BLESSED IS THE READER who, while still young, discovers a book that becomes a touchstone and mirror to accompany her for the rest of her life, never dulling on successive readings but instead offering more and deeper riches as she ages. Rebecca Mead is one of those readers. When she was 17 and preparing for her U.K. university entrance exams, a tutor assigned her George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Mead has clasped the novel to her breast, so to speak, ever since.
My Life in Middlemarch is Mead’s attempt to discuss why this particular book struck her so forcefully and has continued to mean so much, and it is also her invitation to others to find in it the same solace and wonder. I didn’t need convincing: I read Middlemarch at roughly the same age as Mead and was thunderstruck in just the same way. And because I am already familiar with Mead’s excellent, sensitive work for The New Yorker, where she is a staff writer, I knew that whatever she had to say about Middlemarch was something I wanted to hear. Naturally, I was also curious about the “my life” part. Having identified over the years with several of the novel’s characters — Dorothea Brooke, Tertius Lydgate, Edward Casaubon, Rosamond Vincy, and even the secretly corrupt Nicholas Bulstrode — having sometimes literally asked myself “WWDD?” (What Would Dorothea Do?), I leapt at the chance to glimpse the logbook of a fellow traveler.
For those who don’t know Middlemarch, its contents are not easily summarized, but two main story lines exist: that of Dorothea Brooke, a do-gooding heiress who makes a disastrous marriage, and that of Tertius Lydgate, a London-trained doctor who wants to bring modern medical practices to the conservative Midlands town of Middlemarch in the early 1830s and who also must deal with a misguided choice of spouse. Through their tales, Middlemarch examines idealism and ambition, morality and immorality, and the possibility for change and growth in the human heart. The book is so capacious that it’s hard for a fan like me to imagine that there isn’t something in it for everyone, although novel-reading is of course a subjective matter, and while I’m crazy about Eliot you may prefer your Jane Austen or Don DeLillo. But Middlemarch unquestionably gives any sympathetic reader a lifetime of characters, themes, and philosophical conundrums to chew on.
Mead’s attraction to the book seems to be grounded in part in her childhood as a “provincial” — she grew up in coastal southwestern England — since Eliot, who came from Nuneaton and Coventry, was a provincial, and since her character Dorothea Brooke is as well. Dorothea feels an inchoate longing to do or become something that the provinces don’t provide a ready picture of. Mead experienced this, too, although she had a better image of what might lie in the big world outside, and opportunities to reach for it. The “it” in Mead’s case was Oxford University and a life of literature and journalism. But in Dorothea, Eliot was not writing simply about a woman born too soon for a career. Her portrait of youthful longing is more complex than that. As Virginia Woolf put it, Dorothea and other Eliot heroines experience “a demand for something —they scarcely know what — for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence.” The book speaks, writes Mead, to the part of girlhood that asks:
How on earth might one contain one’s intolerable, overpowering, private yearnings? Where is a woman to put her energies? How is she to express her longings? What can she do to exercise her potential and affect the lives of others? What, in the end, is a young woman to do with herself?
In this sense, Eliot is a poet of youthful longing (not merely in women but also in men) — of what it feels like to suffer “the burthen of larger wants than others seemed to feel,” as Eliot writes of Maggie Tulliver in her earlier novel The Mill on the Floss — and one can see why Middlemarch has hypnotized sensitive, introspective, ambitious young women for many generations.
But Eliot also understands the prose that follows the poetry of longing: in some this might take the form of mature realism; in others, crabbed bitterness. For this reason, Middlemarch is a book that Mead can read not only as a teenager preparing for university but also as a young working woman in 1990s New York, as the lover of a man with a young daughter, as a married woman, a stepmother, and finally a biological mother herself. As Mead grows older, she notices more of what Middlemarch has to suggest about compromise and failure, the desire for continuity, and the life of the home. Astonishingly enough, just as George Eliot spent nearly the last 25 years of her life with George Henry Lewes, a man estranged from his wife and raising three young sons, Mead eventually marries a man named George who is the father of three young sons.
A reporter by training, Mead is not content to sit in her home office spinning out meditations on Middlemarchian themes. She devises fertile investigations, visiting many of the sites connected to Eliot’s life: Griff House, her childhood home; Bird Grove, the house she moved into in her early 20s; the Coventry church that was at the center of a major rift between Eliot and her father. She examines Eliot’s research notebook for Middlemarch and a manuscript of the novel (in which she finds an intriguing variation from the published ending) in the British Library. She has a pressing need to see and touch objects that once belonged to Eliot and to walk through places she once frequented. The places have changed (Griff House is now a sports bar with slot machines), but the objects speak. A great-great-grandson of Eliot’s — technically, of Lewes’s — allows Mead to hold a pen that Eliot used, and the unexpected weight of it floods Mead, and by extension her reader, with a tactile sense of what writing a novel must have felt like in the late 19th century, how deeply physical an activity it was.
Mead playfully gives her chapters the same titles as Eliot’s eight sections of Middlemarch, so that My Life in Middlemarch traverses, in a loose manner, some of the same themes in the same order as they arrive in the earlier book. Within this structure, Mead’s method is essayistic and fluid. A visit to the New York Public Library to look at a notebook of Eliot’s leads seamlessly to a glimpse of a desk once owned by Charles Dickens, which leads to a meditation on Dickens’s transatlantic travels, Mead’s own parents across the ocean, and finally Dickens again, who was among the minority of readers who guessed that “George Eliot” was a pseudonym for a woman writer. Like Eliot’s own narrators, Mead is patient, compassionate, and possessed of an affectionately mocking sense of humor. At one point, invoking Eliot’s frequent and tormenting headaches, she remarks that they, “like Proust’s neurasthenia, seem an integral part of her creative identity, as if her extraordinarily intelligent brain could not work without overloading. Still, one wonders how different her life might have been if she’d had aspirin.”
And Mead gives the best defense I’ve read of the voice in which Middlemarch is written, which some critics have found pompous or meddlesome. In Mead’s view, Eliot directly addresses the reader and supplies philosophical asides not because she is a busybody and know-it-all. Rather, Mead writes,
She insists that the reader look at the characters in the book from her own elevated viewpoint. We are granted a wider perspective, and a greater insight, than is available to their neighbors down in the world of Middlemarch. By showing us the way each character is bound within his or her own narrow viewpoint, while providing us with a broader view, she nurtures what Virginia Woolf described as “the melancholy virtue of tolerance.”
Some readers have been eager to vilify Middlemarch characters such as the timid yet controlling Casaubon, the man Dorothea muddle-headedly marries, or the vain and selfish town belle Rosamond Vincy, but Mead rightly shows the sympathetic understanding the author extended to them. Eliot always seemed to be suggesting that emotional narrowness is a tragedy rather than a sin, and that the struggle to feel with one’s fellow human beings is by no means an easy one. When a friend asked her on whom she’d modeled the character of Casaubon, she pointed to herself.
If I have one quarrel with My Life in Middlemarch, it is the misleading advertisement of its title. There is very little “my life” in My Life. I argued with myself through two separate readings of the book, telling myself that I’d been coarsened by too many excessively revealing memoirs, that as an American I perhaps didn’t appreciate what might be British reticence. In fact I do appreciate reticence, and I was not looking for Mead to offer me TMI on, say, her adolescence or her marriage. But as George Eliot knew — and as Mead intuits in describing to us the heft of Eliot’s pen — it is the details that breathe life into ideas and feelings. Mead tells us that Middlemarch helped her get through her youthful love affairs, that it aided her in defining her relationships with her stepsons, but we see vanishingly little of those affairs or those stepsons. There’s nothing wrong with Mead wanting to shelter herself and those she’s intimate with from prying eyes. But she must also recognize that in doing so to such a great degree she blocks our understanding, our sympathetic processes. When Mead writes, “I think Middlemarch has disciplined my character” or, “In middle life, it suggests to me what else home might mean, beyond a place to grow up and grow out of,” we have to take her word for it. We understand Dorothea Brooke because Eliot shows us how she deals with her dead mother’s jewelry, or talks to her sister, or wanders through a museum on her honeymoon. Likewise, Mead gives us many details and scenes that effectively reveal George Eliot to us — but not herself.
I doubt this is an oversight; it is clearly Mead’s choice. (By contrast, she wrote in more detail about her stepsons in a recent issue of Town & Country.) While I wish she had allowed us to see more intimately the way Middlemarch ushered her into young womanhood and, later, happy middle-aged commitment, she has written a resonant and imaginative volume in which I gratefully re-experienced one of the English language’s greatest works of fiction.
Pamela Erens is the author of two novels, The Virgins and The Understory, which is being re-released in April by Tin House Books.