In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses

Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Discussion | Title: Silas Marner (in Context) | Author: George Eliot | Vol: PART ONE | Ch: CHAPTER I

Eliot's epigraph to the novel comes from Wordsworth's poem Michael (1802), which recounts the rejuvenation of an aged couple upon the surprising birth of their son. Eliot was a devoted reader of Wordsworth and shared with him an affection for nature, traditional types of labor, and the traditions, customs, and things that survived the centuries. The date of the poem's publication is the approximate period of Silas Marner's main action, which takes place in the early years of the nineteenth century and some sixty years before the novel's publication in 1861.

The opening words evoke a fairy tale, for Eliot would have her reader imagine that time as practically a vanished world. In 1802 Great Britain was still mainly rural and hardly industrialized, and the landed gentry possessed nearly limitless political power, the middle very little, and the lower classes none. Great Britain was at war with France and would continue to be until defeating Napoleon in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. George III, though suffering periods of insanity, was still king. His son was Prince Regent from 1811 to 1820 and King (George IV) of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, until his death in 1830. William IV was king from then until his death in 1837, when Victoria ascended the throne as Queen. (Great Britain—sometimes called Britain—includes Scotland and Wales. "England" refers to that part of the island excluding Scotland and Wales.)

The well-off traveled by horses and coaches, and the rest walked or hitched on a wagon. The coming of the railroad in the mid-1830s would act as the chronological divide between what people thought of as rural Merrie Olde England and the Victorian present when England had become the “workshop of the world” and by 1850 had more people living in cities than in the countryside. 

The First Reform Bill (1832) began the enfranchisement of male voters that would accelerate with the Second in 1867 and culminate in the Third, 1884, which gave most men over twenty-one the vote, including agricultural laborers. Only in 1918 were women over thirty enfranchised. A London reader in 1861 who had checked out Silas Marner from one of the circulating libraries was a citizen of an urban megalopolis of more than three million, which had grown from under a million just sixty years before, an increase of 33,000 per year. Whether one called it “progress,” as most Victorians believed, or harsh change, the span of those sixty years, hardly a lifetime, recorded the most dramatic changes England had ever experienced as it became recognizably modern.


return to text