So some middleclass website believes (or believed, I should say, as I started writing this several weeks ago, and it is such old news now, that it may no longer even be true) that Middlemarch is the death-knell for a reading group. This news has been excitedly repeated in the press and on various lit blogs and on Twitter. If you haven’t seen all that, don’t bother looking it up. It only tell us what we don’t need to know about said middleclass website, and the newspapers, blogs and Twitterati who picked it up and shouted it loud, and it tells us nothing, I think, that is new.
Which is that for some reading groups, flotsamming along on a tide of chardonnay, cupcakes and small talk, the tiniest demand might seem a threatening tsunami, never mind the actual inner tempest that is a reading of this great novel, one of the biggest things humanity has ever produced. It’s bigger than the Empire State Building! It’s bigger than Wikipedia! … Afraid of big stuff ? Well then, don’t read it!
But actually, please, do read it. Perhaps especially if you are afraid of big stuff.
People are lazy coasters if they can be (I’m one myself) and naturally we don’t like difficult things that ask a lot of us – really, watch chimpanzees for half an hour and you’ll see where we get our general disposition from – so, for example, no one would choose to break a leg, yet read Oliver Sacks’ book, A Leg To Stand On, which came from his hard breakage and harder recuperation. Am I saying reading Middlemarch is like breaking your leg alone on a mountain? I think I am. It might hurt but good could come of it.
I’ve been reading Middlemarch since 1982 – crikey, that’s thirty years – and for a lot of that time I’ve been talking other people into reading it too. It seems to me that the classic negative reactions to this book (and to other great works of literature) that I experience over and over again, especially from relatively educated people, are an indicator of the strong underlying anti-literariness in our culture.
Anti-literary? Are you sure? Yes, I am sure.
First example: in what is otherwise an exemplary account of how a school built its reading up, a teacher-blogger writes,
‘Supporting reading is not about getting through a 400 page novel, it is about opening up the opportunities for young people to experience as many different types of texts and different types of content as possible to develop their reading, comprehension and critical reasoning skills but also to simply to broaden their horizons.’
Is it me or does that sentence implicitly do down the 400 page novel? It’s a throwaway criticism, but it is to some extent typical of a mindset prevalent especially in educational and literacy circles. Books, and perhaps especially hard books, are seen as part of the problem. I think this comes partly from the fear of books which people learn by doing English at school and University.
Second example: many years ago, at a Literary Event, I sat on a panel beside A Famous Writer and listened to her argue that there must be no flag-waving for so-called great books. Who was to say that Middlemarch was a better book than a big best-seller with gold writing on the cover? I didn’t argue with her, it would have spoiled the day, and besides I couldn’t speak for rage and needed time to develop a riposte. Years later I realise that the best-selling-writer’s assertion is, of course, the stuff of highly educated orthodoxy.
Third example: the Report on 2008’s National Year of Reading asked archly who was to say that Shakespeare was better than Mills and Boon? And at a Buckingham Palace reception to celebrate the Dickens bi-centenary earlier in 2012, as the champagne flowed, I met several persons, mostly writers, who Do Not Rate Dickens for various reasons including: Over-Sentimental/Old-fashioned/ Predictable Story Arcs/Dead White Male/Too long.
This sort of anti-literary, anti-seriousness, anti-sentiment style has been gripping the cooler end of the Highly Educated Class for the past thirty years. If you want to look good in public, you tell everyone how much you enjoy reading Grazia, not Goethe. This is partly fear of being thought elitist and partly the unwillingness of a comfortably-off lazy consumer to do anything that requires the inner slog that is extended engagement with great writing. But can this careless, Grazia-swigging attitude change? Only if, only when, we radically alter education and especially education involving reading. But that is a hard call.
It is easier to think of an apparently liberal free market determined only by consumer preferences (people prefer Mills and Boon to Shakespeare) and difficult to imagine an education in which the vast majority of people (including middle class people attending reading groups) would have a real ground from which to make a genuine choice between say Middlemarch and books with gold writing on their covers. But imagine that education we must, because otherwise we are throwing away 2000 years of human thinking about the biggest and most recurrent human problems. And we need the help.
The world is now in such a serious state of moral, spiritual, physical and economic crisis that we can no longer afford the luxury of not thinking. And what George Eliot offers us, above all, is help in thinking about ‘all ordinary human life’ through stories which teach us how hard it is to get that right.
One of the reasons people are put off Middlemarch is the fact that (I quote from a friend) ‘It begins with this weird Prelude thing about Saint Theresa – never got beyond that.’ That seems a good place for me to start. Middlemarch’s ‘Prelude’ uses St Theresa as a model (Google her, she reformed the Carmelite order) but it’s really about ordinary people, struggling to realise what they are for or might become:
That Spanish woman who lived three hundred years ago, was certainly not the last of her kind. Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion. With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness; for these later-born Theresas were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul. Their ardor alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.
Some have felt that these blundering lives are due to the inconvenient indefiniteness with which the Supreme Power has fashioned the natures of women: if there were one level of feminine incompetence as strict as the ability to count three and no more, the social lot of women might be treated with scientific certitude. Meanwhile the indefiniteness remains, and the limits of variation are really much wider than any one would imagine from the sameness of women’s coiffure and the favorite love-stories in prose and verse. Here and there a cygnet is reared uneasily among the ducklings in the brown pond, and never finds the living stream in fellowship with its own oary-footed kind. Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centring in some long-recognizable deed.
So, what if you have big potential but live in a small world? How does that feel? Well, it often turns you into something of a liability. If you are lucky enough to find something that needs doing, and that you might be able to do, and that circumstances allow you to do, you will be one of the rare, happy humans who have found a vocation. As a young woman, finally settling down to read Middlemarch in my third year at University, aged 26, divorced and with a young child, and with my Mum drinking herself to death two doors down, I had begun to have a premonition of what a ‘life of mistakes’ might be like. When I read this , I recognised myself in it.
With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness; for these later-born Theresas were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul.
I’m not saying I was a Dorothea – much more of a mess than that – and far less a St Theresa. Only that the words ‘inconsistency and formlessness’ jumped out at me like words on fire. They were for, they were about, me.
As they were also for and about George Eliot. A short way into the novel, our heroine Dorothea, newly married is faced with the problem, ‘What shall I do today?’ Her problem is made more difficult by the classic well-heeled-woman-at-home answer: ‘Whatever you please, my dear.’ Problems George Eliot identified remain our problems today and no amount of retail therapy is going to solve them.
Demands on a person may be unbearable, may break us, but they take away what Doris Lessing was much later to identify as ‘the existential problem.’ Having no demands, as people who have been unemployed know, can be a much more difficult situation.
George Eliot, Marian Evans as she was called in her daily life, had struggled to know who and what she was: her father was a successful estate manager and she had her own account at the local bookshop, through which she gave herself a considerable education. As a man she’d have gone to Oxbridge, as a woman, her mother dead, her sisters married, she was her father’s housekeeper. And yet she was something and had to fight herself, her lot, and other people, some of whom she loved, to become herself. Later in life – at the age of 38, cut off from her family, living with a married man, as she began writing her first fiction, she wrote in a letter to an old friend ‘ I feel, too, that all the terrible pain I have gone through in past years, partly from the defects of my own nature, partly from outward things, has probably been a preparation for some special work I may do before I die.’
Ah yes, Marian, I recognise you:
With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness…
Once you’ve finished reading Middlemarch I would recommend reading Marian’s life story in two ways: through her Letters, selected by Gordon Haight, and in Ruby Redinger’s excellent psycho-biography, The Emergent Self).
 I want to write more about this fear on another occasion. It’s not simply a fear of the book – it is a pedagogical/psycho-spiritual anxiety about having ones own real feelings taken away.
 I here publish my own informal but long-running research into reasons readers are put-off reading Middlemarch. I will address all the points in this list over the coming weeks. The reasons, in order of off-puttingness, are:
- Forced to read George Eliot at school/college/university
- Too long – I haven’t got time
- I’m no intellectual, it’s not my kind of thing
- It begins with this weird Prelude thing about Saint Theresa – never got beyond that
- It looks boring
- It’s too hard. The sentences are long and complicated – you get stuck in them
- Can’t stand that priggish Dorothea
- George Eliot keeps interrupting and telling me what to think
- It’s too serious/it’s too moral.
- The ending is appalling from a Feminist point of view