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!)