English, Department of

 

Authors

Ruth Harris

Date of this Version

2000

Document Type

Article

Citation

The George Eliot Review 31 (2000) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/

Comments

The George Eliot Review 2019

Abstract

At first sight there seems little to link Silas Mamer with Felix Halt. There are certainly contrasts, but it is harder to find similarities between a short pastoral idyll and a complex political work that looks forward to Middlemarch rather than backward to Silas Mamer. Surely there can be few links between a fairy-tale and social analysis, between a novel rich with 'Rainbow' humour and transformed 'gold' and a much darker novel laced with irony but short on both magic and jokes. Only five years separate Silas Mamer (published in April 1861) from Felix Halt (published in June 1866) but the second novel suggests an older author. Yet there are enough likenesses to link the two novels more firmly than we might at first realize. Both novels return to the Midlands, to the heart of England which always aroused some of George Eliot's deepest feelings. It was the landscape of memory, the landscape of the heart. Admittedly, in spite of similar settings the openings of the two novels suggest greater differences. Felix Halt puts an immediate emphasis on public life with its brilliant description of a panoramic landscape, both rural and industrial, that is being crossed by a coach travelling through a vast 'central plain, watered at one extremity by the Avon, at the other by the Trent'.' George Eliot paints a crowded canvas, crowded with people and incidents, preparing the reader for what Jennifer Uglow has called 'a very public novel with a constant cross-reference between individual and social histories, where the climactic events take place literally before a host of witnesses and are constantly assessed by a commenting audience'.2 The climate of comment is already present in the Introduction when the coachman remarks on the violence of the new Railways, the problems and voting preferences of the various landowners, and the rumours that have arisen. Felix Holt is bent on public reform and regards public opinion as 'the greatest power under heaven' (274). But the solitary figure of Silas Marner, although also the target of rumours, appears in a remote, rural landscape, 'never reached by the vibrations of the coach-horn, or of public opinion'.3 Marner is one of a number of alienated figures who never seem to meet one another and who look 'like the remnants of a disinherited race':

The shepherd's dog barked fiercely when one of these alien-looking men appeared on the upland, dark against the early winter sunset; for what dog likes a figure bent under a heavy bag? (3)

The lonely figure of a man, seen in anonymous silhouette against the last gleams of a winter sunset, looks even more lonely when George Eliot contrasts him with places where people congregate, farmsteads and great houses. Shut out from the golden windows, the glow of candles and firelight, the cheerful hum of conversation, he stands out in the cold in a dark silence where the only sound is the hostile barking of a dog on its guard against the intruder. Who knows where such an alien figure has come from, who is his father or mother, whence he gets his knowledge and skill if not from the Evil One?

To the peasants of old times, the world outside their own direct experience was a region of vagueness and mystery. (3)

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