England in the early 19th century, where folklore and religious belief shape people’s lives. Silas Marner, a trusting soul and master weaver, begins a new life after he is betrayed by his best friend and is forced to leave the village and church he has grown up with.
A victim of his deteriorating appearance, unsociable attitude and growing cynicism, he lives as a hermit and collects his gold as though there were nothing else of value in the world.
One day, the unthinkable happens – he is robbed – and he is left distraught. But, as in every fairytale, there is a turn in his luck and with the arrival of a child, orphaned on the road side, he begins to feel the love and joy that have been missing from his life.
The plot is balanced and satisfying without being sentimental. The characters are portrayed convincingly – there are those we can detest and those we can admire. But what I enjoyed too was the historical aspect of the story. The setting is rural England, in the Midlands and the harsh climate and rugged scenery bring out the empathy we develop for Silas Marner as he struggles to escape his cloistered existence and find a reason to live.
Raveloe is peopled with an authentic mix of landowners, farmers and trades folk. It’s fascinating to follow the various social workings of a small and largely principled village community. What strikes the reader is the pleasing simplicity of the work/life ethic by which inhabitants are judged and valued. Religion is the guiding star, of course, closely followed by superstition and folklore. Life in Raveloe is hard, but there is an interdependence between the villagers and a generosity that would be difficult to find in a more modern society.
What I enjoy most about George Eliot’s very accomplished work is a feeling of proximity to the characters and their environment, both physical and philosophical. I sit by the fire with the protagonist and accompany him along the difficult road to his personal epiphany. And this, without undue sentimentality.
The workings of the early 19th century mind are uncluttered by technology, travel or consumerism. The people of Raveloe spend their time in search of a life that is both rewarding and, it seems to me, ethically justifiable. Apart, of course, from Dunstan Cass – there has to be a fiend in a story worth reading, after all.
To finish, I have to say that the language of Silas Marner is at times a challenge. As a linguist, I welcome the challenge of a syntax and vocabulary which is of the story’s era. Reminiscent of Shakespeare at times, the proverbs and sayings are clichéd, but apt. There are words that are no longer in use, although it is perfectly possible to infer meaning. There is, as so often is the case with writers of this time, a fashion for writing in dialect to add colour and authenticity to the divisions in society. All this, in my opinion, makes Silas Marner even more of a pleasure to explore.