Wednesday, September 7, 2011

My introduction to George Eliot

Silas Marner, George Eliot

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.


  1. Silas Marner was the first Eliot novel I read in its entirety, but it was so long ago that I remember nothing much about it. I do remember that it took me a couple of attempts to get through it. Mill on the Floss is my favorite Eliot, so I would encourage you to try that next. Adam Bede is also good, but I found it less easy to love.

  2. I'm definitely interested enough to read more Eliot, and I'll probably take your recommendation for The Mill - from what I've read, Romola or Daniel Deronda wouldn't be good choices for someone just starting to read her books.

  3. I could never like Elliot better than Austen, and one of the reasons is that example you gave of her sometimes difficult sentences. But I liked Middlemarch and Mill on the Floss well enough to read once. Silas Marner I've read twice, I think, but I've never read Adam Bede.

  4. The commentaries I read on Eliot really praise her psychological insights, and I can see that in Silas Marner, and in the little I read of Middlemarch. But having to unravel her prose interrupts the flow of reading and thus the story, for me. I have to pay attention to Austen's 18th century prose, but it's a different level of complication. Of course, I've only read the one book of Eliot's, so I'm generalizing from a small sample!

  5. I had a bad experience in high school with Mill on the Floss, so for many years I too had Fear of Eliot. However, after I started really trying out more classics, I kept reading more and more about how great Middlemarch was. I admit, the first 100 pages were pretty tough going, but it really did get better! I ended up loving it. Please don't give up on it. Silas Marner is much shorter, but I found Middlemarch to be the superior book by far.

    That being said, I was reading Daniel Deronda for a book group last spring and got completely bored in the middle. I zipped through the first 400 pages then I just never picked it up again. I may watch the BBC adaptation before I try again [hanging my head in shame]. I've never tried Adam Bede but I intend to get to it someday and I hope to give Mill on the Floss another go as well -- hopefully I'll get more out of it as a middle-aged person than I did as a teenager.

  6. We didn't read any English novels at my high school, though we "did" Shakespeare and some of the poets. I had discovered Jane Austen by then (via the BBC production with David Rintoul and Elizabet Garvie), and Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre). I've put Middlemarch aside to try again - after I've read some of her other books.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!