Twilight vs Middlemarch

Recently, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, gave a speech which, it is fair to say, was contentious. Even I, who am conservative in matters of culture and of education (though not, I trust, in any other respect), found points in the speech to take issue with. However, his opening seemed to me entirely unexceptionable:

You come home to find your 17-year-old   daughter engrossed in a book. Which would delight you more – if it were Twilight   or Middlemarch?

The answer, for me at any rate, is unequivocally Middlemarch. This is not to say that I would object to our daughter reading Twilight novels: indeed, she read a couple of them a few years ago, with not the slightest hint of an objection on my part. However, I must admit that if she were still reading and enjoying these execrably written books at the age of seventeen, then I, as someone who values literature, would feel a bit regretful, to say the least, that her literary taste had not developed to any degree of sophistication. But if, on the other hand, I found her reading Middlemarch – especially if she were reading not because she had to, but because she wanted to – I’d be delighted, partly because a book such as Middlemarch is likely to prove enriching to her life, and also because embarking on such a book would indicate that she is prepared and unafraid to stretch herself.

I do not intend to go into the details of Gove’s education policy here, except perhaps to say that, in the current system here in the UK, brighter children are often not, I think, stretched as they should be, and that more rigorous teaching of certain subjects, and to a greater depth, is indeed warranted; but that, on the other hand, it is dismaying that the very real advances that have been made over the years in the teaching of less bright children, or of children who may well be bright but who are struggling for any of a variety of reasons, or of children with various learning difficulties, and who, back in my day, would simply have been labelled “stupid” and ignored, are now in danger of being reversed. Much of the kicking that Gove’s proposed policies have been getting is, indeed, richly deserved – but not, perhaps, all.

But let us not go into all that here. The point that I started off intending to make in this post, but from which I keep digressing, is that when I do a search on the words “Gove”, “Twilight” and “Middlemarch”, I find that Gove’s unexceptional (as it seems to me) opening gambit regarding Middlemarch and Twilight is also getting a kicking, mainly on the grounds that we cannot expect our seventeen year-old darlings to read something as challenging as Middlemarch; and, further, what’s wrong with Twilight anyway?

It is strange that it is Middlemarch, of all novels, that now seems widely regarded as “worthy but dull”. I have argued in the past that we must allow for art not to be entertaining, but Middlemarch, for all its undoubted artistry, strikes me also as an immensely enjoyable novel. And yet, Mr Frank Danes, Head of English at King’s Ely Senior, a fee-paying independent school, wrote to the Times newspaper recently to say that if he were to teach Middlemarch to his 17-year-old pupils, then they, even though selected and hence, one may imagine, of an ability and intelligence above the average, would be “bored and mystified”. He adds, though, that he would be happy to teach them Twilight, although what there is in the Twilight books that merits teaching he does not specify. (I am sorry I cannot provide a link to this letter, as The Times website is beyond a paywall, but anyone who has access to back issues will find this letter in the edition of 14th May 2013.) Is Gove really so far off the mark, I wonder, when he speaks of lowered expectations in our schools?

And recently, English professor and blogger Rohan Maitzen, concerned on reading somewhere on the net that Middlemarch is certain to kill off any book group, felt compelled to set up an online guide to the novel – Middlemarch for Book Clubs. The guide is excellent, and makes me want to re-read the novel, but the comment that led to the creation of this guide is, nonetheless, depressing. I tweeted her to say that any book club killed off by Middlemarch possibly deserves to die anyway, and she responded: “I guess I’m just too much of an optimist (or an advocate) to accept that! Else I wouldn’t be a teacher, I guess…” Indeed.

I raise all this merely to record my delight when I found last night that our daughter, coincidentally of the same age as the hypothetical child in Gove’s example, has just started reading Middlemarch; and that she has started doing so off her own bat. I asked her if she was finding it difficult: she told me that yes, she was having to concentrate, but no, it was by no means prohibitively difficult. When I told her – and indeed, showed her examples from around the net – that various people seem to think Middlemarch to be too difficult for mere seventeen year-olds, she seemed quite offended by the suggestion. When I asked her if she still fancied reading Twilight books, she rolled her eyes and gave me the kind of hard stare that teenage daughters often give their parents. I ventured no further.

(As a postscript, I gather that William Faulkner had initially intended The Sound and the Fury to be titled Twilght. If only he had!)

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27 responses to this post.

  1. If I had a 17 year old daughter – who, when I asked what she was reading – did NOT attempt to conceal the title – for only that – I would be very well pleased

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  2. I was around 17 when I read Middlemarch for the first time, and it remains my favourite novel to this day. I would suggest those who are denigrating theoretical 17 year-olds are exposing more about their own ignorance (and lack of engagement in reading widely) than that of today’s young adults.

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    • Hello,
      I too discovered classic literature in my teenage years, and I never realised it was supposed to be difficult because no-one told me! 🙂

      But yes, some of these books are indeed difficult, and children need some encouragement and guidance to tackle them. And as far as I can see, they are getting neither from the schools. To judge from what I see around the net, everyone seem to assume that even 17-year-olds – who are effectively adults – will be, in the words of the Head of English at King’s Ely Senior, “bored and mystified”. It is all very dispiriting.

      All the best, Himadri

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  3. I agree that Middlemarch is entertaining in the best sense. I did not read it at 17 and was not aware of its existence then. Instead, at about 14, we read Silas Marner in school and it put me off George Eliot for 20 years. I suspect what I disliked was the fairy-tale aspect of Silas Marner, but I don’t recall the language as particularly difficult. Then, in my 30s I discovered Adam Bede and Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch and positively gorged on all of Eliot’s fiction, as well as some of her essays.

    How could Middlemarch be dull! These are the circumstances of real life and real people, not a vampire in the lot.

    I went through the U.S. educational system but am out of touch with current realities. Do they still read Silas Marner? How about Ivanhoe? Shakespeare? (I could do without Ivanhoe.)

    Reply

    • Hello Nancy,

      It has been a long time since I was at school, so I can only really judge the current state of affairs of education in the UK from what our daughter has been studying. She is currently 17, and is studying for her A-levels (the highest set of examinations before college/university) in the sciences. Looking through her course work, both the curriculum and the teaching of the sciences at this level are of a high standard. My own background is in the sciences, and I can’t see any evidence of decline in standards from my time, although, of course, with the resources of the internet now available, the nature of the teaching is different.

      However, she had studied both English literature and English language in a secondary school till last summer, and, despite having obtained GCSEs in both with good grades, the contents of the courses she was taught seemed to me, frankly, a disgrace. For year after year, I used to see her work, apparently marked, but full of basic grammatical errors which had not even been pointed out, let alone corrected. And in literature, she was, in all these years, required to read only two books in their entirety: Of Mice and Men, a straightforward book that she could easily have read some five years earlier; and About a Boy by Nick Hornby. They “looked at” a few isolated scenes from Shakespeare, but were never required to read an entire play’ neither were they examined on these scenes. As for the other writers we may consider the backbone of English literature – Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, Austen, Keats, Dickens, George Eliot, Hardy, etc. etc. – they were not even mentioned. Nor did major twentieth century writers feature anywhere in the course – no Graham Greene or Muriel Spark, say, no WH Auden or TS Eliot.

      When I tried to raise this, I was informed that the content of the course is “consistent” with the National Curriculum. Indeed, the school consistently received good reports from school inspectors.

      I am no educationalist, but something is obviously very, very wrong somewhere.

      Best regards, Himadri

      Reply

    • Veteran of US secondary education here (1985-92), even if my experience was a little skewed by both being in Louisiana *and* in a “gifted/talented” program. If memory serves, we read, at various times, Dickens’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Bronte’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS, Faulkner’s AS I LAY DYING, Hemingway’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS, and Eliot’s SILAS MARNER (tepid, though that didn’t stop me from getting to the good stuff later). Also Shakespeare plays in each year except junior–devoted to American literature, we read DEATH OF A SALESMAN instead. That’s almost certainly an incomplete list. Admittedly, I had a superb English teacher in junior and senior years of high school who helped to “certify,” in a sense, my love of literature as opposed to simply reading (though I’m still not all that certain how those two are distinct). Not sure how much that’s changed, either at home or in general, though a pop culture forum I frequent often boasts considerable testimonial from folk younger than myself of their own enjoyment of “great books.” So, at least anecdotally, there’s a little hope for the future in that regard, at least on this side of the Atlantic.

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      • That’s not a bad reading list at all!

        Generally, children are open to all sorts of things. Our boy loved Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring when he was 5! He felt in on a gut level,and responded to it. It’s we adults who, ourselves jaded, feel that children will be bored. And we saturate their environment with mind-rotting garbage, and then claim that more worthwhile things are beyond them. It’s not the children’s fault at all.

  4. Posted by Michael Parker on June 26, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    First, the is a little known Circle of Hell reserved for anyone who reads Twilight or Left Behind, but you’re right: we all get to chose our own embarrassments.

    The there is the suggestion that Middlemarch can destroy a reading group. This was not true in my reading group: the two people that read it conducted a lively discussion and the other 648 members of the group were quite entertained. I know many groups today are bored or otherwise unable to appreciate many of the classics, but I have made similar comments about the destructive capability of some books, yet the reason was the size of the book and not its content.

    For instance, several years ago a reading group following The Modern Library list came up to Anthony Powell’s excellent roman, A Dance To the Music of Time, and I had to step in. Not that reading this work for a third time was a problem for me, but that any reasonable reading schedule would have group members wandering off for a another group offering shorter and more exciting fare.

    When reading groups have a problem with a book it reflects on the readers in that group and not on the literature itself. Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is one of the greatest examples of English literature, but how many people have read it (and how many reading groups select it).

    Reply

    • Hello Mike, I guess much depends on what what sort of reading group we are talking about. Many are effectiively social groups, where people ae mainly happy with the comfortably middlebrow, and do not want anything too intellectually demanding. Nothing wrong with that, obviously. There are others that are more ambitious, but even there, as you say, it’s perhaps not a good idea to propose anything excessively long.

      I really do not have any problem at all with people reading and enjoying whatever they want. But I do have a problem, I must admit, with teachers saying they would be happy to teach Twilight in school (what’s there to teach?); or that they cannot teach something like Middlemarch because even 17 year-olds (who are virtually adults) who have passed a selection procedure would be “bored and mystified”. I do have a problem with the widespread refusal to admit that certain works of literature are inherently superior – in that they have greater depth, and yield greater rewards – to others. Those of us who do acknowledge a hierarchy in terms of literary value are routinely labelled “elitist”; but it seems to me that the real elitists are those who object to teaching children works such as Middlemarch (and hence depriving them of that which could prove valuable and enriching) on the grounds that “it isn’t for the likes of them”.

      The root problem is, I think, that we, as a society, have lost faith in the value of our culture to such an extent that we do not think it worth propagating. It is this that is at the heart of it all. We seem unable even to assert that Middlemarch is inherently a greater and more enriching experience than is Twilight. Now, anything that has depth requires effort; but if we cannot assert with any confidence that the effort we put into such books is worthwhile and will yield great rewards – if we lack the confidence to assert this – then how can we expect children, teenagers, or, indeed, anyone else to put in that effort in the first place? The serious arts are becoming increasingly sidelined from the mainstream in our society, and hardly anyone seems to care.

      I don’t accept that Twilight can lead to Middlemarch. It’s an assertion often made, but no evidence is ever produced for it. It is no more likely than the claim that the X-Men films will lead to Ingmar Bergman, or that boy band music will lead to Beethoven’s string quartets. Yes, sure, some – like our daughter – had once read Twilight and is now reading Middlemarch, but it doesn’t follow that one had led to the other: all it means is that she has matured, and that her tastes have developed.

      Neither do I understand the argument that children won’t enjoy Middlemarch. In the first place – how do we know? Some will! And if the teacher can teach well, and show pupils the beauty of the novel, many others will who might not otherwise have done so. But more importantly, school is not where you go to have fun: you go to theme parks for that. School is where you go to learn, and children should learn about literature because we as a society believe (or should believe) that a modicum of knowledge and understanding of literature is part of what it takes to be a civilised person. When we determine the contents of mathematics course, we do not ask ourselves whether or not children will enjoy learning about trigonometry or about differential calculus; we only ask ourselves this kind of question when it comes to teaching literature.

      As I say, there is absolutely nothing wrong with teenagers – or with anyone else, for that matter – reading Twilight; but let us not pretend that reading Twilight will teach anyone anyting about literature.

      The Anatomy of Melancholy is one of those grea books I haven’t yet read. I think I should just take a deep breath some day and plunge in!

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

    • I read TWILIGHT out of curiosity, just as I did LEFT BEHIND. There’ll always be readers who wonder at the adverse negative reaction from those who’ve similarly read quite widely and allow *their* reaction to take the perverse form of actually reading the books under discussion (strangely, I don’t let the same bloodymindedness extend to movies, which would take a lot less time, but that’s for another day). TWILIGHT, at least, was competently, if uninspiringly, written (I admittedly read it in part to find out what all the commotion was regarding the treatment of gender relations–which was awful, as it happened). I certainly wouldn’t read it again, or further in the series, let alone compare it to George Eliot, but at least I got to get a better handle on the discussion. Strangely enough, I couldn’t stand Powell, though I know he has a certain reputation.

      Reply

      • When told that I need to read an entire book before I am entitled to criticise, I often used to say, only half-flippantly, that you don’t need to eat a whole turd to know it tastes like shit. But while I wasn’t entirely serious, I wasn’t entirely flippant either: a good book, or evena book that might be good, needs to be read carefully, and, yes, in its entirety. But badly written books you can tell from a few pages, or even a few paragraphs. I often browse through various books in the bookshop, and believe me, one or two paragraphs is about as much as I can take for a great many of them!

      • Agreed on that score; I think the first couple of lines of Mr. Parker’s original reply rubbed me the wrong way, especially as I’d just woken up. Given all the good stuff that’s still out there, prioritization’s vital.

      • Oh, the ubiquity of trash culture and its consequent steady sidelining from the mainstream of just about everything that is of value annoy the hell out of me as well, and a Dantean image in response seems not an unreasonable hyperbole!

  5. Having never read Middlemarch I know must do so ASAP to truly appreciate the controversy 🙂 Seriously I need to get to it soon. You are on to something that I think applies to both adults and to children. There seem to be lots of bright folks out there who seem curious and receptive to literature and art but who seem to get distracted or bogged down with too much pop culture.

    I must go back and read your post on art not being entertaining. I admit to being an oddball, but I think that I find all art, even the difficult and disturbing to be entertaining.

    Reply

    • Hello Brian, it really is – as so many issues are – a question of definition: what do we mean by “entertainment”? In a sense, anything we want to do is by definition “entertaining” since if it weren’t we wouldn’t want to do it, but then the word “entertainment” has too broad a meaning to be critically useful. But there do exist certain book that make such immense demands of the reader, or are so harrowing in their content, that “entertainment”, in the sense that we usually use that word (as signifying a diversion, or something essentially light in nature) is not really applicable. And we do, I think, need to acknowledge that these books can have value, though not entertaining in the sense that we usually understand that term.

      Oh – and Middlemarch is a magnificent novel, by the way!

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  6. Posted by Erika W. on June 27, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    My own experience of myself at 17 years old is that i had the energy, the time and the inclination to read EVERYTHING that came my way; a combination of circumstances that didn’t happen after I left university. The circumstances were a literate mother and step-father, a book-loving and book-buying older man I later married, and a very good public library.

    I did read “Middlemarch” back then (I loathed “Silas Marner” as school reading–what is it about this book? I should re-read it, shouldn’t I?) I also read a lot of light stuff “The Egg and I” comes to mind.

    My mother, my sister and I read a lot of the same books–mostly from the libraray, and discussed them quite a bit–very valuable. We also read and enjoyed such pap as “Woman” and “Woman’s Own”–weekly magazines of absolutely no intellectual value at all. I went on reading them through university–in fact a group of us took turns buying them and passing them around.

    Michael, I first read “The Anatomy of Melancholy” only a few years ago and still dip into it as does my husband who dropped it in front of me when he had finished reading it. Yes, it is magnificent. The world of writing would be much lesser without it.

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    • Right! I must definitely read The Anatomy of Melancholy now!

      I think we’ve all read books that lack much in the way of intellectual content. My own preferred area is that of creepy ghost stories. But eventhere, if teh quality of writing is poor, it jars and detracts from my enjoyment. That’s a problem, I suppose: once one gets to know the finest malt whiskies, the inferior blended quality is no longer palatable; but in compensation, one gets to admire whiskies of genuine quality, and that is far finer experience than getting drunk on cheap whiskies that burn the throat. Of course, fine whiskies are more expensive than poor quality whiskies, but this is where literature is at an advantage: Middlemarch costs no more than does Twilight! 🙂

      All the best, Himadri

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  7. Superb post, as ever. I especially loved the William Faulkner fact at the end! I think Middlemarch, though ‘one of the few novels written for grown-up people’ (in Virginia Woolf’s immortal words), is a bit like a complex US TV drama like Deadwood or (though I’ve never watched it) The Wire: you have to give it time, as the tapestry is so expansive, it’s peopled with so many characters you have to get to know, and it eschews any easy clear-cut black/white delineation of character or plot development. But it’s all the more rewarding for that.

    Reply

    • Hello Oliver, and thank you for that. (And welcome to this blog, by the way!)

      Middlemarch is a wonderful novel, isn’t it? It always makes me think of that line from Wordsworth – “fade into the light of common day”. Dorothea and Dr Lydgate start off with such noble ideals: nothing comes of them – they “fade into the light of common day”. As all our dreams do, more or less. But, reading this novel, although you end up feeling a bit melancholy, you also feel that the “light of common day” is not perhaps that bad: it’s the light most of us live by, after all!

      I really need to re-read this novel.

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

      • Absolutely – Dorothea (or ‘Dodo’) and Lydgate experience ‘the recalcitrance of reality upon their desires’, to borrow the phrase of Terry Eagleton (less eloquent than Wordsworth, but a phrase that has stayed with me!). But there’s still something affirmative about it, somehow. I, too, need to reread Middlemarch now!

  8. One thing I find puzzling is the attitude that children and teenagers must read something that is easy for them. This is silly as children read at different levels, some much more advanced in comprehension than others. If they are not given something more substantial, how can they improve, progress and learn? As an adult, I certainly like to read some easy stories for diversion, but I mix it with serious history reading or Victorian literature, etc…If all reading was quick and easy it would be rather meaningless and without depth. Children also should have the opportunity to read many different things on their own, apart from what is on a school reading list.

    Reply

    • Hello Lori,

      Yes, it does seem strange, doesn’t it? – this assumption that children will dislike anything that isn’t easy. It is patronising at best. And we only make this assumption when it comes to literature: we are quite happy to stretch children when it comes to learning physics, say, or mathematics. What is education, after all, if not to stretch children to achieve their potential?

      Sadly, the school reading list in UK nowadays – if our daughter’s reading list is anything to go by – is a bad joke. We keep hearing that if we were to ask children (and 17-year olds aren’t really children – they’re virtually adults!) to read books that would challenge them, this would put them off literature. It seems to me more likely that bright children will be put off if they aren’t given books that challenge and stimulate them. It’s a sad state of affairs.

      All the best for now, Himadri

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  9. What next Enid Blyton is a bad idea? It might not be brilliant, but harmless, and it gets kids reading books.

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    • Oh, I don’t think Enid Blyton was a “bad idea” at all. I read several of her books as a child, and enjoyed them too. But then I grew up, and my literary tastes developed. I’d guess it’s possibly the same with Twilight. Quite harmless, as you say. Our daughter read them, as I said, when she was younger; but she has grown up now, and her tastes have developed. As mine did. And I’d frankly have been a bit regretful had her literary tastes not developed. That’s because I love literature, have found it enriching, and, for these reasons, wish to pass something of my literary values on to my children.

      But harmless though it may be, there’s nothing in Twilight (or indeed in Enid Blyton books) that merits teaching in literature classes. If we believe literature should be taught as a subject, then it’s works such as Middlemarch, and not Twilight or the Famous Five books, that we should be focussing on.

      We need, I think, to distinguish between teaching literaCY and teaching literaTURE. The point of literacy classes is to teach children how to read, and then get them reading. The point of literature classes is to teach chidren how to analyse and to understand literature. And neither Enid Blyton nor Twilight has any place in the latter.

      Reply

  10. Posted by Tony on June 29, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    I love ‘Middlemarch’ (and wouldn’t touch ‘Twilight’), but…
    ..it may surprise you to hear that at the age of seventeen, I probably wouldn’t have coped with Eliot’s work; I was a late literary bloomer. In fact, when I was about fifteen, my English Lit. teacher was incensed when I basically made up my answers to a quiz on ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ (now one of my favourite Hardy novels). It probably became clear that I hadn’t read the book when I described Bathsheba as a bearded farmer…

    Reply

    • Ah – you might have got away with it had you not put that beard on Bathsheba! (How can you imagine the lovely Julie Christie with a beard? 🙂 )

      It is indeed an issue that different children develop at different rates. This is true not merely of English literature but also in other subjects, although it is only in English literature that this is used as an excuse not to teach the subject properly. (Can you imagine a mathematics teacher saying openly that he cannot teach trigonometry to his 17 year-olds because they would be “bored and mystified” by it?)

      I actually came to English novels quite late. I loved Shakespeare from quite an early age, but when it came to prose fiction, it was the Russians – Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Chekhov – who dominated my teenage reading, and, in comparison, the English novelists seemed to me at that age somewhat pale and insipid. Indeed, I haven’t even read all the George Eliot novels yet (Felix Holt, Romola and Scenes from Clerical Life still await me) and it is only really now that I am coming to grips with Jane Austen. It’s strange indeed how one’s tastes and perceptions develop over time!

      Reply

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