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

TBR Thursday 337…

Episode 337

As anticipated, the tennis is playing havoc with my reading, but happily I haven’t had time to acquire many books either. So the TBR is remaining steady on 174…

(I’m behind with reading posts and answering comments too – sorry! I blame this chap!)

Anyway, here are a few more books I’m hoping to catch up with soon… 

Winner of the People’s Choice

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Wow, another one vote victory! Cloudstreet and Winter in Madrid ran neck and neck all the way through but in the end Cloudstreet broke the tape! Toni Morrison was never in contention but I suspect that’s because she had two entries which split the pro-Morrison vote. Excellent choice, People – I’m looking forward to it! It will be a September read.

The Blurb says: Hailed as a classic, Tim Winton’s masterful family saga is both a paean to working-class Australians and an unflinching examination of the human heart’s capacity for sorrow, joy, and endless gradations in between. An award-winning work, Cloudstreet exemplifies the brilliant ability of fiction to captivate and inspire.

Struggling to rebuild their lives after being touched by disaster, the Pickle family, who’ve inherited a big house called Cloudstreet in a suburb of Perth, take in the God-fearing Lambs as tenants. The Lambs have suffered their own catastrophes, and determined to survive, they open up a grocery on the ground floor. From 1944 to 1964, the shared experiences of the two overpopulated clans — running the gamut from drunkenness, adultery, and death to resurrection, marriage, and birth — bond them to each other and to the bustling, haunted house in ways no one could have anticipated.

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Historical Fiction 

Privilege by Guinevere Glasfurd

Courtesy of John Murray via NetGalley. I enjoyed Glasfurd’s first novel, The Year Without Summer, so I’m hoping this one will be just as good. Certainly sounds interesting…

The Blurb says: After her father is disgraced, Delphine Vimond is cast out of her home in Rouen and flees to Paris. Into her life tumbles Chancery Smith, apprentice printer sent from London to discover the mysterious author of potentially incendiary papers marked only D . In a battle of wits with the French censor, Henri Gilbert, Delphine and Chancery set off in a frantic search for D ‘s author. But who is D and does D even exist?

Privilege is a story of adventure and mishap set against the turmoil of mid-18th century France at odds with the absolute power of the King who is determined to suppress opposition on pain of death. At a time when books required royal privilege before they could be published – a system enforced by the Chief Censor and a network of spies – many were censored or banned, and their authors harshly punished. Books that fell foul of the system were published outside France and smuggled back in at great risk.

Costa-shortlisted author Guinevere Glasfurd has conjured a vibrant world of entitlement and danger, where the right to live and think freely could come at the highest cost.

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Wodehouse on Audio

The Mating Season by PG Wodehouse narrated by Jonathan Cecil

Another batch for the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge! Can’t go wrong with Wodehouse! And Jonathan Cecil is the perfect narrator for the Jeeves and Wooster books. A bit of light relief to keep my spirits up through the challenge!

The Blurb says: At Deverill Hall, an idyllic Tudor manor in the picture-perfect village of King’s Deverill, impostors are in the air. The prime example is man-about-town Bertie Wooster, doing a good turn to Gussie Fink-Nottle by impersonating him while he enjoys fourteen days away from society after being caught taking an unscheduled dip in the fountains of Trafalgar Square. Bertie is of course one of nature’s gentlemen, but the stakes are high: if all is revealed, there’s a danger that Gussie’s simpering fiancée Madeline may turn her wide eyes on Bertie instead.

It’s a brilliant plan – until Gussie himself turns up, imitating Bertram Wooster. After that, only the massive brain of Jeeves (himself in disguise) can set things right.

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Eliot on Audio

Silas Marner by George Eliot narrated by Andrew Sachs

Fortified with Wodehouse, I hope to have the strength to get through this one, which is one of those books I feel I should read more than actually wanting to. One for my Classics Club list, and on the upside, it’s reasonably short!

The Blurb says:  Falsely accused, cut off from his past, Silas the weaver is reduced to a spider-like existence, endlessly weaving his web and hoarding his gold. Meanwhile, Godfrey Cass, son of the squire, contracts a secret marriage. While the village celebrates Christmas and New Year, two apparently inexplicable events occur. Silas loses his gold and finds a child on his hearth. The imaginative control George Eliot displays as her narrative gradually reveals causes and connections has rarely been surpassed.

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Rumpole on Audio

Rumpole’s Return by John Mortimer read by Robert Hardy

I suspect I’ll need a bit of a mood lift after Silas Marner! Rumpole is always fun, and while I’d have liked Leo McKern to narrate them (the actor who played Rumpole on TV), I love Robert Hardy and think he’ll be an excellent substitute…

The Blurb says: Has Rumpole hung up his wig for good? Can it be? Yes, the beloved barrister is now retired (though far from retiring) and gently ripening to a rosy hue in the Florida sunshine. But a colleague’s casual request for advice on a difficult case sends him winging back across the Atlantic, and before he’s through, our hero will come up against a fanatical religious cult and a mysterious letter written in blood.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my recent reading in quotes…

….Kitty was lively; she was willing to chatter all day long and she laughed easily. His silence disconcerted her. He had a way which exasperated her of returning no answer to some casual remark of hers. It was true that it needed no answer, but an answer all the same would have been pleasant. If it was raining and she said: “It’s raining cats and dogs,” she would have liked him to say: “Yes, isn’t it?” He remained silent. Sometimes she would have liked to shake him.
….“I said it was raining cats and dogs,” she repeated.
….“I heard you,” he answered, with his affectionate smile.
….It showed that he had not meant to be offensive. He did not speak because he had nothing to say. But if nobody spoke unless he had something to say, Kitty reflected, with a smile, the human race would very soon lose the use of speech.

~ The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham

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….Wednesday of the third week following the Inquest was appointed for the magisterial inquiry, and during the interval Sergeant Ridgway was busily occupied, presumably in accumulating and piecing together various evidence. Of what it consisted no one but himself knew, nor did it appear whether or not its trend on the whole was favourable or disastrous to the unhappy prisoner, at the expense possibly of Cleghorn, or possibly to the complete exculpation of that injured man. The detective kept his own counsel, after the manner of his kind; and if any had thought to extract from the cover of that sealed book a hint of its contents, no reassuring message at least could have been gathered from its unlettered sombreness. But nobody asked, fearful of being thought to profane the majestic muteness of the oracle; and the labouring atmosphere lowered unenlightened as the days went on.

~ The Mystery of the Skeleton Key by Bernard Capes

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….In the sumptuously decorated Privy chamber, four richly dressed maids-in-waiting with the Queen’s badge on their hoods sat sewing by the window. Outside were the palace gardens, patterned flowerbeds and fishponds and statues of heraldic beasts. All the women rose and nodded briefly as I bowed to them.
….Queen Catherine Parr sat in the centre of the room, on a red velvet chair under a crimson cloth of state. Beside her a girl of about eleven knelt stroking a spaniel. She had a pale face and long auburn hair, and wore a green silken dress and a rope of pearls. I realised this was the Lady Elizabeth, the King’s younger daughter, by Anne Boleyn. I knew the King had restored Elizabeth and her half-sister Mary, Catherine of Aragon’s daughter, to the succession the year before, it was said at the Queen’s urging. But their status as bastards remained; they were still ladies, not princesses. And though Mary, now in her twenties, was a major figure at court and second in line to the throne after young Prince Edward, Elizabeth, despised and rejected by her father, was hardly ever seen in public.

~ Heartstone by CJ Sansom

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. . . we have all a chance of meeting with some pity, some tenderness, some charity, when we are dead: it is the living only who cannot be forgiven – the living only from whom men’s indulgence and reverence are held off, like the rain by the hard east wind. While the heart beats, bruise it – it is your only opportunity; while the eye can still turn towards you with moist timid entreaty, freeze it with an icy unanswering gaze; while the ear, that delicate messenger to the inmost sanctuary of the soul, can still take in the tones of kindness, put it off with hard civility, or sneering compliment, or envious affectation of indifference; while the creative brain can still throb with the sense of injustice, with the yearning for brotherly recognition – make haste – oppress it with your ill-considered judgments, your trivial comparisons, your careless misrepresentations. The heart will by-and-by be still – ubi saeva indignatio ulterius cor lacerare nequit; the eye will cease to entreat; the ear will be deaf; the brain will have ceased from all wants as well as from all work. Then your charitable speeches may find vent; then you may remember and pity the toil and struggle and the failure; then you may give due honour to the work achieved; then you may find extenuation for errors, and may consent to bury them.

From The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

~ The Origins of Science Fiction edited by Michael Newton

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So… are you tempted?

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Unhappily ever after…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Set just before the Reform Act of 1832, Eliot uses the better off residents of the provincial town of Middlemarch to muse on the state of society at a point of change. It is basically a series of character studies, showing how the social interactions of life lead, in most people, to a permanent state of change: sometimes growth, sometimes diminution. There is no overarching plot to speak of, though several of the characters have their own stories which appear and disappear as the book roves over subjects as diverse as the building of the railroads, the state of medicine, the position of women in society, the conduct of politics.

By the time I got to page 150, I was beginning to think that dying of boredom would be a blessed release. The constant repetition and the impersonal telling of every detail rather than allowing the characters to reveal themselves through their own actions and interactions made it feel like sheer drudgery to get through. Gritting my teeth and struggling on, I found it slowly improved so that eventually I became reasonably immersed in the various lives that were slowly, oh, so slowly, being lived out on the pages. But having made it all the way to the final page, despite admiring the ambition and some of the execution, I will not be joining the legions of people who think this is the greatest novel in the English language.

There is no doubt about the depth of the characterisation nor the profound insight Eliot gives into the fallibilities and foibles of human nature. Clearly not a fan of the happy-ever-after of so many novels of the period, Eliot instead shows marriage as the beginning of the story for many of her characters and then follows them as they have to readjust their expectations when experience crashes brutally down on their hopes and dreams. It’s all very realistic, of course; hence, very depressing. I’ve always assumed that Darcy and Lizzie probably found that neither was quite as perfect as they seemed to each other on that day when they declared their mutual love, but I was always happy that Austen didn’t make me witness the inevitable disillusion. There’s such a thing as too much realism.

It’s hard to know who the major character is supposed to be. For the first section it appears it will be Dorothea, an idealistic young woman who wishes to find a way to be useful in a society that expects women of her class to be merely decorative. But then quite suddenly, just as one has become invested in her story, she disappears for hundreds of pages and idealistic young Dr Lydgate becomes the focus. The informative introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by David Russell, tells me that in fact the book started as two separate stories which Eliot later decided to merge, and I was quite glad to know that since it explained why the structure felt so out of synch until about halfway through. Both Dorothea and Lydgate find they have married people who don’t live up to their high ideals and so spend much of their time being miserable. (In an Austen novel, they’d have married each other and lived happily ever after. What’s so wrong with that?)

George Eliot

I enjoyed the portrayal of the society of the town considerably more. While Eliot deals mostly with her own class, she occasionally gives glimpses of the common people, showing how their way of life was being changed by the increasing industrialisation of the time. She doesn’t delve in depth into this nor into the major political changes that were happening, presumably assuming that her contemporary audience would be well aware of these aspects. But she does show that the landowning classes were conscious of the increasing mood of resentment among the lower orders, with the fear of social unrest rumbling in the background. Like Dickens, she gives an indication of how the classes may live apart but are inextricably connected and, also like him, she suggests clearly that those who have ignore those who have not at their own peril.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy this nearly as much as I’d hoped. I suspect it’s simply a matter of outlook on life – I’m a glass-half-full kind of person and I got the distinct impression that Eliot’s glass was at least half empty. I missed Dickens’ anger and exuberance, and Austen’s wit. This felt flatter – more like reportage than storytelling. However, I did admire the subtlety of the characterisation and the intelligence of her observations of society. A book that engaged my intellect more than my emotions and, in the end, failed to make me care about the outcomes for the people with whom I’d spent so much time.

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NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 196…

Episode 196

Wow! I think this may be the biggest fall ever in my TBR – down 6 to 225!! Partly this is because I abandoned a couple that weren’t working for me and partly it’s to make room for a bunch of books I’m expecting to arrive in the next week or two. But still! I’m feeling like a winner…

Here are a few more that will be appearing on court soon…

History

In a couple of months, it will be the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles which ended the First World War and, it’s often said, paved the way towards the Second. In this highly regarded book originally titled Paris 1919, Margaret MacMillan tells the story of the negotiations and decisions of the peacemakers, and disputes some of the commonly held opinions on the outcomes of the treaty. Since I hold those commonly held opinions, she’s got her work cut out to change my mind…

The Blurb says: Between January and July 1919, after “the war to end all wars,” men and women from around the world converged on Paris to shape the peace. Centre stage, for the first time in history, was an American president, Woodrow Wilson, who with his Fourteen Points seemed to promise to so many people the fulfilment of their dreams. Stern, intransigent, impatient when it came to security concerns and wildly idealistic in his dream of a League of Nations that would resolve all future conflict peacefully, Wilson is only one of the larger-than-life characters who fill the pages of this extraordinary book. David Lloyd George, the gregarious and wily British prime minister, brought Winston Churchill and John Maynard Keynes. Lawrence of Arabia joined the Arab delegation. Ho Chi Minh, a kitchen assistant at the Ritz, submitted a petition for an independent Vietnam.

For six months, Paris was effectively the centre of the world as the peacemakers carved up bankrupt empires and created new countries. This book brings to life the personalities, ideals, and prejudices of the men who shaped the settlement. They pushed Russia to the sidelines, alienated China, and dismissed the Arabs. They struggled with the problems of Kosovo, of the Kurds, and of a homeland for the Jews.

The peacemakers, so it has been said, failed dismally; above all they failed to prevent another war. Margaret MacMillan argues that they have unfairly been made the scapegoats for the mistakes of those who came later. She refutes received ideas about the path from Versailles to World War II and debunks the widely accepted notion that reparations imposed on the Germans were in large part responsible for the Second World War.

A landmark work of narrative history, Paris 1919 is the first full-scale treatment of the Peace Conference in more than twenty-five years. It offers a scintillating view of those dramatic and fateful days when much of the modern world was sketched out, when countries were created–Iraq, Yugoslavia, Israel–whose troubles haunt us still.

Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize, the PEN Hessell Tiltman Prize and the Duff Cooper Prize.

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English Classic

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. This is a new edition that OWC have published this month, so I slipped it onto my Classics Club list. I feel I may have read it before as a teen, but I’m not sure. So either it’ll all come flooding back to me when I start reading… or it won’t! It’s huge…

The Blurb says: The greatest ‘state of the nation’ novel in English, Middlemarch addresses ordinary life at a moment of great social change, in the years leading to the Reform Act of 1832. Through her portrait of a Midlands town, George Eliot addresses gender relations and class, self-knowledge and self-delusion, community and individualism.

Eliot follows the fortunes of the town’s central characters as they find, lose, and rediscover ideals and vocations in the world. Through its psychologically rich portraits, the novel contains some of the great characters of literature, including the idealistic but naive Dorothea Brooke, beautiful and egotistical Rosamund Vincy, the dry scholar Edward Casaubon, the wise and grounded Mary Garth, and the brilliant but proud Dr Lydgate. In its whole view of a society, the novel offers enduring insight into the pains and pleasures of life with others, and explores nearly every subject of concern to modern life: art, religion, science, politics, self, society, and, above all, human relationships.

This edition uses the definitive Clarendon text.

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Fiction

Courtesy of 4th Estate at HarperCollins via NetGalley. I chose this one purely based on the blurb and because of the Malaysian setting. It will be my introduction to Tash Aw so I don’t know what to expect, but it sounds good…

The Blurb says: A murderer’s confession – devastating, unblinking, poignant, unforgettable – which reveals a story of class, education and the inescapable workings of destiny.

Ah Hock is an ordinary, uneducated man born in a Malaysian fishing village and now trying to make his way in a country that promises riches and security to everyone, but delivers them only to a chosen few. With Asian society changing around him, like many he remains trapped in a world of poorly paid jobs that just about allow him to keep his head above water but ultimately lead him to murder a migrant worker from Bangladesh.

In the tradition of Camus and Houellebecq, Ah Hock’s vivid and compelling description of the years building up to this appalling act of violence – told over several days to a local journalist whose life has taken a different course – is a portrait of an outsider like no other, an anti-nostalgic view of human life and the ravages of hope. It is the work of a writer at the peak of his powers.

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Crime

Courtesy of Vintage Digital via NetGalley. Another debut which claims kinship with some of the greats of contemporary crime writing. The last time I read a book claiming to be “perfect for fans of Peter May” it provoked an extremely blunt review from me. I’m hoping this one will fare better…

The Blurb says: A stunning, atmospheric police procedural set against the grit of Inverness and the raw beauty of the Scottish Highlands, this is the first book in the DI Monica Kennedy series.

Sixteen-year-old Robert arrives home late. Without a word to his dad, he goes up to his bedroom. Robert is never seen alive again. A body is soon found on the coast of the Scottish Highlands. Detective Inspector Monica Kennedy stands by the victim in this starkly beautiful and remote landscape. Instinct tells her the case won’t begin and end with this one death.

Meanwhile, Inverness-based social worker Michael Bach is worried about one of his clients whose last correspondence was a single ambiguous text message; Nichol Morgan has been missing for seven days. As Monica is faced with catching a murderer who has been meticulously watching and waiting, Michael keeps searching for Nichol, desperate to find him before the killer claims another victim.

From the Shadows introduces DI Monica Kennedy, an unforgettable new series lead, perfect for fans of Ann Cleeves’ Vera, Susie Steiner and Peter May.

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Classic Club Spin #20

And the winner is…

Hurrah! For the first time in ages, the Classic Club gods picked one I’m actually looking forward to reading!

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?