Wheels of Fortune

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When publicly embarrassed by how poorly read I am, and especially so when being pressed by my family, I often claim to be rereading a book because ‘it’s so many years now since I first came across it’. In fact the plain truth is I haven’t got a clue about the book in question because I have never opened it.

There are some books, however, that I have read and reread and I am not finished with any of them yet. A few, all of them sublimely short, would be J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, Dylan Thomas’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, Paul Scott’s Staying On and George Eliot’s Silas Marner. (If you want some evidence of my staying power over a longer distance, I would point to Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time: all twelve volumes, twice.)

The first thing that caught my eye on recently opening (or reopening) Silas Marner was the epigraph, from Wordsworth.

A child, more than all other gifts
That earth can offer to declining man,
Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts.

The words not only caught my eye but held it. Old age, declining years, the gift of a child . . . how apt a quotation to place at the beginning of the tale of Silas and Eppie. But before I could even start to reread the novel, my mind was side-tracked from prose to poetry, from George Eliot to Wordsworth. At first I could not place the lines of poetry, and this annoyed me. After all, Wordsworth is a favourite writer. I should know. But it’s an age since I last taught his poem ‘Michael’ in the classroom. Over the years I think I rather lost confidence in teaching Wordsworth and felt – so much did he mean to me – unwilling to fight the good fight for modest plain lives, for simple childhoods, for old-fashioned stories in rural settings.

So it was high time I got my Collected Wordsworth down from the shelves.

‘Michael’, written in 1800, is 482 line

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When publicly embarrassed by how poorly read I am, and especially so when being pressed by my family, I often claim to be rereading a book because ‘it’s so many years now since I first came across it’. In fact the plain truth is I haven’t got a clue about the book in question because I have never opened it.

There are some books, however, that I have read and reread and I am not finished with any of them yet. A few, all of them sublimely short, would be J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, Dylan Thomas’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, Paul Scott’s Staying On and George Eliot’s Silas Marner. (If you want some evidence of my staying power over a longer distance, I would point to Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time: all twelve volumes, twice.)

The first thing that caught my eye on recently opening (or reopening) Silas Marner was the epigraph, from Wordsworth.

A child, more than all other gifts
That earth can offer to declining man,
Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts.

The words not only caught my eye but held it. Old age, declining years, the gift of a child . . . how apt a quotation to place at the beginning of the tale of Silas and Eppie. But before I could even start to reread the novel, my mind was side-tracked from prose to poetry, from George Eliot to Wordsworth. At first I could not place the lines of poetry, and this annoyed me. After all, Wordsworth is a favourite writer. I should know. But it’s an age since I last taught his poem ‘Michael’ in the classroom. Over the years I think I rather lost confidence in teaching Wordsworth and felt – so much did he mean to me – unwilling to fight the good fight for modest plain lives, for simple childhoods, for old-fashioned stories in rural settings.

So it was high time I got my Collected Wordsworth down from the shelves.

‘Michael’, written in 1800, is 482 lines long and I was immediately back in the hills. Set in a precise place in the Lake District, not far from Grasmere, it is subtitled ‘A pastoral poem’.

I first read it and George Eliot’s rural tale at the same stage of my life. In the late 1950s I was a schoolboy in Wales, and just another muddled and preoccupied teenager (see Dylan Thomas’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog). It was a time when I was beginning to escape, sometimes (like Dylan) self-consciously striding along from Swansea to the Gower coast but usually inland on the Brecon Beacons, sometimes with friends but more often than not alone.

In the foothills of the Beacons I stepped over streams and skirted isolated farmyards and was barked at by sheepdogs. I passed places very like the shepherd Michael’s cottage. On higher ground, I occasionally noticed obscure mounds of stones, places which felt special if not sacred, and uncannily close in spirit to Wordsworth’s Lake District.

And, as so often when reading Wordsworth, it is the precise sense of place (take the A591 out of Grasmere) which strikes you.

If from the public way you turn your steps
Up the tumultuous brook of Green-head Ghyll
You will suppose that with an upright path
Your feet must struggle; in such bold ascent
The pastoral mountains front you, face to face,
But courage!

Wordsworth is walking with us, guiding our steps to the forest- side in Grasmere Vale where dwelt Michael, a shepherd.

Nor should I have made mention of this Dell,
But for one object which you might pass by,
Might see and notice not. Beside the brook
Appears a straggling heap of unhewn stones!
And to that simple object appertains
A story . . .

And that begins Wordsworth’s story, with more than a hint of the Prodigal Son. The strong old shepherd Michael has a younger wife, ‘a woman of a stirring life’. They are hard-working, thrifty people and the light of their lives is their only child, their son Luke. In him they invest their love, and the bonds between the three of them feel unbreakably strong.

Unravelling the threads and parallels and contrasts between the poem and George Eliot’s novel feels right because hard-working weavers are at the heart of the matter: Isabel, Michael’s wife, a comely matron twenty years younger, is (like Silas Marner) a weaver:

Whose heart was in her house: two wheels she had
Of antique form; this large, for spinning wool;
This small, for flax; and, if one wheel had rest,
It was because the other was at work . . .

Isabel and Michael are ‘a proverb in the vale for their endless industry’, and after supper Luke often lends his mother a hand at the fireside loom:

There by the light of this old lamp they sate,
Father and Son, while far into the night
The Housewife plied her own peculiar work,
Making the cottage through the silent hours
Murmur as with the sound of summer flies.

A tale which promises a happy ending for 440 lines is, however, brought to a brutally shocking conclusion when the 18-year-old Luke goes off the rails. It is heavy news. After all the years of quiet and deep parental care, after ten pages of poetry, comes the car crash. The family’s sad fate takes Wordsworth only six plain, unsparing lines:

Meantime Luke began
To slacken in his duty; and, at length,
He in the dissolute city gave himself
To evil courses: ignominy and shame
Fell on him, so that he was driven at last
To seek a hiding-place beyond the seas.

How different an ending it is for Silas.

Silas Marner (1861), published sixty years after ‘Michael’, and George Eliot’s most strongly poetic novel, can be seen as her own lyrical ballad, a reading her epigraph from Wordsworth surely invites.

As well as walking the Welsh hills in the 1950s, I was beginning to read George Eliot in a serious way. I started with The Mill on the Floss, which hit me hard, and then, as a set book for A Level, I moved on to Middlemarch, which remains an unmatched experience, but as I have grown older in my body and younger (I hope) in my mind, it is the fate of the wronged Weaver of Raveloe that pulls most at me. Her third novel stays so clearly woven and interwoven into my memory. As I reread it, George Eliot invited me to sit at Silas’s spinning wheel, to live his solitary days in solitary ways, to be a man with no wife and no child, to feel what it is to be a disinherited remnant, and to embrace the isolated, the unknown and the unlike.

I have never been able to shake off the story of that stranger, Silas Marner, that pallid, short-sighted, mysterious, under-sized man who (earlier in his life) has been falsely accused of theft and cast out by a narrow religious sect.

Short though it is, the novel opens out into the loving story of Silas and Eppie, the golden-haired child, as well as the story of the Cass brothers, the fate of Molly and of Nancy Lammeter, indeed into a portrait of the whole close-knit Raveloe community from squire to pub. It is on a much smaller scale than Middlemarch, of course, but as short and as fine as Middlemarch is long. Indeed, we know from her letters that George Eliot initially considered writing Silas Marner as a poem. Is it, in a sense, her response to ‘Michael’?

Wordsworth’s old shepherd is left alone with a pile of stones, sitting with his faithful dog by the sheepfold that he and Luke would never finish building. He is an object of pity. With the Weaver of Raveloe the opposite is the case: Silas is protected by love, and chosen by his ‘daughter’ Eppie, who rejects the offer of a comfortable materialistic life with her natural father, Godfrey Cass.

Things turn out well for Silas, then, as he deserves. In time he is integrated into the community. His years of loneliness and self- isolation are transformed as Raveloe comes to accept him, even to embrace him. His tortured soul is repaired.

Sentimental? Is it a sentimental thing to believe that love has more meaning and more value than coins, however brightly they shine in your hands and however high the heap under your floorboards? Is it sentimental to picture a drug-addicted mother dying in the snow while her child crawls to safety and a life of warm support? Is it sentimental to see that ‘natural human relations’ are vital to awakening love in – and restoring dignity to – a damaged and anguished person? Do we not treasure such blessings and renewals in our own shared lives?

Even to ask such rhetorical questions may sound priggish or smack of the pulpit but Wordsworth and George Eliot, whatever the varying and changing nature of their religious convictions, were ethical teachers. Open their work on any page, and you will find moral choices moulding human destinies.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 70 © Jonathan Smith 2021


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