More school students have been exposed to ''Silas Marner,'' but George Eliot considered ''Middlemarch'' the best of her novels. Here is a brief scene from its long philosophical and often amusing scrutiny of 19th-century English provincial life. Fred Vincy speaks first - to Mary Garth, a friend from childhood.m
''I suppose a woman is never in love with any one she has always known - ever since she can remember; as a man often is. It is always some new fellow who strikes a girl.''
''Let me see,'' said Mary, the corners of her mouth curling archly; ''I must go back on my experience. There is Juliet - she seems an example of what you say. But then Ophelia had probably known Hamlet a long while; and Brenda Troil - she had known Mordaunt Mertoun ever since they were children; but then he seems to have been an estimable young man. . . . Altogether, my experience is rather mixed.''
Mary looked up with some roguishness at Fred, and that look of hers was very dear to him, though the eyes were nothing more than clear windows where observation sate laughingly. He was certainly an affectionate fellow, and as he had grown from boy to man, he had grown in love with his old playmate, notwithstanding that share in the higher education of the country which had exalted his views of rank and income.
''When a man is not loved, it is no use for him to say that he could be a better fellow - could do anything - I mean, if he were sure of being loved in return.''
''Not of the least use in the world for him to say he couldm be better. Might, could, would - they are contemptible auxiliaries.''
''I don't see how a man is to be good for much unless he has some one woman to love him dearly.''
''I think the goodness should come before he expects that.''
''You know better, Mary. Women don't love men for their goodness.''
''Perhaps not. But if they love them, they never think them bad.''
''It is hardly fair to say I am bad.''
''I said nothing at all about you.''
''I never shall be good for anything, Mary, if you will not say that you love me - if you will not promise to marry me - I mean, when I am able to marry.''
''If I did love you, I would not marry you: I would certainly not promise ever to marry you.''
''I think that is quite wicked, Mary. If you love me, you ought to promise to marry me.''
''On the contrary, I think it would be wicked in me to marry you even if I did love you.''
''You mean, just as I am, without any means of maintaining a wife. Of course: I am but three-and-twenty.''
''In that last point you will alter. But I am not so sure of any other alteration. My father says an idle man ought not to exist, much less, be married.''
''Then I am to blow my brains out?''
''No; on the whole I should think you would do better to pass your examination.''