Mary Lloyd revisits George Eliot's Silas Marner and his adopted daughter Eppie.
When Godfrey Cass, the Squire of Raveloe, calls late one evening on the poor weaver, Silas Marner, he hasconvinced himself that he is there to do his duty and to act in the bestinterests of Silas and his adopted daughter, Eppie. Some seventeen yearsbefore, tempted into a dissolute and passionate liaison, Godfrey had fathered achild, hastily and secretly married the mother, rapidly regretted his actionsand effectively abandoned both mother and daughter. Living in fear of discoveryfor a couple of years, his problems were apparently solved when the mothercollapsed dead in the snow near Silas's cottage and the child – attracted bythe light – toddled by accident through Silas's door and fell asleep on hishearth.
A fable for our time, as well as forher own, George Eliot's Silas Marner encourages the reader to reflect onthe nature of fatherhood, as Silas, apparently the most unlikely of candidatesfor the role, rediscovers his own joy and purpose in life through his love forEppie. Contrasted with this is the part that her 'natural' father plays in herlife. When Eppie first appears, as if by some magic, in Silas's one-roomweaver's cottage, remote from the village, he has for years lived in isolation,taking no part in village life, calling only on his customers and regarded byall as slightly crazy, slightly dangerous. He suffers from catalepsy, which hetries to hide by remaining isolated. He is a 'foreigner' from an industrialtown some 100 miles further north – another world. Self-exiled from this formerlife, he has lost all faith and hope in other people and in the Calvinistreligion which was once the centre of his being. The obsessive rhythm ofweaving, counting the golden guineas gained by his trade, fondling andarranging them in the evening firelight, has become his only contact with thenormal rhythm of life. When even his guineas are stolen, he carries on like anautomaton, ageing into the appearance and habits of an elderly recluse whilststill in his thirties.
A candidate for fostering a tinygirl who would undoubtedly be dismissed without a second thought by ourcontemporary agencies! And yet, from the very first moment, the child who hasappeared suddenly in front of the fire on New Year's Eve (while he was in oneof his fits) reawakens 'old quiverings of tenderness'. At first sightperceiving her golden curls as his beloved guineas brought mysteriously back tohim, his realisation on touching them suggests, equally magically, that hislittle sister – long dead – has
'come back to him in a dream'. Asthe child wakes, he 'stooped to lift it on to his knees' ... 'it clung roundhis neck' … 'Silas pressed it to him'. From the very first, he meets thechild's needs with sense and imagination – a combination of falling under herspell and a practical understanding of her needs. He reheats and sweetens hiscold porridge – with sugar he denies himself – feeds her, follows anxiously asshe toddles about, and finally understands that her wet boots are hurting, sotakes them off and shares with her chuckling at 'the mystery of her own toes'.
By the time he has carried the childoutside, realising that her footsteps in the snow lead to the body of a woman,and braved with unthinking courage the journey with her to the Squire's housein search of the doctor, Silas is a changed man. The bond has been established.Challenged by the expectations of the company that someone else – or the parish– will take care of the child, he is adamant: 'No – no – I can't part with it,I can't let it go. It's come to me – I've a right to keep it…Till anybody showsthey've a right to take her away from me. The mother's dead, and I reckon it'sgot no father … she'll be my little 'un. She'll be nobody else's.'
At the same time, the Squire's son,Godfrey, is torn apart by his immediate recognition that it is his child, hisfear (for which he despises himself) that the mother may not be dead,and his private admission that 'he ought to accept the consequences of hisdeed, own the miserable wife, and fulfil the claims of the helpless child'. Heallows himself to be comforted, at the same time as being pierced with pain, bythe fact that 'the blue eyes turned away from him slowly, and fixedthemselves on the weaver's queer face'.
With the support of the wise butunlettered Dolly Winthrop, Silas becomes connected with the village community.He agrees (against his old religious code) to have his daughter christenedafter his sister, Hephzibah (signifying 'my delight in her' and shortened toEppie) and develops into a patiently loving father who cannot bear to punishthe mischievous, intrepid little girl for whom he creates 'a nest of downypatience' for the child who was continually 'reawakening his senses with herfresh life … and warming him into joy because she had joy'. The villagersrevise their opinion of him and come to respect him for 'what he had done foran orphan child'.
Eliot's tender delineation of theconversations which denote the mature, 'tender and peculiar' love between Silasand Eppie as a young woman of seventeen, marked by reflections on herapproaching marriage, her plans that Silas will always live with them and hisrecognition of how her arrival restored him to life. This intimate conversationis interrupted by the arrival on their doorstep of Godfrey Cass and his wife,Nancy. Godfrey, who has finally found the strength to admit to his childless –and adored – wife, Nancy, that Eppie is his child, is there to attempt to makeamends for his long years of cowardice, by adopting her.
He begins by offering to repayMarner's lost guineas – which, he now knows, were stolen by his brother Dunsey– and continues with an expression of his desire to provide for Eppie, to adopther as his daughter. Faced with Silas's lack of interest in the gold which wasonce the centre of his life, and Eppie's declaration that she 'couldn't give upthe folks I've been used to,' Godfrey is goaded into the admission that he hadnot wanted to make so soon: that Eppie is his daughter. Strengthened by Eppie'shostility to the idea and goaded by Cass's prompting –: 'But I have a claim onyou, Eppie – the strongest of all claims. It is my duty' – Silas mounts aneloquent defence of the rights of the adoptive father:
'Then, sir, why didn't you say sosixteen year ago, and claim her before I'd come to love her?... When a manturns a blessing from his door, it falls to them as take it in.'
Cass is forced to accept that he hasfailed; all he can do for Eppie now is to provide material comforts to make herchosen life easier. Set against Godfrey's and Nancy's shared belief that'blood' should always have the prior claim, we are aware of the years ofselfless love on Silas's part, which has resulted in Eppie's total devotion tothe only man she can think of as Father. In the end, all Godfrey can give ismoney. He finally comes to accept this later that evening, at home, when herecognises that: 'There's debts we can't pay like money debts, by paying extrafor the years that have slipped by. While I've been putting off and puttingoff, the trees have been growing – it's too late now.'Godfrey finds himself inalmost the same position as absent fathers are today – legally bound to providematerial support for their offspring but often not permitted to spend much timewith them, even when they wish to do so. It is recognised that the biologicalfather cannot just come back and expect his child – and the world – to welcomehis change of heart with open arms whenever he chooses. The devoted fosterfather has proved his claim to the child through years of physical support andan almost inseparable companionship.
George Eliot wrote of SilasMarner that her aim was, 'to set in a strong light the remedial influencesof pure, natural human relations'. To serve that humanist purpose, thereligious beliefs of Raveloe are downgraded. Influenced by her translations ofStrauss and Feuerbach, and study of Comte and Goethe, Eliot has come to realisethat her positivist belief in 'the pure emanation of feeling' is incompatiblewith any system of religious doctrine. She recognises that changing religiousbeliefs, myth and legends are stages in the progress of the intellect and, likeother freethinkers, saw the need to develop new mythologies for our own times.She would, undoubtedly, have been one of the brightest stars of the SOF if wehad only invented ourselves a century earlier.
Mary Lloyd is Vice Chair of SOF and taught English Literature to university entrance level for 25years. She currently works as a research lecturer at the School of Education ofthe University of Greenwich.