The back cover of my Penguin Popular Classics edition of Silas Marner tells me it was George Eliot’s own favourite novel. The story revolves around Silas Marner, a weaver living in Raveloe, a village on the brink of industrialisation. He was wrongly accused of theft and left his home town to live a lonely and embittered life in Raveloe where he became a miser, hoarding his gold and counting it each night. Until one night his life is changed by the theft of his money and a little girl who came to live with him, having been abandoned in the snow.
It took me a while to settle into George Eliot’s style of writing, with her long, long sentences – some so long I had forgotten how they had started, before I got to the end. But once my mind had adjusted to the rhythm of her writing I enjoyed this short book (221 pages in my copy). It’s set in the early years of the 19th century (she was writing the book in 1861) and begins with a description of linen weavers and the superstition that surrounded them. They were:
… pallid undersized men, who by the side of 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.
In that far-off time superstition clung easily round every person or thing that was at all unwonted … no one knew where wandering men had their homes, or their origin … to peasants of old times, the world outside their own direct experience was a region of vagueness and mystery … (page 9)
There are two strands to the storyline – one about Silas and the other about Godfrey Cass, two very different men, one poor, a social outcast and the other rich, the son of the local squire. They move in very different social circles, the Cass family life is one of lazy indulgence, but their lives intersect through the arrival of the little girl.
I really enjoyed this short book, bringing to life a world that had disappeared by the time George Eliot was writing it. It has the touch of a fairytale about it, or of a folk myth, and it tells of the consequences of our actions. The characters come to life through Eliot’s descriptions and I could easily picture their appearance and hear their speech. For example
She actually said “mate” for “meat”, “appen” for “perhaps”, and “oss” for “horse”, which, to young ladies living in good Lytherly society, who habitually said ‘orse, even in domestic privacy, and only said ‘appen’ on the right occasions, was necessarily shocking. (page 113)
I wondered whether this would be a sentimental tale, but although it is touching it isn’t sentimental. In the end it’s about a world of uncertainties, of ways of looking at life, of the nature of belief and religion and of the possibilities of change. And it does have a happy ending.