Goodbye, Philip Roth and all that manly stuff…

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Unknown tree with blossom – what can it be? Calderstones Park, May 22

In The Times obituary for Philip Roth this morning, hundreds of words about sex, masturbation, bad marriages, the grump he was and thumbnails of various not so great Roth novels I’ve not read. And then a passing mention of , but no words about, American Pastoral, the novel that made me realise Philip Roth was a great writer. Mingled yarn thoughts arise about our lives and our judgements.

Roth was  of a generation which  perhaps in retrospect was rightly anxious about the changing place of women in the  human universe. Contraception in the form of a pill under women’s own control changed everything. Those guys were right to be worried: Mrs wasn’t going to stay home and cooks gefilte fish from now on. Philip Roth said his mother, who worked as a secretary ‘raised housekeeping to an art form’.  There were generations of women behind that art form (an art form I’ve not practised much, though increasingly begin to value. Need to think about this another time). But in the 1950s, 1960s, the patriarchy,  as we called it when I was a radical young feminist in 1976 though now I think we might have called it  human biology or history, was beginning to teeter towards extinction. Whatever it was that left women and children in the cave or picking berries when men went hunting, it really couldn’t, or simply didn’t, begin to change until women had control of their own reproduction. Now, there are Dads changing nappies everywhere, non-gendered pronouns (how I longed for them in my mid-twenties!) women running a few bits of  the army and banks, men in high heels and lipstick and yet – to my mind, unfortunately – more woman-violating pornography  than ever before. We’re in the thick of revolution and it’s not over yet.  But, back to Philip Roth.

It was the maleness that put me off: I could never face Portnoy’s Complaint, though I heard it was funny.  That obsessed-but-begrudging enslavement to women was an unhappy part of those great  New York Jewish writers – Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud – who came just before Roth. They had some good stuff, oh, lovely caring humane books, but you had to hurry past all that not so good weirdness about wanting but fearing  the wanting of women. Roth always seemed even more like that. Until I read American Pastoral.

I don’t make a political judgement about this anymore.  I  see the colours and think I think, that’s what they are/were. That was true about them. And I  look for the good stuff. As you might do with a person. Our bad stuff is there, and you have to take it on sometimes, but a lot of the time you have to work round it or take no notice. You look for the good, notice the good.

The good in American Pastoral?  Big. Sad. Painful. Sprawling, and  perhaps, as The Times obituarist says, ‘seemingly careless of the fundamentals of organisation’, though I didn’t notice that.  This novel kept me up at night when I first read it. I woke my husband saying, ‘listen to this sentence… he’s writing like George Eliot.’

‘No, he’s not’ said partner and went back to sleep.

But there was something magnificent, grand, going on. It was  a sort of modern american rewrite of Paradise Lost. Everything starts off fine and then goes horribly wrong. Then you get the thistles and  bringing forth children in labour and the tower of Babel.

page from AP

Angry, disappointed, moved, Philip Roth writes out the loss of paradise he lived through, the loss of the American Dream he grew up in, the loss, of commerce as a decent thing, the loss of cities as civilised places, the loss of heroes, the loss of family.  It’s a panoramic vision, a sorrowful book full of good stuff. See how he drops the tank but comes on his ‘own ten toes’? That’s a boxer’s stance. He may not be in an armoured vehicle but he’s still fighting.  Because can you forget ‘being right or wrong about people’?  Mingled yarn, mingled yarn. A great book, separating out some strands of colour and getting us to notice them.




A sentence worth stopping for… how I read prose in my Shared Reading group


I’m reading Celia, a novel by E.H. Young, 1880-1946. She’s a woman, a provincial person and her novels are quietly domestic, largely about women’s lives. I read Young’s Miss Mole a while ago, recommended by my beautiful recommender, Angie Macmillan (editor, A Little Aloud) and it has stayed quietly in my mind, asking me to re-read it, maybe during the Christmas break. You’ll find half a dozen of E.H. Young’s novels in the old Virago Modern Classics series  – worth seeking out in second-hand shops.

At the beginning of the book, Celia and her cleaner, Miss Riggs, are  working on a clean-out in one of the bedrooms and talking about the (recent, to them) First World War, where a generation of men, including Miss Riggs’ fiance, were wiped out. Miss Riggs is thinking about the fate of men who came back from the war. They’ve come back from the biggest thing that’ll ever happen to them ( risking their lives at war) and now they’ve got ordinary daily life;

‘The baby cries and the man gets vexed, and may be, the money’s short. There’s nothing that ever happened as big as what the little things mount up to as the years go by. Having words with each other or trying not to and that’s worse, and this done and that undone. Oh, it’s a mountain! And that’s where I think I’m lucky. You never know what life’ll do to you. Death’s kinder, often. Very comical he was, too. He wouldn’t laugh himself, but he’d make me, right enough, and that’s the kind that makes you laugh most, isn’t it? Often times I laugh now, when I think of the things he’d say. But what if he’d come back and by this time there wasn’t a smile between us?’

I have been thinking about the difference between reading prose and reading poetry, or Shakespeare, in a  Shared Reading group. Poetry and Shakespeare may be harder, but in  a strange way that may make them easier to read and discuss because there is so much to notice; nothing is normal,  everything is up for question. Whereas when we’re reading a novel, a short story, often the  narrative itself takes over and the headlong rush to see what happens can be irresistible.  But we still need to slow it down so we can think about what we’re reading and share our responses.

But how do you know where to stop?

As I’m reading, I’d be reading with a pencil and I’d mark bits where I felt something as I read. You’ve got to look out for your felt responses. At first they can be hard to spot – like Matthew Arnold’s ‘Buried Life’ (see previous posts) those feeling responses can be buried out of sight.

Sometimes people think this finding somewhere to stop and talk is about noticing  good writing and perhaps because of school leftover habits, they  think this means descriptions of stuff, nature etc. (‘The writer successfully conveys a picture of the fruit and veg in the shop window’). No.

I’m talking about feelings.

Where do you feel moved? What touches you? Where do you care about what is written?

In preparing a Shared Reading group with prose, you’ve got to read slowly enough to feel your own feelings in the first place.

In this novel I was really struck by this page. Miss Riggs seems to have kept her happiness by losing the actual man – can that really be so? I was trying to work out if she was fooling herself. But when I stopped to re-read, the bit that really got me was this sentence:

There’s nothing that ever happened as big as what the little things mount up to as the years go by.

This may not be a universal truth, but it rang a big bell with me about the shape of life and the  power of the little things that seem so insignificant.

I felt something, and I suppose you’d call it recognition.

Some biggish things have happened in my life – can’t go into them here, but say, the death of my mother, which profoundly affected me for ten, fifteen years, midlife. Other things, bigger than that. But whatever the impact of those big things, it remains true that the little things add up. Say adult life begins at 21, and we assume an adult life  is about ffity years, then fifty years of day to day do become very big, very dominant, and possibly, the biggest thing. Small matters.

I loved the fact that  Ms Young picks up this ‘things mount up’ thought and turns it in the next sentence but one into ‘a mountain’.

There’s nothing that ever happened as big as what the little things mount up to as the years go by. Having words with each other or trying not to and that’s worse, and this done and that undone. Oh, it’s a mountain!

It’s a mountain alright, but one we often can’t even see.

I thought this was a good bit because it made me feel – almost like an ouch! – at first, and then it allowed me to think. I thought this is good writing,  good because it makes connections and makes me both nod acknowledgement and think about some  bits of real experience. It’s real.

In my Shared Reading group I’d want to stop here, and  get some conversation going about what the big things seem to be –  getting married or not, the day your first child is born, gaining or losing a job –  and then share our thoughts on the reality of the long stretch of  life, also a big thing, but much harder, perhaps because it is so big, to see.


Just Finished: There Were No Windows by Norah Hoult

Alchemilla Mollis taking advantage of the rain to look good in the front garden

Readers of a nervous disposition look  away now. This was a grim and frightening read.

And yet here I am recommending it to anyone who may have the stomach for it. It’s about a woman living with dementia, written before we had begun to understand the disease.

I only know about dementia at some distance: I’ve met and read with people living with the disease in care homes, and I have heard the distressing stories of friends whose parents have lived and died  with it.

The novel, first published in 1944,  is set in London during the war, and that external hell seems to be a kind of showing forth of the internal hell that is the life of  Claire Temple as she  loses her self and descends into fear, paranoia and desperation.

Oddly,  after I finished the book I found myself thinking back to the toddler book, Chickens, that I wrote about yesterday.  Is There Were No Windows a single subject book? No, not really, though it is ‘about’ dementia, but it is also about  the second world war, the breaking down of the  Edwardian class system, the value of life, the meanings lives may have. It is about being a particular person – Mrs Temple, but also about her  cook, Kathleen, the  paid companion, Miss Jones, and Doctor Fairfax all take turns to lend the reader their consciousness as they each live  in their own particular way with this terrible situation.  So while there is insight into  what dementia looked like and how it was understood  before we knew what it was ( people describe Claire as losing her memory/ a difficult person to deal with/sometimes incontinent/mad/mental/possessed) the really compelling aspects of the book are the direct human experiences. And the key experience is not so much dementia as loneliness. ‘There were no windows’, as the title of the book has it,  because Claire, and perhaps the other people in the story, are shut in to themselves, alone. Claire is lonely because she is trapped in the house with none of the literary/social life from which life was built.

Here she is having supper with her friend Edith, who comes to see her once a week, Edith pressing her to eat:

‘…And you really must have some tart.’
‘Must I?’
‘You see, if you don’t eat your memory will just go on getting worse and worse. You won’t make enough blood to feed your brain, you know.’
‘I know what you mean. You mean pernicious anemia. I do try and eat, but it’s so lonely having all my meals by myself. It’s like living in a cave without having any scenery about one. People have always been my scenery, you see. The props and the decor. Remove them, and really what’s the good of having the play at all? I always so disliked those horrid little repertory theatres with no orchestra, and everything done in the dark or else in the kitchen. Cook does occasionally let me have my meals with her in the kitchen. Would you and your sister come here to live, and then we could all have our meals together? It would be so nice.’
Edith paused a moment and drew a deep breath. The she said:
‘Apart from everything else, my sister wouldn’t dream of moving further into London with the increased risk of bombs.’
‘I thought only the lower classes were afraid of bombs. They go into shelters and down the Tubes. Does your sister go into a shelter?’
‘No, she doesn’t because we haven’t got one.’
‘Poor Lisa gets frightened. Oh where is Lisa? I must find her.’ Mrs Temple rose with a distracted air.
‘Sit down, Claire. you know we agreed some time ago that when I came to lunch on Sunday the cat should be kept downstairs, don’t you remember?’
Reluctantly Mrs Temple sat down and reached for her glass.

There’s a grim humour in the book  as sometimes there is in life when  domestic situations are very hard. I enjoyed the chapter where some younger visitors take Claire to the pub, where she is conspicuously out-of-place and remarks to the assembled company ‘Isn’t this nice? I mean to see everybody drinking so happily together… This is public house, isn’t it? I do think it is  so pleasant to see everybody sitting together and drinking. Why don’t I  come here more often?’

The pub is lively, compared to home, and Claire enjoys it, though she quickly alienates everyone with her posh toff voice and patronising approval. Minutes latershe is screaming in panic, not understanding why she is in a taxi.

It’s a tough read, so I’ve read it slowly, a little bit each night, and it has felt like drinking  fish oil.

Why do I think, despite my fear of the content, that it is good for me to read it? Why didn’t I just give up, as I give up on many books?  What in me wants to read it?

I’m sixty-one and think about  old age, death, dying, dementia  more than I used to – possibly every day at some point some such thought will be in  my mind. I need to think – how am I going to do this mountainous task  of getting old and dying that lies ahead?  I glimpse the foothills now. Gotta get smart, as Les Murray’s poem says.  I have got something to learn  about getting through the next decade or two.  There was learning  in this novel, and  that’s why I continued to read, despite the darkness of it. I want to know what is going to happen.

There a really good section at the end when the doctor thinks over his thoughts about ends of life.   I won’t reproduce it now –  no time for all that typing –  but he sets up some very interesting questions,  which would be good to talk about sometime, when I do a Saturday Day School on Age and Ageing. If anyone has the stomach for that?

Just finished: Hester by Margaret Oliphant (Oxford World’s Classics) & remembering Broken by Jimmy McGovern

trumpet vine.JPG
Trumpet-vine blasting it out, Bay of Kotor, 18 July

I’ve been reading Hester non-stop for three days, wishing someone could write a novel about people and banking for our own times that would be anywhere as near as good as this.  Is it because we’ve created the discipline of psychology – as a sort of separate place – that this kind of writing has ceased to be of interest to novelists? If so, what a waste, because psychology, though it provides lots of interesting stuff for us, can’t do this. The novelist’s use of imagination to enter the mind and feelings of characters, to tell us what is  going on it there, to help us feel other peoples feelings and to know it through language,  is unique. But we don’t get enough of it. Or I am reading the  wrong contemporary novels? and then there is telly, the box-set, film. Soon, possibly, gaming will do this for us.

I’d been meaning to mention Broken by Jimmy McGovern. I’m sure everyone will have seen it by now but I’ll mention it anyway: here’s McGovern at the height of his considerable powers.

Film can’t do what novels do, it is a different medium, image not language-based. With language you can know, and experience, because you take the language into yourself, what a character is thinking and feeling. With film you guess, imagine, intuit.  With great film a lot of  imagination, intuition is happening.  Of course, lots of film and telly (like lots of fiction)  is also absolute dross and then a piece of work comes along that is  something else, and Broken is one of those. Jimmy McGovern said he cried writing it and I believe that’s true. Sean Bean plays the Catholic Priest at the centre of the drama and gives the performance of a lifetime, grim, loving, angry, full of feelings. The seriousness of  having  a life, inner and outer, the  strange, unfathomable  complexity of human feeling came to life as I watched  Father Michael Kerrigan, lying on an airbed beside the bed of his dying mother,  singing ‘Chattanooga Choo-Choo’.  Yes, this was the same mother who had terrorised his early childhood, and yes, that  pain was till in him, and  yet…he wanted to love his mother and be a good son and her to have a good death: they enjoyed the singing and McGovern helped me remember how complex and multi-dimensional human family relationships are…Great writing, because great understanding of and feeling for human beings. Thing is, if  Jimmy McGovern had written it in a novel, I’d be able to read it over and over…

Hester has made me think I’d like to have a year of reading Margaret Oliphant –  novels I barely remember, Salem Chapel, Miss Marjoribanks…but what I really want is someone noticing as much about human beings and getting it down in sentences… Here’s Edward, for years, almost against his will, a steady leader at Vernon’s  Bank, considering doing something really dangerous, partly for financial gain (and the freedom it would bring him) partly for the sheer self-willed hell of it :

 As his ideas disentangled themselves, there seemed to be two possibilities before him. If he threw himself into Ashton’s scheme at all, to do it as a partner in the business, not indeed with the sanction of his other partners, but, if there was risk to the firm in his proceedings at large, to make them profitable to it in case of success. In case of success! Of course there would be success. It was inevitable that they must succeed. On the other side, the expedient was to use the money and the securities of the bank, not for the aggrandisement of Vernon’s, but for his own. This would leave the responsibility of the action entirely upon his own shoulders if anything went wrong. And he did not refuse to give a rapid glance at that contingency. What could it mean to the bank? Not ruin—he half-smiled as he thought. It would mean coming down perhaps in the world, descending from the prestige and importance of its present rank. And to himself it would mean going to the dogs—anyhow, there could be no doubt on that point.

It’s  interesting to read it slowly and follow the movements of Edward’s mind as he imagines what might go wrong:

Not ruin—he half-smiled as he thought. It would mean coming down perhaps in the world, descending from the prestige and importance of its present rank. And to himself it would mean going to the dogs—anyhow, there could be no doubt on that point.

That half-smile is weird, as if the thought of ruin actually partly  appeals – which it does because it would be a kind of punishment to Catherine Vernon, the  old lady who Edward feels rules him. His cool estimation of the damage to the Bank – ‘It would mean coming down perhaps in the world, descending from the prestige and importance of its present rank’ –  feels almost vicious, a punishment for her for which  he is willing to pay everything:  ‘And to himself it would mean going to the dogs—anyhow, there could be no doubt on that point.’

How can a sensible, long-standing man of business make a really crazy decision which seems – on the top-level – so against the cut of his character? Oh, look beneath the clothes to the  feelings of the man who has paid for his success and standing with his pride. The destruction he so easily contemplates for Vernon’s is both destruction of Catherine and of self…he despises both.

And it is not simply that desire to punish, which might be enough motivation by itself – there’s  also a kind of longing for change, for air,  for something new and lively…

But on the other side! that was better worth looking at, more worthy of consideration. It would be like pouring in new blood to stagnant veins; it would be new life coming in, new energy, something that would stir the old fabric through and through, and stimulate its steady-going, old-fashioned existence. It would be the something he had longed for—the liberating influence, new possibilities, more extended work. He thought, with an excitement that gradually overmastered him, of the rush of gain coming in like a river, and the exhilaration and new force it would bring. This idea caught him up as a strong wind might have caught him, and carried him beyond his own control.

This too is about  his position as the chosen inheritor of Catherine. He has not had a chance to be ‘new blood’, he has done her will, not his own, the ‘fabric’  is all hers. the dangerous change he is going to choose is a chance to exert his own will, ‘it would be the something he had longed for’, and this is not about money but about the chance for the play of self, the use if one’s own energy: ‘the liberating influence, new possibilities, more extended work’. Finally, he feels the power that  new money will give him and it is this that pushes him over the edge of  rational thought: ‘he thought, with an excitement that gradually overmastered him, of the rush of gain coming in like a river, and the exhilaration and new force it would bring. This idea caught him up as a strong wind might have caught him, and carried him beyond his own control.’

He has changed his mind and become a man who will now act dangerously. Small restraints have led him to the  place where he will burst his bonds.

Hard to know how you’d do this in visual. I can imagine seeing a Sean Bean from the outside, but hard to gauge or to spell out those gradations of  change?

I keep thinking, this is one  worked  example but I can  imagine the same  mental/spiritual process in  lots of different examples. In McGovern’s Broken, for example, the woman who covers up her mother’s death in order to claim her pension. In real life, the child abductor who has decided to snatch a child. (This morning I read in The Times Sara Payne, mother of murdered Sarah Payne, describing seeing Whiting (the murderer) in court for the first time and realising he ‘wasn’t a monster.’ ‘I realised, he’s just a sad, lonely person that goes after children because he can’t have a relationship with an adult.’). Whiting went through some kind of thought process before snatching that child.

Or you want to  keep your thoughts on  something more commonplace and less noticeable – the relationship between Father Michael and his  brothers: brilliant. McGovern’s Broken is full of  such moments.  He has noticed everything.

Please, write a novel, Jimmy.

Some say that  the age of the novel is over.  It is all visual now, and future is in Sky Box Sets and gaming – there’s a game of Walden now and there will be more and better to come… but  I’d argue there is a need for language that only literature answers.

But save that argument for tomorrow, time’s up, must go swim.


Finishing The Nix by Nathan Hill


the nix

Yesterday I didn’t write because I was finishing The Nix, a big, fat american novel by first time novelist Nathan Hill.

A test of a great book for me is  ‘Would I pass this over to Brian Nellist?’ The answer for The Nix is no. BN is  too choosy, too old-fashioned for this. Gilead yes,  Home, absolutely,  Housekeeping, yes: everything by Marilynne Robinson (humane, religious, serious about people ) suits him. I tried to get him into George Saunders and no. No. George Saunders is superb, is serious, but not for the Nellibobs.


Shall we cut to the chase? Here’s the ‘no’ bit of my own qualified ‘yes’.

Too plotted, too long, too many strands, too anxious to get in every possibly thing that could be got in. In some places a bit silly, a bit thin. All of which I ignored because it’s a first novel, and he’s been writing it a very long time, and it’s easy to see how hard it is to let go and – to the point – some of this is good. And that’s where I would like to concentrate my attention.

Samuel Anderson is a Professor of Literature in a small time college and his life is a mess. So for me this novel places itself in an american novel tradition: Malamud’s A New Life and Bellow’s Herzog are both  (magnificent) precursors. Anderson’s real life takes place in an internet game, and his students’ main thoughts about Hamlet are that it is way too long. Samuel, living through World of Elfscape, is not very strongly present in reality. And while not fully present, Samuel Anderson, like Levin in A New Life, must deal with a student who doesn’t like the way he has marked her work.;

This was an Introduction to Literature course, but she cared less about literature than she did about points. It wasn’t the topic of the course that mattered to her; what mattered was the currency…Laura thought only about the bottom line, her grade, the only thing that mattered.

Samuel used to mark up their papers – a with a red pen, even. He used to teach them the difference between ‘lay’ and ‘lie’, or when to use ‘that and when to use ‘which’, or how ‘affect’ is difference from ‘effect’, how ‘then’ is different from ‘than’. All that stuff. But then one day he was filling up his car at the gas station just outside campus – it’s called the EZ-Kum-In-‘n-Go – and he looked at the sign and thought, What is the point?

Really, honestly, why would they ever need to know Hamlet?

He gave a quiz and ended class thirty minutes early. He was tired. He was standing in front of that disinterested crowd and he began to feel like Hamlet in the first soliloquy: insubstantial. He wanted to disappear. He wanted his flesh to melt into a dew. This was happening a lot lately: he was feeling smaller than his body, as if his spirit had shrunk, always giving up his armrests on airplanes, always the one to move out if the way on sidewalks.

Yet Samuel himself does need Hamlet or something like it, even as he spends forty hours a week on World of Elfscape:

Why am I here? he wonders, even as he is crushed by the dragon’s tail and Axman is impaled by a falling stalactite and the healer burns to ash in a lava crevice and so the only elf remaining is Pwnage and the only way they are going to win is if Pwnage can stay alive, and the guild cheers through their headsets and the dragon’s health ticks down to four percent, three percent, two percent…

Samuel wonders, even now, so close to victory, What is the point?

There are parts where the writing is funny, superficial and clever and parts where it is deep and simple and moving. I liked that. I liked Nathan Hill’s ability to switch around. And I like the breadth – like The Goldfinch –  it gives the novel a brilliant modern-Dickensian quality. I like modern-dickensian but it’s got to keep moving and you’ve got care about some of the people. Dickens makes you cry. That matters.

Samuel was abandoned by his mother at the age of eight and the unravelling of the mystery of why is  the central thread of the novel. Here he is meeting her, with a lawyer present, for the first time in twenty years:

‘But that’s not why you’re here. Ask your real question. The thing you came here to find out.’

‘ I came here to write a letter to the judge.’

‘You did not. Go ahead. Ask your question.’

‘It’s not relevant.’

‘Just ask. Do it.’

‘It’s not important. It’s nothing -‘

‘I’d agree with that!’ the lawyer cut in. ‘Immaterial.’

‘Shut up, Simon,’ Faye said, then leveled her eyes at Samuel. ‘This question is everything. It’s why you are here. Now why don’t you stop lying and ask it.’

‘Okay. Fine. I want to know. Why did you leave me?’

And Samuel could feel the cry coming almost as soon as he said it: Why did you leave me? The question that had tormented his adolescence. He used to tell people she was dead. when they would ask about his mother it was easier to say she’d died. Because when he told them the truth, they’d wonder why she left and where she’d gone and why he didn’t know. Then they’d look at him funny, like it was his fault. Why did she leave him? It was the question that kept him awake night after night until he learned to swallow it and deny it. But asking the question now let it break back out – the shame and the loneliness and self-pity washed over the question so that he was barely able to pronounce the last word before his throat tightened and he could feel himself on the verge of crying.

The answer takes us back the the Chicago anti-Vietnam protests of 1968. And further back still. ‘Every memory is really a scar,’ Faye says to her son.

You’ll visit a brilliant 1950 Home Ec. room, see Alan Ginsberg  chanting, understand the feeling of being crushed in a demo, see northern Norway,  and feel the power of  community in  of World of Elfscape. Yes, there’s a wacky panorama of time and space, but the best things were little confused moments inside people, such as when teenage Faye makes a connection with a line of Ginsberg poetry, ‘Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower?’ Faye’s life as a troubled ordinary small town teenage girl is one of the best things in the book. I also lovedthe World of Elfscape stuff – written from the heart and hopeful for humans.

There are not many contemporary novels I can finish – I’m not glad about that. At 600-odd pages this was a long one, but it kept me with it through to the end. Looking forward to whatever Nathan Hill does next.



Coming Up from the Bottom of The Ocean

Forget-Me-Nots remind me of my maternal Grandfather, Syd Smith

Today I’m continuing to read Silas Marner very slowly…we’re in Chapter 1.  If you want to read from the beginning search for the tag ‘Silas Marner’.

Yesterday we’d just been thinking about the boys pestering Marner and their fear that he might be able to put some kind of spell on them.

They had, perhaps, heard their fathers and mothers hint
that Silas Marner could cure folks’ rheumatism if he had a mind, and
add, still more darkly, that if you could only speak the devil fair
enough, he might save you the cost of the doctor. Such strange
lingering echoes of the old demon-worship might perhaps even now be
caught by the diligent listener among the grey-haired peasantry; for
the rude mind with difficulty associates the ideas of power and
benignity. A shadowy conception of power that by much persuasion
can be induced to refrain from inflicting harm, is the shape most
easily taken by the sense of the Invisible in the minds of men who
have always been pressed close by primitive wants, and to whom a
life of hard toil has never been illuminated by any enthusiastic
religious faith. To them pain and mishap present a far wider range
of possibilities than gladness and enjoyment: their imagination is
almost barren of the images that feed desire and hope, but is all
overgrown by recollections that are a perpetual pasture to fear.
“Is there anything you can fancy that you would like to eat?” I
once said to an old labouring man, who was in his last illness, and
who had refused all the food his wife had offered him. “No,” he
answered, “I’ve never been used to nothing but common victual, and
I can’t eat that.” Experience had bred no fancies in him that
could raise the phantasm of appetite.

Lots of things could go wrong here and I’ve had experiences in Shared Reading groups where they have. Sometimes readers think the writer is snob. But we’ve come a long way since George Eliot wrote the book in 1861. Then, the class of people known for hundreds of years as the ‘peasantry’ still existed, uneducated country people whose lives were often of intense drudgery and hardship. I think we’d have to go to an undeveloped third world country to find such people now, though lots of us, educated to a greater or lesser degree extent here in the first world, still share some of the superstitions George Eliot is talking about here. Thinking also about a general red-top sense of paranoia about world conspiracies, the popularity of  The Da Vinci Code and a lingering popular interest in horoscopes. But this is more serious than that, isn’t it? This is about the restrictions caused by true hardship on the growth of the imagination:

To them pain and mishap present a far wider range of possibilities than gladness and enjoyment: their imagination is almost barren of the images that feed desire and hope, but is all overgrown by recollections that are a perpetual pasture to fear.

This is one of those moments of human understanding I love finding in George Eliot, and why it is necessary to go so slowly.

My first job is to make the translation into something I can picture and which will make the writing live for me. I try to think about such minds… where have I met them?

This sentence might have been written about some of the children in Care of Local Authority  that I’ve met over the years. The experience of such children, especially children who have been in many foster-placements, and with whom adults have failed to make bonds, is one of ‘pain and mishap’ ; that is the very material from which their lives seem to have been made. How should such children imagine other types of experience?

Their imagination is almost barren of the images that feed desire and hope.

What are ‘the images’ that feed desire and hope?

If I think back to my own childhood, the images often centre about my grandparents. Moments of love or pleasure, say, travelling with my grandmother on the bus round Wirral as she took me with her to her cleaning jobs in posh ladies houses (I am such a person now myself, she might come here to clean), stopping off at various country pubs for a half of bitter for her, packet of crisps and a bottle of pop for me. The names of those pubs: The Seven Stars, The Fish, The Malt Shovel, The Shrew. Her love shown in the food she bought for me, sausages, a custard slice, mixed broken biscuits. The time she spent with me as we cleanedthe brasses on a Saturday morning. My grandfather, Syd, showing me how much he enjoyed a pear and so I loved pears too, and Forget-Me-Knots, and Blackbirds. the images then – things put into my mind by experience  – are people, time, love and language.

One of The Reader’s Patrons, Frank Cottrell Boyce, told me that when making the film ‘Welcome to Sarajevo’, he had met a woman who had been in a child in the terrible orphanages of  Ceaisescu’s Romania. She had grown up to be a lovely, and loving woman, working to rescue children from the war zone. ‘How did you learn to love?’ he asked her. ‘Growing up in those conditions?’. ‘I had Heidi,’ the woman replied. ‘In the orphanage there was a copy of Heidi, so I knew that adults could be loving and kind, that children could be loved.’

But of course to read Heidi, or any book, you need to be literate: you need a basic education. I’m going back to Silas  in a moment but before I do, I want to mention  The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class by Jonathan Rose. If you don’t know this terrific book,  go and get hold  of a copy right away. There are some amazingly moving accounts of what education meant to the poorest people – people like my grandparents, and their parents, (factory-hands, labourers, domestic servants). Learning to read, says one man, was ‘like coming up from the bottom of the ocean and seeing the universe for the first time.’

I go back to the text and reread that sentence and  notice this time  that George Eliot is using a metaphor of growth.

their imagination is almost barren of the images that feed desire and hope, but is all overgrown by recollections that are a perpetual pasture to fear.

‘Barren,’ ‘overgrown’ and ‘pasture’ all point to an implied potential cycle of growth in the human mind. It isn’t that the peasantry are fixed as ‘rude'( basic, rough) minds: that’s how experience has grown them. Experience, as in the life of the old man who had only eaten ‘common victual’, determines our appetites.

Just going to read the next paragraph before closing the book for today; it’s really a quick sketch of the village: a bit cut-off from the world, old-fashioned and middle-of-the-road:

And Raveloe was a village where many of the old echoes lingered,
undrowned by new voices. Not that it was one of those barren
parishes lying on the outskirts of civilization–inhabited by
meagre sheep and thinly-scattered shepherds: on the contrary, it lay
in the rich central plain of what we are pleased to call Merry
England, and held farms which, speaking from a spiritual point of
view, paid highly-desirable tithes. But it was nestled in a snug
well-wooded hollow, quite an hour’s journey on horseback from any
turnpike, where it was never reached by the vibrations of the
coach-horn, or of public opinion. It was an important-looking
village, with a fine old church and large churchyard in the heart of
it, and two or three large brick-and-stone homesteads, with
well-walled orchards and ornamental weathercocks, standing close
upon the road, and lifting more imposing fronts than the rectory,
which peeped from among the trees on the other side of the
churchyard:–a village which showed at once the summits of its
social life, and told the practised eye that there was no great park
and manor-house in the vicinity, but that there were several chiefs
in Raveloe who could farm badly quite at their ease, drawing enough
money from their bad farming, in those war times, to live in a
rollicking fashion, and keep a jolly Christmas, Whitsun, and Easter

The irritation at bad farming by the ‘several chiefs’ who lived in ‘a rollicking fashion’ comes direct from George Eliot’s own experience. As herself, as Mary Ann Evans, she was the daughter of a very competent and hard-working Estate Manager in just such a part of the Midlands. She’s describing something like the very place she grew up. Imagination comes from real experience.

Oh dear time’s up. More tomorrow.