David on slogging through the classics

David on slogging through the classics

By David Bowden 04/06/14

Have you read Middlemarch? Like, actually read the whole thing? Because, as our columnist admits, it’s a fair old slog. In the wake of Michael Gove’s proposals for the curriculum, David Bowden takes a look at the classics, how to read them and why being difficult can sometimes be a good thing...

It’s reassuring the see the good old 19th century novel still possesses the power to strike fear into the heart of the general population.

As the frantic and heated reaction to Michael Gove’s proposed changes to the English curriculum point out, the nation is probably only one enforced reading of Mansfield Parkaway from a repeat of the 2011 riots. Nothing provokes more outrage than the thought of our kids being forcibly subjected to Thomas Hardy or forced to struggle through one or all of the Brontës. Throw in some verse drama and it could be civil war.

Don’t get me wrong, I have deep sympathies. Having dabbled with Silas Marnerand The Mill On The Floss as an impressionable teen, I was so scarred by the experience I spent two English degrees avoiding George Eliot with the vigour of a bratty toddler being made to take a bath whilst eating a plate of medicine-soaked spinach. I still get flashbacks to trying to decipher Stephen Blackpool’s northern dialect in Dickens’ hard-going Hard Times.

I was far from alone: one lecturer at university nearly burst into tears when he discovered that virtually no second year aspiring writers in his class had deigned to read Great Expectations. Another young American tutor lost his sunny Californian disposition when he discovered most of a seminar group hadn’t gotten all the way through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He fixed us with a stare and announced, “Back home, this is a children’s book.”

Even though I had actually read those books, it was still an embarrassing moment. There is something deeply shameful about deciding to invest serious time and energy in reading literature – an art form which is all about trying to get into other people’s heads, absorbing the strange and unfamiliar world of strangers and seeking to understand their motives – and running away when it starts to become, well, hard.

“Nothing human is alien to me,” boasted the Roman playwright Terence. Yet, for the average reader of the 21st century, some of the greatest novels of the English language, filled with rich psychological portraits of people’s lives only a few generations from our own, seem more distant than we care to admit.

It was a thought that came back to me recently thanks to Rebecca Mead’s homage to George Eliot in The Road to Middlemarch. Virginia Woolf once claimed that Middlemarchwas “one of the few books written for grown-ups”; Mead tells the story of how she grew up with the book, fortunate enough to read it at 17 and enjoy it so much she continually revisits throughout major landmarks in her life.

What Mead really captures is the extent to which you grow into great literature: that each time you return to it you see every character’s choices in a new light, developing surprising sympathies and harsher judgements where you hadn’t before. When I finally managed to read Middlemarch earlier this year (thanks to an audiobook and plenty of long walks) I felt partly relieved to have gotten that monkey off my back: but also regret, that I hadn’t done it sooner.

“The past is a foreign country,” was how LP Hartley famously began his (much more recent) novel The Go-Between. He could’ve been speaking for a modern reader trying to grapple with the classics. The power of a novelist such as Eliot or Hardy is not how relevant they are to us, but actually how alien their moral universes seem, with their obsessions with moral virtue and duty to others rather than personal enjoyment or enrichment.

If we really want readers young and old to engage more with the classics than perhaps we need to be more honest with them. You shouldn’t read classics because they are relevant and familiar but precisely because they are strange and difficult: the problem with them isn’t necessarily you.

But if you use difficulty as an excuse to not bother, then you really are mugging yourself.


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