Silas Marner Day 32

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Begonia in the rain

Silas Marner today because don’t have time to choose a poem.

I’m struggling to change my morning routine, wanting to get exercise in before I read and write. Why? Because my resistance is lower earlier. Routines, habits, are things I have scorned for most of my life but now I increasingly wish I could have them. I’ve got (most days) the reading and writing daily practice going, and now I want to add in exercise. It has to come first and it is a palaver, what with getting dressed to do it and then taking a shower…so, dear regular readers, bear with me while I try to establish this new routine, and if there is a knock-on effect here of not having quite enough time.

But to Silas.

I’ve been reading Silas Marner very slowly  (search ‘Silas Marner’) and  intermittently here for a few months. We’v just finished Chapter 14. you can find the whole text  here. For previous posts, search ‘Silas Marner’. There was a bit of a ix up in that I  missed out half  of chapter 14 the first time round,  so you’ll find my reading of  the incredibly short chapter 15 back a ways – under the title  ‘I Want More Dolly!’ But now I really have finished chapter 14 and 15 and now we are in chapter 16,  and the story skips 16 years and Eppie is grown.

Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale,  tells the story of a King, Leontes, who wrecks his own life and  who rejects and banishes his baby daughter, Perdita. Perdita spends sixteen years being brought up by the shepherd who finds her.  It is a story that is broken in half by what Shakespeare calls ‘this wide gap of time’, the sixteen year period in which time passes, a child may grow up, and an adult may learn a long hard slow lesson.

I’m sure George Eliot is thinking of The Winter’s Tale as she writes. ‘Time’ she tells us, ‘ has laid his hand on them all.’ Perdita, I have to tell you, discovers  her real father and  becomes a princess again…

It was a bright autumn Sunday, sixteen years after Silas Marner had found his new treasure on the hearth. The bells of the old Raveloe church were ringing the cheerful peal which told that the morning service was ended; and out of the arched doorway in the tower came slowly, retarded by friendly greetings and questions, the richer parishioners who had chosen this bright Sunday morning as eligible for church-going. It was the rural fashion of that time for the more important members of the congregation to depart first, while their humbler neighbours waited and looked on, stroking their bent heads or dropping their curtsies to any large ratepayer who turned to notice them.

Foremost among these advancing groups of well-clad people, there are some whom we shall recognize, in spite of Time, who has laid his hand on them all.

George Eliot looks at  Godfrey and sees little change. But  Nancy, now his wife, does look different:

But the years have not been so cruel to Nancy. The firm yet placid mouth, the clear veracious glance of the brown eyes, speak now of a nature that has been tested and has kept its highest qualities;

We don’t yet know what the testing of her nature  has been, only that  she has been tested and has survived – more than survived, she has retained her ‘highest qualities’.

I’m reading on fast now, reading about Eppie’s garden and Aaron’s willingness to dig it, and  not wanting to stop and think too much, it’s story, I’m pressing on ,enjoying it but not  needing to think it out until I come to this part: Silas has developed, we learn,

a humble sort of acquiescence in what was held to be good, had become a strong habit of that new self which had been developed in him since he had found Eppie on his hearth: it had been the only clew his bewildered mind could hold by in cherishing this young life that had been sent to him out of the darkness into which his gold had departed. By seeking what was needful for Eppie, by sharing the effect that everything produced on her, he had himself come to appropriate the forms of custom and belief which were the mould of Raveloe life; and as, with reawakening sensibilities, memory also reawakened, he had begun to ponder over the elements of his old faith, and blend them with his new impressions, till he recovered a consciousness of unity between his past and present. The sense of presiding goodness and the human trust which come with all pure peace and joy, had given him a dim impression that there had been some error, some mistake, which had thrown that dark shadow over the days of his best years; and as it grew more and more easy to him to open his mind to Dolly Winthrop, he gradually communicated to her all he could describe of his early life. The communication was necessarily a slow and difficult process, for Silas’s meagre power of explanation was not aided by any readiness of interpretation in Dolly, whose narrow outward experience gave her no key to strange customs, and made every novelty a source of wonder that arrested them at every step of the narrative. It was only by fragments, and at intervals which left Dolly time to revolve what she had heard till it acquired some familiarity for her, that Silas at last arrived at the climax of the sad story–the drawing of lots, and its false testimony concerning him; and this had to be repeated in several interviews, under new questions on her part as to the nature of this plan for detecting the guilty and clearing the innocent.

run out of time now,  oh dear, will try harder to get my timings right tomorrow

Silas Marner Day 31: Everyday Miracles

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Crab Apples, back garden, 12 September

I’ve been reading Silas Marner very slowly  (search ‘Silas Marner’) and  intermittently here for a few months. We’re at the end of chapter 14. you can find the whole text  here. For previous posts, search ‘Silas Marner’.

Silas has  been brought back into the life of the Raveloe village community by the presence of Eppie:

Silas began now to think of Raveloe life entirely in relation to Eppie: she must have everything that was a good in Raveloe; and he listened docilely, that he might come to understand better what this life was, from which, for fifteen years, he had stood aloof as from a strange thing, with which he could have no communion: as some man who has a precious plant to which he would give a nurturing home in a new soil, thinks of the rain, and the sunshine, and all influences, in relation to his nursling, and asks industriously for all knowledge that will help him to satisfy the wants of the searching roots, or to guard leaf and bud from invading harm. The disposition to hoard had been utterly crushed at the very first by the loss of his long-stored gold: the coins he earned afterwards seemed as irrelevant as stones brought to complete a house suddenly buried by an earthquake; the sense of bereavement was too heavy upon him for the old thrill of satisfaction to arise again at the touch of the newly-earned coin. And now something had come to replace his hoard which gave a growing purpose to the earnings, drawing his hope and joy continually onward beyond the money. In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s.

I’m most interested in the angels here at the end of the chapter, angels which  are no longer seen but which are to be found ‘in old days.’

George Eliot is remembering a specific story from the Bible (the rescue of Lot from Sodom and Gomorrah:  Genesis 15 And when the morning arose, then the angels hastened Lot, saying, “Arise, take thy wife and thy two daughters who are here, lest thou be consumed in the iniquity of the city.)

Literature performs the act of translation – from one person to another, from one time and place to another, from one way of thinking to another. I look up translation in the Etymological dictionary:

translate (v.) early 14c., “to remove from one place to another,” also “to turn from one language to another,” from Old French translater and directly from Latin translatus “carried over,” serving as past participle of transferre “to bring over, carry over” (see transfer), from trans “across, beyond” (see trans-) + latus “borne, carried”)

Translation carries meaning from one language to another, and language can mean ‘way of understanding’ as much as  vocabulary, syntax and grammar. This is George Eliot translating from the Christian to the human, with no loss  of power.

She writes:

In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now.

In 1861, when the novel was published, the idea of angels was a strong one – it was a strong one in my childhood in the 1960s! Go to any Victorian cemetery and you will see plenty of  statues of angels, white-winged,   – they were a live idea, which had  come – I imagine –  from widespread reading of the Bible.  When George Eliot writes that sentence is there a sort of sorrow in it? A sense of loss? We are living, she seems to intimate, in a world which has lost something powerful and saving. There is no  manifestation, now, of those great powers which shaped the Bible stories. that diminishes us, and leaves us  alone and vulnerable.

Does anything carry over, is there any translation of human experience from ‘old days’ when there  were angels, and God,  to ‘now’ , when we don’t see such things?

But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s.

George Eliot was writing from real  life. In her private life, under her real name, Marian Evans had no children. But she had become the stepmother of George Henry Lewes’ boys in 1855 and so had five years of  unexpected and close relationship with those children by the time she wrote that sentence. She knew from inside her own experience that children, a child, might make a future or heal a traumatic past for an adult.

Isn’t that the work of an angel?  The action – the function – is angelic: leading forth to a future. It wasn’t just  those stepchildren for George Eliot, though she id love them. It was the writing. It was the books that also gave her a loving, purposive life. that too is mirrored in what she has written here.

Silas doesn’t just receive this  angelic function – he partly creates it by his love for Eppie. I look back at the rest of the paragraph and see him  becoming something very like a mother, a gardener, a writer. Motherhood too is a function – not tied here to gender – but to action. He is now living with a purpose and that purpose is about creative growth:

as some man who has a precious plant to which he would give a nurturing home in a new soil, thinks of the rain, and the sunshine, and all influences, in relation to his nursling, and asks industriously for all knowledge that will help him to satisfy the wants of the searching roots, or to guard leaf and bud from invading harm.

I compare the smallness of the ‘little hand’ against the hugeness of a life saved from destruction. George Eliot, knowing the language of Christianity, having been a devout Christian as a young woman, but having now rejected the  basic premise of religion, yet carries something with her of that  way of thinking. At the ege of thirty-nine,  before she began to write fiction, with a damaged and scarred emotional life behind her and in love now with the man she would call husband for the rest of her life, she wrote in a letter to an old friend;

I feel, too, that all the terrible pain I have gone through in past years, partly from the defects of my own nature, partly from outward things, has probably been a preparation for some special work that I may do before I die.

Who could have said what that ‘special work’ was?

Are there miracles ‘now’ ? Yes, every day.

Silas Marner Day 29: What does it take to make me change? Some force is required…

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Roses on Desk,  30 August

I’ve been reading Silas Marner very slowly  (search ‘Silas Marner’) and  intermittently here for a few months. We’re just at the point where the story jumps 16 years. But are we?  What happened to the ‘tole hole’? have I missed some of it out? Need to check.

Yes, missed a chunk of chapter XIV, from here, so that’s what I’ll read today.  Silas takes Dolly’s advice and has the child (and himself) christened.  Now we come to some thoughts about how what we love shapes us. I’m slightly thinking of the line from yesterday’s poem.

                            ‘Are we
what we think we are or are we
what befalls us?’

Surely, Silas is what befalls him? What befell him in Lantern Yard was one part of what became his life, and now what has befallen him in the form of Eppie, is something else. He becomes himself  now in a way that he couldn’t when he only had his gold to love. Now the accident of the child in his life brings growth  where before, under the sway of the gold, he had only stagnation:

He had no distinct idea about the baptism and the church-going, except that Dolly had said it was for the good of the child; and in this way, as the weeks grew to months, the child created fresh and fresh links between his life and the lives from which he had hitherto shrunk continually into narrower isolation. Unlike the gold which needed nothing, and must be worshipped in close-locked solitude–which was hidden away from the daylight, was deaf to the song of birds, and started to no human tones–Eppie was a creature of endless claims and ever-growing desires, seeking and loving sunshine, and living sounds, and living movements; making trial of everything, with trust in new joy, and stirring the human kindness in all eyes that looked on her. The gold had kept his thoughts in an ever-repeated circle, leading to nothing beyond itself; but Eppie was an object compacted of changes and hopes that forced his thoughts onward, and carried them far away from their old eager pacing towards the same blank limit–carried them away to the new things that would come with the coming years, when Eppie would have learned to understand how her father Silas cared for her; and made him look for images of that time in the ties and charities that bound together the families of his neighbours.

Often in the practice of  a Shared Reading group we need to go deeper into the text. If I was seeking to do that now, I’d be looking in this telling paragraph for a telling sentence. Here it is:

Unlike the gold which needed nothing, and must be worshipped in close-locked solitude–which was hidden away from the daylight, was deaf to the song of birds, and started to no human tones–Eppie was a creature of endless claims and ever-growing desires, seeking and loving sunshine, and living sounds, and living movements; making trial of everything, with trust in new joy, and stirring the human kindness in all eyes that looked on her.

Why stay here for a while?

Because it is easy to pass over, and there’s a lot here and if we slow down we will see more of it.  I look at the language – the gold ‘needed nothing’ but Eppie was ‘a creature of endless claims’. I’d want to  ask my group to think about what claims on our attention do for us, why they might not be simply an exhausting nuisance (though they can be that!). And how the presence of a small child might indirectly teach an adult something about life.

‘Making a trial of everything’ means testing things, doesn’t it? If everything is to be tested, the child as a scientist of life, then the watcher, carer, adult must also become a scientist, a predictor, a noticer of life.  You’ve got to be one step ahead, thinking. And if the child constantly displays trust? You’d see trust was sometimes, perhaps often for a child, rewarded.

I would want to get my group talking about trust – after all that was what Silas lost in Lantern Yard, and what turned him into a mechanical insect-like being – whereas with Eppie it is all ‘fresh and fresh’ all living, living.  Why, I@d want to ask, is George Eliot giving us those repetitions?

The next sentence continues the change thought:

The gold had kept his thoughts in an ever-repeated circle, leading to nothing beyond itself; but Eppie was an object compacted of changes and hopes that forced his thoughts onward, and carried them far away from their old eager pacing towards the same blank limit–carried them away to the new things that would come with the coming years, when Eppie would have learned to understand how her father Silas cared for her; and made him look for images of that time in the ties and charities that bound together the families of his neighbours.

Adults often get trapped in ever-repeated circles.  To escape them we need things to break the circle, but those new experiences are hard to generate from within ourselves. I imagine that is some of the thinking behind the Recovery College movement in Mental Health. We all need  new stimulus to start processes of change or learning.  For Silas,  the child is the means  by which his thoughts are ‘forced forward’. I notice that word ‘forced’. It signifies the difficulty of changing established adult thought patterns and behaviour.  Silas is forced into change by a possible future: Silas is carried  in thought to  ‘the new things that would come with the coming years, when Eppie would have learned to understand how her father Silas cared for her’.  But would he have moved in that direction without beoing forced?

If I’m learning from this – and I want to – I’ll have to translate Silas’ experience into my own.  I would often do this in my Shared Reading group – I want to model  using the text to learn things about myself.  So I’d want to think about work, or my reading group, as an example of being pushed beyond my  easy norm. I’d beasking people to think about things that had foreced them beyond themselves.  I might go back again to the question in the Levertov poem;

                            ‘Are we
what we think we are or are we
what befalls us?’

 

And now, pressing on,  I’m really interested in the fact that this  force of Eppie makes Silas look outwards, to his neighbours, seeking models. His sense of a future with her,

‘made him look for images of that time in the ties and charities that bound together the families of his neighbours.’

This is  like a virtuous circle of change, isn’t it?  The child  quickens him to the present and to love, the present and the love create a future, the future makes him look for role models and thus he  begins to make social connections with his neighbours.  The child has connected him to others.  A modern day equivalent is the experience of a child starting primary school and the gradual making of friendship  and a new peer group among parents, who as working childless people might not have known anyone nearby.

But I’m also thinking of someone leaving prison, for Silas, though he has done nothing wrong, has been a kind of prisoner. Or like a person leaving  a world of addiction or homelessness. How do you make human connections with your own future, with a possibly different world, with others? What could a Silas with no Eppie do for that forcedness?

As the child’s mind was growing into knowledge, his mind was growing into memory: as her life unfolded, his soul, long stupefied in a cold narrow prison, was unfolding too, and trembling gradually into full consciousness.

Claims on us, George Eliot will go onto write over and over again in the novels that lie ahead in her writing career, are what  bring us to the fullest life.  Eppie is a claim on him  (yet he claimed her, didn’t her when he cried out that the child ‘came to me’ ?) a claim, which starts him into growth, bringing him, as it were, back to life.  The language here sounds as if it is referring to a man in a grave, ‘his soul, long stupefied in a cold narrow prison’.

I’m thinking of Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale, which like this novel, contains a sixteen year time gap where the lost child grows up, and ruined adults are brought back to life. Perhaps read a bit of that alongside Silas, another time?

 

 

Silas Marner Day 28: I want more Dolly

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Agapanthus and Red Hot Pokers at Kew. 

I’ve been reading Silas Marner very slowly here (search ‘Silas Marner’) and  intermittently for a few months. I’m in Chapter 15 today.  Yesterday’s post was continuing that slow read –  in chapter 14 – but today I’m speeding up a little. I’m thinking about how I time things when running a Shared Reading group. Not everything goes at the same speed. sometimes Shared Reading is a slow canal boat, sometimes a walk, but sometimes you get in the car and go fast.

People who have read with me a lot will say, ‘You don’t time things! You always go slowly!’ and I have to admit that’s true in the sense that I’d be happy to spend two hours going deeply into some lines… but then to make up time – and not get bored –  I’m going to rush past lots of other stuff.  Whole chapters sometimes. Whole books of  Paradise Lost – the war in Heaven, pah! But these lines, from Book 4, seem worth staying in for an hour or two:

                                                             for now
Satan, now first inflam’d with rage, came down,
The Tempter ere th’ Accuser of man-kind, [ 10 ]
To wreck on innocent frail man his loss
Of that first Battel, and his flight to Hell:
Yet not rejoycing in his speed, though bold,
Far off and fearless, nor with cause to boast,
Begins his dire attempt, which nigh the birth [ 15 ]
Now rowling, boiles in his tumultuous brest,
And like a devellish engine back recoiles
Upon himself; horror and doubt distract
His troubl’d thoughts, and from the bottom stirr
The Hell within him for within him Hell [ 20 ]
He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell
One step no more then from himself can fly
By change of place:

Paradise Lost is in my mind because Megg sent me a notice about @Milton’sCottage ( http://www.miltonscottage.org/) and I’m excited by the idea of their all-day reading aloud of Paradise Lost coming up on Sunday,  the 350th anniversary of the  poem’s publication. Hurray!

I’m going to read  some lines from Paradise Lost here on this blog so I can join in, in spirit. But that’s Sunday! Jane – get back to today’s text.

So deep slow waters, getting to the bottom of things, then  the passing over. We left Silas dressing the baby, and now I  float through the rest of the chapter – where Silas gives the baby his mother and sister’s name, Eppie (Hepzibah) and we’re into chapter 14.

As Silas becomes Eppie’s parent, we turn back to Godfrey, still trammelled in his inability to be honest:

There was one person, as you will believe, who watched with keener though more hidden interest than any other, the prosperous growth of Eppie under the weaver’s care. He dared not do anything that would imply a stronger interest in a poor man’s adopted child than could be expected from the kindliness of the young Squire, when a chance meeting suggested a little present to a simple old fellow whom others noticed with goodwill; but he told himself that the time would come when he might do something towards furthering the welfare of his daughter without incurring suspicion.

Do you find yourself judging Godfrey? I do. I get angry with him and I dislike his hiddeness ,and yet I can’t help identifying with him, too.  He’s here father but the  exigency of class and Godfrey’s desire to married to Nancy Lammeter override that. He’s weak! ‘He dared not’… but he comforts himself with the thought that he might ‘do’ something later. And George Eliot pushes it a bit further, go on, ask yourself, those things you’ve left undone, do they bother you?

Was he very uneasy in the meantime at his inability to give his daughter her birthright? I cannot say that he was. The child was being taken care of, and would very likely be happy, as people in humble stations often were– happier, perhaps, than those brought up in luxury.

It is easier for Godfrey to assume all’s well ( and it is, luckily for Eppie). Do you sense an edge of self-pity in his thought that those in humble stations are often happier than those brought up in luxury, such as himself ?

That famous ring that pricked its owner when he forgot duty and followed desire–I wonder if it pricked very hard when he set out on the chase, or whether it pricked but lightly then, and only pierced to the quick when the chase had long been ended, and hope, folding her wings, looked backward and became regret?

I don’t remember the story of this ring – have to look it up in the notes. But I haven’t got any notes here this morning, so I’m guessing – as I would do in a group, if our books had no notes,  this is a reference to some myth or fairytale  but George Eliot is  putting the metaphor of that ring into reality:  when do you feel the pain of putting your own desire before a duty?  Probably not at the moment of  indulging the desire  – which she calls here the chase, the hunt –  but much, much later, when it is all over when ‘hope’ becomes ‘regret’. Ouch.

George Eliot is going to show us that change from ‘hope’ to ‘regret’ in Godfrey – and as her work as novelist unfolds, in many, many people – but it is going to take some unfolding. It’s going to take time. Meanwhile, with a lucky escape behind him (lucky for him that his wife, the drug-addict Molly, died before she could expose him) and the prospect of marrying Nancy before him, he is feeling pretty good;

He felt a reformed man, delivered from temptation; and the vision of his future life seemed to him as a promised land for which he had no cause to fight. He saw himself with all his happiness centred on his own hearth, while Nancy would smile on him as he played with the children.

And that other child–not on the hearth–he would not forget it; he would see that it was well provided for. That was a father’s duty.

The key word here is ‘felt’.  He felt a reformed man but he was not a reformed man,  nothing had changed. He is lying to himself, tricking himself, lettinghimself off. He is not ‘delivered from temptation’ – he’s had a narrow escape but he hasn’t resisted or fought temptation in any way. He just got lucky. Now the promised land  of Nancy is going to slide towards him with ‘no cause to fight’.  He’s not going to win a life, he’s going to get it, but with very little effort.  Easy living. And as for Eppie –  not recognised as one of his own children, not playing on his own hearth – he’ll salve his conscience. He won’t feel bad. He will let himself off the hook. He’ll be at ease.

Next chapter  takes us forward 16 years, so we’ll stop here for now.

Phew, that Godfrey Cass has got me into a pretty bad temper. I need more Dolly Winthrop!

 

Silas Marner Day 27 : A Quickening and a Growth Mindset and then Dress That Baby!

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Some growth mind set yellow flowers at Kew – at least tewn feet tall – what are they?

I’ve been reading Silas Marner very slowly here (search ‘Silas Marner’) and  intermittently for a few months. I’m in Chapter 14, at the point where Dolly Winthrop is offering to  help Silas in looking after the child. I want to read this chapter very slowly, stopping to think a lot about Dolly, and why she matters as a human model. Why do I love Dolly Winthrop so much? She’s astute and quick, which is deeply attractive, but it’s her loving kindness, too, that pulls me towards her. Here is Silas, not just a bachelor, but an oddball, who has been called a witch and probably worse, in the village and is known to have fits; what does Dolly see? A human creature vulnerably roused to life by caring for a baby;

 “Eh, to be sure,” said Dolly, gently. “I’ve seen men as are wonderful handy wi’ children. The men are awk’ard and contrairy mostly, God help ’em–but when the drink’s out of ’em, they aren’t unsensible, though they’re bad for leeching and bandaging–so fiery and unpatient. You see this goes first, next the skin,” proceeded Dolly, taking up the little shirt, and putting it on.

“Yes,” said Marner, docilely, bringing his eyes very close, that they might be initiated in the mysteries; whereupon Baby seized his head with both her small arms, and put her lips against his face with purring noises.

“See there,” said Dolly, with a woman’s tender tact, “she’s fondest o’ you. She wants to go o’ your lap, I’ll be bound. Go, then: take her, Master Marner; you can put the things on, and then you can say as you’ve done for her from the first of her coming to you.”

Marner took her on his lap, trembling with an emotion mysterious to himself, at something unknown dawning on his life. Thought and feeling were so confused within him, that if he had tried to give them utterance, he could only have said that the child was come instead of the gold–that the gold had turned into the child. He took the garments from Dolly, and put them on under her teaching; interrupted, of course, by Baby’s gymnastics.

Dolly’s general observations about men are undercut by specifics she has observed and noted, (‘I’ve seen men as are wonderful handy wi’ children’). There’s also the loving ,uncritical ‘god help ’em’ which seems to forgive or at least generously accept the general ways of things. But what I really love here is the inconsequential conversational meander from men being bad at leeching and bandaging ‘so fiery and unpatient’ with barely a full stop between her kind instruction to Silas, ‘You see this goes first, next the skin.’

She’s teaching and talking, talking partly almost to herself. Silas  has so much to learn – not just about the baby, but about being in a room with another creature, about conversation. Everything in this scene feels to me tender, almost raw, there’s something almost baby-like about Silas himself, he is a creature just born into this new part of life.  How lovely to have Dolly alongside. When the baby grabs him, she takes it as a clue:

“See there,” said Dolly, with a woman’s tender tact, “she’s fondest o’ you. She wants to go o’ your lap, I’ll be bound. Go, then: take her, Master Marner; you can put the things on, and then you can say as you’ve done for her from the first of her coming to you.”

Is Dolly imagining here, with an instinctive growth mindset, what will happen to Silas as the years of raising this child unfold? She is a parent herself. It’s the thought – that Silas might want, need, to say he has done for the baby from the first, that I find so moving. Dolly imagining the pride and sense of achievement Silas will build. I know right now that she is going to be a good friend, a guide, to him through whatever lies ahead. This generous – you take it – act is an act of belief. A less tactful, or a less sensitive, or a less feeling intelligence, would simply have dressed the child, instructing Silas verbally.  But Dolly trusts him and hands over.

Marner took her on his lap, trembling with an emotion mysterious to himself, at something unknown dawning on his life. Thought and feeling were so confused within him, that if he had tried to give them utterance, he could only have said that the child was come instead of the gold–that the gold had turned into the child. He took the garments from Dolly, and put them on under her teaching; interrupted, of course, by Baby’s gymnastics.

I’d want to reread Silas’ trembling  ‘something unknown dawning on his life’  and ask my group have you ever had that feeling of something irrevocably serious in your life? Can we imagine how that feels?

My group will say things like:

I felt like  when I made my wedding vows.

I felt like it when I got my divorce papers someone else will laugh.

I felt it  when I got my diagnosis, though it wasn’t a happy feeling like this is, it was like, oh, this is my life now.

I felt it when my first child was born.

I’d want to think about how those feelings felt and whether or not we can think when we are feeling so much. I’d want to look again at the words in the paragraph;

Thought and feeling were so confused within him, that if he had tried to give them utterance, he could only have said that the child was come instead of the gold–that the gold had turned into the child.

Silas is thinking  (gold/child/child/gold)  and feeling (gold/child/child/gold) at the same time. We know he loved the gold, felt warm companionship  when he gazed on the faces of the coins. But the word ‘love’ isn’t here, we only know, and he only knows, it is ‘an emotion mysterious to himself’. It is deeper than language or thought, this exchange of one love object for another. And dressing the child, taking parental responsibility for her, soon elbows complicated  language-less feeling aside.  In the next sentence he is dealing with baby’s gymnastics. So life pushes us on.

 

Meg, Mog and Middlemarch

Photo on 13-09-2013 at 06.14

The Institute of Education’s recent report into Reading for Pleasure  indicates that reading for pleasure between the ages 10-16 affects cognitive power, giving readers better results even in non-language based subjects such as maths. The study allows for socio-economic influences, and seems to point to reading for pleasure as a greater indicator of educational success that whether or not your parents went to university. It looks as if it comes down, causally, down to increased vocabulary. Or is that a outcome of something else?

I was delighted to receive a copy of the draft report from Dr Alice Sullivan, and I’m looking forward to giving it my full attention over the coming weekend. My initial scanning glance set a couple of thoughts off . First, is it about vocabulary – greater power to communicate – or is that a sign of some other, deeper, structural  development? Need to read the paper properly to see what  the researchers are saying. and  secondly,  do we have to call it reading for pleasure? I have reluctantly accepted this misnomer for  years, simply because there seems no other word or phrase for it. But ‘pleasure’ is not good enough. I read pleasure as ‘trip to Alton Towers’ (though have to admit, I’ve never been). But reading is more like ‘expedition to Kilimanjaro’. Would you call that order of experience ‘pleasure’? Pleasure may be in it, but there is also trial, testing, pain, failure, exhilaration, defeat, new start, amazing sights, bleakness, terror, joy etc. Alton Towers is  a cheap simulacrum. So what is the  word for what we do when we read  hard stuff ? And why, uncompelled, would anyone read the hard stuff?

For more than twenty-five years, while I was studying and teaching literature, my job was to read, to think about what I had read, and to talk to people about that. It’s a terrible thing to admit, but I struggled to imagine why readers found it difficult to get into reading complex books, and sometimes thought it a failure of will: they just didn’t really want to. But here I am, wanting to reread George Eliot for the first time in seven or eight years, and finding it difficult to concentrate: hard paragraphs in Middlemarch shout less than the need to sort new staff contracts. I am going to have to devise some regular daily plan for attentive reading, because these days, like most other adults, I haven’t got the concentration at the end of the day.

You might say, why bother? Isn’t the active life as important as the contemplative? Yes, and having founded The Reader Organisation – a great experiment involving people and books – I am choosing the active during this part of my life, and enjoying it, too. All the same I am beginning to feel the need for some element of the contemplative life. It might come from meditation, or study, or prayer or perhaps even as the by-product of a very long walk, but contemplation’s serious thinking, imagining and feeling also arises in the course of reading a complex novel or epic poem. This accosting kind of thought is a natural function of being human: babies and small children are concentrating in this way most of the time – building thought-models of reality.

On the mantelshelf I have two brass cauldrons, about the size of small tangerines, gently dented by three generations of play. They have a minutely serrated rim, which you only become aware of when you pick them up. Holding one now, running my finger around that rim, I re-feel the pleasure I had in those serrations when the cauldrons sat on my grandparents’ mantelpiece. I also feel a sense of the mild fear I had of the legs of the things: sharp fat brass pencil points. Sniffing them, I remember their thin, high-metallic smell and I am back in the living room of my grandparents’ house, where we went after school for tea and stories and toast. We often had the light off, to save electricity. In the dark, the cauldrons shone in the light thrown by the coal fire.

That kind of relation to those cauldrons is what the great human scientist George Eliot is talking about in The Mill on The Floss, when Tom comes home from his boarding school for the first time, and enjoys the vivid return of things that have always been there:

The happiness of seeing the bright light in the parlour at home, as the gig passed noiselessly over the snow-covered bridge; the happiness of passing from the cold air to the warmth and the kisses and the smiles of that familiar hearth, where the pattern of the rug and the grate and the fire-irons were ‘first ideas’ that it was no more possible to criticise than the solidity and extension of matter.

This is hard writing because it requires us to actively participate, not simply to absorb. As modern readers, we generally read too fast: but here you need to read as you would in a book of scientific thinking, Freud or Darwin. You need to concentrate and slow down and come alive to it. Look at that seamless passing from a child’s reported experience, ‘seeing the bright light… the snow-covered bridge… warmth and kisses’ to the complicated thought about the nature of a child’s experience:

the pattern of the rug and the grate and the fire-irons were ‘first ideas’ that it was no more possible to criticise than the solidity and extension of matter.

If you don’t actively follow these words as you read, you will soon be lost. From the description of Tom loving being home, George Eliot brings in a hypothetical general law of human being: what surrounds us in early childhood sets a pattern which lasts into adult life. We may choose other rugs, other fire-irons when we are older, but we are built up out of the feelings that we attached to those early objects and experiences of our childhood:

There is no sense of ease like the ease we felt in those scenes where we were born, where objects became dear to us before we had known the labour of choice, and where the outer world seemed only an extension of our own personality; we accepted and loved it as we accepted our own sense of existence and our own limbs … And there is no better reason for preferring this (particular thing) than that it stirs an early memory; that it is no novelty in my life, speaking to me merely through my present sensibilities to form and color, but the long companion of my existence, that wove itself into my joys when joys were vivid.

There is wonderful sense of what contemporary thinkers would call ‘wellbeing’ here: a sense of a unified life where feelings and objects and time are bound together in one person, through joy. I would never choose to buy these cauldrons in a shop. They do not speak to me ‘through my present sensibilities to form and color’; they are not my style. I love them partly because they are mixed with memories of my grandparents, of the fire, and the toast and their love, of things I felt when my joys ‘were vivid’. They give me that elusive thing: wellbeing.

I am now the grandmother who has these cauldrons on her mantelpiece. My grandson (two years, nine months) is in the bath playing with a plastic tea-set. This is a creative experimental process and Leo is full of earnest concentration as he tries to float the cups and fill them with water, as he watches the water pass effortlessly through a sieve but less effortlessly through a small colander. His favourite word at the moment is ‘more!’ He wants things repeated ad infinitum because he needs to see them many times in order to establish them as realities, strong possibilities, likelihoods in his mind. This is a sort of scientific enquiry.

But it is time to get out. The water is getting cold, his fingers are beginning to shrivel, and the adults want to eat supper in adult peace, after he has gone to bed. None of that matters to Leo. When I suggest ‘out’ he’s still enjoying this fabulous experiment. He cries out in frustration and distress, ‘Not yet! Not yet!’

‘Not yet’ is a language spell that allows him to hold back the reality principle for a moment and continue what he is doing – and sometimes it works. But not now: our needs are more pressing; we want to eat.

He’s furious when I lift him out, screams ‘Not yet! Not yet!’ over and over and finally subsides into body-racking sobs as his mother and I rub him down and get his pyjamas on. When we are in the bedroom, I offer a story and the sobs stop: suddenly everything is different.

We open the book. It’s one of Jan Pienkowski’s Meg and Mog stories. The witch and her cat are making a spell but something is going terribly wrong. There are explosions. ‘Where’s Mog?’ I ask him and he points to the cat. ‘Where’s the cauldron?’ Leo points to the cauldron. ‘What’s Meg putting in the cauldron?’ I ask him and he recites the list of spell ingredients. He is altogether caught up in the discovered world.

In the bath-experiment, Leo was actively manipulating objects and forces – water, gravity, plastic. While part of his intelligence was involved in creating the experiment, part was engaged in observing it and another part in thinking about it. But with the book there is nothing for him to do physically, the concentration is total: all his energy goes into the observing and thinking about what he is observing. The book it is all here: the pictures and words present a created universe with experiments going on (as in George Eliot). What we have to do – our part – is to observe, meditate, reflect. Well, my dear reader, Leo in the bath is a model of a person living a life in the world. You are busy. Things happen, you try to work them out, a lot’s happening at once, some of it incomprehensible. Only part of your mind can ever be on the experience because most of your mind is doing, making, acting. And without the thinking, meditative self it is finally just chaos: we must think.

The book is a selective, ordered model of reality. It is easier to see here: things slow down; we can concentrate on one thing at a time. This may be the key aspect of reading and the reason that the read-aloud, shared reading we have developed over the past 13 years at The Reader Organisation, (whole books read aloud slowly over time in a group) is so powerful. It allows us to be here now, to keep a concentrated mindfulness going. If I were reading Middlemarch in a Get Into Reading group with other concentrated people, I would be getting a lot more out of it than I am on my sleepy own late at night.

The next day when we are lighting the sitting room fire (coal, real fire, sticks and paper), Leo looks up and sees one of the brass cauldrons – notices it for what must be the first time.

‘Cauldron?’ he says, as if to himself.

‘Cauldron,’ he says again as if checking the brass reality with his mental image from the last night’s book. Then again, more confidently, he asserts: ‘Cauldron.’ reaching for it now. I can see he is remembering Meg and Mog. I observe his fingers touch the serrated edge. He looks at the coal and mis-guesses brilliantly ‘Coal-dron’. He’s not right but he is making his world, an active presence, made more active by the book. Making me more active, too: I do not know the etymology of ‘cauldron’. I look it up.

What Leo has done: read a book, thought about it deeply, not really understood it all (because he did not know what a cauldron was in actuality) but he has got from that experience a template, a shape, a map, a set of pointers about life. Going back into life, he is able to recognise something he learned in the book (cauldron). He has been a creative reader and he has experienced a bigger reality because of the book. This is exactly what is happening, albeit in a more complex way, to me as I read George Eliot. That section about Tom coming home in The Mill on the Floss cleared a space in me and filled it with a thought-shape which was later filled out by Leo and cauldron. Books go forwards into our experience as well as backwards: they anticipate things you might know or understand later as well as things you know now, which is why we should all read books that are too hard or too old for us sometimes.

The New Economics Foundation has formulated 5 Ways to Wellbeing. One of them is ‘Take Notice’. Books build our capacity to do that. I must make more time for reading.

 This post is a slightly extended version of an article that appeared in The Reader No.37 (Spring 2010)

 

http://www.thereader.org.uk/

http://www.neweconomics.org/projects/five-ways-well-being

http://www.skyarts.co.uk/video/video-jan-pienkowski-on-the-book-show/

 

 

 

‘Books to Maketh a Woman’ No. 8, Middlemarch Part 1

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So some middleclass website believes (or believed, I  should say, as I started writing this several weeks ago, and it is such old news now, that it may no longer even be true) that Middlemarch is the death-knell for a reading group. This news has been excitedly repeated in the press and on various lit blogs and on Twitter.  If you haven’t seen all that, don’t bother looking it up. It only tell us what we don’t need to know about said middleclass website, and the newspapers, blogs and Twitterati who picked it up and shouted it loud, and it tells us nothing, I think, that is new.

Which is that for some reading groups, flotsamming along on a tide of chardonnay, cupcakes and small talk, the tiniest demand might seem a threatening tsunami, never mind the actual inner tempest that is a reading of this great novel, one of the biggest things humanity has ever produced. It’s bigger than the Empire State Building! It’s bigger than Wikipedia! … Afraid of big stuff ? Well then, don’t read it!

But actually, please, do read it. Perhaps especially if you are afraid of big stuff.

People are lazy coasters if they can be (I’m one myself) and naturally we don’t like difficult things that ask a lot of us – really, watch chimpanzees for half an hour and you’ll see where we get our general disposition from – so, for example, no one would choose to break a leg, yet read Oliver Sacks’ book, A Leg To Stand On, which came from his hard breakage and harder recuperation.  Am I saying reading Middlemarch is like breaking your leg alone on a mountain? I think I am. It might hurt but good could come of it.

I’ve been reading Middlemarch  since 1982 – crikey, that’s thirty years – and for a lot of that time I’ve been talking other people into reading it too. It seems to me that the classic negative reactions to this book (and to other great works of literature) that I experience over and over again, especially from relatively educated people, are an indicator of the strong underlying anti-literariness in our culture.

Anti-literary? Are you sure? Yes, I am sure.

First example: in what is otherwise an exemplary account of how a school built its reading up, a teacher-blogger writes,

‘Supporting reading is not about getting through a 400 page novel, it is about opening up the opportunities for young people to experience as many different types of texts and different types of content as possible to develop their reading, comprehension and critical reasoning skills but also to simply to broaden their horizons.’

Is it me or does that sentence implicitly do down the 400 page novel? It’s a throwaway criticism, but it is to some extent typical of a mindset prevalent especially in educational and literacy circles. Books, and perhaps especially hard books, are seen as part of the problem. I think this comes partly from the fear of books which people learn by doing English at school and University[1].

Second example: many years ago, at a Literary Event, I sat on a panel beside A Famous Writer and listened to her argue that there must  be no flag-waving for so-called great books. Who was to say that Middlemarch was a better book than a big best-seller with gold writing on the cover? I didn’t argue with her, it would have spoiled the day, and besides I couldn’t speak for rage and needed time to develop a riposte. Years later I realise that the best-selling-writer’s assertion is, of course, the stuff of highly educated orthodoxy.

Third example: the Report on 2008’s National Year of Reading asked archly who was to say that Shakespeare was better than Mills and Boon? And at a Buckingham Palace reception to celebrate the Dickens bi-centenary earlier  in 2012, as the champagne flowed, I met several persons, mostly writers, who Do Not Rate Dickens for various reasons including: Over-Sentimental/Old-fashioned/ Predictable Story Arcs/Dead White Male/Too long.

This  sort of anti-literary, anti-seriousness, anti-sentiment style has been gripping the cooler end of the Highly Educated Class for the past thirty years. If you want to look good in public, you tell everyone how much you enjoy reading Grazia, not Goethe. This is partly fear of being thought elitist and partly the unwillingness of a comfortably-off  lazy consumer to do anything  that requires the inner slog that is extended engagement with great writing. But can this careless, Grazia-swigging attitude change? Only if, only when, we radically alter education and especially education involving reading. But that is a hard call.

It is easier to think of an apparently liberal free market determined only by consumer preferences (people prefer Mills and Boon to Shakespeare) and difficult to imagine an education in which the vast majority of people (including middle class people attending reading groups) would have a real ground from which to make a genuine choice between say Middlemarch and books with gold writing on their covers. But imagine that education we must, because otherwise we are throwing away 2000 years of human thinking about the biggest and most recurrent human problems. And we need the help.

The world is now in such a serious state of moral, spiritual, physical and economic crisis that we can no longer afford the luxury of not thinking. And what George Eliot offers us, above all, is help in thinking about ‘all ordinary human life’ through stories which teach us how hard it is to get that right.

One[2] of the reasons people are put off Middlemarch is the fact that (I quote from a friend) ‘It begins with this weird Prelude thing about Saint Theresa – never got beyond that.’ That seems a good place for me to start.  Middlemarch’s ‘Prelude’ uses St Theresa as a model (Google her, she reformed the Carmelite order) but it’s really about ordinary people, struggling to realise what they are for or might become:

That Spanish woman who lived three hundred years ago, was certainly not the last of her kind. Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion. With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness; for these later-born Theresas were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul. Their ardor alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.

Some have felt that these blundering lives are due to the inconvenient indefiniteness with which the Supreme Power has fashioned the natures of women: if there were one level of feminine incompetence as strict as the ability to count three and no more, the social lot of women might be treated with scientific certitude. Meanwhile the indefiniteness remains, and the limits of variation are really much wider than any one would imagine from the sameness of women’s coiffure and the favorite love-stories in prose and verse. Here and there a cygnet is reared uneasily among the ducklings in the brown pond, and never finds the living stream in fellowship with its own oary-footed kind. Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centring in some long-recognizable deed.

So, what if you have big potential but live in a small world? How does that feel? Well, it often turns you into something of a liability. If you are lucky enough to find something that needs doing, and that you might be able to do, and that circumstances allow you to do, you will be one of the rare, happy humans who have found a vocation. As a young woman, finally settling down to read Middlemarch in my third year at University, aged 26, divorced and with a young child, and with my Mum drinking herself to death two doors down, I had begun to have a premonition of what a ‘life of mistakes’ might be like. When I read this , I recognised myself in it.

With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness; for these later-born Theresas were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul.

I’m not saying I was  a Dorothea – much more of a mess than that – and far less a St Theresa. Only  that the words ‘inconsistency and formlessness’ jumped out at me like words on fire. They were for, they were about, me.

As they were also for and about George Eliot. A short way into the novel, our heroine Dorothea, newly married is faced  with the problem, ‘What shall I do today?’  Her problem is made more difficult by the classic well-heeled-woman-at-home answer: ‘Whatever you please, my dear.’ Problems George Eliot identified remain our problems today and no amount of retail therapy is going to solve them.

Demands on a person may be unbearable, may break us, but they take away what Doris Lessing was much later to identify as ‘the existential problem.’ Having no demands, as  people who have been unemployed know,  can be a much more difficult situation.

George Eliot, Marian Evans as she was called in her daily life, had struggled to know who and what she was: her father was a successful estate manager and she had her own account at the local bookshop, through which she gave herself a considerable education. As a man she’d have gone to Oxbridge, as a woman, her mother dead, her sisters married, she was her father’s housekeeper. And yet she was something and had to fight herself, her lot, and other people, some of whom she loved, to become herself.  Later in life  – at the age of 38, cut off from her family, living with a married man, as she began writing her first fiction, she wrote in a letter to an old friend ‘ I feel, too, that all the terrible pain I have gone through in past years, partly from the defects of my own nature, partly from outward things, has probably been a preparation for some special work I may do before I die.’

Ah yes, Marian, I recognise you:

With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness…

Once you’ve finished  reading Middlemarch I would recommend reading Marian’s life story in two ways:  through her  Letters, selected by Gordon Haight, and in Ruby Redinger’s excellent psycho-biography, The Emergent Self).


[1] I want to write more about this fear on another occasion. It’s not simply a fear of the book – it is a pedagogical/psycho-spiritual anxiety about having ones own real feelings taken away.

[2] I here publish my own informal but long-running research into reasons readers are put-off reading Middlemarch. I will address all the points in this list over the coming weeks. The reasons, in order of off-puttingness,  are:

  1. Forced to read George Eliot at school/college/university
  2. Too long – I haven’t got time
  3. I’m no intellectual, it’s not my kind of thing
  4. It begins with this weird Prelude thing about Saint Theresa – never got beyond that
  5. It looks boring
  6. It’s too hard. The sentences are long and complicated – you get stuck in them
  7. Can’t stand that priggish Dorothea
  8. George Eliot keeps interrupting and telling me what to think
  9. It’s too serious/it’s too moral.
  10. The ending is appalling from a Feminist point of view