Monday, 9 July 2012

Thoughts on leaving teaching

Since I was last active on this blog, I have mostly been teaching English in secondary schools, in Edinburgh and Stevenage. There have been many wonderful things associated with this, mainly with the kids and the constant variety and energy many of them bring. My current year 7 class have become so involved in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play I have always hated, that I have begun to be converted. One of my year 8 students is astonishing in her level of insight about how language and structure are used in texts: she was making points about symbolism in 'Stone Cold' that hadn't even occurred to me. A whole year 8 class, who were ragged, lazy and stagnant when I inherited them, are now hardworking, calm, and really keen to do well - which they are, increasingly. My low-ability year 9 class are sunk deep in the drama of Romeo and Juliet, including a boy who was reluctant to raise his hand four weeks ago, let alone write anything down. That same class are starting to turn on the one boy who has made about sixty percent of lessons difficult in some way by talking and commenting and irritating other people: they're regularly telling him to shut up so we can get on with the lesson - and, frankly, I'm happy to let them!

But despite some of these triumphs - I won't even say minor triumphs, because for many of these kids these are major triumphs which they will be able to look back on with pride - I am leaving teaching in four weeks. And I can't wait. I cannot believe how endlessly draining teaching has turned out to be, like plugging yourself into a black hole that sucks your energy until you wrench yourself out of it for a couple of days (i.e. the weekend), which you inevitably spend lounging around and wasting time until those days are over and you realise you've achieved nothing at all. At my school we are currently on a huge improvement drive - which sounds great, until you spend a year in this environment and realise it essentially means being told you have to work harder and harder, in time you haven't got, with energy you can't summon. One of my colleagues said the other day that she feels like Boxer from Animal Farm, repeating the mantra "I will work harder" when confronted with any deficiency in the department. There was simply nothing comforting to be said in return.

At the start of the year, I decided I was going to try to learn jazz piano, and to take philosophy AS Level. Both projects completely crumbled after less than a term of teaching. The prospect of expending even more mental energy is repellent. And there comes a point, after nearly three years in this career, when you realise it isn't going to get any better.

So I handed in my notice in early May. The plan is to spend a great deal less time working (and thinking about work, which is almost the same amount of time again), and to get a straightforward job, less well-paid but less of a burden. Coupled with some private tutoring work, I can afford to give myself three days a week to get a draft of a novel done, to write some short stories, to read a lot more, to keep a regular blog, and to become a Writer, with a capital W. It's an idyllic intention, granted. But it's the first time I've really had a period in my life which I'm desperately looking forward to that isn't some form of 'I can't wait until this is over'. The realisation that you genuinely DON'T have to stick with something if you don't enjoy it, whilst slightly against the grain of how I was brought up, is wonderful. And I'm going to leave now, to go and look forward to it some more!

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Harry Potter: Part 5 - 'Our' world, the Muggle world, and the Magic world

Suman Gupta writes in Re-Reading Harry Potter that the Muggle world, as presented in the books, is absolutely not analogous to 'our' world - the world in which you sit reading this blog, the world in which readers all over the country read the Harry Potter books. He argues that "the Muggle world is presented within the embrace of the Magic world, and presented so as to draw the reader away from it and into the Magic world" (p. 89). That is, the Magic world is constantly superior to the Muggle world, and never seen as having any real value in itself except as a point of comparison to the Magic world. Invariably, when such comparisons are made, the Muggle world is seen as inferior. (A quick example from the most recent film: Slughorn, on disovering that Hermione's Muggle parents are dentists, asks, "And is that considered a dangerous profession?" Hermione responds with a faintly humorous anecdote about her father being bitten by a patient, but compared to the very real dangers Hogwarts and the Magic world are facing from Lord Voldemort and his minions, this seems pretty ludicrous. Even in levels of danger, the Muggle world just doesn't cut the mustard.)

Simulaneously, Andrew Blake sees the popularity of Harry Potter as related to the rise of 'Cool Britannia' in the UK from 1997 onwards, with the landslide election of Tony Blair - who, he notes dryly, conspicuously brought his Fender guitar into No. 10 along with the rest of his furniture. The books become a kind of manifesto for professional creativity and hip urban lifestyles (The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter, pp. 46-66). By comparison, John Major's nostalgia for "warm beer, shadows on county cricket grounds, and old maids cycling to church for Sunday communion" (Blake's words, p. 23) no longer appeared "timeless" as Major claimed, but out of touch and old-fashioned.

I think both arguments are true. Fred and George Weasley do represent the creative use of magic both to mock authorities (by allowing students to escape lessons with fake injuries), but also to protect the good (at the beginning of Half-Blood Prince, we are told that they now do a profitable sideline in selling protective magical gadgets to those who fight against Voldemort). As the war grows more serious, the action is relocated from the country boarding-school, Hogwarts, to the metropolis - in Deathly Hallows, Harry leaves suburbia and breaks into Gringotts and the Ministry of Magic to further his progress. This is presented as a natural rite of passage: he describes how he is going to leave Hogwarts at the end of the sixth book, as it seems to be the only way of making a real difference. In order to search for the Horcruxes, he has to travel. (Compare the easy travelling allowed by Apparition, Floo powder, broomsticks and Thestrels to the horse-and-cart or foot travel available to most people until midway through the twentieth century: modern mobility is very much at the centre of the wizarding world.)

For this, he visits the now pretty much extinct Godric's Hollow, where his parents died sixteen or so years before. He has a chat with 'Bathilda Bagshot', who turns out to be a dead body being controlled by a snake - proof if ever we needed it that the countryside is no longer a fit place for wisdom to reside. The countryside woodland areas where Harry, Hermione and Ron hide during their planning sessions in Deathly Hallows - and the Burrow, of course - are places of retreat, somewhere for respite and thinking time, not action. Occasionally this peace is disturbed, when the Death Eaters myteriously get wind of their location, for instance - until it turns out that their use of Voldemort's name broadcasts their whereabouts as effectively as Morse code. This is an unnatural threat to the tranquility of the countryside, and once they learn how to hide properly, things improve. They can receive the pirate radio station that updates them with the progress of the resistance movement (is it just me that thinks of Charles de Gaulle's defiant radio broadcast from London in 1940?), but to face the real enemy, they must venture into the city.

Let's look briefly at the first chapter of the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, just to cement the opposition of town and country - and Magic and Muggles, modern and old-fashioned. We are in Little Hangleton, location of the Riddle House and Frank Bryce, its elderly caretaker. There is a strong sense of community - "the villagers", "the Little Hangletons", "the whole of Little Hangleton" all act as one, and they are contemptuous of the "rich, snobbish and rude" residents of Riddle House - clearly the lords of the manor. News about the murders and subsequent arrests, when it comes, is first heard in the village pub, the Hanged Man. The gossip spreads quickly. References are made to World War II as a reason for Frank's oddities - Frank appears to have been a bit shell-shocked, and consequently lives as something of a hermit.

This is a recognisable post-war village - which doesn't seem to have modernised much beyond the 1950s, by the way (Blake reckons the Weasleys are also characterised as a typical 50s family - p. 65) - and it is compared extensively to the upper-class Riddles. I've written before about the analogy between Slytherin and the aristocracy, so I won't go into this, but it clear enough whose side we are meant to be on.

Then something bizarre happens. The report of the Riddles' deaths comes back, with "a tone of unmistakeable bewilderment" and "frustrated police", because there are no marks on the Riddles' bodies, only expressions of terror on their faces. Immediately we know that this is the work of magic - probably the same spell that killed Harry's parents. But the Muggles don't know this, and what small indication we get of scientific inquiry here doesn't help them in the least. They are ignorant and helpless. (Ditto the Muggle PM at the beginning of HBP, whose scientists can't explain the mysterious collapse of a bridge or an enormous hurricane - which we as readers know to be the work of the Death Eaters.)

Now the villagers, and Frank, are objects of real mockery. "Old Frank" is "devoted" to the empty house for no good reason. He reacts to intruders by "brandishing his stick and yelling croakily at them" - small fry for someone who is about to be murdered by the most dangerous Dark Wizard of all time. He wakes up with his bad leg stiff, and decides to make up a hot-water bottle to try and soothe it. (No modern painkillers or magical Pomfrey-potions for him.)

Then he goes into the house, and is immediately confounded by what he overhears of Voldemort and Wormtail's conversation. For instance:

Frank inserted a gnarled finger into his ear and rotated it. Owing, no doubt, to a build-up of earwax, he had heard the word 'Quidditch', which was not a word at all.

This is a classic example of dramatic irony. We know that Quidditch is not only a word but a sport, and exists in a magical world of which Frank is entirely ignorant. The additional "no doubt" increases our glee: whilst he is busy being sure about his own narrow-mindedness, we have access to this exciting, privileged world where hot-water bottles aren't needed for sore legs at all.

It goes on in this fashion - our understanding of what is happening increases in direct proportion to Frank's confusion, until he realises that Voldemort is a killer and knows, with basic and accurate instinct, that he is evil. But it's too late. He remains out of the know right to the end, as he is screaming so loudly he does not even hear the words of the spell that ends his life. At which point "the boy called Harry Potter" wakes up.

Frank, the ignorant, along with the other residents of Little Hangleton, drops brutally out of the story, but we are allowed to continue because of our previous, privileged knowledge, our awareness that these events are closely connected to things we have seen of Harry Potter already. Although we cannot do Magic, we are far closer to the Magical world than the Muggle world (which, given the Muggle world is largely represented by the Dursleys, is probably just as well).

Not only is this a kind of snobbery towards 'normal' people -as Blake puts it, Mondeo Man and Fiesta Female (p. 25) - but it repeats exactly the hierarchising effect of the Hogwarts house system. We are not all equal: some have the fate of the world more snugly in their palms because of their innate ability. (A paper by C. E. Sleeter from 1993 ('Power and Privilege in White Middle-Class Feminist Discussions of Gender and Education'*) defines privilege as the unearned and taken-for-granted advantages gained by being born into a particular group. If that isn't an apt description of the Magical world, I'd like to know what is.

The Harry Potter books are certainly snobby, despite their intensive insistence on basic equalities and the awfulness of prejudice. There's too much more to say for this one post. No doubt more will follow later.

*In Gender and Education: Ninety-Second Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, ed. S. K. Biklin and D. Pollard (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). As the titles suggest, I encountered this whilst on a rather different line of research - but it's a useful definition nonetheless.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Harry Potter: Part 4 - Slash fanfiction

I have reservations about calling this post 'Slash fanfiction' as if I'm going to be expressing my definitive viewpoint on it. There's no way I could do this, since almost every slash story I read slightly alters my view on what it's for and what it's doing.

Slash, for non-readers of fanfic, is a term describing fics revolving around homosexual pairings (it's opposed to 'het', heterosexual, pairings). Many of these are fairly improbable pairings, such as Snape/Harry (or 'Snarry'); others, such as Sirius Black/Remus Lupin, are more understandable, especially given the similarity in the two's animal forms, and their notorious affectionate embrace towards the end of Prisoner of Azkaban.

Suman Gupta, in the revised edition of his excellent book Re-reading Harry Potter, spends a small part of the last chapter trying to theorise why there is so much slash fiction. One possibility he moots is that unusual pairings, such as Draco and Harry or Ron and Draco, are trying to provide an alternative route to resolving the splits in the wizarding world through romantic love, rather than confrontation and violence. He also suggests that the slash presence on fanfic sites is an emancipatory move by fans to fill in the social gaps in the wizarding world, where only coy hints of homosexuality are found. (I'm ignoring Rowling's declaration that Dumbledore was gay, since there was so much slash fiction before Deathly Hallows was published and she made this statement that it hardly matters; at any rate Dumbledore is only one of a very large number of characters used in slash pairings.)

It is true that there are characters whose sexual lives we know very little about, such as Charlie Weasley or Sirius Black. But there are also those who we know are in heterosexual relationships, such as Lupin (briefly, before he and Tonks are murdered). Of course you could theorise that Lupin only marries Tonks because Sirius has been killed and he is searching for comfort. But most SBRL fics (as they're coded) don't do this: they either go backwards, looking at the characters' lives before 'canon' (the published texts), or they choose an alternate universe (AU) approach and rewrite their lives.

So why this intense urge to write homosexuality into almost every fissure of the Harry Potter? Go to's Harry Potter section, relax the ratings filter so you can view 'M'-rated fics, and search for almost any pairing of male characters of the same generation/era, and you'll find some, I can pretty much guarantee. Lucius Malfoy and Blaise Zabini (Draco's aristocratic classmate). Lucius and Harry. Snape and James Potter. Even 'twincest' between Fred and George Weasley (the loosening of traditional sexuo-moral boundaries in the fanfic realm will be looked at in the future at some point). It is extraordinary - and, for me, discovering this world at the age of 14 - exciting and liberating.

Plus, Gupta cites a survey done by a fanfic site that suggests most slash fanfics are written by women in their twenties. Most fanfiction in general is written by female fans - this is pretty much accepted - so perhaps this shouldn't be a big surprise. And there are, comparatively, very few fics with female slash pairings. Ginny/Hermione appears sometimes (but compare 57 pages of this pairing on to 398 pages of stories about Sirius Black and Remus Lupin). I read an excellent one about Professors Hooch (Quidditch mistress) and McGonagall once, but this was years ago, and there are still only 3 pages of stories with a 'McHooch' focus.

This is the bit where I have no answers. Is it to do with the nature of male vs. female characters in the series? In general, females are pretty marginalised: they're eccentric, like Tonks and Luna, maternal, like Molly Weasley, overly girly and flirty, like Fleur, Lavender and Parvati or mad like Bellatrix Lestrange (the only major female Death Eater, by the by). Hermione is more concrete, and highly intelligent, but she's also ripped to pieces in many ways: she can be vain and shrill and bossy. Umbridge is evil and clever, but ridiculous with her obsession with fluffy kittens and pink. Cho Chang is impatient and weepy. The only female character who seems to have real steel and charisma, as far as my reading goes, is Ginny Weasley, and unfortunately she doesn't really mature until the sixth book.

The male characters, by comparison, dominate the series in number and personality: look at Dumbledore, Voldemort, Snape, Draco, Sirius Black, James Potter, Wormtail, Cedric Diggory, Viktor Krum, Mad-Eye Moody, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Fudge, Rufeus Scrimgeour, Argus Filch etc. All very memorable characters, with, in my opinion, much more solidity and individuality. More, in short, to hang a fanfic on.

There's also a culture of heterosexual masculinity throughout the books which it's quite fun to disrupt by introducing a strong sexual element into it. Take this fic, 'I'm Not in Denial', which begins with a typical brawl between Draco Malfoy and Ron Weasley that turns into a sexual assault. The fighting goes on as the relationship develops - most of the time the two don't know whether to fight or fuck, to put it crudely. This is an extreme example, but it's posssible that fans find this much more interesting - and unlikely, perhaps, so therefore more novel? - to read than a typical lesbian pairing, which is often based on deep meaningful conversations and frustrations with the men in their lives (certainly this is true of Ginny/Hermione).

Could it also be argued that women have the same kind of fascination with male homosexuality as men do with lesbianism, if male-aimed porn is anything to go by? This is certainly possible, and the lack of erotica addressing this interest could certainly be attributed to the domination of the sex industry by male desires and the expectation of women to fulfil them - just in the same way that there are hardly any male prostitutes compared to the numbers of females.

I suppose I don't know the answer. I certainly continue to find male homosexual relationships deeply interesting - perhaps it's the exoticism of it, givenI will never be able to participate in such a relationship myself. I don't know. But, going back to 'I'm Not in Denial', one thing I like very much about it is the effort to address stereotypes, the demonstration that males can experience homosexual desire without being feminised at all. It's a shame there aren't more teenage boys reading these fics, especially those who are uncertain about their own sexuality, but at least the stories exist. It's a start.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Harry Potter: Part 3 - Fanfiction, an Introduction

I'm not going to say much here, partly because I've just written two posts and I have a life to lead. But I do want to lay down some preliminary questions about Harry Potter-related fanfiction, which I'm going to be thinking about over the next few weeks/months, especially as I continue to read examples of it:

  • Why do people write fanfiction? Is it to fill in gaps they've identified in the books, to explore issues that are not resolved, to alter the world to fit their preferences, to experiment with alternate possibilities? (I suspect all of these are true in some cases.)
  • Are there common themes in the stories that receive the most critical attention? (I am measuring critical attention in terms of numbers of reviews on a site such as or The vast majority of these reviews tend to be laudatory, often emphatically so.)
  • How are new romantic/sexual pairings presented, and how often are the characters kept IC (in character) or taken OOC (out of character) in order to present them?
  • How are themes that would be considered incompatible with the genre of children's literature (especially deviant sexual behaviour) presented?
  • Who writes fanfiction? Male or female? What kind of age? (In the media, the genre is largely presented as a realm dominated by teenage girls, but this cannot be exclusively true.)
  • How much of themselves do fanfiction writers tend to reveal about themselves, and how often does this relate to how they write or what they write about?
  • How often is the loose generic allocation of 'fantasy' to the Harry Potter books manipulated or destroyed?

I'm sure other questions will appear during the course of this series, but for now we'll leave it there.

Harry Potter: Part 2 - Class, an Introduction

One big issue that is pretty obvious throughout the Harry Potter series is that of social status, especially social class. Various analyses have pointed out that there are several kinds of parallels to be drawn between relations in the books and social relations in our world.

More particularly, there are consistent representations of characters who, in our world, we would consider to be of a lower social class. For instance, we have the house-elves, a species servile by nature and employed almost exclusively without pay. They are presented as approximations of humans: they comically wear pillowcases, they speak in a non-standard dialect, and seem not to be able to police their own speech, having to resort to injuring themselves if they speak ill of their employers.

Then there is Hagrid, who is presented both as uneducated (he was expelled from Hogwarts for a crime he did not commit, and supposedly had his wand snapped) and governed more by impulsive emotions than common sense or intelligence (he lets out school secrets in the pub, he likes to drink too much and loses his guard, he sobs when any of his precious animals are hurt or taken away). He is frequently mocked by Draco Malfoy (more on him later), and geographically is an outcast as he lives in a hut cut off from the elite world of the school. He is oversized and clumsy (he, even more famously than Dobby, has a noticeable regional accent, rendered as West Country by Robbie Coltrane in the films), and it is revealed that he is half-giant, suggesting his cognitive abilities may be different (and by different, let's be honest, most will read inferior) to those of full humans. In Deathly Hallows, he nearly kills Harry by getting a spell wrong (a motif common to underdog-type characters); in general he is more of an inadvertent antagonist than an active protagonist.

There are the Weasleys, who, we are constantly aware, don't have much money. They have to buy second-hand school materials. In Goblet this results in Ron making a fool of himself at the Yule Ball, because he has to wear old-fashioned, frilly dress robes, and Harry mocks him mercilessly. This is interesting, because Harry is generally quite conscious of Ron's lack of money, being quite rich himself, and it is possible that Rowling has disguised social disadvantage with clownlike appearance enough that it becomes acceptable to take the piss. More on them at some other point.

There are other characters who are worth examining aside from these -Lupin, for instance, and Neville, as well as Harry himself - but for now I want to shape these by mentioning a point made by Andrew Blake in his The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter, which is that the Hogwarts house system could be seen to map quite neatly onto the British class system: Hufflepuff are the working-class labourers, who are relatively unskilled but highly dilligent; Gryffindor are the lower-middle-class, who are more educated but by no means intellectuals, and rely on their bravery and confidence to get them through; Ravenclaw are of course the upper-middle-class intelligentsia, and Slytherin are the "wicked aristocrats", rich and snobby.

I'm not sure I wholly agree with this - given Harry's wealth, and Ron's lack of it, I think Gryffindor is a less easily locatable social set, for instance - but the analogy does raise some interesting points. Bearing in mind the story of the origins of the Harry Potter books, which has now become something of a legend/myth - that Rowling wrote the books in cafes while she was a single mother on benefits - it is perhaps unsurprising that the very rich characters are the most evil. But it is more surprising that Hufflepuffs, the unskilled workers, are the least explored house in the books (Cedric Diggory is their main spokesman, and he is disposed of after four books), and the most obviously low-status.

As I mentioned briefly with Hagrid, the films reflect this class difference fairly reliably - especially the Slytherins. Alan Rickman, Jason Isaacs and Ralph Fiennes all produce cut-glass drawls for Snape, Lucius Malfoy and Voldemort, as does Tom Felton, more or less, for Draco Malfoy. Both Felton and Isaacs are far less 'BBC' in their accents in real life. The G ryffindors, meanwhile, are less identifiable - whilst Richard Harris was fairly 'posh' (excuse the term), Michael Gambon's Dumbledore often sounds slightly Celtic, Professor McGonagall has a well-to-do Scottish accent, the Weasley parents are Midlands at times and RP at others, Ron/Rupert Grint have a non-RP Essex accent, and so on. Harry is fairly RP, and Hermione/Emma Watson is, it's fair to say, amongst the upper classes accent-wise.

This is where the films blur into real life, of course, since Emma Watson is certainly from a well-off family and went to a private school. Perhaps one could draw an analogy between her and the 'Posh Totty' in the film St Trinian's, who run a sex chatline with their Queen's English voices, given how objectified Watson has been by the media, especially tabloids and men's magazines.

This has been a fairly meandering exploration, mainly because it is possible to explore all of these points in more detail, which I inted to do at some point. The complement of class issues one can tease out of the books is by no means complete here. So there is definitely more to follow.

- Andrew Blake, The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter (Verso, 2002)

The Harry Potter books: Part 1

I've had an ongoing interest in children's literature for quite a few years now, both as a reader and critic. Parallel to that, I've always adored the Harry Potter books, and got quite into reading and writing fanfiction when I was about 14, a fascination which has never really left me.

More recently, I've discovered that there was a spate of books published about the Harry Potter series in 2002-4 (some of which have been reissued in revised forms since the Deathly Hallows came out), and have been reading a couple of them. They're riveting stuff, full of analysis of power relations, class issues, gender representations, alternative sexualities, the significance of blood, religion, reception and banning, the films etc. In particular, Suman Gupta's Re-reading Harry Potter is wonderful, though I haven't finished it yet.

To call the effect of the Harry Potter books a 'phenomenon' (and I think it's fair to include the films as an effect rathr than a cause of this phenomenon) is, in my view, totally justifiable. Never before had a series of books, let alone those ostensibly for children, been so devoured, banalised, universally known. (The Twilight series will never match this, because its audience is so limited to teenage girls. And, quite frankly, because they're dreadful.) So they deserve special attention, and how 'literary' or 'good' they are, or any other value-judgement-type terms you can think of.

Every time I start thinking about this kind of analysis in any detail, my mind fills up and goes mad. There is so much to say about these books. They are rich with characters, subplots and backstory, and nearly everything is of interest. So I'm going to write a series of entries on these books, looking at broad themes, posing questions, perhaps formulating answers to them. These entries probably won't be in any logical order. But I'm doing a media module as part of my teacher training course, so I think it is going to be extremely helpful to me to start getting my thoughts together, so hopefully I might be able to write about them in the future.

I will also be thinking about a selection of fanfiction texts, because for me and hundreds of thousands of other readers, they have become an integral part of the Harry Potter experience. Ditto the films - but replace 'hundreds of thousands' with 'millions'. I'm excited about this. Enjoy, folks!

Monday, 22 June 2009

Adam Bede by George Eliot

This isn't going to read much like my other book reviews, since George Eliot is so well established as a 'classic' author that only quite personal reflections on the novel can really add anything new.

I first read Adam Bede when I was preparing for my first year at university. It was one of a long list of weighty Victorian novels, and the list also included Bleak House and Middlemarch, as well as The Mill on the Floss and Great Expectations, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. In such star-studded company, Adam Bede didn't exactly stand out from the crowd. Still, it was the first written of the three Eliots on the list, and so the one I read first.

The book revolves around four characters, principally: Adam himself, a fairly obvious cipher for Jesus, since he's a straightforward, self-improving and eloquent carpenter. Then there's Hetty Sorrell, the girl he's loved for years, despite the fact that she's vain and self-centred, to which Adam is blind. Thirdly, we have Arthur Dunnithorne, the squire, who falls quite under Hetty's spell, and manages to seduce her. Finally, there's Dinah Morris, a Methodist preacher, who is plain but forthright and impossibly good-hearted, who is Hetty's cousin.

The drama of the plot doesn't really kick off until about halfway through the book, so one has to plough through an awful lot of description, characterisation and Christian doctrine. This is wonderful if you love Eliot, which I do - and I found the religious stuff particularly inspiring since I lost a relative around the same time - but it is quite dense, so people in search of a light read should stay away. Eliot captures the small-town attitude, quick to judge, sometimes happy to forgive but never to forget, perfectly, as well as - and I think this is a quality of Eliot that is often overlooked - managing to be very witty and amusing.

You can't help but love Adam, since he comes across exactly as a bumbling man in his mid-twenties might in a modern novel: frustrated but affectionate with his mother and brother, susceptible to irrational and largely appearance-based attachments, yet highly moralistic. I don't know how popular Dinah would be, since she is pretty damn well perfect and readers tend not to like these kinds of characters, but I thought she was marvellous, the kind of character that makes you see how much your own personality is wanting of essential kindness.

The most interesting character is probably Arthur, who does not lack this kindness by any means, but surrounds it with rashness and a propensity to care too much what people think of him. There is a particularly deft scene where Arthur nearly confesses to his vicar that he has been playing with Hetty's heart, but at the moment when he is about to unburden himself, the clergyman changes the subject and the opportunity is, for Arthur, lost. This is exactly how conversation works today, and it seems both marvellous and unsurprising that so little has changed over the years.

I was also struck by the fact that Hetty and Arthur's dalliance turns out to have gone much further, in physical terms, than we are led to believe (Eliot, of course, embraces the Victorian delicacy which consists not so much in euphemisms but in complete silence. Bring on the feminist critics.). They tend to meet in a wood, and Eliot is quick to capitalise on the inherent mystery of events that disappear into the trees and reemerge at some point later. If someone you know spends a great chunk of time elsewhere, it is impossible to calculate their movements accurately enough to know what they have been doing the whole time - and, consequently, easy to slip in a little illicit activity.

Rereading Adam Bede, much more slowly than the first time round, makes you able to appreciate how sleepy the first half is, and therefore how great a shock to the system the quick-moving crisis of Hetty's unplanned pregnancy and flight, and subsequent disasters, are. It is a long book, facts is facts: my Penguin classics has fairly small font and still runs to 540-odd pages. But it is a book that rewards patience, as few seem to nowadays. My former tutor edited the Oxford edition once; no doubt he will agree with me. If you like being in for the long haul, there are few better places to go than a Victorian tome, and I will always hold a peculiar affection for Adam Bede.