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.

Do You Keep a Book Journal? & Revisiting “Daniel Deronda”

My five book journals.

On a social media break a few weeks ago, I started musing about book journals.

I kept a journal in a notebook, but I also enjoyed a Goodreads account.  Goodreads is fun but, well, there’s too much data.  Did my “friends”  (whom I don’t know at all!) really want to know the percentage of an e-book I’d read, or that I’d voted in the Goodreads Choice Awards?   Plus I had a TBR list of at least 300 books.  I get carried away.

I’m not a Luddite…  but I decided I prefer paper.  (At least for a while.)

I do love a pretty notebook!

I started my first book journal in 1995 or 1996.  I  read fiftysome books.  It seemed a great number, but meaningless out of context.  So many ephemeral books…  but some great ones, like Wright Morris’s Plains Song.

And then there was a hiatus until the 21st century.

Fast forward to book journal fidelity.  My journal takes the simplest form:  I record the title, author, and the date finished.  I have used a Paperblanks journal, a Moleskine, a Miquelrius, a Nava Notes, and something offbrand from Walmart.

I enjoy looking  at the journals.  In the first decade of the 21st century, I read Trollope and middlebrow novels by Pamela Hansford Johnson, Dodie Smith,  Hugh Walpole, and Rose Macaulay.  Many of these “forgotten” writers are back in print now.

But when I asked a friend, Didn’t she find it strange I had finished 174 books?, she said, “What’s strange is that you keep track.”

Keeping the book journal may have been the most normal thing that year.  The feat of reading 174 books reflected a high boredom index. Very high.  I love to read, but I’d felt exhausted all year.  Turned out I had a health problem.  Wouldn’t you know?

Still, it is satisfying to look back at that long, long list. Two of my favorites were Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife 49’ and Joyce Dennys’s Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front, 1939-1942. The former is a fascinating diary written by Nella Last for the Mass Observation Archive in England;  the latter a charming novel in the form of the heroine Henrietta’s letters to a friend during the war.  (It’s a bit like Diary of a Provincial Lady, only epistolary.)

My reading has changed in the last few years. I’ve become a damned scholar. All right, I’m joking.  I’m an enthusiast.  But I do read more classics.  Read enough long books and you don’t have the embarrassment of reading 174 books.  This year I’m down to 138.  That’s a LOT of books, but not ridiculous.

How do you feel about electronic data vs. notebooks?

REVISITING GEORGE ELIOT’S DANIEL DERONDA.  In December I reread Daniel Deronda, George Eliot’s last novel.  In this strange novel, Eliot inverts the myth of Diana and Actaeon, and describes a man’s search for identity and his study of Judaism.

At my blog Mirabile Dictu, I wrote last year:

The heroine of Daniel Deronda, Gwendolen Harleth, is a spoiled, haughty young woman who marries the wrong man. Gwendolen is over-confident, beautiful, witty, snobbish, and rather lazy, and very much reminds me of Austen’s Emma. Gwendolen is accomplished, but she could be more accomplished if she practiced or studied.  She wins a golden star at an archery contest, but the golden arrow goes to someone else. She is a pleasing singer but hasn’t practiced enough to be proficient. She is a Diana, a chaste huntress, who rides to hounds wildly, and at first seems as cruel and powerful as Diana.  When her male escort falls from his inadequate mount and strains his shoulder, she appallingly thinks it funny and has no sympathy. She does not want to marry, and dreams of doing something great. But her mother loses her money, and Gwendolyn must give up her dreams. She marries the wealthy Grandcourt beause she thinks she will be able to control him–but it is the sadistic Grandcourt who controls her.

You can read the rest of the post here.