Meg, Mog and Middlemarch

Photo on 13-09-2013 at 06.14

The Institute of Education’s recent report into Reading for Pleasure  indicates that reading for pleasure between the ages 10-16 affects cognitive power, giving readers better results even in non-language based subjects such as maths. The study allows for socio-economic influences, and seems to point to reading for pleasure as a greater indicator of educational success that whether or not your parents went to university. It looks as if it comes down, causally, down to increased vocabulary. Or is that a outcome of something else?

I was delighted to receive a copy of the draft report from Dr Alice Sullivan, and I’m looking forward to giving it my full attention over the coming weekend. My initial scanning glance set a couple of thoughts off . First, is it about vocabulary – greater power to communicate – or is that a sign of some other, deeper, structural  development? Need to read the paper properly to see what  the researchers are saying. and  secondly,  do we have to call it reading for pleasure? I have reluctantly accepted this misnomer for  years, simply because there seems no other word or phrase for it. But ‘pleasure’ is not good enough. I read pleasure as ‘trip to Alton Towers’ (though have to admit, I’ve never been). But reading is more like ‘expedition to Kilimanjaro’. Would you call that order of experience ‘pleasure’? Pleasure may be in it, but there is also trial, testing, pain, failure, exhilaration, defeat, new start, amazing sights, bleakness, terror, joy etc. Alton Towers is  a cheap simulacrum. So what is the  word for what we do when we read  hard stuff ? And why, uncompelled, would anyone read the hard stuff?

For more than twenty-five years, while I was studying and teaching literature, my job was to read, to think about what I had read, and to talk to people about that. It’s a terrible thing to admit, but I struggled to imagine why readers found it difficult to get into reading complex books, and sometimes thought it a failure of will: they just didn’t really want to. But here I am, wanting to reread George Eliot for the first time in seven or eight years, and finding it difficult to concentrate: hard paragraphs in Middlemarch shout less than the need to sort new staff contracts. I am going to have to devise some regular daily plan for attentive reading, because these days, like most other adults, I haven’t got the concentration at the end of the day.

You might say, why bother? Isn’t the active life as important as the contemplative? Yes, and having founded The Reader Organisation – a great experiment involving people and books – I am choosing the active during this part of my life, and enjoying it, too. All the same I am beginning to feel the need for some element of the contemplative life. It might come from meditation, or study, or prayer or perhaps even as the by-product of a very long walk, but contemplation’s serious thinking, imagining and feeling also arises in the course of reading a complex novel or epic poem. This accosting kind of thought is a natural function of being human: babies and small children are concentrating in this way most of the time – building thought-models of reality.

On the mantelshelf I have two brass cauldrons, about the size of small tangerines, gently dented by three generations of play. They have a minutely serrated rim, which you only become aware of when you pick them up. Holding one now, running my finger around that rim, I re-feel the pleasure I had in those serrations when the cauldrons sat on my grandparents’ mantelpiece. I also feel a sense of the mild fear I had of the legs of the things: sharp fat brass pencil points. Sniffing them, I remember their thin, high-metallic smell and I am back in the living room of my grandparents’ house, where we went after school for tea and stories and toast. We often had the light off, to save electricity. In the dark, the cauldrons shone in the light thrown by the coal fire.

That kind of relation to those cauldrons is what the great human scientist George Eliot is talking about in The Mill on The Floss, when Tom comes home from his boarding school for the first time, and enjoys the vivid return of things that have always been there:

The happiness of seeing the bright light in the parlour at home, as the gig passed noiselessly over the snow-covered bridge; the happiness of passing from the cold air to the warmth and the kisses and the smiles of that familiar hearth, where the pattern of the rug and the grate and the fire-irons were ‘first ideas’ that it was no more possible to criticise than the solidity and extension of matter.

This is hard writing because it requires us to actively participate, not simply to absorb. As modern readers, we generally read too fast: but here you need to read as you would in a book of scientific thinking, Freud or Darwin. You need to concentrate and slow down and come alive to it. Look at that seamless passing from a child’s reported experience, ‘seeing the bright light… the snow-covered bridge… warmth and kisses’ to the complicated thought about the nature of a child’s experience:

the pattern of the rug and the grate and the fire-irons were ‘first ideas’ that it was no more possible to criticise than the solidity and extension of matter.

If you don’t actively follow these words as you read, you will soon be lost. From the description of Tom loving being home, George Eliot brings in a hypothetical general law of human being: what surrounds us in early childhood sets a pattern which lasts into adult life. We may choose other rugs, other fire-irons when we are older, but we are built up out of the feelings that we attached to those early objects and experiences of our childhood:

There is no sense of ease like the ease we felt in those scenes where we were born, where objects became dear to us before we had known the labour of choice, and where the outer world seemed only an extension of our own personality; we accepted and loved it as we accepted our own sense of existence and our own limbs … And there is no better reason for preferring this (particular thing) than that it stirs an early memory; that it is no novelty in my life, speaking to me merely through my present sensibilities to form and color, but the long companion of my existence, that wove itself into my joys when joys were vivid.

There is wonderful sense of what contemporary thinkers would call ‘wellbeing’ here: a sense of a unified life where feelings and objects and time are bound together in one person, through joy. I would never choose to buy these cauldrons in a shop. They do not speak to me ‘through my present sensibilities to form and color’; they are not my style. I love them partly because they are mixed with memories of my grandparents, of the fire, and the toast and their love, of things I felt when my joys ‘were vivid’. They give me that elusive thing: wellbeing.

I am now the grandmother who has these cauldrons on her mantelpiece. My grandson (two years, nine months) is in the bath playing with a plastic tea-set. This is a creative experimental process and Leo is full of earnest concentration as he tries to float the cups and fill them with water, as he watches the water pass effortlessly through a sieve but less effortlessly through a small colander. His favourite word at the moment is ‘more!’ He wants things repeated ad infinitum because he needs to see them many times in order to establish them as realities, strong possibilities, likelihoods in his mind. This is a sort of scientific enquiry.

But it is time to get out. The water is getting cold, his fingers are beginning to shrivel, and the adults want to eat supper in adult peace, after he has gone to bed. None of that matters to Leo. When I suggest ‘out’ he’s still enjoying this fabulous experiment. He cries out in frustration and distress, ‘Not yet! Not yet!’

‘Not yet’ is a language spell that allows him to hold back the reality principle for a moment and continue what he is doing – and sometimes it works. But not now: our needs are more pressing; we want to eat.

He’s furious when I lift him out, screams ‘Not yet! Not yet!’ over and over and finally subsides into body-racking sobs as his mother and I rub him down and get his pyjamas on. When we are in the bedroom, I offer a story and the sobs stop: suddenly everything is different.

We open the book. It’s one of Jan Pienkowski’s Meg and Mog stories. The witch and her cat are making a spell but something is going terribly wrong. There are explosions. ‘Where’s Mog?’ I ask him and he points to the cat. ‘Where’s the cauldron?’ Leo points to the cauldron. ‘What’s Meg putting in the cauldron?’ I ask him and he recites the list of spell ingredients. He is altogether caught up in the discovered world.

In the bath-experiment, Leo was actively manipulating objects and forces – water, gravity, plastic. While part of his intelligence was involved in creating the experiment, part was engaged in observing it and another part in thinking about it. But with the book there is nothing for him to do physically, the concentration is total: all his energy goes into the observing and thinking about what he is observing. The book it is all here: the pictures and words present a created universe with experiments going on (as in George Eliot). What we have to do – our part – is to observe, meditate, reflect. Well, my dear reader, Leo in the bath is a model of a person living a life in the world. You are busy. Things happen, you try to work them out, a lot’s happening at once, some of it incomprehensible. Only part of your mind can ever be on the experience because most of your mind is doing, making, acting. And without the thinking, meditative self it is finally just chaos: we must think.

The book is a selective, ordered model of reality. It is easier to see here: things slow down; we can concentrate on one thing at a time. This may be the key aspect of reading and the reason that the read-aloud, shared reading we have developed over the past 13 years at The Reader Organisation, (whole books read aloud slowly over time in a group) is so powerful. It allows us to be here now, to keep a concentrated mindfulness going. If I were reading Middlemarch in a Get Into Reading group with other concentrated people, I would be getting a lot more out of it than I am on my sleepy own late at night.

The next day when we are lighting the sitting room fire (coal, real fire, sticks and paper), Leo looks up and sees one of the brass cauldrons – notices it for what must be the first time.

‘Cauldron?’ he says, as if to himself.

‘Cauldron,’ he says again as if checking the brass reality with his mental image from the last night’s book. Then again, more confidently, he asserts: ‘Cauldron.’ reaching for it now. I can see he is remembering Meg and Mog. I observe his fingers touch the serrated edge. He looks at the coal and mis-guesses brilliantly ‘Coal-dron’. He’s not right but he is making his world, an active presence, made more active by the book. Making me more active, too: I do not know the etymology of ‘cauldron’. I look it up.

What Leo has done: read a book, thought about it deeply, not really understood it all (because he did not know what a cauldron was in actuality) but he has got from that experience a template, a shape, a map, a set of pointers about life. Going back into life, he is able to recognise something he learned in the book (cauldron). He has been a creative reader and he has experienced a bigger reality because of the book. This is exactly what is happening, albeit in a more complex way, to me as I read George Eliot. That section about Tom coming home in The Mill on the Floss cleared a space in me and filled it with a thought-shape which was later filled out by Leo and cauldron. Books go forwards into our experience as well as backwards: they anticipate things you might know or understand later as well as things you know now, which is why we should all read books that are too hard or too old for us sometimes.

The New Economics Foundation has formulated 5 Ways to Wellbeing. One of them is ‘Take Notice’. Books build our capacity to do that. I must make more time for reading.

 This post is a slightly extended version of an article that appeared in The Reader No.37 (Spring 2010)




‘Books to Maketh a Woman’ No. 8, Middlemarch Part 1


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[1].

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[2] 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).

[1] 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.

[2] 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:

  1. Forced to read George Eliot at school/college/university
  2. Too long – I haven’t got time
  3. I’m no intellectual, it’s not my kind of thing
  4. It begins with this weird Prelude thing about Saint Theresa – never got beyond that
  5. It looks boring
  6. It’s too hard. The sentences are long and complicated – you get stuck in them
  7. Can’t stand that priggish Dorothea
  8. George Eliot keeps interrupting and telling me what to think
  9. It’s too serious/it’s too moral.
  10. The ending is appalling from a Feminist point of view

In a petrol blue boiler suit, I rejected George Eliot (who could’ve helped me)

Ok, time to start getting out the good stuff. Enough with the childish. We’ve got to talk about George. It’s just I have this feeling that if I start I might not be able to stop. Going to keep this first mention of her short. Think of it as taster.

I’ve been sewing all day, a long rhythm of creative play with bits of cloth, cutting and looking and stitching in silence. And while I’ve been working, in silence, I have been thinking about this list and all lists of great books, and about George Eliot. But I’m not ready to write about her books yet. This post is just a memory, a fragment of thought.

I first tried to read Middlemarch when a teacher recommended it with the intriguing line ‘You should read Middlemarch, it’s the watershed of the English novel.’ What the hell is a watershed, I wondered.  Does something good happen in there? And why ‘should’? I was bolshy: ‘should’ didn’t attract me. And yet I obeyed.

So I set off with a copy from the library. I’d be doing ‘A’ levels, at that time, maybe about 23 years old. My daughter aged four.  I’d be living in or just come out of Lysistrata Coop, a women’s commune. I had pretty much only been reading women for past three or four years. But working my way through the Brontes (of which much more, much later) Jane Austen (yes, we’ll get to her), all contemporary women fiction writers, and The Female Eunuch (will I include it in this list? I don’t know yet) plus Valerie Solanas’ SCUM manifesto (Google it, young things, but have a sick bag with you) and everything by Doris Lessing, Ursula le Guin, Jean Rhys, Iris Murdoch and even Barbara Pym. Shelf miles of Women’s Press and Virago paperbacks. The Yellow Wallpaper.

But George Eliot? She had not featured, and I don’t think I saw her on anybody’s shelves. Did we think she was a man? It’s highly possible I did. Did we disapprove of a woman taking a man’s name to write – you bet (Yeah yeah but Currer Bell was androgynous). We were wimmin, we lived in boiler suits.

Ok – when I say ‘we’ I am talking mainly about myself.

So, the watershed of the English novel. Hum. Girl in it, bit of Christian prig, I know I’m not interested. Hum. Now there is a doctor. Oh, I see, they are going to get married. How predictable! Page 60 – I can see what’s going to happen, I can’t be bothered with this. I closed the book, ‘ the watershed’. What one earth did that man mean? Why didn’t he say  ‘It’s about a girl who is a bit like you, a bit mad. Likely to go wrong. It’s about how it goes wrong.’

Well, he didn’t and more to the point, I didn’t see it coming, so another 3 years had to go by before I read Middlemarch and that was pity. Because there was a lot of information in that novel that I needed to get into my head as soon as possible and I missed it. That kind of thing – me at 23 needing George Eliot and   passing her up, and looking back now from a distance of 35 years and seeing the shape of my missing it and its effect on young me – that kind of thing is what great novels record:  that is the kind of data great literature collects and analyses.

If George Eliot had been a man – but of course, it is impossible to imagine those books written by a man, they are utterly womanly. And as intellectually innovative as Marx or Darwin. But they don’t look as if they are, because they are novels, and that kind of data isn’t much acknowledged in the public world. Which is – even now – quite man’s world.

Women: read George Eliot.

Men: read George Eliot.

Be human. She will explain everything.