One of the major themes raised by George Eliot in Silas Marner is the English class system. However, it has to be noted that she doesn’t deal with anything like the whole range of English class distinctions that were in existence in the early years of the nineteenth century. For example, she omits the aristocracy in all its graduations, and, since her chief location is a quintessential English village, she cannot include the great industrial factory owners who were beginning to emerge as a potent force. And although the community at Lantern Yard is an urban one, we are given only the briefest sketch of the lives of the people who live there.
Those caveats aside, in Silas Marner, the highest social class is represented by the Cass family. In English social history, the local squire represented the class of medium landowners, who were less important than the landed aristocrats with their great estates. The squire was really a landowning gentleman; the village squire, such as Squire Cass, would be the chief landowner in the neighbourhood or ‘manor’. His house was often called the ‘manor house’, and many of the people of the surrounding area would have been tenants on his land. Squire Cass of Raveloe cannot be called a major representative of his class. He is, with pleasant irony, called ‘the greatest man in Raveloe’, but really only in the sense that in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king! He is not a great landowner, although he does occupy the most impressive house in Raveloe. Indeed, he has, it transpires, only ‘a tenant or two’, who complain to him about the activities of poachers ‘as if he had been a lord’, which he is indeed far from being.
He and his family have, however, a considerable estimation of their own importance. Those next in rank to them, the Osgoods, who merely own the farm they occupy and have no tenants, and the Lammeters, must be content with a somewhat inferior place in Raveloe society. The social superiority of the Squire is nicely emphasised in the remark about asking Nancy’s father to agree to her marriage with Godfrey:
‘Well, then, let me make the offer for you, that’s all if you haven’t the pluck to do it yourself. Lammeter isn’t likely to be loath for his daughter to marry into my family, I should think’.
Decidedly below the landowning class, represented by the Squire, the Osgoods and the Lammeters are a variety of occupations and include some of the most interesting figures in the novel. We have the Squire’s brother-in-law, Kimble, who is an apothecary (our modern-day pharmacist); Mr Crackenthorpe, Rector of Raveloe; Mr Macey, tailor and parish clerk; Mr Tookey, deputy parish clerk, Ben Winthrop, the wheelwright, husband of Dolly; Mr Snell, the landlord of the Rainbow Inn; Solomon Macey, the fiddler; Jem Rodney, the mole catcher; and last but not least Silas Marner, the weaver. These humble characters are the life and soul of the novel; their social superiors are a great deal less vital, less human, less sympathetic.
In Silas Marner, George Eliot casts a cold eye on the English social system, particularly on its more privileged sectors. Her comment on the class to which the Cass family belongs is less than flattering:
‘It was still that glorious war-time which was felt to be a peculiar favour of providence towards the landed interest, and the fall of prices had not yet come to carry the race of small squires and yeomen down that road to ruin for which extravagant habits and bad husbandry were plentifully anointing their wheels’.
Details of the extravagant habits and carefree attitudes towards social and personal responsibility soon follow. The Squire keeps all his sons at home in idleness. Dunstan, in particular, is a noted rake, spiteful, jeering, drunken, a gambler and a waster; his brother Godfrey seems to be following the same path. George Eliot, significantly, gives Godfrey a miserable fate; he ends up humiliated and unhappy. Meanwhile, the chief representative of the lower orders, on the other hand, has luck on his side: despite his early reverses, Silas survives to enjoy a relatively happy old age. The moral of this contrast in fortunes is clear: Godfrey’s fate is bound up with the habits and attitudes of his class; he is conditioned by these to be the man he is.
Silas Marner deals with rich and poor people, a common enough theme of novelists of all ages. What is interesting here, however, is not so much the theme, but the way in which it is treated. Traditionally, romances involving rich and poor characters, if they were to end in marriage between persons of different classes, would employ a stock device: the poor character would not really belong to the lower class at all but would turn out to have noble or wealthy ancestors or rich parents who had died. George Eliot is having none of this! Instead, she turns the conventional social approach on its head by implying that the life of the poor is superior to that of the rich and expects our approval when she has Eppie reject the comfort and status of the Red House for a marriage to a working-man. Furthermore, she suggests to her readers that Silas is a better man than Godfrey, in that, while both men have to cope with the events surrounding Eppie, Godfrey proves himself inadequate, and Silas does all the right things. She lets us see that Godfrey is a prisoner of his class. While his ‘inferiors’ give their thoughts to helping others, Godfrey is concerned with the effects on himself of ‘the increasing poor-rate and the ruinous times’. At no level, except on the purely economic one, do the privileged people in Silas Marner enjoy any superiority. Nancy Lammeter is a self-regarding woman whose ‘principles’ will not permit her to adopt a child; while, on the other hand, Dolly Winthrop enjoys helping Silas to care for Eppie, and has a deeper understanding of the mysteries at the heart of things than her socially and better educated ‘superior’ has.
There is a nice irony here. The events of the novel show up the moral inferiority of the ‘better’ class. Despite this, their chief representative, Godfrey Cass, is convinced of his own superiority and of that of his way of life. His tone with Silas during their vital interview about Eppie’s destiny is very much that of a superior talking down to a man of lower degree: unfeeling, patronising, narrow-minded, insulting. It is his unwitting admission of his contempt for the working-class that deprives him of any chance he might otherwise have had of winning the confidence of Silas and Eppie:
‘I should have thought, Marner, he said severely – ‘I should have thought your affection for Eppie would have made you rejoice in what was for your good, even if it did call upon you to give up something. You ought to remember your own life’s uncertain, and she’s at an age now when her lot may soon be fixed in a way very different from what it would be in her father’s home: she may marry some low working-man, and then, whatever I might do for her, I couldn’t make her well off’.
I suppose there are some who would argue that George Eliot is not being overly radical here in her depiction of the class distinctions that prevailed in the early 1800s in England. Some would argue that she is simply following the status quo and that she takes for granted the fact that class divisions are part of the natural order of things. In her defence, we must acknowledge, however, that this novel would have been read by the Nancy Lammeters of the time rather than the Dolly Winthrops: surely it took great courage and conviction to write a novel which could potentially alienate most of your readers? When we read closely, there are numerous examples given of stark divisions of class and it is obvious that George Eliot is disapproving rather than approving of these episodes. For example, she describes the scene following Sunday morning service in Raveloe church:
‘It was the rural fashion of that time for the more important members of the congregation to depart first, while their humbler neighbours waited and looked on, stroking their bent heads or dropping their curtsies to any large ratepayer who turned to notice them.’
Eliot presents this to us in such a way that it is difficult not to feel distaste at the social system that encourages this kind of debasement of human beings in the presence of others. Again what is one to make of the Squire’s wish to prolong the war with France solely because to do so would serve the interests of his own class?:
‘And that fool Kimble says that the newspaper’s talking about peace. Why, the country wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Prices ‘ud run down like a jack, and I should never get my arrears, not if I sold all the fellows up’.
Here, ‘the country’ means the Cass family and the landed interest generally. Of course, nowhere in the novel does George Eliot advocate the destruction of the class system, but her presentation is such that no sensitive reader can fail to question the validity of an order of things that causes Silas Marner, Dolly Winthrop and Mr Macey to think of members of the Cass family as their betters. The Squire imposes his social authority mainly by being loud of voice and by speaking to people ‘in a ponderous and coughing fashion’. The tone and manner of their presentation here, and in many similar instances, tend to undermine whatever respect the reader might feel for the Squire and his family. This is the same Squire who favours prolonged war as a means of enriching himself and who is seen to give his deerhounds ‘enough bits of beef to make a poor man’s holiday dinner’. Therefore, I think you’ll agree there are enough such disturbing scenes and incidents to make Silas Marner a radically disturbing social document.
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