Tom Tulliver’s Latin: Can Maggie Save the Day?

“George Eliot is the greatest novelist of the nineteenth century, and Middlemarch THE greatest novel of the 19th century.” So said an intense but lazy English professor given to sweeping generalizations and assignments to write a “journal” instead of essays. Yes, yes–I had read all of Eliot’s novels–but I could not agree with her about Middlemarch. Much as I love Eliot’s strong-willed heroine Dorothea Brooke and pity her disastrous marriage to the dim-witted scholar, Mr. Casaubon, I am uninterested in the other characters–I’m sorry, but Middlemarch is a dull town!

No, I much prefer The Mill on the Floss, a double bildungsroman that follows the fortunes of siblings Tom and Maggie Tulliver. Of the two, Maggie is the more appealing, a quick-witted girl who adores her very average older brother, enjoys boys’ games, reads widely, and has, according to her mother, deplorable “brown” skin and tangled hair. When she is scolded for lack of femininity, Maggie retires to the attic and punishes her “fetish,” a wooden doll, by driving nails into its head. Tom, of course, is allowed to be unruly, and his antics, however muddy, are tacitly approved as masculine.

But perhaps Tom suffers even more than Maggie, due to–yes–the study of Latin! He is sent away to be educated privately by a curate, who imparts only two subjects, Latin and geometry. Poor Tom! The more mistakes he makes, the more Latin lines he is given.

When Maggie visits Tom for a few weeks, her curiosity helps him with Latin. Not that she has a chance to learn it, mind you, because Mr. Stelling informs the siblings, much to Maggie’s humiliation, that women only have a “superficial” intelligence. Still, she asks so many questions that Tom makes an important discovery.

…she had asked Mr Stelling so many questions about the Roman empire, and whether there really ever was a man who said, in Latin, “I would not buy it for a farthing or a rotten nut,” or whether that had only been turned into Latin, that Tom had actually come to a dim understanding of the fact that there had once been people upon the earth who were so fortunate as to know Latin without learning it through the medium of the Eton Grammar.

I would probably love the Eton Grammar: I learned Latin out of a similar book! But Eliot preaches against a classical education that befuddles or fails to inspire average students like Tom, or perhaps I should say students who do not care for languages. Maggie would have benefited from Tom’s education, and Tom from something more practical. Eliot’s attitudes were certainly progressive: she was a linguist herself (and a Latinist), but opposed the idea that a classical education was appropriate for every student.

Tom is not the only confused Latin student. Years ago, an English teacher informed me that one of my best students had referred to the Aeneid as a play.

“Close enough,” I said cheerfully.

The student was an excellent translator and could sight-read–and that was good enough for me! I had told them it was an epic, but there is much dialogue, so I understood her confusion (they were not reading epics in English class). I did mention the word “epic” several times in the next few weeks, hoping that the students would absorb it.