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Getting over a bad literary experience can take several years. In my own case it was during those tender adolescent years when ‘great books’ were given to us to dissect, discuss, digest others’ analysis and write essays on. One book, The Mill on the Floss, left such abiding scars that like all terrible events it has been wiped from my memory. I can’t recall its story, or characters, at all. It must have been quite awful. Or was it?

In the last month I have been immersed in Middlemarch, and like Virginia Woolf, I agree that it’s “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” It is one of the best of the nineteenth century tradition. It is realistic, as is its genre, but rooted in observation and a deep knowledge of people; it never strays into caricature, and only one character has a verbal tick which is humorous. Middlemarch may not be foisted on anyone under sixteen because it is too long and complex. Anyone waiting on experience will not derive the odd pleasure in recognizing many of the characters with all their human frailties.

This reading has made me want to go back to The Mill on the Floss and reassess it. Actually to find out what was it all about in the beginning. It might be quite good, even very good, though Eliot hit a peak with Middlemarch, so that might be a stretch.

I realized this week that my view is not unusual. In order to persuade children to like Shakespeare it’s been suggested to give them abridged versions almost like movie trailers. That way they don’t have to deal with the boring bits. Othello Master of War (and gullible git) as a PS3 game; or As You Like It as this holiday season’s feel-good Romcom.

There’s no reason not to repackage them – to a degree. They are not sacrosanct, but there are two good reasons not to abbreviate them within the current idioms of the students’ own lives.

The main reason lies in the language as foreign as that is. Turning stories into the modern day and say transforming Lear into rancher with three daughters will work well as long as he doesn’t end up drawling like a stereotypical cattle rancher. The stories stripped down to movie styling would be pointless.

The second reason lies in the experience of student days. If it is all done in their terms they will have nothing to look back on and say how much they resented the experience; how they avoided the revisions and dreaded learning passages by rote. If that happens, and they have it all their own way, it will break the bonds of a thousand years between teachers and students.

On the other side of school, some of those books might be re-read by the adults they have become. They might see it as it was intended, not with study notes and those often inaccurate interpretations to unlock the text in less than fifty words. Many do not and that is to be expected. For others there is the continuing dialog with a book and the author. Over the years this bond may change quite strongly and responses alter each time the book is finished. And that is like any long lasting friendship.

Guy Cranswick
5th May 2013

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