Silas Marner Day 38: What’s Love Got To Do With It?

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Mimosa tree  coming into flower-bud,  Calderstones Park, Feb 23 

This morning I’m going back to Silas Marner (find an online text here) … and thinking about class. But is it class? Or is it education? Or is it education of the feelings?  Eppie is the daughter of a drug-addict mother and a nogoodnik posh-boy father. She’s got, like most of us, a pretty mixed gene pool. So there’s nature for you.

Now, as to nurture:

The tender and peculiar love with which Silas had reared her in almost inseparable companionship with himself, aided by the seclusion of their dwelling, had preserved her from the lowering influences of the village talk and habits, and had kept her mind in that freshness which is sometimes falsely supposed to be an invariable attribute of rusticity. Perfect love has a breath of poetry which can exalt the relations of the least-instructed human beings; and this breath of poetry had surrounded Eppie from the time when she had followed the bright gleam that beckoned her to Silas’s hearth; so that it is not surprising if, in other things besides her delicate prettiness, she was not quite a common village maiden, but had a touch of refinement and fervour which came from no other teaching than that of tenderly-nurtured unvitiated feeling.

I notice with a slight flinch ‘she was not quite a common village maiden’ and have to stop myself and try to  think carefully about what this means so as not to knee-jerk a class-based response.  I ask myself, what is fervour? What is refinement?

What’s meant by refinement, I wonder? It seems a class word, about being posh, but when I look it up it’s about being pure or full of feeling. I think of Jeanette Winterson, (read her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal) little fighting kid of Accrington, and I’d say, she had her own kind of refinement. And what is fervour? It, too, is a feeling word, warmth, heat of feeling. I think of Jeanette as different from many other Accrington kids -why? She felt a lot and what she felt propelled her – few other homeless gay kids of her time got themselves into Oxford to read English.  What Jeanette didn’t have was  the kind of love Silas gives to Eppie. I look back at the beginning of the paragraph:

The tender and peculiar love with which Silas had reared her in almost inseparable companionship with himself, aided by the seclusion of their dwelling, had preserved her from the lowering influences of the village talk and habits, and had kept her mind in that freshness which is sometimes falsely supposed to be an invariable attribute of rusticity.

Still something for me to worry about in lowering influences? I’ll come back to that. Eppie grows up in a tiny world  made up Silas – himself cut off from most of the village – and visits from Dolly Winthrop. The seclusion of their dwelling sets her apart physically, mentally and emotionally. What are village talk and habits, I wonder?   The modern equivalent is  life with the Kardashians, I suppose.  Silly, commonplace, superficial influences about bums and jewellry. No one at the most serious times of their lives, real love, real pain, will be getting through life’s biggest or deepest moments with those influences uppermost. But they are there, lowering away, on a day-to-day basis. Eppie is set aside from all that by being in an intense parent-child relationship which is full of love.

I take some time here because it is easy to read badly, too fast, and make  modern, mocking judgements about class. Eppie’s refinement and fervour

came from no other teaching than that of tenderly-nurtured unvitiated feeling.

‘Unvitiated’ = uncorrupted, pure, unsullied.

Perhaps such feeling is only possible at some distance from the world of Kardashians, or whatever the nineteenth century equivalent was? I’m thinking about Wordsworth – whom George Eliot read.

She was too childish and simple for her imagination to rove into questions about her unknown father; for a long while it did not even occur to her that she must have had a father; and the first time that the idea of her mother having had a husband presented itself to her, was when Silas showed her the wedding-ring which had been taken from the wasted finger, and had been carefully preserved by him in a little lackered box shaped like a shoe. He delivered this box into Eppie’s charge when she had grown up, and she often opened it to look at the ring: but still she thought hardly at all about the father of whom it was the symbol. Had she not a father very close to her, who loved her better than any real fathers in the village seemed to love their daughters? On the contrary, who her mother was, and how she came to die in that forlornness, were questions that often pressed on Eppie’s mind. Her knowledge of Mrs. Winthrop, who was her nearest friend next to Silas, made her feel that a mother must be very precious; and she had again and again asked Silas to tell her how her mother looked, whom she was like, and how he had found her against the furze bush, led towards it by the little footsteps and the outstretched arms. The furze bush was there still; and this afternoon, when Eppie came out with Silas into the sunshine, it was the first object that arrested her eyes and thoughts.

It’s interesting that Eppie never thinks about her biological father – she has no need to, because she has Silas, ‘who loved her better than any real fathers in the village seemed to love their daughters.’ The mother is a missing element, only known indirectly as a model in Dolly Winthrop and it is this missing element that Eppie is driven to seek, asking,

again and again asked Silas to tell her how her mother looked, whom she was like, and how he had found her against the furze bush, led towards it by the little footsteps and the outstretched arms.

Now we enter some pages of dialogue and plot, which I’m going to read through fast – Eppie raising the subject of her likely marriage and Silas doing his best not to be frightened at the change that is bound to come.

And so to the next chapter, XVII, where the scene changes and we are  back with the posh folks. Nancy née Lammeter and her sister Priscilla are also discussing gardens, and also dairies, and finally, Nancy’s inability to bear children; then Nancy is left alone, reading her bible and letting her thoughts wander. They wander towards  this issue of having children and her husband’s response to it. And this, George Eliot seems to imply, is in itself a kind of  prayerful meditation:

But Nancy’s Sunday thoughts were rarely quite out of keeping with the devout and reverential intention implied by the book spread open before her. She was not theologically instructed enough to discern very clearly the relation between the sacred documents of the past which she opened without method, and her own obscure, simple life; but the spirit of rectitude, and the sense of responsibility for the effect of her conduct on others, which were strong elements in Nancy’s character, had made it a habit with her to scrutinize her past feelings and actions with self-questioning solicitude.

I look up rectitude. It means straightness. Nancy’s a person who tries to be straight and decent, and has self-knowledge, examining herself and her actions.

Her mind not being courted by a great variety of subjects, she filled the vacant moments by living inwardly, again and again, through all her remembered experience, especially through the fifteen years of her married time, in which her life and its significance had been doubled. She recalled the small details, the words, tones, and looks, in the critical scenes which had opened a new epoch for her by giving her a deeper insight into the relations and trials of life, or which had called on her for some little effort of forbearance, or of painful adherence to an imagined or real duty– asking herself continually whether she had been in any respect blamable. This excessive rumination and self-questioning is perhaps a morbid habit inevitable to a mind of much moral sensibility when shut out from its due share of outward activity and of practical claims on its affections–inevitable to a noble-hearted, childless woman, when her lot is narrow. “I can do so little–have I done it all well?” is the perpetually recurring thought; and there are no voices calling her away from that soliloquy, no peremptory demands to divert energy from vain regret or superfluous scruple.

George Eliot is very interested in the lot of women who have nothing to do. In real life she was Marian Evans, an incredibly  intelligent, self-educated midlands woman, who  in her early years had run her father’s house, and in mid-life developed a career in the London literary world ,editing the Westminster Review before beginning her work as a novelist at the age of thirty-nine. She had no children.

I’ve gone away from the book! Back to the text, go back, go back!

But will pick up here next time –  lots to do today, garden calling.

Is it love? Yes it is.

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Red Clematis in a pot in the back garden

I wanted to write today about A.S. J. Tessimond’s quietly self-effacing poem, ‘Not Love, Perhaps’.

I couldn’t write yesterday, despite the day beginning very early  in a hotel room in a Norwich Premier Inn: I needed to do some other work things and sacrificed my reading and writing hour to expediency.

In the afternoon, not wanting to skip a day (got to keep practising) I started writing  this post on a cross-country Norwich-Liverpool train which made 24 stops (including  places I don’t usually get to travel through  like Ely, Grantham, Alfreton, Sheffield, Irlam and Widnes). The 5+ hour, journey, with  no wifi and no electric plug felt like the olden days of the 1980s and in the end, I stopped writing to enjoy the sight of England, and to have a long read of my book and a little sleep, and my salad box lunch and some Norwich raspberries and to think about Norwich and the  people I had met  all too briefly at the International Literature Showcase. This is what train journeys used to be like!

I was at the Showcase to give a talk about the work of The Reader and to listen to other people describe their work spreading the word. Terrific to start the day with a performance of her poetry by Sophia Walker, a woman of verbal felicity and punch, lit by rhythms of hip hop and Shakespeare.

I went on to read from Bleak House – the visit of Esther and co to the brickmaker’s cottage with grim Mrs Pardiggle, the evangelical missionary to the poor. It was good afterwards to be in conversation with a few people who said how relevant and fresh the Dickens was, how appalling to feel much is still the same.

Pop Up Projects were on next, and founder Dylan Calder gave a compelling account of the  change Pop Up is bringing about. I very much liked the idea that authors in the Schools Book Festival are not there to sell books nor simply read them but to talk to children about how they create books. If creativity is the answer to an over-developed western economy (and I say it is) then we have got to learn how to help children believe in and practice their own powers of creativity.

Before heading to the Cathedral Hostry – amazing HLF funded building – where the Showcase was taking place, I walked round Norwich between 8.00 and 9.00, a beautiful hot, quiet morning. This was my first visit this ancient Cathedral City, with some lovely things.


Plus, less lovely, and more standard,  before 9.00 am, plenty of people sleeping in shop doorways. About as many as I’d see in Liverpool, I think. One was a young clear-faced young man, pink-cheeked, blond-curled like a cherub, leaning against a wall sleeping upright, with his feet swathed in a bin bag. He looked under twenty. What are we going to do about that? Dickens, thou should’st be living at this hour, as Wordsworth said of Milton.

But  to the poem, which I read earlier in the week with a small group of people who work in the Social Enterprise and Storybarn teams at The Reader; ‘Not Love Perhaps’ by A.S.J. Tessimond. You’ll find the poem here.

Is it love? we asked, or is it a kind of friendship? Or is friendship a kind of love? We spoke of the tricky Hollywood version of love, ‘love that lays down it’s life…’  I’m not sure love would, said one of the group members, lay down his life for me. Oh yes, one of the group’s men asserted, especially if  there was a baby. Ok, so maybe that self-sacrificing love does exist, some of us conceded, but this is not  that:

Love that lays down its life,
that many waters cannot quench,
nor the floods drown,
But something written in lighter ink,

Yesterday at ILS,  when I read Bleak House, I asked the audience to use their imaginations to make themselves become members of  Shared Reading groups – made-up personas, but made-up from real elements of many real people I have met.

The man who has had a  severe breakdown, the woman whose children have abandoned her, the person who lost their job, someone living with a severe and chronic illness, the recovering addict, the woman who has been a victim of violent abuse since childhood… imagine you are that person, I asked, sketching personas. Choose a character, be Bill, be Susan and imagine them,  think their thoughts, feel their feelings as I read.

I didn’t ask my audience to speak aloud so I don’t know if they did adopt any of those fictionalised personas.  But reading the scene in the brickmaker’s cottage, I stopped at the moment where Jenny  covers her bruised black eye so her baby might not see it:

…as soon as the space was left clear, we approached the woman sitting by the fire, to ask if the baby were ill.

She only looked at it as it lay on her lap. We had observed before, that when she looked at it she covered her discoloured eye with her hand, as though she wished to separate any association with noise and violence and ill-treatment, from the poor little child.

Imagine you are Susan, I asked my colleagues in the audience, badly abused since early childhood. Read this as Susan, whose children were taken into Care to protect them from  the same abuse. Imagine reading those words as Susan and remembering the number of times your children have seen you bruised and how you didn’t want them to see you…

That moment in a shared reading group where Susan may or not choose to share her experience aloud is one of the key contributors to the connective power of the experience. People are feeling,  sometimes talking, sharing, sometimes in silence, the same deep experiences. This is not love, perhaps…

But something written in a lighter ink, said in a lower tone:
Something perhaps especially our own.
A need at times to be together and talk
And then the finding we can walk
More firmly through dark narrow places
And meet more easily nightmare faces.

In this week’s staff reading group we talked about the fact that having a good social network helps people survive illness, trauma. And yesterday morning  at my early breakfast in a Norwich café, I read that by 2030, 3m. people will be suffering  chronic loneliness in the UK. We need real time face to face networks in which people can relearn their close human connections.

There’s nothing forced here. I spoke about the fact that people do not have to speak in Shared Reading. In one of my early groups one woman did not speak, making no  verbal contribution to the group, for over a year.  We offer an opportunity and then we wait. And if we wait without pressure, the possibility of becoming an active speaker will, more often than not, come: this poem gives words to the necessity behind that common occurance.

A need at times of each for each
Direct as the need of throat and tongue for speech.

In our staff group we stayed on the thought of ‘each for each’ for a while, noticing how it was both personal and yet bigger than personal. Is the word ‘person’ elided? Does ‘each for each’  imply  ‘a need at times of each (person ) for each (other person)’ Or is ‘each of us’ implied? We didn’t stop to notice of those little bits of gristly connective ‘of each for each’  the of and the for doing something extraordinary in a kind of giving and taking – (and is there an echo of  Marx’s famous slogan there? It seems to echo so in my mind.)

The need, poet concludes is ‘direct as the need of throat and tongue for speech’. We considered the physicality of throat and tongue – the way they must move muscularly to get language up and out. Do they need speech, rather than create it?

Is our need for each other in that sense primal, unignorable? And if so, what are we going to do about the boy on the street outside the bank in Norwich, and what about the 3 million lonely people?

Tessimond’s poem or Bleak House, shared with another reader, can help.

The Reader seeks volunteers to run Shared Reading groups. Our Read to Lead programme will help you get started.

For some Reader Leaders, Read to Lead courses and support are paid for by their place of  work, others pay out of their own money, and some, who might be very good at it,  don’t have an employer and can’t afford to pay for themselves.

We want to develop 20,000 groups over the next five years.If you can’t run a Shared Reading group yourself, you might consider making a donation which would help someone else to do so.

It costs £900 to train and support a volunteer for two years. Contact me if you can help.

Setting off up Mount Silas

Early Morning in the Front Garden 6 May

One of my readers, Orientikate, called my writing here ‘daily practice’ and I  have been thinking about that.

What am I practising?

At about 1000 words a day, written in an hour or under, it’s of necessity speed writing. But I am trying to keep the reading very slow. That’s why it can take me three or four days to read a short poem. (And the speed writing explains the typos and spolling mistkaes…no time to go back over and proofread). That daily practice of concentrating hard on a few lines of poetry has been a source of deep delight for the past two months.

But yesterday I began to think about reading more than poems. Could I read Silas Marner? I am following Loubyjo’s advice, doing what I like here with no pressure, so I will make a start on Silas Marner and see what happens. If I miss the poems, I’ll stop and go back to them. Other things  – book notices, reports on where I’ve been – I’m going to write at other times of the day so that this early hour remains the practice of reading and writing about the reading.

Reasons to read George Eliot even though you might be put off by the slow tone, the seriousness, the long sentences? She’s one of the most intelligent human beings  ever to have put pen to paper and she has a great heart. She was a forgiving understander of human beings, and does terrific human thinking work in those long sentences.  Sometimes she can be tough, literally as well as morally, but there’s a reward in taking on something tough, as anyone who has climbed a mountain knows.

So put on some stout boots,  get a rucksack of provisions, and join me on this beginner’s mountain trek. I’m copying the text here from I’m aiming to read about 500-1000 words of Silas  each day, and I’ll  drop  the day’s section in a quote box. I am going to paste in the full text for today’s reading, then reading it a bit at a time. Read it aloud to start, if you can. Read it slowly, whatever you do. Just the opening two paragraphs to start:

SILAS MARNER, The Weaver of Raveloe

by George Eliot

“A child, more than all other gifts
That earth can offer to declining man,
Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts.”



In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses–
and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their
toy spinning-wheels of polished oak–there might be seen in
districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the
hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny
country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race. The
shepherd’s dog barked fiercely when one of these alien-looking men
appeared on the upland, dark against the early winter sunset; for
what dog likes a figure bent under a heavy bag?–and these pale
men rarely stirred abroad without that mysterious burden. The
shepherd himself, though he had good reason to believe that the bag
held nothing but flaxen thread, or else the long rolls of strong
linen spun from that thread, was not quite sure that this trade of
weaving, indispensable though it was, could be carried on entirely
without the help of the Evil One. In that far-off time superstition
clung easily round every person or thing that was at all unwonted,
or even intermittent and occasional merely, like the visits of the
pedlar or the knife-grinder. No one knew where wandering men had
their homes or their origin; and how was a man to be explained
unless you at least knew somebody who knew his father and mother?
To the peasants of old times, the world outside their own direct
experience was a region of vagueness and mystery: to their
untravelled thought a state of wandering was a conception as dim as
the winter life of the swallows that came back with the spring; and
even a settler, if he came from distant parts, hardly ever ceased to
be viewed with a remnant of distrust, which would have prevented any
surprise if a long course of inoffensive conduct on his part had
ended in the commission of a crime; especially if he had any
reputation for knowledge, or showed any skill in handicraft. All
cleverness, whether in the rapid use of that difficult instrument
the tongue, or in some other art unfamiliar to villagers, was in
itself suspicious: honest folk, born and bred in a visible manner,
were mostly not overwise or clever–at least, not beyond such a
matter as knowing the signs of the weather; and the process by which
rapidity and dexterity of any kind were acquired was so wholly
hidden, that they partook of the nature of conjuring. In this way
it came to pass that those scattered linen-weavers–emigrants from
the town into the country–were to the last regarded as aliens by
their rustic neighbours, and usually contracted the eccentric habits
which belong to a state of loneliness.

In the early years of this century, such a linen-weaver, named Silas
Marner, worked at his vocation in a stone cottage that stood among
the nutty hedgerows near the village of Raveloe, and not far from
the edge of a deserted stone-pit. The questionable sound of Silas’s
loom, so unlike the natural cheerful trotting of the
winnowing-machine, or the simpler rhythm of the flail, had a
half-fearful fascination for the Raveloe boys, who would often leave
off their nutting or birds’-nesting to peep in at the window of the
stone cottage, counterbalancing a certain awe at the mysterious
action of the loom, by a pleasant sense of scornful superiority,
drawn from the mockery of its alternating noises, along with the
bent, tread-mill attitude of the weaver. But sometimes it happened
that Marner, pausing to adjust an irregularity in his thread, became
aware of the small scoundrels, and, though chary of his time, he
liked their intrusion so ill that he would descend from his loom,
and, opening the door, would fix on them a gaze that was always
enough to make them take to their legs in terror. For how was it
possible to believe that those large brown protuberant eyes in Silas
Marner’s pale face really saw nothing very distinctly that was not
close to them, and not rather that their dreadful stare could dart
cramp, or rickets, or a wry mouth at any boy who happened to be in
the rear? 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.


Though we start off with what seems a historical novel opening, it’s worth noting the epigraph from Wordsworth before we get going.

A child, more than all other gifts
That earth can offer to declining man,
Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts 

This is going to be a book about the effect of a child on a declining man, a book of hope. At the beginning it doesn’t seem so, and I know a lot of people are put off by the slowness and the darkness. Wait it out. And though it looks as if it is set in the past, there will be many connections for us. Look, for example, at that unwillingness to accept strangers:

In that far-off time superstition clung easily round every person or thing that was at all unwonted, or even intermittent and occasional merely, like the visits of the pedlar or the knife-grinder. No one knew where wandering men had their homes or their origin; and how was a man to be explained unless you at least knew somebody who knew his father and mother?

We re in pre-industrial times, and the figures  we see, walking to farmhouses with packs on their backs, are the sellers of fustian and other cloth, which will have been woven on hand-looms.  if you’ve seen or read The Winters Tale you’ll remember Autolycus, the trickster who comes to the sheep-shearing to make a bit of money and get a girl…George Eliot  reminds us that these itinerant pedlars caused suspicion among country people whose lives were unchanging from generation to generation. A small indication of the human thinking that lies ahead is given a slight fore-showing in this:

those scattered linen-weavers – emigrants from the town into the country – were to the last regarded as aliens by their rustic neighbours, and usually contracted the eccentric habits which belong to a state of loneliness.

if you are regarded as an alien by your neighbours it is very likely that you will contract ‘the eccentric habits which belong to a state of loneliness’.

I think here of lone gunmen and others who have  become completely cut off from ordinary face to face life – ‘he kept himself to himself’. Eccentricity may have been more tolerated in the past?  We are very much aware now, initially because of TV and red top newspapers, and latterly because of the internet, of how everyone else looks/is doing/seems. Against such strong group pressure eccentricity looks even more eccentric. But it’s interesting and sad to see that anti-social individuality was so immediately visible at the beginnings of industrialised life, and that George Eliot ascribes the root cause to loneliness.

The novel will ask us to think about  loneliness and where anti-social impulses arise. Having set those thoughts gently into our minds, George Eliot now introduces  us to Silas. Boys, half-afraid of the noise and machinery  of his handloom, come to peer in at his cottage windows, and  Silas – near-sighted – stands at the door to scare them off.

But sometimes it happened that Marner, pausing to adjust an irregularity in his thread, became aware of the small scoundrels, and, though chary of his time, he
liked their intrusion so ill that he would descend from his loom, and, opening the door, would fix on them a gaze that was always enough to make them take to their legs in terror. For how was it possible to believe that those large brown protuberant eyes in Silas Marner’s pale face really saw nothing very distinctly that was not
close to them, and not rather that their dreadful stare could dart
cramp, or rickets, or a wry mouth at any boy who happened to be in
the rear?

There’s already misunderstanding and suspicion here. the boys are part-scared, part-fascinated and part-scornful. Silas is annoyed at being interrupted. The boys frighten themselves by imagining Silas could put some kind  spell on them. This thought comes partly from their parents, who regard Marner as something off a witchdoctor.

The next half of this paragraph is a bit complicated – we have to think about ‘peasantry’  – is there a contemporary equivalent? – and a complete absence of education – hard  for us to imagine in our own time of universal free education?  My time is up, so more tomorrow.

If You Want Escapism, Look Away Now

garden 5 may
Spring in the Front Garden, 5 May

Yesterday I mentioned Marilynne Robinson’s  Home and Joshua Ferris’ The Unnamed as examples of novels which are the  kind of book I want to read. Not entertainment, and definitely not escapism. In fact, these two are the opposite, coming as close to life as it gets. Are they great books? I’m very alive while reading them, and that feels great! If the hairs stand up on the back your neck, said Les Murray, that’s poetry. That’s a sort of definition.

People often ask me about what we mean by ‘great books’ at The Reader. ‘Great’ is a relative and malleable word. Great as they may be, no books can easily be pressed on people who don’t want to read them (hence the sad state of our  national literary education). So is it a canon? If so, it’s a  very elastic one, decided week by week by whoever has the leadership of each group.

Our work is about passing on our love of literature, and trying to demonstrate that pwerful literature about real life  is compelling  and opens new areas of  self (and good fun, too, a lot of the time – there’s plenty of laughing in Shared Reading). It’s not so easy to create such meaning with books that are mainly there for entertainment or escapism – no offence to them, but most murders, romances, spies, thrillers, shopping or porn stories have a different purpose. They might be ‘well written’ but it is not about ‘well written’ in the end. It’s not about technique, or ‘achingly beautiful prose’ (a phrase which makes me put down a book immediately),  it’s about opening up the actual experience of human beings. If that’s happening, it might be a good book for a Shared Reading group.

We use the word ‘great’ to raise a flag for trying hard stuff.  A walk in the local park is good,  and beyond that, hillwalking is terrific but a trip to Everest is a completely different thing. Yet a walk in the park will be a hard task for someone who hasn’t been out in years. And walking in the Dales might be a doddle to someone who does it every weekend. Is Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 a great book?  Is War and Peace ? Is E.H. Young’s Miss Mole? What about Hamlet? Are they the same kind of ‘great’ ? No! They are all good in different ways.

I grew up with adults who were  looking away. Alcohol put up reality crash barriers and felt good. Pub not sorrow. Pub a laugh! Pub not bills, not money worries. Pub borrow a few bob! Pub not dull by yourselfness. Pub jokes and laughing. Sing songs! Pub paarrty ! Or drink at home!  Off licence, miniature whisky if broke. Cans of lager. Smoke dope, smoke, smoke, smoke.

This led to death, as all life does, but what I saw was that pub joy ran out while life itself ran on to the bitter end. I wanted to learn how to live differently. So the underlying flavour of my reading got serious. I’ve written about my book-turning-point, Doris Lessing’s Shikasta, elsewhere. After that came the novels of George Eliot, through my third-year university reading with Brian Nellist.

Daniel Deronda clarified things for me. I was in my mid-twenties and at a stage where decisions about the kind of person I wanted to be, the kind of  life I wanted to live were more or less consciously pressing on me.  I saw my self and my own existential problems in Gwendolen Harleth and in Daniel  Deronda. They are very different people, but there I was in both of them…it’s a book about choices and purpose in life.

When I first read the book my mother was in her late forties and it was clear her life was coming to an end. It was a long frightening time, that approach to death. Daniel Deronda shone light on lots of things I hadn’t known how to look at, think about. The predicament of Gwendolen Harleth, forced to learn by the uncontrollable consequences of  her own behaviour, terrified me into thinking seriously about the way in which I made choices.

I grew to love George Eliot and read everything she’d written, including, while I was writing my Ph.D. the nine volumes of her Complete Letters. This was (and still is)  like having a parent who teaches you stuff. George Eliot helped me  to grow up.

She can be hard to read – she has a rhythm that is long-sentenced and she uses complex syntax to work out complex things about human experience. Some people find the tone ponderous. I don’t. For me it is like spending time with a very clever person who knows a lot more than me. I have to keep saying, ‘Say that again!’ and I don’t understand it all, but I love being with her because I learn things.

Here’s Gwendolen (still a very young woman) at the end of the book, realising the man she loves has a bigger purpose in life than looking after her. You can’t read this stuff fast. Read it like a poem, slow and aloud.

That was the sort of crisis which was at this moment beginning in Gwendolen’s small life: she was for the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement, for the first time being dislodged from her supremacy in her own world, and getting a sense that her horizon was but a dipping onward of an existence with which her own was revolving. All the troubles of her wifehood and widowhood had still left her with the implicit impression which had accompanied her from childhood, that whatever surrounded her was somehow specially for her, and it was because of this that no personal jealousy had been roused in her relation to Deronda: she could not spontaneously think of him as rightfully belonging to others more than to her. But here had come a shock which went deeper than personal jealousy—something spiritual and vaguely tremendous that thrust her away, and yet quelled all her anger into self-humiliation.

I wouldnt start (as I did) in the deep end with Daniel Deronda. I’d start with Silas Marner. If you read it at school and hated it (so many people did!) please give it another go. Perhaps I’ll have a look at it tomorrow.

This is what novels are for!

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Not news to Americanists  or people reading widely in the  1970’s or 80’s but I wasn’t reading widely then and  am still pretty narrow in my tastes, so Wallace Stegner was new to me when the great recommender, my friend and colleague, Angie Macmillan, lent me her copy of Crossing to Safety (1987) a couple of years ago. I imagine Stegner is a big name in American fiction but I don’t think I’m alone in not having heard of him this side of the Atlantic. We’re missing something good! I could hardly believe that I had not come across this powerful book at the point when I was reading as much contemporary fiction as I have ever done. But perhaps I’d not have found so much in it in 1987: I was four years married, and wouldn’t have experienced much of Stegner’s subject matter: the rhythms and changes of a long marriage and equally long friendships. Thirty years on, still married, and in a near thirty year friendship with Angie, I know a bit about and am more interested in that kind of stuff. I made a mental note to read some more of Wallace Stegner’s stuff.

The novel I brought along as part of my sabbatical reading, was Angle of Repose. I’d picked it at random, but I wasn’t disappointed. The cover tells me it won the Pulitzer Prize and so I imagine it’s a ‘Great American Novel’ – and, well, it is.

For me the Greatest American Novels are The Assistant and A New Life by Bernard Malamud, Herzog, Mr Sammler’s Planet and Henderson The Rain King by Saul Bellow, and perhaps above all,  Gilead and Home by Marilynne Robinson (I told you I have narrow interests). As I read Angle of Repose I thought often of Gilead, which also tells some of the huge story of America through a small  family tale. In fact, I could feel all my favourites lining up around or behind or ahead of this novel, like a set of family photographs showing  resemblances and no disappointment in sight.

A retired history professor, recently deserted by his wife, struck with a paralysing condition, lives alone in the home of his deceased grandparents, and reads the historical papers, mainly letters, that record those long-concluded lives. We learn the story of a marriage, and some of the settling of the West through these documents and also by the stories the historian creates to fill the gaps. The whole melds together to become a story of engineering, childbirth, loss of east coast civilisation, and above all, a marriage. Or rather that crucial period during a marriage when the ultimate tenor of the relationship is forged. Huge portraits of crude and desperate mining towns are compelling, as are train journeys, food, accounts of living in a one room shack with a servant, how projects such as railroads and dams were financed (by risk-taking-skin-of-the-pants men who became giants). All this is good, perhaps great, but what had me  putting the book down and gazing up into the mountains beyond this Andalusian garden were the moments of terrible truth about what happens in relationships between friends, lovers, husband and wife, parent and child.

Let one example stand for many. Oliver, failing to make a success of the Idaho Mining and Irrigation Company, slowly turning to drink for consolation, with much household  financial support coming from his wife Susan’s commercial art work, has been offered a good job he does not want on the U.S Geographical Survey. Susan wants him to take it.

‘Well then, but what do you do if I take it?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said, ‘but you must take it.’

‘Give up.’

‘You wouldn’t be giving up everything. All your work would be useful for this government survey. Maybe when that’s done irrigation will be better understood and you’ll get your backing and can go on.’

‘Do you believe that?’

‘I don’t know. Do you?’



‘Still I ought to take it.’

‘I think so, yes.’

‘And what do you and the children do?’

‘It doesn’t matter what we do! I’d be happy anywhere if I thought you were working and …satisfied with yourself. I can support the children. Haven’t I been doing it?’

It was not the thing to say. She knew it but could not help saying it. The steady heavy stare of his eyes told her that he resented her and hardened himself against her, and the moment she saw his reaction, she resented him.

It was this, tiny, accurate observation of a moment of resentment in an apparently small row between long-married people that had me nodding in respectful pleasure. She wants to save their marriage, save him,  but ‘It was not the thing to say.’ No, but she could not prevent herself saying it, and ‘she knew it but could not help saying it.’ The infinitesimal moment when she reacts to his stare and – despite her best intentions to love him – finds that ‘she resented him’ is straight from the school of George Eliot realism, but that doesn’t make it old fashioned. There are many human stories to be told. Wallace Stegner is very good at telling them.

andalusian garden



Books for Women #4 Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

This was one I got from my mother. She loved reading, and new and secondhand books of her were always stuffed down the side of chairs and  sofas, or crammed into our one tiny bookcase. Books  I read between the ages of 9-14 were mostly Mum’s, and included various titles by Denis Wheatley, Jean Plaidy, Georgette Heyer, Kingsley Amis, Alistair MacLean Dick Francis, John Braine. And Mario Puzo, The Godfather. And Jackie Collins – loads of them! But few, if any, of these fed into my sense of self as a woman.

Little Women was a very different case. I almost think my mother  might have read Little Women , or some of it, to me. But I may be getting blurry – Katie Hepburn was in the glorious film, and she was one of my mother’s heroines, so we may have simply watched the film together. But  Mum in some way pressed this book onto me so it came  with an unusual  gloss – mum loves it. And she wanted me to love it too. I don’t think I’ve read  it since whenever that was – perhaps when I was 10, 11. If so, of course, it was too hard for me. As with many of my girlhood books, it didn’t seem to matter at the time that I couldn’t really understand them. I just skipped huge portions. I have been  re-reading it today, and  can see I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if I’d gone back  when I was 15 or 35.

It  features in my list of 100 books to maketh a woman because not many books are about such a range of  women, whether they are little or not.  It was the first book that really said to me ‘women have individual characters, do things, are passionate, and die’. Later I’d re-find this  fact in Jane Eyre, where it was equally appalling. But I remember crying at the death of Beth – perhaps the first death I experienced in  fiction and in life – and totally identifying with boyish Jo, who  never wanted to  grow into a young lady and wear dresses and put her hair up.  The scene in which she manages to  accept a proposal of marriage from  Professor Bhaer is top of the class for realism, feeling and humour too. He’s about to leave town – and though deeply independent, she doesn’t want him to go;

“Now shall we go home?” he asked, as if the words were very pleasant to him.“Yes, it’s late, and I’m so tired.” Jo’s voice was more pathetic than she knew. For now the sun seemed to have gone in as suddenly as it came out, and the world grew muddy and miserable again, and for the first time she discovered that her feet were cold, her head ached, and that her heart was colder than the former, fuller of pain than the latter. Mr. Bhaer was going away, he only cared for her as a friend, it was all a mistake, and the sooner it was over the better. With this idea in her head, she hailed an approaching omnibus with such a hasty gesture that the daisies flew out of the pot and were badly damaged.“This is not our omniboos,” said the Professor, waving the loaded vehicle away, and stopping to pick up the poor little flowers.“I beg your pardon. I didn’t see the name distinctly. Never mind, I can walk. I’m used to plodding in the mud,” returned Jo, winking hard, because she would have died rather than openly wipe her eyes.
Mr. Bhaer saw the drops on her cheeks, though she turned her head away. The sight seemed to touch him very much, for suddenly stooping down, he asked in a tone that meant a great deal, “Heart’s dearest, why do you cry?”
Now, if Jo had not been new to this sort of thing she would have said she wasn’t crying, had a cold in her head, or told any other feminine fib proper to the occasion. Instead of which, that undignified creature answered, with an irrepressible sob, “Because you are going away.”

“Ach, mein Gott, that is so good!” cried Mr. Bhaer, managing to clasp his hands in spite of the umbrella and the bundles, “Jo, I haf nothing but much love to gif you. I came to see if you could care for it, and I waited to be sure that I was something more than a friend. Am I? Can you make a little place in your heart for old Fritz?” he added, all in one breath.

“Oh, yes!” said Jo, and he was quite satisfied, for she folded both hands over his are, and looked up at him with an expression that plainly showed how happy she would be to walk through life beside him, even though she had no better shelter than the old umbrella, if he carried it.It was certainly proposing under difficulties, for even if he had desired to do so, Mr. Bhaer could not go down upon his knees, on account of the mud. Neither could he offer Jo his hand, except figuratively, for both were full. Much less could he indulge in tender remonstrations in the open street, though he was near it. So the only way in which he could express his rapture was to look at her, with an expression which glorified his face to such a degree that there actually seemed to be little rainbows in the drops that sparkled on his beard. If he had not loved Jo very much, I don’t think he could have done it then, for she looked far from lovely, with her skirts in a deplorable state, her rubber boots splashed to the ankle, and her bonnet a ruin. Fortunately, Mr. Bhaer considered her the most beautiful woman living, and she found him more `Jove-like” than ever, though his hatbrim was quite limp with the little rills trickling thence upon his shoulders (for he held the umbrella all over Jo), and every finger of his gloves needed mending.

Passers-by probably thought them a pair of harmless lunatics, for they entirely forgot to hail a bus, and strolled leisurely along, oblivious of deepening dusk and fog. Little they cared what anybody thought, for they were enjoying the happy hour that seldom comes but once in any life, the magical moment which bestows youth on the old, beauty on the plain, wealth on the poor, and gives human hearts a foretaste of heaven. The Professor looked as if he had conquered a kingdom, and the world had nothing more to offer him in the way of bliss. While Jo trudged beside him, feeling as if her place had always been there, and wondering how she ever could have chosen any other lot.

Love, love, love… of course when I was a young feminist I’d have objected to  this – women don’t have to shape their lives round men, etc – but now I think most of us shape our lives around love or connectedness one way or another, and what we all need  more than anything are complex models. Mrs March and her four daughters add up to a pretty multi-faceted woman, for whom the acquisition of pretty things is less important than trying to live a good life. And they have a lot of fun.

For which, many thanks, Mum.