Decorative Initial Silas is about forty years old at the beginning of the novel, and Nancy is about forty years old at the end — i.e. George Eliot' age at the time of writing. We know that the novelist's early life was considerably affected by her relation with her father. When Nancy separates herself sufficiently from her father to set her hopes on Godfrey, she is about the same age as Marian Evans was in 1842, when her refusal to go to church led to a violent quarrel with her father. In spite of this, however, he continued to influence her greatly, even after his death. Marian met G. H. Lewes in October 1851: he was still married, even though he was no longer attached to his wife. She knew the indignity of having to keep her affair with him secret — the parallel with Molly is obvious; Nancy, one notes, suffered no less for her "secret" love for Godfrey. Her instinct to withdraw into herself and to cross-question herself mercilessly was shared by her creator, who was unusually depressed throughout 1860, occasioned at least in part by society's continued refusal to accept her relation with Lewes. In spite of all the love by which she was surounded, and for all her literary success, she continued to be prey to an astonishing lack of confidence in herself. Dessner and others have drawn attention to a great many parallels between the life and the fiction. There is ample evidence to suggest that the dilemma we have identified as confronting Nancy is comparable to that which faced George Eliot in 1860. Its ending represents a tentative resolution to an enormously painful personal experience that "thrust" itself upon George Eliot in 1860.

Perhaps the most significant feature of this reading, however, is that it provides a substantial link between her previous and her subsequent novels. Maggie Tulliver loses her chance of true happiness when she rejects Stephen Guest and Romola is attracted to an opportunist who conceals both his character and Tessa from her: the parallel with Nancy's situation is self-evident. The vulnerability of both Maggie and Romola stems from their relationship with their respective fathers — a relationship which prevents them from discovering their own independent worth until they have forfeited any possibility of the happiness they sought. All three works are centrally concerned with a father's unwittingly negative influence on a female character: the same, one might add, could also be held for Middlemarch. Thus, whilst in many ways surprising, this reading of Silas Marner in effect re-places the novel in its context. As to why it assumed the form it has, which seems to centre on two male characters, one can only speculate: for my part, as I maintained at the outset, I believe that the figure of Savonarola so weighed upon George Eliot's spirits that her creative imagination spontaneously produced a "compensatory" image whose purpose was to give her "light enough to trusten by". If this was indeed so, Silas Marner is no less therapeutic than her other novels.

This conclusion begs one further question, and one must touch on it even one though it cannot be satisfactorily resolved. To what extent was George Eliot "conscious" of the nature of the dilemma I have outlined? We can never know, but that Nancy never fully realises the debt that she, no less than Godfrey, owes to Silas signals that the ending represents but a tentative solution to the problem with which the novel is concerned. [43-44]

From Terence Dawson, "Light Enough to Trusten By': Structure and Experience in Silas Marner" Modern Language Review 88 (1993): 26-45.


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