Literary Daybook, April 2

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
April 3, 2002 1:00AM (UTC)
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Today in fiction

On April 2, Adrian Mole's birthday.
-- "The Adrian Mole Diaries" (1986)
by Sue Townsend

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1861, George Eliot's "Silas Marner" was published. Eliot wrote that the "millet-seed of thought" for her story was the childhood memory of a linen-weaver with "a stoop and expression of face that led me to think that he was an alien from his fellows." She first envisioned a "legendary tale" made of storybook ingredients: the lonely weaver, forced into coldheartedness; his hoard of gold, cruelly stolen; his golden-haired foundling, Eppie; his discovery of the "all that glisters" theme. Instead, she chose to tell the story realistically -- with such success, said V. S. Pritchett, that "We follow the people out of the hedgerows and the lanes into the kitchen. We see the endless meals, the eternal cup of tea; and the dog rests his head on our boot or flies barking to the yard ..." Though many view the book as one of Eliot's secondary works, Henry James thought it her best, and "more nearly a masterpiece" than her others.

The critics are more in agreement over the autobiographical elements in the book, finding many parallels between the hero's alienation, and his release from it through love, and Eliot's own life. She too was a victim of gossip and finger-pointing -- for her outspoken agnosticism, for being the mistress and then spouse of a married man, even for her physical unattractiveness, described by some as "plain," by herself as that of "a withered cabbage in a flower garden." Henry James went further, and deeper: "She is magnificently ugly -- deliciously hideous ... in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her." The man with whom she did eventually fall in love, George Henry Lewes, was a writer and radical thinker who brought his own finger-pointers to the relationship: his first marriage had been a communal one, his wife had several children by one of the other men, his physical appearance such that some referred to him as "Ape," or "the ugliest man in London."

From her relationship to Lewes, and from suddenly becoming, just the year before writing "Silas Marner," a happy, middle-aged parent to Lewes' three children, Eliot took her theme: to "set in a strong light the remedial influences of pure natural human relations." Because "Silas Marner," like the earlier "Adam Bede" and "Mill on the Floss," sold so well, there was even more fairy tale for Eliot: she got her gold and her Eppie too.


-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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