Silas Marner – George Eliot

I’ve made a few attempts at reading Middlemarch and have failed miserably each time but do feel there must be something to George Eliot to explain her popularity so when on lithub.com I came across the following ‘recommendation’

George Eliot, Silas Marner (1861) : Like MiddlemarchSilas Marner is exquisitely written and ecstatically boring. Unlike Middlemarch, it is quite short.

I felt I had to make a go of it and I have a 1944 first Penguin Books edition on the shelves, so Silas Marner here we come…

Like several of her contemporaries Mary Anne Evans used a male pseudonym for her novels although unlike the Bronte sisters for example this was not how she was first published as she used her own name for her earlier translations, nevertheless it is as George Eliot that she is best known. She took the male name to avoid being pigeonholed as a romantic writer which would have undoubtedly have been the case in mid Victorian England and she wanted to write far more serious novels. Having finished, and enjoyed Silas Marner I have to say that the above quote that prompted me to pick up the book is extremely unfair. Yes there are some dull parts, especially when the ladies are getting ready for the new years party and seem to spend far too long discussing, and admiring each others dresses but even that had some interest in how they would prepare for a social gathering with outfits sent on in advance so they didn’t have to carry them in the carriage or on horseback.

Whilst the book is specifically split into two parts in reality it more properly falls into three each fifteen to sixteen years apart. The first short section deals with Marner as a young man brought up in a strict religious community in an un-named norther city, where he is falsely accused of stealing the church funds and expelled from chapel. He also loses the love of his life due to his apparent crime to the man that framed him and Marner duly leaves the city to start a new life on the edge of the fictional small village of Raveloe in Warwickshire. All this happens in a flashback during the first chapter of the book to provide some background to his character and why he is such a loner as the rest of Part One deals with his life fifteen years after he came to Raveloe. This is a part of the country well known to George Eliot as she was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire and whilst the book is set in the early years of the nineteenth century and she was born in 1819 this would still be a familiar territory for her to set the novel in and one of the features of the book is the descriptions of the lives of the various social strata within the village. Marner earns his living as a weaver, in fact the full title of the book is Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe and from this skill he is able to amass quite a substantial sum over the fifteen years he had lived there and was respected for his skill but took no part in village life other than that which was necessary for his trade working at his loom all available hours day in day out. This solitude coupled with his bulging eyes which were rather short sighted, his bent back from hours at the loom and his occasional cataleptic fits which left him motionless for up to an hour at a time when they struck him made him an object of fear amongst the village children and his non-appearance at church a concern for the adults.

There is a parallel tale to that of Marner within the book and that is of the local squire, or more specifically his dissolute sons, the eldest of which had made an unwise secret marriage to an opium addicted poor woman and fathered a daughter whilst the other was of generally bad character thinking nothing of bullying his way around the local populace and wasting money of drink and gambling. Initially it seems that there is no link between the two tales but the two are destined to become entangled with both tragic and happy results. Part two is set sixteen years after part one but the various loose story strands have got no nearer to resolution but everything is about to change and oddly it is the improved draining of the fields that is going to be the catalyst. It is the clever interleaving of the two facets of social life in the village that make the book so enjoyable even whilst I sometimes struggled with the written out dialect when the poorer people are talking amongst themselves. The characters are all believable and the interplay between the gentry (such as they are in such a backwater), the poor and those who see themselves as in between such as the parson, the doctor, the innkeeper and the farrier is very well done.

I felt drawn in to this portrait of rustic middle English life from two centuries ago, maybe it’s time to have another go at Middlemarch…

An Old Man’s Love – Anthony Trollope

Twenty years or so ago I collected all forty seven novels plus the autobiography of Anthony Trollope in the lovely edition printed by the Folio Society which was the first ever complete edition to be illustrated. These are now long out of print but can still be obtained easily on the second hand market. I admit to having bought them far faster than I have ended up reading them in order to complete the set at the time. I have now read over half but have decided for the purpose of this blog to tackle his final work of fiction, completed before he died in 1882. He was still working on The Landleaguers which was published as an unfinished work in 1893 oddly before An Old Man’s Love which didn’t actually get published until 1894. Both of these are amongst his less well known works, indeed I cannot find an edition of An Old Man’s Love currently in print. Trollope suffered a decline in popularity towards the end of his life and it took sixty or seventy years before his reputation as a great Victorian novelist was restored but even so only about half of his novels are read to any extent today.

20190611 An Old Man's Love

The vast majority of An Old Man’s Love is written as as you would expect although there are passages where the author is talking directly to the reader and Trollope can get quite chatty as in the opening paragraph to the third chapter when we are properly introduced to The Old Man’s love interest.

There is nothing more difficult in the writing of a story than to describe adequately the person of a hero or a heroine, so as to place before the mind of the reader any clear picture of him or her who is described. A courtship is harder still—so hard that we may say generally that it is impossible. Southey’s Lodore is supposed to have been effective; but let any one with the words in his memory stand beside the waterfall and say whether it is such as the words have painted it. It rushes and it foams, as described by the poet, much more violently than does the real water; and so does everything described, unless in the hands of a wonderful master. But I have clear images on my brain of the characters of the persons introduced. I know with fair accuracy what was intended by the character as given of Amelia Booth, of Clarissa, of Di Vernon, and of Maggie Tulliver. But as their persons have not been drawn with the pencil for me by the artists who themselves created them, I have no conception how they looked. Of Thackeray’s Beatrix I have a vivid idea, because she was drawn for him by an artist under his own eye. I have now to describe Mary Lawrie, but have no artist who will take the trouble to learn my thoughts and to reproduce them. Consequently I fear that no true idea of the young lady can be conveyed to the reader; and that I must leave him to entertain such a notion of her carriage and demeanour as must come to him at the end from the reading of the whole book.

But the attempt must be made, if only for fashion sake, so that no adventitious help may be wanting to him, or more probably to her, who may care to form for herself a personification of Mary Lawrie.

And so he continues to give a basic description of the young lady who finds herself an orphan and is taken in to the home of Mr Whittlestaff, initially as an act of kindness because he was a friend of the family and she had nowhere else to go. At the start of the book Mr Whittlestaff is fifty and Miss Lawrie is twenty five although we quickly leap about a year and a half to two years so that she is well settled in the house and Mr Whittlestaff decides to ask her to marry him. Now this she is willing to do, although in truth she loves another, a certain John Gordon who vanished from her life three years earlier without actually declaring his love for her but promising to one day return. Then, on the very day that she agrees to her engagement to William Whittlestaff, John Gordon does come back and arrives at Croker’s Hall intending now that he has made money in South Africa to ask her to marry him.

All this has occurred in the first forty or so pages of the book and so the stage is set for the rivalry between the two men for the hand of Miss Mary Lawrie which is to be played out in the grounds of Victorian manners. Some of the characters favour her becoming Mrs Whittlestaff and yet more favour Mrs Gordon and none are shy about coming forward with their opinion even in front of the three main characters. There are numerous twists and turns before the final conclusion and there is also a sub-plot concerning the housekeeper at Croker’s Hall and her drunken husband which also needs to be resolved in the 172 pages so there is a lot going on considering the relative shortness of this book in the grand scheme of Victorian novels.

Romance is not normally a genre that I would choose to read but I definitely enjoyed this story and whilst Trollope is clearly not at the height of his powers as he was in The Chronicles of Barchester books or the Palliser series, both of which consist of six novels each, it is well written and draws you into the tale of the love triangle.