Silas Marner by George Eliot — Reread Review

Cover: bookshop.org

Our consciousness rarely registers the beginning of a growth within us any more than without us: there have been many circulations of the sap before we detect the smallest sign of the bud.

Silas Marner, George Eliot

I have a tendency to avoid classics on my TBR because I expect them to be difficult; George Eliot proves that this assumption is flawed, because I raced through Silas Marner with no more trouble than it took me to read any novel published in my lifetime. While I dimly remembered the bare bones of the plot, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I was able to identify with Silas, and how much of a character development journey he goes on.

Silas Marner is not just a miserly weaver, though that’s the starting point for the novel’s relatively simple plot. He was a devout man whose community turned against him and left him cut off from both spiritual and lay society. The idea that moving geographically also created distance between Silas and his ‘local god’ was fascinating. George Eliot doesn’t completely pin down the religious differences between Lantern Yard and the Raveloe church, so modern readers may find themselves wishing there was a little more context.

Marner’s thoughts could no longer move in their old round, and were baffled by a blank like that which meets a plodding ant when the earth has broken away on its homeward path.

Silas Marner, George Eliot

Nonetheless, Silas’s journey is well, if simply, related. The way he falls into loving golden guineas above all else feels like George Eliot is describing the symptoms of depression: the way the world shrinks, nothing seems to matter, routine wears itself into a rut from which it’s difficult to escape. Watching Silas rise back out of the slump is incredibly satisfying, even if the method is far from universally applicable.

Silas isn’t the only character who reads as something other than neurotypical: Nancy has fixed personal rules for life which, once arrived at, cannot be strayed from even if being more flexible would make life easier. George Eliot doesn’t dwell on this as much as on Silas, but it’s still fascinating to see in a character so far removed from modern labels. There’s also Priscilla, who rejects both the possibility of marriage and any attraction to men completely out of hand, which may strike a reader as coming pretty close to the asexual or aromantic spectrum.

Silas Marner’s plot is really just the background action holding all the characters together. There’s no mystery as to how Silas’s life changes, and the character who brings about the biggest upheaval disappears off the page entirely for most of the story. His return is unforeshadowed and not terribly satisfying. The ending of the novel, while making perfect logical sense from the events which precede it, feels a little abrupt.

Nonetheless, I had a great time reading Silas Marner and would thoroughly recommend it. If you enjoyed Heidi, you could see this as a very similar story, but told from the opposite perspective.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Letters from my Windmill by Alphonse Daudet — Revisit Review

Cover: bookshop.org

According to the back of my copy of Letters from My Windmill, Alphonse Daudet was ‘the most successful writer in France by the end of the nineteenth century’, and yet, before coming across this edition in a second-hand book shop, I’d never heard of him. The introduction promised an author who prioritised story over character development which ought to be, if nothing else, an interesting change of pace from the books I usually review.

Yet it is said that at Christmas every year a supernatural light hovers among these ruins, and that peasants, going to Mass and the midnight supper in the church since built below, see this ghost of a chapel lit with invisible candles which burn in the open air even in wind and snow.

The Three Low Masses, Letters from My Windmill, Alphonse Daudet

Looking down the list of chapters, Letters from My Windmill presents a real mix of different types of stories which are effective in different ways. The Three Low Masses has a really evocative ending, which can be so difficult to pull off in short fiction, while The Fable of the Man with the Golden Brain is almost disturbing once the implications of the metaphor sink in. In contrast, The Lighthouse of Les Sanguinaires didn’t really go anywhere, and was one of the least successful stories in the collection.

And how good it was, after one of these lyrical escapades, to come back to the windmill, to lie full-length on the grass of the platform, and dream of the book I would write one day, telling about it all, a book into which I would put all those songs, still singing in my head, all that bright laughter, all those enchanting legends; and in it I would reflect the light of that vibrant sun and the scent of those sun-parched hills, and I would write it as if it had been written in my ruin with its dead sails.

Letters from My Windmill, Alphonse Daudet

Despite the introduction, what really stood out were Daudet’s descriptions, whether they were of Provence or the Balearic Islands. Monsier Senguin’s Goat and The Oranges really showcased Daudet’s ability to paint a picture of the natural world, while The Agony of La Sémillante demonstrated that he could turn the same skill toward stories of human interest. Though Letters from My Windmill deals with both triumph and tragedy, the overall feeling is one of whimsical satisfaction.

It’s worth mentioning that one story, At Milianah, contained some really ugly antisemitism which detracted from the otherwise pleasant mood of the entire collection. Despite that, I’m definitely curious to check out what Daudet does with a longer narrative, especially since the introduction made it seem like the themes would be ones that particularly resonate with me.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot — Reread Review

As a teenager, I made a list of 101 things to do in 1001 days. One of the things on my list was to read every book by one author. I thought it would be cool to know I’d read every novel in someone’s canon. I certainly didn’t manage it in 1001 days. In fact, I still haven’t managed it (unless you count authors who’ve only written one book), but a few years after making the list, I did make an effort to read every book by George Eliot — purely on the strength that I’d quite liked Adam Bede. I got halfway through Romola before giving up, but that means I did finish The Mill on The Floss once before.

In books there were people who were always agreeable or tender, and delighted to do things that made one happy, and who did not show their kindness by finding fault. The world outside the books was not a happy one, Maggie felt; it seemed to be a world where people behaved the best to those they did not pretend to love, and that did not belong to them.

The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot

I didn’t remember much about the story, except a vague sense of the tragic ending. (It’s only February and this is the second tragedy I’ve read this year!) Each time I read Adam Bede, I find it’s easier than I expect it to be, but The Mill on the Floss was the opposite — I found it harder going than I expected. Perhaps that’s because there’s a bit more philosophy and religious teachings that I’m not entirely familiar with. As with Adam Bede, I got impatient with all the digressions, especially around the middle of the novel.

The characters are very different from those in Adam Bede — the setting is somewhat less rural, or perhaps it’s set slightly later and so society has progressed. Nonetheless, I really liked most of the characters who are intended to be sympathetic: Maggie, Tom, Lucy, Phillip, Bob. The characters who aren’t supposed to be sympathetic, namely ‘the aunts’, were well-drawn, too. The only character I really didn’t care about was Stephen Guest, which was something of a problem for the final act.

The promise was void, like so many other sweet, illusory promises of our childhood; void as promises made in Eden before the seasons were divided, and when the starry blossoms grew side by side with the ripening peach — impossible to be fulfilled when the golden gates had been passed.

The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot

Stephen and Maggie’s relationship just seemed so… shallow. They hardly ever had a proper conversation, they barely knew anything about each other and, as a reader, I hardly knew anything about Stephen. Maybe George Eliot intended it that way, to show how young people can be carried away by the first flood of emotion that is based on little more than physical attraction. The relationship suffered in comparison to Maggie’s friendship with Phillip, who she could have actual conversations with. In the pivotal scene between Stephen and Maggie they both ‘feel too deeply to speak’, which I just didn’t find satisfying.

Maggie’s inner struggle is definitely compelling; she wants to be a better person, and she tries so hard, but she’s flawed and has moments of weakness, just like a real person. It’s such a shame that her story has to end in tragedy. Despite having read The Mill on the Floss before, the conclusion took me by surprise. It’s fairly sudden and quite brief, but George Eliot did manage to wrap up all the loose ends quite nicely beforehand. I felt the most sorry for Tom, who hadn’t really experienced much in comparison to his sister and his friends.

Despite Maggie’s strong characterisation, I didn’t enjoy this as much as I enjoyed Adam Bede. The dialect is easier, but the philosophy and diversions are more distracting.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Adam Bede by George Eliot — Reread Review

This must be at least my third time reading Adam Bede and yet, I always expect it to be more difficult than it is. It’s hard to say whether that’s because it gets easier every time, or just that I’ve somehow stored an incorrect impression. Admittedly, some of the accents in the dialogue take a little getting used to, but even that hardly drew me out of the story this time around.

“It ‘ud have been a good deal better for her if she’d been uglier and had more conduct,” said the landlady, who on any charitable construction must have been supposed to have more ‘conduct’ than beauty.

Adam Bede, George Eliot

Though they’re not the kind of people I meet in real life, Adam Bede‘s characters are great. Hetty and Arthur are especially sympathetic, even as they’re behaving in ways you wish they wouldn’t. You can see the consequences of their actions coming a mile off, which makes the plot feel grounded and realistic. The only character I had a slight problem with was Dinah, whose religious fervour is a little less appealing in 2021 than it may have been in 1799. I particularly disliked the moment when she made Bessy Cranage feel bad for liking pretty earrings. Even so, by the end, I was rooting for Dinah’s happiness as much as anyone else.

She was not preaching as she heard others preach, but speaking directly from her own emotions and under the inspiration of her own simple faith.

Adam Bede, George Eliot

George Eliot indulges in a few metafictional digressions, one of which I really enjoyed on this particular read. At the same time, a couple of the detailed descriptions of the countryside or farm life came at highly suspenseful moments when I really just wanted to experience the next stage of the plot and was cursing Eliot for not getting there as quickly as I’d like.

The climax of the story I thought was very well done. Despite having read it before, I’d forgotten enough of the plot details that I was briefly concerned I might be expected to think a purely religious ending was satisfying. George Eliot pulled through and actually delivered as happy a resolution at that moment as could be realistic. The actual ending of Adam Bede doesn’t feel rushed exactly, I was pleased with how much time it was given to develop, but it does feel just a little bit tacked on.

Even so, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this reread. It’s definitely one I’ll keep coming back to.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Emma by Jane Austen — Reread Review

As someone who loves character development, it’s probably not surprising that Emma is my favourite Jane Austen novel, out of the ones I’ve read, anyway. ‘Character grows from selfish, spoiled child to empathetic woman’ is probably my absolute favourite development trope, and that’s certainly the broad outline of Emma Woodhouse’s arc, with some romance thrown in.

I find Emma’s faults particularly relatable. She lacks the consistency to devote herself to practice, and so her skills are never as good as she feels that they should be. Not only that, but what young woman hasn’t deceived herself as to the signs that somebody else is interested in the relationship she wishes that they were? In Emma Woodhouse’s case, it’s made even more cringe-worthy by the fact that all her incorrect assumptions about people’s behaviour end up making life more difficult for others far more than for herself.

‘No. I think, Miss Woodhouse, I may just as well have it sent to Hartfield, and take it home with me at night. What do you advise?’
‘That you do not give another half-second to the subject.’

Emma, Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s comic characters in Emma are every bit as good as the inestimable Mrs Bennet, and I think definitely funnier than anything you’ll find in Sense & Sensibility. Humour is subjective, of course, but I laughed out loud a few times, which is pretty impressive for a book written over 200 years ago!

The obsession with people marrying within their social rank is a little troubling for a modern reader. It’s hard to get behind Mr Knightley’s objections to Harriet on the grounds that she’s ‘too low’, and it’s especially galling that, although Emma argues against these at first, she ends up agreeing by the conclusion of the novel. That, and Mr Knightley’s having been in love with Emma since she was 13 (and he was 29), are truly the ‘stuck in its time’ elements, to steal a phrase from the great All About Agatha. I can definitely see how readers would be put off by this, even if they can make it through Emma’s deliberately flawed personality.

Mr Knightley somewhat redeems himself in my eyes, however, by being the one person who’ll tell Emma hard truths about herself. In a novel that’s all about character development, it’s hard to imagine a more attractive suitor than the one who sees your faults, will help you overcome them, and love you for the efforts you’ve made! That’s true love right there, as I’m sure both he and Emma would agree.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell — Reread Review

Even though I’ve read Wives and Daughters before, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy Elizabeth Gaskell’s prose is to understand. This is certainly no Rob Roy. It doesn’t seem fairy to declare an author one of my favourites when I’ve only read one example of her work, but I certainly want to try reading more of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels – if I can ever get to the end of TBR pile that I already own.

Not only are the descriptions and dialogue clear, I also find Molly’s emotions to be more relatable than those of some other classical heroines. I don’t think I’ve ever seen myself in Tess or Jane Eyre, certainly not in Cathy of Wuthering Heights or Emma Bovary. But I definitely see myself in Molly Gibson: in her desire to be good and selfless, to put her own happiness aside and never to make herself an inconvenience.

If Roger was not tender in words, he was in deeds. Unreasonable and possibly exaggerated as Molly’s grief had appeared to him, it was real suffering to her; and he took some pains to lighten it, in his own way, which was characteristic enough.

Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives and Daughters is brimming with other great characters, too. Squire Hamley and his son Roger are, to my mind, the most lovable. The squire certainly has faults, but his pride in his son absolutely touches my heart, especially when he rereads letters praising Roger so often that he practically has them memorised.

If Molly had not been so entirely loyal to her friend, she might have thought this constant brilliancy a little tiresome when brought into every-day life; it was not the sunshiny rest of a placid lake, it was rather the glitter of the pieces of a broken mirror, which confuses and bewilders.

Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell

Cynthia and Osborne are more complicated characters, which is what makes them so interesting. Osborne’s disinclination to work is hard to stomach in 2020, but, even with that in mind, Elizabeth Gaskell manages to make him sympathetic.

Though far less significant to the plot, the unmarried Miss Brownings might be the characters who best show Elizabeth Gaskell’s skill. It would be so easy for them to be stock spinster sisters, faintly ridiculous but well-meaning, after the pattern of Miss Bates. Instead, the Miss Brownings are distinct from each other, and have views and interests that go beyond themselves and the novel’s main characters. I was particularly interested by Miss Browning’s rant against married life.

Despite not having a proper ending – Elizabeth Gaskell died with one chapter left to write – Wives and Daughters is certainly satisfying!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott — New Review

I was due to pay a visit to my aunt in Selkirk last month, during which I would have been taken to see a house where Sir Walter Scott once stayed. (I deliberately haven’t looked it up, so as not to spoil the surprise for myself, so I can’t give more details.) Having no particular knowledge of Walter Scott, except that he was an author of historical and Scottish fiction, I thought I’d better read at least something he had written. I picked Rob Roy for the very simple reason that I already owned a copy.

Since I knew almost nothing about the novel, I asked a few likely friends whether they’d read it. Nickie had, and her description could basically be summed up as ‘a romp that didn’t particularly care about historical accuracy’. That sounded pretty good!

I’d assumed, naively, that Rob Roy would be the main character of Rob Roy, so I wasn’t expecting Frank Osbaldistone. I took a liking to him, especially when he decided to stand up to his father and pursue a life of poetry over one of commerce. When he started to troll his travelling companion, I thought I could really enjoy reading more of his antics.

No schoolboy, who, betwixt frolic and defiance, had executed a similar rash attempt, could feel himself, when adrift in a strong current, in a situation more awkward than mine when I found myself driving, without a compass, on the ocean of human life.

Rob Roy, Walter Scott

Sadly, Frank didn’t get up to much after that. A lot happened to him, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to care about the machinations of Rasheligh Osbaldistone, nor the mystery behind Diana Vernon. Frank’s decision to hare off to the Scottish highlands with a gardener and a bailiff seemed somewhat unjustified, and I struggled to follow the plot. Rob Roy was finally introduced, mostly in positions to help get Frank out of trouble. I never really understood what his motivation was, since Frank was just an Englishman he didn’t know.

I’ve read older books than Rob Roy, but I found the prose particularly impenetrable. The dialogue in various Scottish dialects didn’t help, but I don’t think that was even the main problem. I couldn’t tell you exactly what the trouble was, except that the long, long sentences were somewhat difficult to parse. There were scattered metafictional elements, which I enjoyed, but these tailed off towards the middle and end of the novel. I ended up making myself a book timeline, to see how Rob Roy compares to other things I’ve read.

My trip to Scotland ended up being postponed, and while I’ll look forward to going to see the house, I don’t think I’ll rush to read any more Walter Scott.

Next, I’ll be reading The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.

Rating: 1 out of 5.