Fairly recently I delved back into the world of classics, giving the much loved author Edith Wharton another go with her novel Ethan Frome. I’d previously read The House of Mirth by her and hadn’t been very impressed, but I was actually pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed Ethan Frome in comparison. Feeling inspired by this, I decided to revisit another classic author; George Eliot. Middlemarch, arguably her most famous work, was a novel I studied in University, and whilst I appreciated the talent within it, I also found it lengthy and pretty boring. However, I knew that many people loved this author, so I decided to give her another go with the much shorter and therefore much quicker read of Silas Marner.
Silas Marner tells the story of the eponymous titular character. Wrongly accused of theft by those he most trusted, Silas is forced to leave the place he calls home, making his way to the smaller rural village of Raveloe. Here he establishes his usefulness in the community as a weaver, yet despite his skills Silas refuses to integrate himself into Raveloe’s society. He lives on the fringes of the rural village, a man whose strange ways cause the local folk to easily condemn him, whilst the children run in fear. All that Silas cares for is his precious stash of coins, saved meticulously over the many years. Yet when his gold is stolen, Silas is forced to once more face society, a task that becomes all the more urgent when an orphaned child, Eppie, finds her way into Silas home and heart. Through Eppie, can Silas transform his life for ever?
I was actually really and truly pleasantly shocked by just how much I loved this novel. It starts with a bit of a slower pace, giving us the backstory to Silas and how he actually comes to the village of Raveloe, setting up and establishing the main plot rather than diving straight in with the action. Whilst the beginning is slower in pace compared to the rest of the book, it’s easy to see why this is needed. Eliot is very clever in the way that she initially gives us the context of what it is like to be a weaver and how they are viewed in society. We begin to see almost immediately what this life is like for Silas, and how he is extremely prejudiced against because of his position within society. Eliot examines how 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’ (p. 4)
Indeed, from this slower beginning the novel opens out into a much faster pacing, yet Eliot’s writing never loses that astuteness which she clearly possess in regards to how certain members of society are viewed. One of the things she explores quite closely is the contrast between the working class and the social elite. She does this seamlessly through her novel, tying any further contexts neatly into her plot so that you never feel as though this is anything other than an entertaining read. Yet this enjoyable read does undoubtedly call into question many difficult topics surrounding the nineteenth century. After all, this novel is steeped in realism, and as such Eliot is keen to depict the realities of life in all of its many colours. I did wonder if this technique, specifically in regards to the working class, was what made me enjoy this novel so much more than Middlemarch, which took more of a look at a middle class life.
I also felt much more connected to the characters in this novel than I did in Middlemarch, mainly, I think, because they seemed much more memorable and distinct in their conceptions. Eliot managed to gather a real mix of characters in this book, with both central and peripheral characters, as well as those from a broad cross-section of the different hierarchies within society. There is a lot of personality and time given to the characters despite the shortness of the novel, which is impressive to say the least. Silas, of course, we naturally feel very attached to as we spend the most time with him, yet even the smaller characters are often just as engaging. There is a warmth and sense of humour within many of them, often despite the troubling plot points. Dolly Winthrop in particular was a real joy to read, with an extremely strong character and sense of herself, yet also shown to be sympathetic and kind hearted in spite of her hectic rural life. Reading of character such as this really gave me the sense that Eliot was no stranger to the vastly different lives within society, and I felt confident in her portrayal of this village’s life.
Whilst the characters were very well constructed, I also felt that they moved seamlessly alongside the actual plot. As we begin to gather a greater sense of the village and its inhabitants so the plot likewise increases, moving from the original thread of the outcast Silas to further side plots which eventually coincide with his own life. These plot moments, whilst sometimes surprising, were for the most part something we were able to follow quite easily and could often see how the links might be made. I actually found this quite refreshing, as whilst you might be able to guess the direction they could take, you’re still not entirely sure how they’re going to fully mature and how certain characters might react. This mean that the suspense was still within the novel without having something that was over the top or extremely sensationalist purely for the sake of it.
One of the central themes within this book is the idea of family, and how we might create our own familial links without the necessity of actual blood relations. I think this is one of the reasons why this book felt as though it had such a light-hearted warmth within in, despite some of the plot points. There is a real sense of love and loyalty in this which is shown time and time again to be worth more than any status or wealth can provide you with. Yes, it sounds perhaps a bit cheesy, but it’s a refreshing change to much of the doom and gloom of Victorian realism.
Having now read my second George Eliot novel I am really surprised at just how eager I am to read more of her work. If like myself you’ve previously read Middlemarch and didn’t find yourself overly impressed, I would definitely recommend reading this to see another side to George Eliot’s writing. In many ways it reminded me very much of the rural landscapes and plots of Thomas Hardy, with a more cheerful and generally promising outlook in comparison!
Have you read any other Eliot books? What did you think?
‘A quiet but steadily growing novel which will steal into your heart until you find yourself as much a part of the village as the characters themselves. All the realism of a Hardy novel, with the happier outcome for all’.
Publisher: Penguin English Library