Falling out of love with George


(c) Oxford World’s Classics


In my youth, friends and acquaintances who were into literature regarded me as an oik because I couldn’t stand Jane Austen.  Those people all seemed to dote on Ms Austen’s novels of romance and matchmaking among the landed gentry, with their supposedly biting drawing-room satire – but I simply found them tedious.  Indeed, I almost cheered one day when I came across a comment that Mark Twain had made about the 19th-century authoress: “It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.”*  (By the way, I assume that Jane Austen really was a ‘her’ and the assertion made by Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder the Third that she was in fact ‘a huge Yorkshireman with a beard like a rhododendron bush’ is untrue.)


However, there was one riposte I could make whenever I expressed my low opinion of Ms Austen and the faces around me suddenly soured, as if I’d just farted loudly.  “Look,” I’d say, “I’ve got nothing against 19th-century women writers.  I really like the Bronte sisters.  And I love George Eliot.”


And that was true.  I had great admiration for George Eliot, or Mary Ann Evans as she was when she wasn’t using her literary alias.  I was hugely impressed by The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner and Middlemarch, and despite their occasional flaws – the deus ex machina flood that too suddenly and neatly wraps things up for Maggie and Tom in The Mill on the Floss, or the streak of sentimentality in Silas Marner – I believed she deserved all the praise that was heaped upon her.  (Perhaps her most notable fan was Virginia Woolf, who described Middlemarch as ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’).


During the decades since, every-so-often, I’ve returned to George Eliot and gradually worked my way through her books: Scenes from Clerical Life, Felix Holt, Romola…  A friend had warned me that Romola, a hefty tome set in 15th-century Florence, was hard going but no, I found reading it a rewarding and enjoyable experience.  It wasn’t until I read Adam Bede a few years ago that I wondered if my admiration for Eliot was starting to wane.  The moralising in Adam Bede annoyed me and I didn’t like the treatment meted out to Hetty, the story’s ‘fallen woman’.  But as this had been her earliest published novel, in 1859, I thought I could put its faults down to first-time uncertainty and inexperience.


However, a few days back, I finished Daniel Deronda, which was both the last novel written by Eliot, in 1876, and the last Eliot novel I hadn’t read.  And I’m afraid it proved to be something of a plod.   I’d read a few pages, set it aside for a couple of days, return to it and read a few pages more, and so on.  There never seemed to be a sustained period when I could actually get into the thing.  Indeed, I wondered at times if Daniel Deronda would join that small group of novels that I started reading but gave up on and never finished, a group that includes The Satanic Verses, Lord of the Rings, Tristram Shandy and – another Daniel – Daniel Martin.


One issue I had with Daniel Deronda was the lack of characters whom I could engage with and who could draw me into the narrative.  The female characters were especially disappointing.  Gwendolen Harleth, the novel’s heroine during its opening chapters, is immensely irritating.  She starts off as haughtiness personified, convinced that she knows everything about life despite being barely into her twenties.  Then she gets married, which singularly fails to usher in the sort of existence she’d expected, the haughtiness leaves her and she spends the central section of the book in a massive sulk.  And then near the end she changes again, thanks to a traumatic incident during a yachting holiday, and becomes a quivering and pathetic wreck.  None of these incarnations, I can safely say, endeared me to her.


Still, Gwendolen manages to be more interesting than Mirah Cohen, the novel’s second heroine, who arrives on page 154.  Mirah is first spotted by the nice-but-dull hero, the titular Daniel Deronda, standing at the side of the Thames with a mind to throwing herself in.  Deronda saves her from suicide and for the remaining 500-odd pages of the book she does nothing to persuade us that she’s anything other than insipid.  Actually, she’s so wet that drowning herself in the Thames would have been an apt way for her to go.


However, in terms of being annoying, both Gwendolen and Mirah are minor offenders compared with the character of Mrs Davilow, Gwendolen’s mother.  This woman is so tearfully neurotic that during the scenes she appears in you wish someone would stuff her full of diazepam.  Page 66: “Then the poor woman began to sob…”  Page 113: “Mrs Davilow’s eyes filled with tears…”  Page 190: “…tears… were rolling Mrs Davilow’s cheeks…”  And so it continues, until the pages featuring her actually start to feel damp under your fingertips.


Another problem comes with the appearance of Mirah’s brother, Ezra Cohen, a mystical Jew who sees in Deronda the fulfilment of some great spiritual quest he’s been on – though I was never quite sure what Ezra’s quest was.  Ezra himself is an interesting character; and it’s admirable that, 40 years after Charles Dickens had helped to stereotype Jews as devious petty criminals in Oliver Twist, Eliot tried to portray the Jewish communities of London and Europe generally in a sympathetic and positive light.


But it takes a lot of effort to wade through the pages of prose that Eliot devotes to describing Ezra’s state of mind.  For example: “Experience had rendered him morbidly alive, to the effect of a man’s poverty and other physical disadvantages in cheapening his ideas, unless they are those of a Peter the Hermit who has a tocsin for the rabble.  But he was too sane and generous to attribute his spiritual banishment solely to the excusable prejudices of others: certain incapacities of his own had made the sentence of exclusion; and hence it was that his imagination had constructed another man who would be something more ample than the second soul bestowed, according to the notions of the Cabbalists, to help out the insufficient first…”  And on, and on, and on it goes.


At least Daniel Deronda scores in one area, which is the character of the reptilian Mallinger Grandcourt, the man Gwendolen ends up marrying.  In terms of villainy, Grandcourt doesn’t actually do much.  He seemingly spends his time in a state of malignant indolence, bored with and disdainful of the world around him.  He lounges, smokes cigars and radiates sullen hostility.  But though he isn’t particularly proactive, Eliot paints a quietly disturbing portrait of him and you can almost – almost – sympathise with Gwendolen when she realises the horror of being married to him.


To sum up, then, I’m afraid I’m no longer in love with George Eliot.  Yes, George, I’m sorry, but somehow the magic has faded from our relationship.  I’m sure it’s not your fault – it’s just me.  I’m not the person I used to be.  I’ve become older, more cynical, more difficult to please.  So I think it’s over between us.  Daniel Deronda will be our final time together.


Then again, since I’ve read all your other books already, it was going to be a last date anyway.


* I like another quote Twain made about her: “Jane Austen’s books, too, are absent from this library.  Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.”


Bella, Edward and Jacob — not as rubbish as Michael Gove


(c) The Daily Telegraph


British Prime Minister David Cameron has been getting it in the neck recently for not being right-wing enough.  This has been particularly so after last week’s local election results in England, when Cameron’s Conservative Party didn’t do very well, but the further-to-the-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) did very well indeed.  To stop voters defecting to UKIP, claim many of his back-bench MPs, and commentators in the right-wing press like the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Spectator, Cameron needs to toughen his act.  For example, he should stop being nice to those ghastly foreigners who inhabit the European Community and he should stop promoting unspeakable leftie ideas like legalising gay marriage.


Ideally, its right-wing critics seem to think, the Conservative government should be restoring the country to the happy, blissful state it was in back in 1951, when Britons knew Europe only as a distant place on a map, like Antarctica, and homosexuals got put in prison; and it was okay to give your children lung cancer through passive smoking, and everyone still carried ration books as a glorious reminder of the Blitz spirit.


However, while Cameron gets castigated by right-wingers who believe that bringing back hanging, flogging and National Service would soon make Britain great again, those same critics look approvingly on his Education Minister, Michael Gove.  Gove speaks their language.  He’s spent his tenure in charge of England’s schools – his remit doesn’t cover those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – crusading against loathsome modern teaching methods, such as encouraging creative thinking.  He’s striven to re-introduce common-sense notions into schooling, for example, that history consists of chronological sequences of battle-dates and kings and queens and it’s about proclaiming the greatness of Britain over those aforementioned ghastly foreigners; and that the English language is governed by a single set of never-changing grammatical rules that children need to learn like mathematics.  (Anyone using slang or a dialect is clearly an oik in Gove’s world.)


Anyway, I’ve noticed that Gove gave a speech on Thursday last week, in which he set his sights on a new target – young people’s reading material.  Addressing an audience at Brighton College, Gove said, “Too many children are only too happy to lose themselves in Stephenie Meyer…  There is a great tradition of English literature, a canon of transcendent works, and Breaking Dawn is not part of it…  You come home to find your 17-year-old daughter engrossed in a book.  Which would delight you more – Twilight or Middlemarch?”


(c) Little, Brown

(c) Penguin


Now I’ve said some cruel words about Ms Meyer in the past in this blog, and I would sooner drill a hole in my head than read a romantic story that featured wimpy spangly vampires as characters and propagated Mormon values like abstinence and the ‘traditional’ roles of females.  Though obviously, millions of readers around the world would disagree with me.  Nonetheless, I feel I must defend Ms Meyer here against the greater evil.  Michael Gove is a troll who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.


Gove should know that kids reading anything – anything – is good.  From what I’ve seen in the past few years of teenage reading habits (or the lack of them), if I had a 17-year-old daughter, I think finding her engrossed in any book at all when I came home would delight me.  Far better that she was reading Twilight than playing a computer game or watching some dross on satellite TV.  (Computer games and satellite TV started seeping into homes and deadening children’s minds across the land in the 1980s, when Gove’s heroine Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.  Why didn’t she do something to stop it?)  And once my daughter had developed her reading ability, and got fed up with the adventures of Bella, Edward, Jacob and co, maybe then she might graduate to reading something a little more, well, literary.


And much as I like George Eliot, if I found my teenage daughter reading the 900-page Middlemarch, I’d think that was just a little bit disturbing.  I’d wonder if she was like one of those creepy, supernaturally-precocious children who appeared in Village of the Damned and who intended to take over the world when they grew up.  Which was probably how Michael Gove came across when he was the same age.


For the record, I spent much of my boyhood reading juvenile crime novels like Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators series, and Target Books’ novelisations of the Doctor Who adventures (usually written by the indefatigable Terrance Dicks), and a lot of comics – most avidly, Action Comic, which ended up being banned because of its graphic violence in 1977.  A little later, in my teens, I was reading stuff by war writers like the leave-nothing-to-the-imagination Sven Hassell and horror writers like James Herbert, Stephen King and even the monster-crab-obsessed Guy N. Smith.  I worked my way through the grisly contents of quite a few volumes of the Pan Book of Horror Stories too.  I suppose none of these were on the young Michael Gove’s reading list.


(c) Corgi

(c) Pan

From sevenpennydreadful.co.uk

(c) New English Library


I eventually got around to reading Middlemarch, when it turned up as a set text on a literature course I was doing in my early twenties.  Since then, I’ve become a big admirer of Ms Eliot and have read nearly all of her other novels: Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss, Romola, Felix Holt and Adam Bede.  However, I haven’t read Daniel Deronda, although it’s sitting on a bookshelf in front of me even as I write this.  I keep telling myself that I’m going to read it soon.


I know, it’s terrible – I’m in my forties and I haven’t even read Daniel Deronda yet.  No doubt Michael Gove would put this failure down to my inadequate, trendy-leftie schooling.