When I was a child, my mother encouraged my reading, suggesting books by the Brontës, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, and W.H. Hudson (her favorite). But she always told me: “Whatever you do, don’t read Silas Marner; it the most boring book in the world!”
I have attributed the fact that I devoted my life to studying George Eliot to rebellion against my mother’s prohibition.
And yet, my attraction to Eliot had nothing to do with Silas Marner. It came about after reading Daniel Deronda in a graduate seminar (c. 1990) at the University of Chicago, taught by Elisabeth Helsinger. Daniel Deronda was my gateway drug to the works of George Eliot, and I only later associated it with the dreaded Silas Marner of my childhood.
In Daniel Deronda, I discovered a non-Jewish author who was intrigued by Judaism, as I was. I could not believe that a Victorian woman had written such a work. I threw myself into research on the novel (the body of criticism on being much less in the early 1990s than it is today). This eventually led me to read “The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!” chapter of Eliot’s last book, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, and to a realization of what an amazing and overlooked book Impressions was. Before I finished my dissertation on George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, I had completed the first critical edition of Impressions, which was published by Pickering and Chatto in 1994. My career as a scholar of Eliot’s life and writing took off from there.
In 24 years of teaching Victorian literature generally and Eliot’s work in particular, I have had occasion to reflect on why my mother hated Silas Marner so intensely. I have concluded that she was made to read it at too young an age. This has made me stress to my students the importance of reading Eliot in the context of their own experience. Silas Marner has dropped off the curriculum for U.S. high school students, but I have become an advocate of introducing undergraduates to all of Eliot’s works.
Created 30 September 2019