I have never read George Eliot before. I am not sure how that happened, since my reading tends toward British literature. We didn't read her in school, and I can't remember anyone ever recommending one of her novels to me. At some point I bought a copy of Middlemarch, probably because I saw it on one of those "100 Classics Everyone Should Read" lists, but it has sat unread on the TBR shelves for many years now. Somewhere I learned the names of some of her novels, and some vague ideas about the plots.
Then several things happened over the past few months to make me more aware of George Eliot, which also taught me more about her. The first was reading Anthony Trollope's Autobiography. In one chapter, "On English Novelists of the Present Day," he rates Eliot very highly, second only to William Thackery, though he writes frankly of what he sees as the faults in her books (which he does with Thackery and other novelists as well). He also writes that "this gifted woman was among my dearest and most intimate friends." Victoria Glendinning's excellent biography of Trollope gave me more information about the warm friendship between Trollope, Eliot, and George Henry Lewes. Next came an essay by Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker, "Middlemarch and Me," in which she makes a case for Eliot as a greater writer than Jane Austen. My Janeite hackles rose in defense of Austen, but I realized I couldn't debate Mead's arguments if I'd never read Eliot. Finally, I have seen posts about Eliot on various blogs, and in May I received a copy of The Mill on the Floss from a Shelf Love giveaway.
So with so many signs pointing to George Eliot, I at last took Middlemarch off the shelf, with some pretty high expectations. From what I understood, it is considered her masterpiece, and one of the greatest 19th century novels. I made it through three chapters before giving up. It was partly the writing that defeated me. Anthony Trollope had the same problem:
"It is, I think, the defect of George Eliot that she struggles too hard to do work that shall be excellent. She lacks ease. Latterly the signs of this have become conspicuous in her style, which has always been and is singularly correct, but which has become occasionally obscure from her too great desire to be pungent. It is impossible not to feel the struggle, and that feeling begets a flavour of affectation. In Daniel Deronda . . . there are sentences which I have found myself compelled to read three times before I have been able to take home to myself all that the writer has intended."What draws me to Trollope, and to my other favorite Victorian writer Margaret Oliphant, is partly the clarity of their language. I have also found that in Charlotte M. Yonge, whom I read for the first time this year.
But I couldn't just dismiss Eliot, not after three chapters of a single book. So I put Middlemarch back on the shelf to try again later, and I decided that I wanted to try Silas Marner instead, for the possibly frivolous reason that it is about an orphan and her devoted foster father. As I've mentioned before, I'm rather partial to orphan's stories, especially those that remind me of Rose and Uncle Alec in Eight Cousins, or Heidi and Uncle Alp (yes, technically the old Uncle is her grandfather).
I found Silas Marner a compelling, suspenseful book, and I now appreciate why George Eliot is considered so great a writer. Silas's story starts with his exile from his home after a false accusation of theft, continues through his many lonely years on the edges of the Raveloe community, to the loss of his hoarded earnings through thievery, and the arrival one snowy night of a tiny child, whose mother died of exposure not far from the door of his cottage. The loss of the gold and the gain of his daughter change his life, save his life. This is a resurrection story. It has a parallel, or perhaps more correctly a mirror image, in the story of Godfrey Cass, the son of the village's Squire, with secrets he keeps buried deep. There are many vividly-drawn characters in the village, such as my favorite Dolly Winthrop, always ready to help her neighbors, to nurse the sick and comfort the bereaved. The scenes where she tries to instruct the old bachelor Silas in the care of his new daughter are both funny and touching, as is his distant memory of caring for his own baby sister.
Like Anthony Trollope with Daniel Deronda, I too found sentences that I had to read three times, sometimes out loud, in an attempt to understand them. Sentences like
"The prevarication and white lies which a mind that keeps itself ambitiously pure is as uneasy under as a great artist under the false touches that no eye detects but his own, are worn as lightly as mere trimmings when once the actions have become a lie."Unlike Trollope, though, I'm doubtful that "I have been able to take home to myself all that the writer has intended."
In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition I read, David Carroll talks about Silas Marner as an experiment in legend or myth. (I found his thesis a little hard to follow, partly because I was reading it late at night). Whatever its origins, I enjoyed Silas Marner as a good story, and I am encouraged to try Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss - and maybe even Middlemarch again someday.