UTEL [ History of English | English Composition | Literary Authors | Literary Works | Literary Criticism ]


UTEL

George Eliot (1902)

Title Page | Prev Chapter | Next Chapter

Leslie Stephen


CHAPTER VII.
SILAS MARNER.

1 GEORGE ELIOT had not yet exhausted the materials of her early recollections. In the autumn of 1860 she wrote a short story called Brother Jacob, of which, as of its predecessor, The Lifted Veil, nothing need be said. But in the November of that year she began Silas Marner, which was finished in February 1861, and appeared by itself in March. Blackwood, she says, does not surprise her by calling it "rather sombre." She would not have expected it to interest any one except herself ("since Wordsworth is dead") had not Lewes been "strongly arrested" by it. The reference to Wordsworth is explained by her statement that it is meant to "set in a strong light the remedial influences of pure natural human relations." She felt as if it would have been more suitable to metre than to prose, except that there would have been less room for the humorous passages. It was suggested, it seems, by a childish recollection of a "linen-weaver with a bag on his back." The recollection, it must be admitted, can have counted for very little in the development of a story which is often considered to be her most perfect artistic performance. A curious literary coincidence--it can have been nothing more--is mentioned by Mathilde Blind. The Polish novelist, Kraszewski, wrote a novel called Jermola, the Potter, said to be his masterpiece, and to have been translated into French, Dutch, and German. Jermola is an old servant who has retired to a deserted house in a remote village. He becomes almost apathetic in his solitude, till one day he finds a deserted infant under an oak. He devotes himself to the care of the child, and is helped in the unfamiliar process of nursing by a kind old woman. His energies revive, he takes up the trade of a potter to make a living for his new charge, succeeds in the business, and is brought into friendly relations with his neighbours. Finally, the child's parents turn up and reclaim their son. Jermola has to submit, but afterwards runs off with the boy into the forests. There the child dies of hardship, and Jermola ends his days as a melancholy hermit. The treatment, says Miss Blind, is entirely different from that of Silas Marner, but the leading motive is identical, and some of the details have, as will be seen, a curiously close resemblance. As there is clearly no question of copying, we must infer that both writers have worked out the logical consequences of similar situations; Kraszewski's version is more "sombre," though either his catastrophe or that of George Eliot is equally conceivable. The supposed event--the moral recovery of a nature reduced by injustice and isolation to the borders of sanity--strikes one perhaps as more pretty than probable. At least, if one had to dispose of a deserted child, the experiment of dropping it by the cottage of a solitary in the hope that he would bring it up to its advantage and to his own regeneration would hardly be tried by a judicious philanthropist. That, perhaps, is the reason which made George Eliot think it more appropriate for poetry. In an idyll in verse one is less disposed to insist upon prosaic probabilities, or apply the rules of life suggested by the experience of the Charity Organisation Society. In Silas Marner George Eliot is a little tempted to fall into the error of the amiable novelists who are given to playing the part of Providence to their characters. It is true that the story begins by a painful case of apparent injustice. Silas Marner's life has been embittered by the casting of lots, which, on the principles of his sect, proves him to be guilty of the crime really committed by his accuser. But in the conclusion Providence seems to be making up for this little slip. The child is given to the weaver to recompense him for his sufferings, and, conversely, the real father is punished for neglecting his duty by the childlessness of his second marriage and the refusal of his daughter to accept him in place of her adopted parent. The excellent Dolly Winthrop sees a difficulty. She holds that the parson could probably explain the mistake about the casting of lots, though even he would have to tell it in "big words." But she is convinced that "Them above has got a deal tenderer heart than what I have." "There is plenty of trouble in the world, and things as we can never make out the rights on. And all as we've got to do is to trusten, Master Marner--to do the right thing as far as we know, and to trusten." If Marner had acted on that principle, he wouldn't have "run away from his fellow-creatures and been so lone." I will not quarrel with Mrs. Winthrop's solution of the ancient problem, nor with the moral which she deduces; and if the conclusion of the story seems to imply that compensation for injustice may be expected in this life rather more confidently than experience proves, another moral is also suggested. Mr. Godfrey Case is driven to prevarication and lying in order to conceal from his father that he has made a disreputable marriage, and to prevent his scamp of a brother from ousting him by revealing the result. His meanness answers admirably. The brother tumbles into a gravel-pit and is drowned, and the wife takes an overdose of laudanum at the right moment. He is freed from all fear of exposure, marries the right young woman, and has, on the whole, a successful life. This may console people who think that the justice of Providence is called into play too clearly. But in truth the whole story is conceived in a way which makes a pleasant conclusion natural and harmonious. It is saved from excess of sentimentalism by those admirable passages of humour, which, as we have seen, prevented the story from being put into verse. Silas Marner, as it turned out, was to be the last work in which George Eliot was to draw an idealized portrait of her earliest circle. It is full of admirable sketches from the squire to the poor weaver; and the famous scene at the "Rainbow" is perhaps the best specimen of her humour. The condescending parish clerk and the judicious landlord and the contradictious farrier, with their discussions of village traditions, their attempts at humour, and the curious mental processes which take the place of reasoning, are delicious and inimitable. One secret is that we can sympathise with their humble attempts at intellectual intercourse. The brutality which too often underlies a good deal of more refined satire comes out in the "unflinching frankness," which at the "Rainbow" is taken for the "most piquant form of joke." The presumption of the assistant clerk, who hopes that he may have his own opinion of his vocal performances, is tempered by the remark that "there 'd be two opinions about a cracked bell if the bell could hear itself," and finally crushed by the critic who tells him that his voice is "well enough when he keeps it up in his nose." It's your inside "as isn't right made for music; it's no better nor a hollow stalk." Much of the wit that passes current in more elegant circles differs from this, less in substance, than in the skill with which the sarcasm is ostensibly veiled. When Charles Lamb proposed to examine the bumps on the skull of an illiterate person, he was just as rude, though his rudeness is allowed to pass for harmless fun. The crude attempts of the natural man are redeemed from brutality by the absence of real ill-nature. So the argument as to reality of ghostly phenomena is a tacit parody upon a good deal of the controversy roused by "Psychical research." Some people, as the landlord urges, couldn't see ghosts, "not if they stood as plain as a pikestaff before 'em." My wife, as he points out, "can't smell, not if she'd the strongest of cheese under her nose. I never see a ghost myself; but then I says to myself, very like I haven't got the smell for 'em. I mean, putting a ghost for a smell, or else contrairiways. And so, I'm for holding with both sides." The farrier retorts by asking, "What's the smell got to do with it? Did ever a ghost give a man a black eye? That's what I should like to know. If ghos'es want me to believe in 'em, let 'em leave off skulking in the dark, and i' lone places--let 'em come in company and candles." "As if ghos'es 'ud want to be believed in by anybody so ignirant!" replies the parish clerk. We have read something very like this, only expressed in the "big words" which Mrs. Winthrop left to the parson. One touch of blundering makes the whole world kin; and in these good people, with their primitive views of logic and repartee and their quaint theology, we may, if we please, see a satire upon their betters. Rather, if we accept George Eliot's view, we have a kindly sympathy for the old order upon which she looked back so fondly. A modern "realist" would, I suppose, complain that she has omitted, or touched too slightly for his taste, a great many repulsive and brutal elements in the rustic world. The portraits, indeed, are so vivid as to convince us of their fidelity; but she has selected the less ugly, and taken the point of view from which we see mainly what was wholesome and kindly in the little village community. Silas Marner is a masterpiece in that way, and scarcely equalled in English literature, unless by Mr. Hardy's rustics in Far from the Madding Crowd and other early works.
2 The novels hitherto noticed suggest an interesting comparison. M. Brunetière in his study of the Roman Naturaliste infers from them that George Eliot is the type and the founder of English "naturalism." English novelists are hardly to be classified in separate schools so distinctly as their French rivals; and I fancy that M. Brunetière slightly exaggerates the importance and extent of the new departure. Scott, for example, though called a "romantic," is as much a "naturalist" in his descriptions of Dandie Dinmont or Edie Ochiltree as George Eliot in her Adam Bede or Tulliver. But M. Brunetière shows admirably the peculiar merits of the "English naturalism" which she represented. Her profound psychology, he says, her metaphysical solidity and her moral breadth, are displayed in that sympathetic treatment of the commonplace and ugly upon which I have had to insist. Sympathy of the heart and the intelligence is "the soul" of this "naturalisme." It preserved her, as M. Brunetière points out, not only from the coarse brutalities of M. Zola, but from the scorn for the bourgeois in which he finds the weak side of Flaubert's Madame Bovary. This is the great set-off against the superior skill in unity of composition and thorough finish of style which must be allowed to be a French characteristic. I will not try to expand a criticism which shows a true appreciation of George Eliot's most admirable quality. I will only add that in a comparison of George Eliot with French writers much would have to be said of George Sand, whom she had read with such enthusiasm, and in whose stories of French country life we may find the nearest parallel to Silas Marner. But though the affinity between the two great feminine novelists is sufficient to explain George Eliot's appreciation of her rival's sentiment and passion, it does not seem to have suggested any appropriation of artistic methods. One palpable difference is that while George Sand poured forth novels with amazing spontaneity and felicity, each of George Eliot's novels was the product of a kind of spiritual agony. Some consequences, good or bad, of George Eliot's method will become conspicuous.

Title Page | Prev Chapter | Next Chapter
HTML files generated by Marc Plamondon for the University of Toronto English Library, under the direction of Professor Ian Lancashire.

UTEL [ History of English | English Composition | Literary Authors | Literary Works | Literary Criticism ]