Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Peter Grimes and Silas Marner

"Eh, my precious child, the blessing was mine. If you hadn't been sent to save me, I should ha' gone to the grave in my misery."

From Silas Marner by George Eliot

"I've seen in stars the life that we might share:
Fruit in the garden, children by the shore,
A fair white doorstep, and a woman's care.
But dreaming builds what dreaming can disown."

From the libretto of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes by Montagu Slater, based on a part of George Crabbe's poem, The Borough

I did two things recently: I read George Eliot's novel Silas Marner and I saw a performance of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes.

What can I say about George Eliot, but that she is one of my favourite authors, for her expressiveness, her understanding of the human spirit, and for her gentle wit and unhurried story telling.

Peter Grimes is not my favourite opera, but I love Benjamin Britten's music and this production, directed by the brilliant Neil Armfield, starred Ben Heppner as Grimes, in a truly great performance, presented by the Canadian Opera Company through the month of October (yes, you can still catch this excellent production!).

It got me thinking about the protagonists, Grimes and Marner. They're similar in many ways. Both men are embittered loners, haunted by wrongs done to them, isolated and full of anger. Both have a female character nearby who wishes to reach out and help. Into each of their lives comes a child. From here in the stories differ greatly.


Grimes the fisherman has had one boy apprentice die in his care. He takes another from the workhouse. Ellen, the schoolteacher, yearns to help him care for the child, and both dream of making a family together. But Peter cannot consider it until he has made his fortune, and so, he drives himself and his young charge relentlessly. Ellen, seeking to bring some tenderness into both his life and that of the boy, tries to persuade him to ease up on the child, to treat him... as a child. Grimes won't have it, and strikes her angrily. The villagers, already suspicious and angry, set out to hunt him down. He unwisely chooses to go out fishing once more with his apprentice, and the boy dies in an accident. Well... and please forgive my glibness as well as my paraphrasing... but to lose one apprentice may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two is unacceptable. Grimes is persuaded to take a small boat out to sea and sink it before the mob gets to him. There are glimpses in him of potential tenderness, reflections of how Ellen has treated the boy, but in his growing madness I can't help but wonder at where everything went horribly wrong. How a small, underfed, unloved workhouse child can fail to melt a heart is a mystery to most of us. Grimes is a rough brute, but also a victim. His final action truly does feel like the only course left open to him.

For Silas Marner, embittered and driven also to make a fortune, weaving is his whole life. Short-sighted and bent-over, he works tirelessly at his loom, slowly amassing a pile of gold which he keeps hidden in his cottage. It's stolen from him by an unseen thief. Silas's grief is primal. All he's lived for his miserly life is gone. But not long after - to make a long story short - he finds a baby girl who has toddled into his cottage on a winter's night. Her mother has died, and Silas, at first bewildered by the baby's golden curls, sees her, in his almost-blind way, as a replacement for his lost gold. But Eppie, as he calls her, is much more precious than that. And with the kind friendship of a married neighbour, Dolly Winthrop, he raises Eppie with all the devotion a natural parent could give, as she raises him from that twisted, lonely life, to a love-filled existence. It's such a heart-warming story. There are twists and turns I won't go into here, but it has a happy ending, the very best.

Is Silas Marner more idealistic and romanticized than Peter Grimes? Absolutely. They are very different takes on the human condition, and both worth embracing and considering. It's my very good fortune to have experienced both.

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