LONG BEFORE she became George Eliot, little Mary Anne Evans suggested an almost supernatural intelligence to those around her. One of her school friends reported that Mary Anne “seemed as if she must have come into the world fully developed, like a second Minerva.” Much later, Edmund Gosse would call her a “sibyl” and say that her contemporaries regarded her as much a philosopher as a novelist. Her publisher John Blackwood likened her to “a great giant walking about among us.” But whatever the view of Eliot’s childhood companions, contemporaries and critics, her wisdom was neither innate nor superhuman. As a young woman, Eliot made mistakes, embarrassed herself and stacked up regrets to which she would return in later life. She was a monumentally priggish adolescent, and in her 20s and early 30s could be defensive and sharp-tongued. (In 1851, she described the Swedish writer Fredrika Bremer, whose work she admired, as “a repulsive person, equally unprepossessing to eye and ear.”) Before Eliot met her partner George Henry Lewes she suffered more than one unreturned attachment, and her letters from those years make for painful reading. “If you become attached to someone else, then I must die, but until then I could gather courage to work and make life valuable, if only I had you near me. […] I would be very good and cheerful and never annoy you,” she wrote to the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who had already made it clear that he had no interest in marrying her.
In My Life in Middlemarch, an account of the importance of the novel in her own life, Rebecca Mead suggests that without these early experiences — the priggishness and sharp tongue as much as the agonizing rejection — Eliot would never have written Middlemarch. It’s a consoling idea and one borne out by Mead’s imaginative and thorough reading. She finds traces of both Spencer and the young Eliot in the surgeon Lydgate: his liking for pretty, seemingly submissive girls on the one hand; his fastidiousness and idealism on the other.
Mead travels round England, reading Middlemarch through the places in which Eliot lived and stayed, and reflecting upon the experiences she had there. The town of Middlemarch is based on Coventry, the city in the English Midlands to which Eliot moved as a young woman with her father, keeping house, studying, meeting cosmopolitan new friends, and hoping to find a husband. Around this time she lost her religious faith, which until then had been fierce and humorless. This loss was distressing both in itself and in the strain it put on her relationship with her father. She continued to live with him and nursed him during the last years of his life. When he died she was 29.
She moved to London, changed her name to Marian, and started working for the Westminster Review. She became its editor in practice if not in name, commissioning writers such as John Stuart Mill and T.H. Huxley and writing frequently herself. On the surface at least, she was leading the life for which she had longed since she was a girl, chafing against the limitations of her provincial upbringing. And at times she was buoyant, excited by London and fulfilled by work. “I can see her now, with her hair over her shoulders, the easy chair half sideways to the fire, her feet over the arms, and a proof in her hands,” recalled someone who knew her at this time. As Mead points out, it’s a “startlingly modern” image, far from the sober sage of her reputation.
Her personal life at this time was fraught. London’s National Portrait Gallery holds several paintings and drawings of Eliot, in which she is scarcely recognizable from one to the other. Contemporary descriptions of her appearance vary, but they are never admiring, ranging from “exceedingly plain” to Henry James’s “magnificently ugly — deliciously hideous […] [a] great horse-faced bluestocking.” During her time at the Westminster Review she first became involved with Spencer, for whom beauty was, by his own admission, a condition of attraction. Eliot often refers to her looks in her letters, making jokes at her own expense before anyone else can do so. After Spencer’s rejection, she seems to have abandoned hopes of emotional satisfaction and devoted herself to intellectual activity. It’s a curious and much-noted fact that Eliot’s heroines are, almost without exception, extremely beautiful. Nevertheless, she gives a number of them the spirit of renunciation that she cultivated in herself, alongside its peculiar satisfactions. In Middlemarch, one of the first things we learn about Dorothea Brooke is how much she loves horseback riding — and how much she “look[s] forward to renouncing it”.
Middlemarch began as two separate novels. The first was the story of a young, idealistic surgeon at the time of the 1832 Reform Act, and the crumbling of his ideals in the face of small-town pettiness and politics. The second, “Miss Brooke,” concerned a young, idealistic woman who naively enters into marriage with a joyless elderly scholar. Joining these two stories together in a single novel enabled Eliot to trace the ways in which suffering works differently upon different individuals — specifically, the kind of suffering produced by disillusionment. This was not a new theme for Eliot. In her first novel, pretty Hetty Sorrel becomes pregnant by a young squire and, in desperation and confusion, kills her illegitimate child. But the novel is not named for Hetty, who is too childish and silly to make much sense of her experience. Instead, it takes the name of Adam Bede, the righteous young carpenter who has long been in love with Hetty. When he discovers what she has done, his idealized image of her is destroyed. Along with that he shakes loose of an uncompromising sense of right and wrong and transforms into a man who can pity instead of judge the weakness of others.
Dorothea brims with pity right from the start of Middlemarch. Even so, there’s something of Adam — and of the young Eliot — in her narrow conception of morality. Over the course of the novel, her troubles and disappointments make her more generous and noble, until at last she arrives at a state of near-perfection, from which she can extend to those around her the expansive sympathy of Middlemarch itself. But the novel does not fetishize suffering. Lydgate, even more than Dorothea, is like Adam Bede: in his inflexibility, the high standards to which he holds himself and others, his attraction to pretty, self-absorbed women. (When Lydgate meets Dorothea, he reflects that women with a social conscience are “troublesome […] always wanting reasons, yet they are too ignorant to understand the merits of any question.”) Like Adam, Lydgate will come to a deeper understanding of women — but too late for his own personal happiness; he has married the beautiful and narcissistic Rosamond. The last we hear of Lydgate, he is calling Rosamond his “basil plant,” offering as an explanation the fact that basil “was a plant which had flourished wonderfully on a murdered man’s brains.” Dorothea’s transformation is helped along by her wealth, whereas Lydgate is felled primarily by his need to make a living. It’s a lot easier to be good, it turns out, when you are guaranteed £700 a year.
A less cynical person, or a person cynical in a different way, will say that Dorothea is able to bear her suffering so gracefully because she does not have to suffer for long. Her unhappy first marriage is cut short; her subsequent fear of unrequited love proves unfounded. Eliot, like Lydgate and unlike Dorothea, had to earn her own money. But she did not venture into fiction until she was living with, and beloved by, Lewes. In her essay “Middlemarch and Everybody,” Zadie Smith suggests that though Eliot’s intellectual abilities made her a fine translator, reviewer, and editor, it was only through emotional fulfilment that she gained a sympathy for the “stumbling errors of human beings” — her own, earlier errors among them — and could transform them into fiction. As Smith puts it, she “learned as much from loving [Lewes] as she had from translating Spinoza.” And not only Lewes. In the most unusual chapter of My Life in Middlemarch, Mead reads the letters between Eliot and her middle stepson, imagining her both charmed and overwhelmed by his boisterous high spirits. (Sample quote: “I have got two nice lizards for you […] One has got a bullet shot in his side through which a pistolbullet from my pistol went.”) None of the central relationships in Middlemarch is between a stepparent and a stepchild, but Mead, stepmother herself, sees Eliot’s experience of Lewes’s sons as intrinsic to the novel’s “tensile strength,” its probing of “all that might be gained from opening one’s heart wider.”
As its title suggests, My Life in Middlemarch is memoir as well as biography. Mead is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and the book grew out of an article she wrote for the magazine in 2011, in which she travelled to Eliot’s birthplace and reflected upon the differences between reading Middlemarch in youth and in middle age. Mead first read the novel aged 17, living in the southwest of England and preparing for university examinations, and she has read it every five years or so since. Middlemarch is, of course, not the only novel that changes with the age of its reader, but it does attract a particular kind of rereading. Writers, academics and non-specialist readers alike talk about a distancing from Dorothea as they grow older, a realization of the irony in Eliot’s portrayal of the girl who wishes she could have married Milton or any other great man “whose odd habits it would have been glorious piety to endure.” They discover their sympathy, especially if they are academics, for Dorothea’s elderly husband Casaubon, the scholar fixated on a project that he has neither the will nor the intellect to complete. To the young, Middlemarch is about the young; to the middle-aged, it’s about middle age.
The novel itself anticipates this, and warns against it. One of its most famous metaphors is that of the pier-glass and the candle. Hold a candle up to a pier-glass, Eliot says, and the scratches on the glass will arrange themselves in concentric circles around the flame. (A lighter and the back of an iPhone work just as well.) The candle is an individual’s ego; Eliot’s point is that we interpret events with ourselves at the center of them. Events — and novels. But Eliot’s purpose in writing was to unsettle her readers’ habitual mode of interpretation — to make them see the scratches on the pier-glass as they really are. Mead no longer identifies completely with Dorothea, and there is an Eliot-like note of irony in the depiction of her younger self. She is more attuned than she once was to the novel’s preoccupation with aging, resignation and loss. But she also knows that reading Middlemarch as a grown-up — to adapt Virginia Woolf’s famous description of the novel — means finding a place for all those characters, young as well as old, with whom one doesn’t identify, or who once seemed boring or ineffectual: Fred Vincy, Mary Garth, Will Ladislaw. If Eliot’s experience enabled her to create such characters, Mead’s experience enables her to read them differently from when she was 17 and could see Fred, for example, as nothing more than “just the sort of raw, fair English boy who left me cold.” Three decades later, Fred and Mary’s marriage seems the source of the novel’s greatest romance, as well as its greatest stability. The couple have become, for Mead, “the representatives of our unassuming elders” — both her own parents and the English home she has left behind.
At first glance, My Life in Middlemarch is not dissimilar from other works of the past few years which blend memoir with literary criticism, such as William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education (2011) or Harry Eyres’s Horace and Me (2013). The subtitles of these two books — “How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things That Really Matter” and “Life Lessons from An Ancient Poet” — indicate their approach: literature is primarily didactic, its relationship with the reader hierarchical. Mead posits a more flexible interaction between literature and living. Reading Middlemarch might make you a different person. It might even teach you about love, friendship, and the things that really matter. But it won’t do any of these things as much as aging will. Mead does not shy away from the sorrows of aging, but she suggests that its consolations are rich. Perhaps one person in a hundred million can transform experience into writing a novel like Middlemarch. The rest of us can transform experience into understanding it.