The women in Silas Marner (full text here) are humans who struggle under the difficulty of not being emancipated in different ways: Eppie’s drug-addicted mother Molly, the scrub-polish-make-bake-and-run-your-household-like-an-army Dolly Winthrop, and here, Nancy Lammeter. She is somewhat educated, but for no purpose, and having no children, her days are emptier than her childed sister’s, her consciousness left to ruminate on what seem at first to be the smallest and least significant of things.
What I get interested in here, as I read about Nancy, is how the author, George Eliot, an exceptionally well (self) educated woman of immense intelligence imagines the movements of the human mind. This is psychology before William James, before Freud.
Watch the way we go in and in:
Her mind not being courted by a great variety of subjects, she filled the vacant moments by living inwardly, again and again, through all her remembered experience, especially through the fifteen years of her married time, in which her life and its significance had been doubled.
Nancy’s like a woman in prison, imprisoned in her life. There is no stimulation, only repetitive reflection on her ‘remembered experience’. But what else is there for her mind to dwell on? Having little external stimulation, she must live ‘inwardly’. The only subject matter of depth she has is her relationship with her husband. At First we have no idea what Nancy is going to think about. Only very gladually do we dig down the the realiy of what is bothering her.
She recalled the small details, the words, tones, and looks, in the critical scenes which had opened a new epoch for her by giving her a deeper insight into the relations and trials of life, or which had called on her for some little effort of forbearance, or of painful adherence to an imagined or real duty– asking herself continually whether she had been in any respect blamable.
She won’t say – Nancy won’t think, won’t put into words – whatever it is we are talking about. we’re going roundthe houses.
At the same time as George Eliot is observing this action of a mind turned in on itself, she’s also noting that this is a kind of norm. This is likely, in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, to be the lot of a middle class woman: inwardness, self-judging, obsessive, the mind pacing like a caged polar bear, in its too-small arena:
This excessive rumination and self-questioning is perhaps a morbid habit inevitable to a mind of much moral sensibility when shut out from its due share of outward activity and of practical claims on its affections–inevitable to a noble-hearted, childless woman, when her lot is narrow.
Later, George Eliot will pick up this idea in the persons of other women – the Aunts’ Glegg in Mill on the Floss, obsessed with the designs of their china and muslin, the only choices they have really had, Romola, who comes to massive life through calls from without in a national tragedy in the novel of her name, Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. For an under-occupied childless man of a similar class there was study, Darwinian collecting, politics, horses, gambling or other dissipations. For a woman? The mind turning in on itself:
“I can do so little–have I done it all well?” is the perpetually recurring thought; and there are no voices calling her away from that soliloquy, no peremptory demands to divert energy from vain regret or superfluous scruple.
I notice now that George Eliot doesn’t seem quite to be talking about Nancy. She has looked up from the story, from the character she’s writing about, to think on a more generalised level about laws of being. She’s taken an example, but drawing a wider conclusion. ‘And there are no voices calling her away from that soliloquy’ The pronoun ‘her’ in that sentence is not simply referring to Nancy.
But now we turn back to Nancy, and see some of the precise and particular moments of Nancy’s particular experience, and uncover something painful and hard to admit:
There was one main thread of painful experience in Nancy’s married life, and on it hung certain deeply-felt scenes, which were the oftenest revived in retrospect. The short dialogue with Priscilla in the garden had determined the current of retrospect in that frequent direction this particular Sunday afternoon. The first wandering of her thought from the text, which she still attempted dutifully to follow with her eyes and silent lips, was into an imaginary enlargement of the defence she had set up for her husband against Priscilla’s implied blame. The vindication of the loved object is the best balm affection can find for its wounds:–“A man must have so much on his mind,” is the belief by which a wife often supports a cheerful face under rough answers and unfeeling words. And Nancy’s deepest wounds had all come from the perception that the absence of children from their hearth was dwelt on in her husband’s mind as a privation to which he could not reconcile himself.
Oh dear. Her sister finds fault with Godfrey because Godfrey is not happy about having no children – that was the conversation in the garden. I wonder, does he blame Nancy? ‘The vindication of the loved object is the best balm affection can find for its wounds’ Sounds like she is wounded, and wounded by the loved object – Godfrey – she now defends. He cannot ‘reconcile’ himself to no children. How does that make her feel?
But of course we, unlike Nancy, know that one of the drivers for Godfrey’s inability to reconcile himself is the fact that he has a child, a child he cannot acknowledge, and that child lives with Silas Marner, in the village outside Godfrey’s house. Godfrey has seen his daughter every week at church for the last ten, twelve, fourteen years.
Nancy, imagining and feeling her way through this complex and not entirely known emotional situation, has only part of the story. She makes excuses for her husband but retains great control over her own emotional life:
Yet sweet Nancy might have been expected to feel still more keenly the denial of a blessing to which she had looked forward with all the varied expectations and preparations, solemn and prettily trivial, which fill the mind of a loving woman when she expects to become a mother. Was there not a drawer filled with the neat work of her hands, all unworn and untouched, just as she had arranged it there fourteen years ago–just, but for one little dress, which had been made the burial-dress? But under this immediate personal trial Nancy was so firmly unmurmuring, that years ago she had suddenly renounced the habit of visiting this drawer, lest she should in this way be cherishing a longing for what was not given.
Did I not notice it before or have I only just learned that Nancy had indeed had a baby but that baby had died?
I read back and realise that this is the first I’ve heard of Nancy’s lost baby. Here is the information, packed away in the drawer, at the centre of the emotional problem. There was a burial dress, and that burial dress memory is the clue to Nancy’s loss and her somewhat rigid reaction to it:
years ago she had suddenly renounced the habit of visiting this drawer, lest she should in this way be cherishing a longing for what was not given –
She is religious, and desires to do and be right. Other children have not been ‘given’, and she believes it would be wrong of her to long for them. Therefore she denies herself the possible comfort of looking at the baby clothes. This is sad and possibly self-damamging.
I find myself thinking back to Silas’ trauma and wondering what connections may lie between these two very different people. Silas’ cutting himself off feels much more animalistic – he retreated to a cave to lick his wounds and got stuck there, licking, for ever, til Eppie wandered into his life. Nancy’s response to her trauma seems more controlled but is it? ‘years ago she had suddenly renounced the habit’ – is that control or a desperate measure to prevent pain?
Now, having opened the drawer with the baby clothes in it, we get to see the lost baby and other potential children, too, as the problem at the centre of the problem is slowly revealed: a years’ experienced psychotherapist could not have done it better:
Perhaps it was this very severity towards any indulgence of what she held to be sinful regret in herself, that made her shrink from applying her own standard to her husband. “It is very different– it is much worse for a man to be disappointed in that way: a woman can always be satisfied with devoting herself to her husband, but a man wants something that will make him look forward more–and sitting by the fire is so much duller to him than to a woman.”
And always, when Nancy reached this point in her meditations–trying, with predetermined sympathy, to see everything as Godfrey saw it– there came a renewal of self-questioning. _Had_ she done everything in her power to lighten Godfrey’s privation? Had she really been right in the resistance which had cost her so much pain six years ago, and again four years ago–the resistance to her husband’s wish that they should adopt a child?
Now, like the lost baby, we find another layer of secret pain – the marital battle over adoption. Godfrey has wanted to adopt and she has resisted that idea. Twice. He longs for a child. That she knows. Of course she questions herself. Has she done what she can to make him happy? Everything but agree to adoption.
The question for Nancy, as she meditates over her Bible, is did she really do her duty by refusing to adopt a child when her husband told her he wanted to do so?
Had she really been right in the resistance which had cost her so much pain six years ago, and again four years ago–the resistance to her husband’s wish that they should adopt a child? Adoption was more remote from the ideas and habits of that time than of our own; still Nancy had her opinion on it. It was as necessary to her mind to have an opinion on all topics, not exclusively masculine, that had come under her notice, as for her to have a precisely marked place for every article of her personal property: and her opinions were always principles to be unwaveringly acted on. They were firm, not because of their basis, but because she held them with a tenacity inseparable from her mental action. On all the duties and proprieties of life, from filial behaviour to the arrangements of the evening toilette, pretty Nancy Lammeter, by the time she was three-and-twenty, had her unalterable little code, and had formed every one of her habits in strict accordance with that code.
When we read the first sentence we are reading in Nancy’s own voice,
Had she really been right in the resistance which had cost her so much pain six years ago, and again four years ago–the resistance to her husband’s wish that they should adopt a child?
But then something odd happens, and we suddenly find ourselves seeing Nancy’s decision from outside herself. Dutiful she may be, by she’s also rigid, perhaps life-denyingly so:
Adoption was more remote from the ideas and habits of that time than of our own; still Nancy had her opinion on it. It was as necessary to her mind to have an opinion on all topics, not exclusively masculine, that had come under her notice, as for her to have a precisely marked place for every article of her personal property: and her opinions were always principles to be unwaveringly acted on.
George Eliot finds something appalling in this: ‘opinion’, ‘precisely’ ‘every’ ‘unwaveringly’; all these words colour the sentences above and show us that Nancy is limiting her self and her possible reactions by her inflexible sticking to what come down to – not thoughts, not feelings but opinions. How thin ‘opinions’ feel as a basis for life.
They were firm, not because of their basis, but because she held them with a tenacity inseparable from her mental action. On all the duties and proprieties of life, from filial behaviour to the arrangements of the evening toilette, pretty Nancy Lammeter, by the time she was three-and-twenty, had her unalterable little code, and had formed every one of her habits in strict accordance with that code.
Some terrible words alert me to a judgement being made by author: tenacity (which might in other circumstances be a good thing) pretty (again, could be good but here point to something merely external and at odds with the inflexible inner Nancy…) and finally, damningly, little. ‘Her unalterable little code’. There’s something appalling to George Eliot in the coming together in one person of girlish prettiness and rigid tenacity and smallness of mind. It’s a type of being that she will return to many times in her work over the years of her writing life, most notably in Rosamund Vincy in Middlemarch.
Is it partly the result of the subjugation of women? How can you grow fully rounded when the space around you is so powerfully restricted? Yet if there is power there… and it displays itself in mental rigidity, an inability to grow, or to change with circumstance.
pretty Nancy Lammeter, by the time she was three-and-twenty, had her unalterable little code, and had formed every one of her habits in strict accordance with that code.
that the setting out of your dressing table should be ordered in the same way as your thoughts on adoption – I’ve always thought this and so I stick to it – is a damning indictment. or is it an indictment? Is it simply an investigation into a particular person?
More next week.