I vaguely recall a tv adaptation I saw of this when I was a child, sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. I was not particularly interested in at the time and George Eliot has been just a name of an author that I was aware of, but I have not had any great yearning to read her works. I could name a few of her books in a pub quiz, but beyond that, I must confess my ignorance. She was recommended to me on the back of my fondness for Thomas Hardy as I was told by several people, “[If you like him, you’ll like her]”.
It has to be noted that this is a very short book; indeed, I am led to understand that it is the shortest of George Eliot’s works.
Our title character is introduced to us as a man who has been wronged. We get a short backstory telling of how, as a youthful man, he loved, was engaged, was tricked and who lost all that was important to him. Effectively driven from his home he made his living in a new place, yet as a consequence of the hurt he suffered he now lives alone, almost as a hermit. In some ways, I was reminded of myself.
The trouble that I found with the book is that the title character is so brilliantly written that all the other characters are muted by comparison. So when, in the middle third of the book, Silas Marner largely drops out of the picture as we get embroiled in what seems like a side plot, my interest began to dwindle greatly. It was no wonder that those who were made to read it between the ages of 13 & 16 found it tough-going. For though it is a short book, the hump in the middle makes it seem unduly long.
It is not until we have the arrival of Eppie that the book sparks back to life again. After her mother dies, a young toddler finds her way to Silas’ home and makes her home in front of the fire. Silas then takes her into his home and raises her as if she were his own daughter. This part is undoubtedly the highlight of the book, as we finally get two characters of equal verve in a delightfully sweet interplay. There is probably no scene better than when, having taken on some parenting advice, he puts her in a coal hole for a few seconds as punishment (something probably frowned upon by most people today) and she thinks it’s utterly delightful.
The book climaxes with the revelation of all the interlinked stories, some of which were those that I confess rather passed me by. When all is clear and further moral choices are to be made, we hark back to earlier choices and see them through to their natural conclusions.
*end spoiler warning*
One of the over-arching ideas that Eliot has in mind is that of justice. One could almost say karma, though I’m not sure about how widespread the idea was in her day. But this is a sort of justice that is gilded with irony, which at times is all a little too obvious. For example, Eliot makes it quite blatant that Eppie’s golden hair is a token of the gold that Silas has stolen from him.
As an aside, it is sometimes interesting to note confluences between different books that I read at the same time. So while I was reading this, I was also going through Karl Marx’s Capital. In that work, he examines the rise of the factory and machinery, taking as one of his examples the unemployment of linen weavers as a result of automation. While this is not ostensibly a history book, one couldn’t help but think that Eliot’s portrayal of life in her time and place as inspired by what was observed. As such, the book gives a human insight into the economic phenomenon which Marx partially describes.
While it is an admirable book, with some great writing, I found it inconsistent. So I can’t say I found myself longing to read another of George Eliot’s works straight away. I had considered Middlemarch as a follow up but I may look elsewhere for my next lot of fiction reading.