Silas Marner by George Eliot

The importance of community…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Unjustly accused of theft, Silas Marner, his faith in God and man shattered, flees his home and church and sets himself up in a new place where he knows no one and no one knows him. Raveloe is a small rural village with a strong sense of community among the working class, who, as tradition demands, show deference to the local Squire and his feckless sons. Here Silas lives alone, plying his trade as a linen weaver and accumulating a store of gold which he carefully hides and takes out each night to lovingly count. And so his life may have continued, but that one night his hoard of gold is stolen. He is still reeling and depressed from this disaster when, a short time later, a little girl walks through his door. Silas discovers the body of the child’s mother nearby in the snow, and decides to adopt the girl, whom he calls Hephzibah, or Eppie for short.

Being one of the small minority who didn’t love Middlemarch, I began this one with a lot of hesitation – a book I felt should read rather than one I wanted to. So the pleasure of discovering that I loved it was all the greater for being unexpected. This one has what, for me, Middlemarch lacked – a strong plot. Its brevity is undoubtedly another point in its favour!

It gets off to a bit of a rocky start, as Eliot pontificates for a while about “the poor”, in that supercilious way that suggests they are one homogenous mass, easy to categorise, define and condescend to. “The poor”, apparently, are rather stupid, highly superstitious, easily led, and would fall somewhere not far above beasts of the field in a zoological league table. Whenever one of these 19th century writers talks about “the poor”, I feel I get a better understanding of why people invented guillotines. Happily, however, once she has staked her claim to social and intellectual superiority, she moves on quite quickly, and her depiction of individual members of “the poor” is much more nuanced and insightful than this opening monologue had led me to fear.

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I also feared that Eppie might be one of these saccharin, perfect angels that infest Victorian fiction, usually shortly before they die tragically. Happily not! Eppie is wilful, naughty and refreshingly normal, and won past even my pretty strong anti-child defences. Silas’ reaction to her arrival is very well portrayed, as he sees her as a kind of redeeming gift from the God whom he felt had deserted him. Since she’s a very young child on her arrival, Silas, a man with no experience of children, has to reach out for help, forcing him to become part of the village life he had until then shunned. Perhaps he never quite regains his lost trust in man or God to the same level of naivety of his youth, but he learns to love again, and to appreciate neighbourliness and kindness and the value of community.

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The other side of the story is darker, and gives it a weight that prevents Silas’ story from being too sweet. The reader knows the identity of the dead woman, although the villagers do not, and we know why she was there that night, in a snow storm. “The poor” may get Eliot’s condescension, but she is stern on the fecklessness of those who live off the labour of others – the Squire class. Squire Cass himself is a man of pride and temper, and his sons have grown up with weak characters and a sense of entitlement that leads them into vice, each of a different kind. Eliot allows the possibility of redemption, but she intends to make her characters work for it.

George Eliot

I particularly enjoyed the occasional intervals where we eavesdrop on the men of the village, gathered of an evening in the local tavern to swap stories and exchange gossip. There’s a lot of humour in these passages, but they also give a great depiction of the social hierarchy of village life, based not so much on wealth as on age and experience, with a sense of earned wisdom being passed down through the generations. Eliot also shows how the women of the village try to ensure that motherless Eppie is given the guidance on womanly matters that Silas can’t provide.

Having been rather rude about Andrew Sachs’ narration of The Power and the Glory recently, I was delighted to find him excellent in this one. Without the distraction of “foreign” accents to contend with, he gives a full range of very good characterisations, each well suited to the social class of the character in question.

In the end, the various strands all come together satisfyingly, managing to be sweet without a surfeit of sugar. An excellent listening experience, and I’m now keen to explore more of Eliot’s work.

Audible UK Link

50 thoughts on “Silas Marner by George Eliot

  1. I am so glad you enjoyed this one, FictionFan! You make such a well-taken point, too, about the way 19th Century writers sometimes treated ‘the poor’ in their work. That grates on my nerves, too. I had to chuckle at your discussion of Eppie as well. I hadn’t thought of it, but, yes, a lot of 19th Century writers depicted their child characters (especially the girls) as perfect angels. That puts me right off. I raised a girl, and now I have a granddaughter and I can tell you, real girls are not perfect angels. The best ones (ahem – mine – 😉 ) are normal people with a range of emotions, strengths, weaknesses, and so on.

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    • Haha, yes, if I ever met a perfect girl I’d be checking to see if she was actually an android… or an alien! Anyway imperfect people are so much more interesting! I was glad she kept all of her moralising about “the poor” to the beginning and then got on with an actual plot. It’s always a treat when a book turns out better than expected!

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  2. I also am glad you found this enjoyable–particularly the narration. Well done, Andrew! I might have to read this! (I also am not found of the perfect female trope from back in the day.)

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    • I was so pleased about the narration! I’d always liked Andrew Sachs so I felt bad about criticising him over the last one. This one is well worth reading, and pretty short for a Victorian classic!

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  3. I’m very glad you enjoyed this so much! I loved Middlemarch but have never been able to get into this – however, it’s been many years since I tried, and reading your review I wonder if I was so put off by Eliot’s comments on The Poor that I never warmed up to it? You’ve definitely inspired me to give it another go.

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    • Could be – I certainly wondered for a while whether I was going to be able to keep going, but once she got past her pontification about “the poor” there’s actually quite a good story in this one. If Middlemarch wasn’t so long I’d say that I’d read it again sometime and see if I appreciated it more knowing what to expect, but to be honest the idea of rereading it when there are so many other classics I still haven’t read makes my head hurt… 😉

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  4. Well, it sounds as if you really enjoyed this one! I remember trying to read through it back in the day, but failing miserably. (That’s what Cliff’s Notes were for, huh?!) Anyway, now that I’m (ahem) more mature, maybe I should give it another chance.

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    • I find with a lot of classics that a bit of maturity is required! I know I say it all the time, but I think they make a mistake forcing older classics on schoolkids and students at too early an age – there are plenty of more modern novels that don’t require so much work!

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  5. I’m glad this was a positive experience for you – both story and narration! I liked Middlemarch, though I can’t say I loved it. The length of this one is a plus, so you’ve inspired me to tag it at the library (where I currently have 200+ books tagged 🙄)

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    • Yes, I didn’t hate Middlemarch, I just didn’t love it either – it was kind of a meh read for me. But this one, once you get past her droning on about “the poor”, has a much better story and of course is much shorter! Haha, this is why I’m not in a library – I couldn’t cope with access to even more books! 😂

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    • I could really cut and paste my criticism of her opinions of “the poor” and stick it into any review of a Victorian novel! But I was glad to enjoy this one so much, and finally see what it is other people appreciate about her!

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  6. See, now, what Middlemarch has is several strong plots. It’s just a book that you have to have patience with because it’s about ordinary life in a smallish town. Oh well, to each his or her own.

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    • Yes, there are lots of different stories, some that I enjoyed more than others, but I really like a strong overarching plot that pushes me to keep reading to find out what happens. It is just personal preference though – I’ve always been a plot-driven reader.

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    • Haha, I missed the guinea pig bit! One of the penalties of audiobooks (for me) is that my brain doesn’t absorb the individual words as much as when I’m reading – I end up with more of an impressionistic picture of the book, if you see what I mean, and of course that makes it even more important that it has a strong plot. I’ll maybe try Daniel Deronda next…

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  7. I’m a “only read Middlemarch” Eliot reader and while I liked it, honestly it hasn’t stuck with me, I don’t think about it much. This one sounds quite different and intriguing!

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    • Funnily enough I was thinking while writing this review that most of Middlemarch has faded from my mind and it’s only three years or so ago that I read it. Because this one has a stronger plot I suspect I’ll remember it much more clearly. I didn’t hate Middlemarch, though I didn’t love it either, but overall I found this one vastly more enjoyable.

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    • Ha! Well, I’ve only read two so far, so it’s the only one I like too! (I think I did read The Mill on the Floss in school too, but if so I’ve forgotten everything about it, including whether I liked it or not! 😉 )

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    • Well, I definitely enjoyed this more than Middlemarch, but loads of people think Middlemarch is the best book in the English language… (weird!) This one is short, though, so might be a good starting point to see how you get on with her style. Audiobooks are still a different experience to me than reading – more akin to watching a film. But I’m slowly getting better at being able to concentrate on them for longer periods of time.

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  8. Glad you liked this and that it is short because I’ve got it on my next Classics Club list too.
    Naughty child characters are so much more likeable than little angels, perhaps they are more relatable. I never met a child who was a little angel (or an adult, come to think of it).

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  9. This sounds more approachable than I’d been led to expect—and short too! I love the mix of social realism and redemption you suggest underlies this, so definitely a work to consider visiting in the future. Thanks!

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    • I always like when an author holds out the possibility of redemption – I never believe in characters who are wholly bad, or indeed, wholly good! I hope you enjoy this one if you do read it sometime – it’s left me quite keen to read more of her stuff!

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  10. I read Silas Marner many years ago and I suppose I accepted that this was how middle-class regarded ‘the poor’, as a homogeneous group to be ‘visited’ and condescended to. Doing history at university makes you value context over everything.
    Story immersive. What struck me was how squire’s son, when looking for child to adopt, believed he had a right to take Eppie from Silas. (Yes, I know circumstances but his arrogance was breathtaking.)
    Btw, I loved Silas Marner… Middlemarch and everything else George Eliot wrote.

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    • Yes, she’s certainly not alone among her contemporaries in depicting “the poor” in this way, but somehow it irritated me here – perhaps because it was right at the beginning and I feared she might be going to moralise all the way through. Happily not, though, and once she got into the story the poor began to become individuals. Ha, yes, that kind of arrogance is pretty breathtaking! I liked that she showed it that way – a lot of authors from that era would have quite happily shown it as a happy ending for Eppie, with Silas pensioned off comfortably to a little room in the attic of the big house…

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  11. It was so long ago that I read Middlemarch, alll I remember of it was being way too long, so I’m happy to hear this one is shorter with a tighter plot. I also love the fact that we can experience these classic works through audio, it really helps to broaden it’s audience!

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    • It’s not very long since I read Middlemarch and yet its length is pretty much all I remember about it too! 😉 This one works much better and I suspect I’ll remember it far longer. I love that so many great actors have narrated the classics – it gives them a whole new lease of life!

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