hosting and to Camilla for staying with us and participating in such a lively and engaged way. Thanks to colleagues at The Reader who made it happen.

I’ll be doing a version of the day (same reading materials, though something different will happen because there will be different people present) here in Liverpool on 15th June.

Reading some Silas Marner today. Use the search box to find the back issues which lead us to this point. We’re in chapter three and learning about Godfrey Cass, who at twenty-six and with a bad life mistake controlling his future, is growing bitter.

The yoke a man creates for himself by wrong-doing will breed hate in the kindliest nature; and the good-humoured, affectionate-hearted Godfrey Cass was fast becoming a bitter man, visited by cruel wishes, that seemed to enter, and depart, and enter again, like demons who had found in him a ready-garnished home.

What’s the story? He got involved with woman who is an addict, and ‘a movement  of compunction’ prompted him to marry her (we presume she has had a child). Now he can’t marry the only person who could him  become a better man (Nancy Lammeter).  The mix of kindness, good humour, affectionate-heartedness and the thing that is not mentioned here – is  weakness or stupidity or bad luck? –  has created the second half of the sentence – bitter, cruel and demons.  this is a man who can’t now stand face to face with himself, so must be distracted and amused:

What was he to do this evening to pass the time? He might as well go to the Rainbow, and hear the talk about the cock-fighting: everybody was there, and what else was there to be done? Though, for his own part, he did not care a button for cock-fighting.

Chapter four opens with a  bit of horse dealing, and goes on to the death of Wildfire. I’m reading on, getting through the story, aiming for whatever the ‘what matters’ is, wherever it is looming up. Here’s Dunstan having sold, then lost the horse, walking home, a little inebriated by his flask of brandy, finding himself out side Silas Marner’s cottage, knowing the rumours of money in there. In he goes, no Silas… and Dunstan  takes the two bags of gold. I’m reading fast, reading through plot. It’s the story, and I’m following it but it is not asking me to think – it’s just pulling me along.

If we were reading aloud in a group now, I’d be going as fast as possible, checking everyone was with me but just  getting  on with  it. No need to stop and talk. I’m at the end of the chapter, and turn the page into the next. But now we are in stop, talk  and think territory right away. why has Silas felt o.k. about leaving his cottage unlocked while he was out on an errand?:

The sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction, and for this reason it often subsists after such a change in the conditions as might have been expected to suggest alarm. The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened, is, in this logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent. A man will tell you that he has worked in a mine for forty years unhurt by an accident as a reason why he should apprehend no danger, though the roof is beginning to sink; and it is often observable, that the older a man gets, the more difficult it is to him to retain a believing conception of his own death. This influence of habit was necessarily strong in a man whose life was so monotonous as Marner’s– who saw no new people and heard of no new events to keep alive in him the idea of the unexpected and the changeful; and it explains simply enough, why his mind could be at ease, though he had left his house and his treasure more defenceless than usual.

I would ask people to think about habits, what happens when nothing happens, why we think the expanse of time where  nothing has happened  affects our thinking about whether something will. But I would be here for hours, I want to get on and reach the conclusion of this movement. And here it comes:

He rose and placed his candle unsuspectingly on the floor near his loom, swept away the sand without noticing any change, and removed the bricks. The sight of the empty hole made his heart leap violently, but the belief that his gold was gone could not come at once–only terror, and the eager effort to put an end to the terror. He passed his trembling hand all about the hole, trying to think it possible that his eyes had deceived him; then he held the candle in the hole and examined it curiously, trembling more and more. At last he shook so violently that he let fall the candle, and lifted his hands to his head, trying to steady himself, that he might think. Had he put his gold somewhere else, by a sudden resolution last night, and then forgotten it? A man falling into dark waters seeks a momentary footing even on sliding stones; and Silas, by acting as if he believed in false hopes, warded off the moment of despair. He searched in every corner, he turned his bed over, and shook it, and kneaded it; he looked in his brick oven where he laid his sticks. When there was no other place to be searched, he kneeled down again and felt once more all round the hole. There was no untried refuge left for a moment’s shelter from the terrible truth.

I’m interested in this sentence, ‘A man falling into dark waters seeks a momentary footing even on sliding stones; and Silas, by acting as if he believed in false hopes, warded off the moment of despair.’ The metaphor is such a terrible one – the man is about to drown – the sliding moving river-bed stones are no comfort at all, and I can imagine my feet on them, trying to find a footing, hoping, hoping. But in Silas’ case it is more than hoping , it is ‘by acting as if he believed in false hopes’. There’s a huge self-protecting trick playing out – he knows the hopes are false, but he’ll act as if he doesn’t, in order to gain some time before that shock has to hit him and collapse his world.  That’s a self-protective human reaction to terrible shock. I fear for him as he braves it.

More of chapter five tomorrow.