I came to this because I so thoroughly enjoyed Middlemarch. There are, of course, similarities, but this gave me less pleasure. I still appreciate the way that Eliot has so few out and out villains – people can do undeniably cruel, irresponsible, selfish, and inconsiderate things, but they are not generally simply dismissed as a thug, a snob, a miser, a saint or whatever. Nancy, for example, is kind and self-controlled, but not merely the good girl she thinks she is. Despite the lack of self-awareness, she is still admirable. There are interesting things happening with class, particularly in the climactic confrontation. I was surprised, however, that of all the characters to dismiss, Eliot chose working class Molly, the abandoned wife: there’s little sympathy, and her death appears as both a brutal plot device and a favour to all concerned. Still, Eliot is hardly dismissive of all her peasant women, nor does she fawn on the higher classes. Moreover there is a very deliberate inversion of the fairy-tale morality: our princess rejects her castle and lineage. It’s nice, though, that even though Godfrey Cass is put in his place, he isn’t merely a laughable or contemptible figure (cf. Lady Catherine de Bourgh): he’s a mix of flaws and graces, and he is still allowed to figure, albeit slightly, in Eppie’s future.
It’s also interesting looking at how Eliot deals with fate – or providence – or God – or ‘Them’ (as Dolly would say). Was Silas taken through this torturous betrayal and redemption for some divine reason (or even an authorial Count of Monte Cristo one)? I don’t know enough about popular contemporary stories, but was this a reaction to other morality tales – inasmuch as it seems to give a bit more room to move? Dolly is our chorus, our theologiser, but I don’t know that she is set up to be either accepted or rejected – you can read it either way. She even has the grace to be unsure. The central events are sensational, but the interaction and development of characters is often layered and insightful.
Still this book works for me in a similar way to James’ An International Episode, where I found discussing it more interesting than reading it. I acknowledge Eliot’s craft, and I particularly appreciate the different plot turns she offers, but I didn’t relish most of the book the way I did large chunks of Middlemarch.