Silas Marner

Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Discussion | Title: Silas Marner (in Context) | Author: George Eliot

The essay that follows is by way of an introduction to Silas Marner, though one that focuses on George Eliot and that will not divulge the novel’s plot. 

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In 1856, three years before she published her first novel, Adam Bede, George Eliot wrote a long essay review of The Natural History of German Life by W.H.Riehl. It is the best introduction I know to her fiction and may be read as something like a manifesto of what she hopes to achieve with her novels and her commitment to realism. 


  ...our social novels profess to represent the people as they are, and the unreality of their representations is a grave evil.   he greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies (this and the subsequent italicized portions have been added). Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is a part from  themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment. When Scott takes us into Luckie Mucklebackit’s cottage...; when Wordsworth sings to us the reverie of "Poor Susan"...more is done toward linking the higher classes with the lower, toward obliterating the vulgarity of exclusiveness, than by hundreds of sermons and philosophical dissertations.

     Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot. All the more sacred is the task of the artist when he undertakes to paint the life of the People. Falsification here is more pernicious than in the more artificial aspects of life. It is not so very serious that we  should have false ideas about evanescent fashions—about the manners and conversation of beaux and duchesses; but it is serious that our sympathy with the perennial joys and struggles, the toil, the tragedy, and the humor in the life of our more heavily laden fellow-men, should be perverted, and turned toward a false object instead of  a true one.... We want to be taught to feel, not for the heroic artisan or the sentimental peasant, but for the peasant in all his coarse apathy, and the artisan in all his suspicious selfishness. 


The statement speaks for itself. Because what follows in this introduction to Silas Marmer and in the subsequent annotations is guided by what Eliot writes above, I'll leave it without further comment.  

George Eliot, Mary Anne Evans's pseudonym, was the most learned and philosophically informed of English novelists of her century. That she was a woman and in important ways self-educated make her accomplishments all the more extraordinary. In her twenties she became the de facto editor of the Westminster Review, a journal founded by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and James Mill, in part to espouse Utilitarianism, which Bentham articulated in An Introductrion to the Principles of Morals and Legistation (1780). The morally superior action, the action of greatest utility, produced the greatest happiness for oneself and others. The ultimate measure being “the greatest good for the greatest number.”  (The opening chapter of Dickens's Hard Times, 1854, parodies what many found offensive in Utilitarianism.)

John Stuart Mill, the son of James and the century's most important British philosopher, described Bentham as “the questioner of all things established.” Bentham was a reformer of morals, law, animal rights, prisons and criminal law, a spokesman for women's rights, and the architect of the Spanish constitution. He perceived himself as a demystifier of the most pernicious ideas, especially those inculcated over centuries. His influence was enormous. J. S. Mill wrote that he was one of “the two seminal minds of the century.” The other, Mill wrote, was the anithesis, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had long since abandoned writing poems such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan for “abstruser musings,” such as Lay Sermons (1817), Aids to Reflection (1825) and The Constitution of Church and State (1830). He was a religious and political conservative who believed in the Church as the necessary instrument of a meaningful community and in our imagination as the means to our highest understanding. Bentham was progressive, unsentimental, and coldly practical, his view of society strictly mechanical; Coleridge was an organicist, the genius of the spiritual and sacred, and a believer in what he called Permanence as providing crucial ballast to society.

George Eliot was a complex blend of both Bentham and Coleridge. Bentham was an atheist, Eliot an agnostic if not an atheist who is quoted as saying, “God Immortality, Duty, how inconceivable the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third.” But unlike Bentham, a born skeptic (he could not endure Hamlet because of the ghost and he loathed fiction), she had passed through a severe Evangelical phase in her teens and though she ceased to be a believer, she remained an ardent exponent of a disembodied as opposed to dogmatic religious practice. A villager tells Silas Marner, who has abandoned belief, that going to church is not so much a matter of faith as being “neighbourly.” Like Coleridge she had an organic view of sociaty as a living entity nourished by tradition and custom. She was a communitarian and she espoused a nearly mystical sense of the supreme importance to each of us of community. Community was the thing, and religion's traditions and fellowship could strengthen it. Bentham, like Hobbes, subscribed to what today we call psychological egoism, which maintains selfishness alone motivates us, and altruism is a delusion that conceals self-interest. Eliot agrees that the ego is self-aggrandizing and anti-social but believes we can learn altruish through sympathy and that our life in society suppresses the ego and cultivates sympathy.

Eliot’s religious phase ended with her absorption into a small circle in Coventry of free-thinkers and progressives. Liberated, she came to deplore features of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the tribalism it inspired, the dogma such as that of Original Sin which degraded humanity, the nastiness of a morality governed by rewards and baleful punishments, and the fiercely judgmental nature of the religious mind. Three of her novels have a prominent religious presence (Adam Bede, Romola, and Daniel Deronda, which is the first English novel by a major novelist with a Jew as the protagonist), and she creates some appealingly humane clergy and missionaries. Distinguishing them is that dogma and orthodoxy never displace sympathy and tolerance. For Dinah Morris in Adam Bede and Dolly Winthrop in Silas Marner, sympathy is sovereign, and if they judge at all it is only after their sympathetic grasp of the other. Judgment not preceded by sympathy is for Eliot invalid, if not criminal. Sympathy is the keystone of Eliot's ethics.

Compared with "Thou shalt not" sympathy may seem a fuzzily subjective feeling to underwrite our moral life. And why do we need a new ethics? After all, the Judeo-Christian tradition has grounded Western morality for two millennia. Eliot of course knew that to make sympathy the dynamic center of the moral life abolishes theistic morality and sidelines the clergy, the Bible, and our reason (God's viceroy in us, the theologians maintain). Have not the clergy been tirelessly telling us how to behave, as if we didn't know already, and if the sermonizers are out of earshot we have the Biblical commandments and precepts such as the Golden Rule. Eliot rejects all (she proposes instead the “Religion of Humanity”), because to be told how to behave infantilizes us and to be threatened with hell and rewardeed with heaven appeals to the base egotism of fear and reward. Evcn the Golden Rule,  “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” takes self-love as the measure of our treatment of another. The Bible insists that “Fearing the Lord is the beginning of moral knowledge. . .” (Proverbs 1:7). A morality rooted in self-interest and fear appeals to what is basest in us. As for our reason, she dismisses it as ready always to rationalize what we find convenient. Moreover, conduct unsupported by a propelling emotion is bound to be unreliable: more is done by a single poem or novel than "by hundreds of sermons and philosophical dissertations."

Sympathy is both spontaneous and sincere: “as morality is emotional, i.e., has affinity with Art, it will exhibit itself in direct sympathetic feeling and action, and not as the recognition of a rule. Love does not say, 'I ought to love'—it loves. . . ” (“Worldliness and Otherworldliness”; italics added). We pretty well know how; what we require is the drive. Our charity to a beggar can be a spontaneously selfless act or a self-serving pay-off made with the hope that God and our neighbor notice. Imagination and sympathy will lead us to “a delicate sense of our neighbour's rights, an active participation in the joys and sorrows of our fellow-men. . . [and] the extension and intensification of our sympathetic nature.” The clergy, the Bible, and the commandments suffer from the common disadvantage of being external to us.

In place of the Good Book Eliot substituted good books. Like every other novelist she wants to entertain; like a few others, she also teaches; but she is unique among nineteenth-century British novelists in believing that a novelist assumes the responsibility of improving us. She dedicates her fiction to making us more sympathetic and thus more compassionate, tolerant, and less judgmental. (Recent empirical studies have borne out Eliot's intuition that reading fiction does change us in just those ways: see Scientific American, October 4, 2013, and September 9, 2014.) However brilliant art may be, “If art [she's thinking particularly of the novel] does not enlarge our sympathies. . . it does nothing morally.” Art is the tinder that ignites sympathy. About the time she was beginning Adam Bede she wrote to a friend, “My own experience and development deepen everyday my conviction that our moral progress may be measured by the degree in which we sympathize with individual suffering and individual joy(italics added). She vowed to her publisher that "It may turn out that I can't work freely and fully enough in the medium [fiction] which I have chosen, and in that case, I must give it up; for I will never write anything to which my whole heart, mind, and conscience don't consent, so that I may feel that it was something—however small—which wanted to be done in this world, and that I am just the organ for that small bit of work . . . . "

Eliot’s sympathy is closer to what we now mean by “empathy,” but that word didn't appear in our use until 1909 (Eliot died in 1880). To sympathize, we must surrender our self—not simply “identify” with another person—but leave our self behind and become that person. There’s a familiar precedent. We speak of our pleasure of being “lost” when reading and been “transported” to the novel's world. The obstacle if not the enemy of sympathy is the “I,” the ego. “Will not,” Eliot writes in Middlemarch (1871-72),a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which we see the blot? I know no speck so troublesome as self.” The ego clings to itself and resists transport, but a fine novel lulls the ego to sleep. And our ego can afford to nod off, because these people are not our parents, children, spouses, lovers, friends, and enemies. We’re spectators, not stakeholders.

To become another, we must arrive at what the poet John Keats called Negative Capability, the basis of literary genius. Shakespeare could become at will anyone, from King Lear to Bottom, Lady Macbeth to Portia, and Keats, himself, could become “a billiard ball or a sparrow pecking among the gravel.” Eliot was born in 1819 when the Romantic poets and novelists (chiefly Blake, Wordsworth, Scott, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley) were publishing, and as a young girl she absorbed features of Romantic theory. At the heart of it was the premise that our imagination, not our reason, is the mind's supreme faculty. 

Shelley in A Defense of Poetry (composed in 1819, published 1840; by “poetry” Shelley means imaginative literature) makes our imagination the origin of our capacity to love:   

         The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature. . . . A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively;

  he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great

  instrument of moral good is the imagination. . . . Poetry strengthens the faculty [the imagination] which is the organ of the moral nature of man,

  in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.

 Shelley's “love” and Eliot's sympathy require the “going out of our nature” through an act of imagination that enables us to “put [ourselves] in the place of another,” which enables us to feel “the pains and pleasures of [our] species” originates in the exercise of our imagination. Reading fiction develops the imagination by demanding its use in such rudimentary ways as our envisioning the characters' appearance and that of their surroundings to our inhabiting a person's inner life. A great novelist renders her characters with such insight and fullness that we are likely to know more of how the character feels and thinks than how our closest friend does.    

Yet Eliot defines “wholeness” in a manner unique to her. We rarely in daily life have a sense of another's wholeness. Reading fiction we may experience wholeness when we meet in a novel “a noble nature, generous in its wishes, ardent in its charity [the moment] changes the lights for us and we begin to see things again in their larger, quieter masses. . . .” That person enables us to grasp the existential totality that for most of our lives is obscured by the daily hubbub that distracts us and which we believe to be the entire reality. Then, in a moment of surpassing quiet, we experience our being as part of the whole. Wordsworth called this “the sentiment of being.” Eliot, however, carries this a step farther: in such moments we “believe that we too can be seen and judged in the wholeness of our character.” That is, if we can grasp the totality, then others can, which means, we hope, that they can grasp us in our existential entirety, not solely as distinct individuals but as humans. 

Let us imagine how we customarily see and inevitably judge someone. We know them by their appearance, of course, their deportment, and their manner of speaking and their gestures. Above all we know them by what they say and do, their conduct. From these we infer the person's feelings and thoughts, their character, their individual nature and identity. We need nothing more, because this person has chosen these words and acts. We judge them accordingly.

Yet reading fiction alerts us to the possibility this cannot be the entirety, for when we think of who we are we feel that there is more to us than our words and acts. Our being has a density our words and acts do not account for. This more, this density, is what Eliot means by wholeness. It consists of all that we have not chosen. For instance, where and when we were born, time and place being the soil and light in which we grew and which did much to shape us. Gender, race, parents, family, education, and class thicken one's being. There is, too, our physical being (Silas suffers from catalepsy and near-sightedness, both of which warp his life) and our innate abilities and talents, or lack of them. Sympathy worthy of the name must include this large unfree part of our being.

To complete us, we must acknowledge something so commonplace that we neglect it entirely. We die: “the deep pathos lying in the thought of human mortality—that we are here for a little while and then vanish away, that this earthly life is all that is given to our loved ones and to our many suffering fellow-men. . . .” Perhaps we  neglect to include death in wholeness because it is universal rather than, like our words and acts, uniquely individual. Furthermore, the prevailing belief in God and immortality has wished away and seemingly effaced death. Death must be included, Eliot writes, because it “lies nearer to the fountains of moral emotion than the conception of extended existence [immortality].” (Wholeness may be what we recognize in any number of Rembrandt's self-portraits, the density of being not just an individual but a human.) To feel the pathos of mortality makes us more sympathetic, just as recognizing time, place, gender, etc. does. Our individuality may be the most arresting part of us but it is neither the weightiest nor the most deserving of sympathy and our judgment more complex. Imagine our lives as a chess game: we did not choose to play, we did not choose to play black, and we did not choose our invincible opponent, death. We chose only the first and the succeeding moves, but the pre-existing condition and the conclusion constitute inextricable elements of who we are as humans.  

Silas Marner's first move was to flee his birthplace and withdraw to a remote village where he avoided all but essential human contact. He had loved his church and its small community, loved God, loved his dear friend, and loved his fiance, but each, including, he believes, God, had betrayed him. He withdrew from humanity and social life. His choice was tragically mistaken, for he squanders some quarter of his life in stasis. In Eliot the community acts as a moral incubator that develops what is best and most promising in us. Loners such as Silas and Middlemarch's Casuabon circle centripetally about something inanimate, such as Silas’s gold and Casaubon’s barren research. Yet what redeems Silas and might have Casaubon if he'd lived is that, however misplaced the object of their love, still they do love. Even the condemned murderer's love for the cricket chirping in a corner of his cell humanizes him.

Were love our dominant attribute society would be kinder and we happier, but human nature is conflicted at its very core. The enemy of sympathy is the ego, asocial, hypersensitive, and selfish. Not so many years before Eliot was writing, the ego was thought to be merely a nuisance. Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (1755) defined an “egotist” as merely someone who indulges in “self-commendation,” a braggart, harmless if unlikeable. But some sixty-five years later Coleridge described egotism as vicious: “Contempt ['the concentrated vinegar of egotism'] is egotism in ill humour. Appetite [desire of any sort] without moral affection, social sympathy, and even without passion and imagination (in plain English, mere lust) is the basest form of egotism, and [is] infra human, or below humanity....” In a lecture on Shakespeare Coleridge reviled The intense selfishness, the alcohol of egotism, which would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven.”

The ego’s growth from a nuisance to the spawn of Satan corresponds to the growth of Romanticism itself during those same decades. Like us, Romanticism is conflicted. Imagination, sympathy, and love are central to the Romantic credo, yet so, too, is the ego, the source of the unique individuality the Romantics found enthralling and which Byron embodied. Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, the embodiment of primal energies (his garden, containing his pulsing pleasure-dome, is itself a contradiction, a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice) and of aggression in the form of the voices prophesying war. The Khan embodies the ego’s hungers and hatreds and its power when unconstrained. Romantic literature abounds in such protagonists, from Wordsworth’s Rivers (in the play The Borderers), to Byron's Cain, Mary Shelley’s Monster, Emily Brontë's Heathcliff, and Melville’s Captain Ahab. All have suffered some suppurating wound to their ego, and now the ego, fired by resentment, revels in retaliation. The Victorians revered and feared the charismatic Lord Byron, whose personal life—adultery, incest, bisexuality—violated even the Regency’s elastic morals. Revolted by English society’s puritanism, Byron abandoned England for the more permissive Continent. But others, such as the Monster and Heathcliff, return to punish those who rejected them. By the time Eliot is writing, the egotist is perceived as a menace to the family and society (“egotist” and “egoist” are interchangeable). George Meredith’s novel The Egoist (1879) is an acidly comic treatment of male selfishness. With few exceptions, selfishness is male, sympathy female (“the damsel with dulcimer” in Kubla Khan). Eliot challenges the stereotypes. Middlemarch’s Rosamond Vincy is a supreme egotist, as is the younger Gwendolyn Harleth in Daniel Deronda. Though they are not violent, they are exquisitely efficient at getting what they want.

The ego’s vocabulary consists of just two words, “I want.” In Rudyard Kipling's The Light that Failed (1891) the protagonist announces, “I've made a discovery. Torp, there's too much Ego in my Cosmos.” Ditto for Eliot. She divides her population between the narcissistic “I's,” the sympathetic “We's,” and the many hybrids who aim to do good but succumb to selfishness, such as a young landowner in Adam Bede: “Deeds. . .were the common issue of his weaknesses and good qualities, of his egoism and his sympathy” (Ch. XXIX). As Heathcliff and the Monster demonstrate, the ego is a force against which a civil, cultured society is defenseless unless it sheds its compunctions to become as unscrupulous as its enemy, which means it has already surrendered what it is fighting to preserve. Recognizing their advantage, the I’s condescend to the We’s, whose civility and decency they attribute to anemia and a feminized sentimentality.

At a safe distance we’re apt to admire a Heathcliff as a heroic individualist and the incarnation of will. He is an overachiever, an orphan of murky lineage and unknown background who makes himself into a man of formidable strength and laser-focus. But if you live at the Heights or the Grange you might call him a sociopath. (The two narrators, Nelly Dean and Lockwood, vacillate, as does the reader, between admiration and condemnation.) The novel’s first part depicts the victory of the I's over the shell-shocked We's. Yet as the novel shows with the second generation, the We's have an advantage: because they value society and accept its needs as preempting the ego’s, they are able to find comradeship and a kinder if paler love. The love of Cathy, narcissistic and selfish, and Heathcliff is passionate but impossible. We cannot picture them married and domestic. Their egos are unyielding. One of the West’s most passionate love stories becomes a tale of mutual annihilation by two indomitable egos. The ego is trapped in a paradox: it can never get what it desires by remaining itself but must first transmute selfishness into sympathy.

The free-range ego became a subject of scrutiny because Romantic individualism, egotism politicized, was incompatible with a society built on communal values such as self-sacrifice, cooperation, tolerance, and forgiveness. Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy (1867) called individualism “Doing as One Likes” and believed it led to anarchy. The Victorians were given to nostalgia, and many found in pre-industrial "Merry Old England" a release from savage capitalism, factory towns, and despoliation of community. The monasteries of the Middle Ages offered a paradigm of communitarian life guided by a single, lofty ideal. Each person was committed to ensuring his or her destiny, yet each’s importance was subordinate to the collective that nightly broke bread together, prayed together, and was bound by a common faith.

Eliot is a conservative in the vein of Edmund Burke, as were two of her most beloved Romantic precursors, Scott and Wordsworth. Her conservatism is more cultural than political. Like Wordsworth she sought in the home, the family, and the memory-infused site of our childhood the source of our deepest, strongest sentiments and attachments. In pre-industrial England the family, the village, and the town were micro-communities, each with its own history, traditions, and pieties that had passed through history's sieve and survived for centuries. Home included household implements that were infused with sentiment through decades of use. She writes in Daniel Deronda( 1876),

                                 A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of native land, where it

                                 may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labours men go forth to. . .

                                 for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakeable difference amidst the

                                 future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be

                                 inwrought with affection and kindly acquaintance with all neighbours, even to

                                 the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection but

                                 as a sweet habit of the blood.

The “spot” was radiant with “tender kinship” so ritualized as to be a habit of the blood. As children we were embraced, protected, and connected. We didn't think of ourselves as apart. 

Individualism was born in the Renaissance. Hamlet’s self-absorption (1609) and probing of consciousness identify him as our kin. Evidence for this new sense of self appeared in the keeping of diaries and journals and in two new genres, self-portraits, such as Jan Van Eyck's of 1433 and several by Dürer beginning in 1500, and in the development of the novel. Don Quixote (Part I, 1605; Part II, 1609), generally cited as the first Western novel, was well-suited to depicting the protagonist's indefatigable individuality. Daniel Defoe's The Life and Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), arguably the first novel in English, records in detail the hero's twenty-seven years alone on the Island of Despair, the individual without inhibiting constraints, connections, or obligations to any but himself. St. Augustine’s Confessions (about 400 C.E.), the first autobiography in the West, recounted his conversion to Christianity. By the time of Rousseau’s Confessions (completed in 1769, published in 1782), its title deliberately echoing its predecessor, the confession was a proud, defiant declaration to his readers of just who he was and a model for subsequent autobiographies. Augustine begins, “Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and Thy wisdom infinite." Rousseau's opening sentence hymns the self, “When Nature made me she broke the mold.” Each of us has a unique mental fingerprint that deserves recognition. Yet Eliot insists that what we have in common—the forces that made us and the death that will extinguish us—not what sets us apart, should define us.

For us to learn how in reality people think and feel about us some calamitous event must expose the extent of people’s fondness or disdain: “Who can know how much of his [anyone's] most inward life is made up of the thoughts he believes other men to have about him, until that fabric of opinion is threatened with ruin?” Fiction and drama are especially suited to revealing in a triple exposure the incongruity between how someone sees himself, how he believes he is seen, and how he is actually seen. This is fertile ground for an ironist like Eliot, who reveals the often comic and sometimes tragic consequences of an individual's delusions about his or her place in the world. A character in Silas Marner tartly observes that “''There's allays two 'pinions; there's the 'pinion a man has of himsen, and there's the 'pinion other folks have on him. There'd be two 'pinions about a cracked bell, if the bell could hear itself.'" But it cannot, and whatever the bell's opinion of itself, the bell is cracked, as the public that hears it attests. If, then, we want a reliable opinion of the bell we ask the public for whom it rings.

Like it or not, we are from birth entwined with others. Thomas Carlyle offers a cosmic hyperbole: to raise one's arm alters, however infinitesimally, the universe's center of gravity. On a terrestrial level, what we say and do can affect even those whom we don't know. John Donne's metaphor, introduce by another bell, reminds us that no man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. When Eliot writes that “Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand,” she means the persons of our drama to be other people's often casual actions, even those of people we’ll never meet. “Destiny” consists of not just the visible but the invisible bonds that torque every life.

Those who grew to adulthood in the mid-nineteenth century confronted a polarized, angrily polemical society, “Where,” to quote Arnold's “Dover Beach,” “ignorant armies clash by night” (“ignorant” meaning not only ill-informed but intransigently prejudiced). Held up as a contrast were Periclean Athens, Medici Florence, and Shakespeare's London—comparatively unified societies that provided the optimum conditions for the maturation of an individual, the proof of that being those society's brilliant achievements. Often cited as a counter-example was Britain's prodigal child, America, which to many British, especially those who had read de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835-40) and Dickens's American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit (both 1842), presented images of mobs of elbowing individualists, rampant materialism, bizarre spin-offs of Christianity, and criminal hypocrisy, given the disparity between the principles enshrined in its Constitution and Bill of Rights and the enslavement of nearly four million negroes. 

In the same year, 1859, that Darwin published the Origin John Stuart Mill addressed the matter of individualism and its responsibilities in On Liberty. The work was timely. Mid-century economic and political developments associated individualism and the freedoms it demanded with the potential for revolution. England's huge working-class movement of the 1840s, Chartism, carried the seeds of revolution, and Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto, 1848, promised just that. If anyone doubted the seeds’ fertility the revolutions of 1848 in Germany, Italy, France, and the Austrian empire proved otherwise. The English had good reason to fear, since who but England had planted the seeds of regicide and revolution with the beheading of King Charles I in 1649. The English remained haunted a half-century after the French Revolution, because a revolution in England in the 1840s, the “Hungry Forties” as they were called, seemed conceivable. That a revolution did not occur is harder to explain than if it had. Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1859), with its portrait of the imperturbable Mme. Defarge knitting as bloody heads rolled into the basket, exploited the English terror of the Terror.

Eliot is a historical novelist. She sets six of her seven novels in the past (only her last, Daniel Deronda, 1876, is contemporary); the others, apart from Romola, which takes place in fifteenth-century Florence, occur some sixty years before the time at which she's writing. She adored from childhood Sir Walter Scott, who originated the historical novel with Waverley: or, Sixty Years After. Scott was an antiquarian who created a meticulous record of Scotland's past before the devastating loss to the English at the Battle of Culloden Moor in 1745, which led to England’s attempt to extinguish the clans and all Scots chauvinism. Eliot’s historical fiction also recreates and memorializes the past, but she has at least one other motive. She uses the past to make her contemporary readers view their own age with historical perspective—to see their time whole, in its larger, quieter mass.

An example. Early in Silas Marner a cluster of the usual male locals, mostly artisans, has gathered at The Rainbow (perhaps named because the pub represents a spectrum of opinion). They have been energetically disputing one thing and another when the matter of a legendary local ghost comes up, which incites some angry disagreement as to whether a ghost is real. Instead of dealing empirically with the question and immediately going to the haunted house, the issue is left undecided, presumably because ego rather than reason governs their discourse, and the ego prefers inconclusiveness to the possibility of defeat. Yet whether you believe in ghosts or not is defining, and the gap between the two men is unbridgeable. The scene is tense but intended to be lightly humorous, with Eliot inviting her readers to view the dispute in a rural backwater as quaint.

After all, the Victorians' disputes were felt to be apocalyptic. Among the issues was the age of the earth, a matter with consequences for the credibility of the Hebrew Testament as the Word of God. Many fundamentalists chose to believe James Ussher, the seventeenth-century archbishop whose reckoning was based on Abraham's family's ages. He determined that God began the Creation on October 22, 4004 BC, at 6 pm. Many other Christians simply took the Biblical account literally and accepted the customary age of some six thousand years, without the date and hour. Yet nineteenth-century geology maintained that the fossils and other evidence showed the age to be at least hundreds of thousands if not millions of years old (in fact, recent science declares the earth to be about 4.5 billion years old, the cosmos nearly 14 billion years old), and post-Darwinian biology affirmed the geologists' conjectures because natural selection requires eons. As in the ghost debate, superstition and custom were obdurately ranged against empirical knowledge and reasonable conjecture.

No element of Victorian life was more potent and divisive in Eliot's adulthood than religion (Thomas Carlyle said that you could know a man by his religion). Apart from the bitter internecine conflicts among Victorian Protestants, the Bible itself was the subject of intense scrutiny by the Higher Criticism (“higher” because it dealt with theology), which applied to the Bible a scholarly critique of its historical claims. Eliot, herself, contributed by being the first to translate from German two of her era's most iconoclastic works, Strauss's The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined  (3 vols.,1846) and Feurbach's The Essence of Christianity (1854; hers remains the only English translation). The zealotry and inhumanity that set in motion Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe (1861) and that are foregrounded in Romola (1862) treatment of Savanorola reflect, I think, the closed minds and mean-spiritedness of those religious factions that rejected empirical proof.  

And then there were the secular disputes. Should a married woman be given an independent legal status or remain her husband's chattel? Should divorce, until then impossible for all but a few, be liberalized under the Matrimonial Causes Act? Should the eligible male voters be doubled with the Second Reform Bill (1867) or should their enfranchisement be delayed until they were better educated? Should elementary education continue to be administered by the Church or should education be a matter of the state (the Education Act of 1870)? As one can imagine with issues involving women, marriage, and democracy—and this is only a sample—the possible outcomes seemed to many to be capable of rupturing the social fabric, which lent the debates a choleric intensity.

Missing from the discourse was what was missing at the Rainbow, a historical perspective. Viewed through the telescope instead of the microscope, the issues lose their urgency. Eliot's revival of Raveloe's past and her use of the past in Adam Bede, Felix Holt, Middlemarch, and Romola (because The Mill on the Floss is autobiographical, the issues are different) set that period in a historical continuum. Eliot compels her Victorian reader, or today's, to view the present as transitional instead of terminal. Historical perspective leads one to acknowledge that many of today's most divisive issues the next two or three generations will look back upon as quaint. Beneath all  history is what Wordsworth calls “the still sad music of humanity.” Listening one night to the waves breaking on Dover Beach, Arnold hears “the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery,” the same that Sophocles heard on the shores of the Aegean, a systole and diastole as plaintive and eternal as the waves. Eliot writes in part to tune us to that regular flow, which unites all of us.

History moves swiftly but often conservatively. Despite the panicked warnings, religion survived our evolution from primates. Marriage as an institution did not collapse into libertinage with the Married Women's Property Act and the new standards for divorce. The Second Reform Bill did not result, as Carlyle prophesied, in the nation's “shooting Niagara,” which is to say plunge into alleged American anarchy. By the time of the Third Reform Act just seventeen years after the Second the fury over male enfranchisement had died to embers, only to reignite and become a firestorm over women's suffrage. And when in 1918 women finally got the vote, English society did not run off the rails. In fact every change was real progress. We know from our own time that issues as contentious as gay marriage flare, only to subside and then disappear into history's attic, leaving a more inclusive society. Historical perspective tempers stridency, and Felix Holt: the Radical and Middlemarch, which focus on 1832 and the period surrounding the First Reform bill, are by 1870 viewed by most as the benign origin of democracy in Great Britain. The same for the Second and Third Reform bills.

The antidote to provincialism is wholeness. Writing in 1874 to a female friend, Eliot asks,

        What sort of 'culture of the intellect' is that which, instead of widening the mind to a fuller and fuller response to all the elements of our existence,

     isolates it in a moral stupidity?—which flatters egoism with the possibility that a complex and refined human society can continue wherein relations

     have no sacredness beyond the inclination of changing moods? . . . With regard to the pains and limitations of one's personal lot, I suppose there is not

     a single man, or woman, who has not more or less need of that stoical resignation which is often a hidden heroism, or who, in considering his or her

     past history, is not aware that it has been cruelly affected by the ignorant or selfish action of some fellow human being in a more or less close relation

     of life. And to my mind, there can be no stronger motive, than this perception, to an energetic effort that the lives nearest to us all shall not suffer

     in a like manner from us.

With other Victorians Eliot decries the degradation of human relations in a rawly capitalistic culture. Great Expectations (1860) depicts the monetizing of Pip's character, and Carlyle in Past and Present (1843) deplores the replacement of traditional (and "sacred") social bonds that existed since Medieval England by the dehumanizing “cash-nexus.” Silas's obsession with gold links him to Victorian society's own preoccupation with money.

Yet Eliot also asks us to see Silas whole. He possesses “stoic resignation.” We tend to neglect this because such stoics are self-effacing. For Eliot, though, it qualifies as democratic heroism, not because he suffers without complaint or anger but because he never becomes resentful and mean. His surroundings are inglorious, and though a hero he is ordinary, the very antithesis of Achilles on the ringing fields of Troy. Silas, though, may be the greater man, for he survives without hatred. Eliot measures heroism not by a fixed standard but relative to a person's exceeding what he or she is presumed capable of.

Eliot's correspondent has been anguishing over her loss of belief in God and the after-life. No longer dedicated to God, she fears she will become selfish. To the contrary, Eliot writes, the loss of faith is purifying and liberating: “I cannot believe that your strong intellect will continue to see, in the condition of man's appearance on the planet, a destructive relation to your sympathy: this seems to me equivalent to saying that you care no longer for colour, now you know the laws of the spectrum.” The choice is “whether you carelessly follow your selfish moods or encourage that vision of others' needs, which is the source of justice, tenderness, sympathy in the fullest sense.” The loss of faith offers the prospect of becoming an autonomous moral being motivated by a sense of duty and disinterest rather than fear and reward.

This is the Religion of Humanity, whose church is a library, its canon all-inclusive, its fellowship the humanistic culture that began with the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans. Its prophets are not the threatening Jeremiahs and Saint Pauls but the supreme poets (artists of every sort), and philosophers, historians, scientists, and legislators. Its text is not limited to the Good Book but includes all good books capable of inspiring, teaching, and making us more sympathetic. This is a polyglot literature that addresses the whole of us, not just the soul, but the body, mind, and heart. Humanistic culture will not convey us to Aquinas's City of God but in exploring the entire City of Man, where we spend our lives, it will reaffirm the humanity we share: “The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist is the extension of our sympathies. . . . a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.”


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