On Reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch

rebecca-mead-my-life-in-middlemarchAll of us have a favorite book we wouldn’t mind reading again. For me, it’s David Copperfield, simply because I identify with much of what happens in it. The same holds true for Rebecca Mead in her bibliomemoir, My Life in Middlemarch, which explores Eliot’s masterpiece as a personal game changer.

I’ve always liked Eliot immensely as well (see Brimmings, 8/17/16), especially for her bottom line, “the truth of fellow feeling,” as she aptly phrased it in Adam Bede. As Eliot put it later,  “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.”

She had been raised in a fiercely Calvinist home, sharing its piety, until she began reading German “higher criticism,” which read the Bible as a human rather than divine construct. Rejecting Christian theology, she retained its ethic core of human sympathy, or what today we term empathy, i.e., the putting of yourself in another’s shoes.

Put into practice, we’d wake to a better world.

Although I had read Middlemarch way back in grad school and made Eliot a centerpiece in my later teaching of Victorian lit classes, the years had taken their toll, so I wanted to pursue Eliot’s classic again as backdrop for Mead’s book, and I’m glad I did.

Mead skillfully assembles the nuances of both Middlemarch and Eliot’s life that have resonated for her over the years, underscored through subsequent re-reads; for example, Eliot’s rural upbringing, her several loves until finding in her middle years a sustaining relationship with a fellow writer, her delineation of love’s growth and the empowerment of women—or lack thereof.

But some readers may think Mead lapses into narcissism, reading herself into Middlemarch. Mead devotes, for example, considerable space to Eliot and her companion, George Lewes and his three children, drawing a parallel to her own commitment to a man with three children: “…a few years later [following a failed relationship] I met a man who had three sons, not very different in age than were the Lewes boys when George Eliot met George Lewes.”

At another juncture, she reflects at length on Eliot’s maternal relationship with her stepson “Thornie,” and her own role as a step-mother.

She later notes that Eliot and Lewes lived, though briefly, in her Dorset town of Radipole, now incorporated into Weymouth.

Eliot prefaced each of her many chapters with an epigrammatic quotation. Mead extrapolates several of these for her own chapter headings, rendering them congruous with events and discoveries in her personal life.

Ironically, Eliot had written an early article for the Westminster Review decrying readers who overly identify with a character, as Mead acknowledges.

In her defense, while the analogies do pile-up, it’s a minus only if we leave things there. It’s not the analogies, but their lessons that matter. Besides, we’ve all come across books delivering a right uppercut that staggers us into questioning our assumptions and grants us new vistas and resulting options.

Some books not only make us wise, but better people for having spent time in their company.  If we lose ourselves in such books, might we not also find ourselves there as well?  Thus, I fully enter into her meaning when she writes that “there are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader, as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.”

If Mead strays, it may be she admires Eliot to excess, sometimes appearing defensive when finding Eliot in real life not quite the paragon of moral virtue given off in her novels. She could sometimes prove harsh, if not cruel, in her patronizing and judgmental strictures. So George Eliot was no St. Teresa of Avila. I rejoice!

Perhaps what Mead appreciates most in Middlemarch is Eliot’s psychological acuity as the first novelist to dwell on the interior life of her characters, fraught with tensions delivering them from stereotype. Governed by every human emotion and vicissitude of mood, affected by both choice and chance, they become ourselves and enter into our experience. Mead quotes D. H. Lawrence pioneer observation, “It was she who started putting all the action inside.”

As a former international correspondent and, currently, a staff writer for the New Yorker, the ability to discern the unspoken when interviewing would obviously appeal to Mead:
“…being a journalist for all these years had taught me a few things: how to ask questions, how to use my eyes, how to investigate a subject, how to look at something familiar from an unfamiliar angle.”

It may seem incredulous, but in deftly applying these skills it’s as though Mead just pulled off a live interview with her subject, intuited the unspoken, enabling both biography and memoir; thus my earlier term, bibliomemoir, or a book about a life of reading.

I think of other salient bibliomemoirs, notably Phyllis Rose’s A Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time and William Deresciewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things That Really Matter. There is also Helen Macdonald’s Hawk, winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize, that I recently read and esteem greatly. Reading My Life in Middlemarch has opened up a new portal of discovery for me via this sub-genre.

In many ways, Middlemarch’s supreme ambience is one of melancholy in its depiction of the changing fortunes of its principal characters as they experience the dissonance between desire and result; and yet the novel rebounds with achieved happiness for several of its characters, including its heroine, Dorothea, whose initial disillusionment yields to a discerning maturation.

As Mead observes in quoting Eliot, “We cannot give the young our experience. They will not take it. There must be the actual friction of life, the individual contact with sorrow, to discipline the character.”

Paradoxically, however, Eliot does a whole lot of that in her thumping moral asides, awkwardly delivered in convoluted prose, throughout her novels. Jane Austen. on the other hand, succeeded without the editorializing often repugnant to contemporary readers.

In reading Middlemarch again, I remembered my own lugubrious involvement with a chosen author–in my case, James Joyce–the tracing of a life, traveling, papers, interviews, contact with manuscripts and, yes, myriad readings of authorities on one’s subject.

Mead proves scrupulous and unsparing, eloquent and moving, in exploring authorial events possibly shaping the novel’s characters, commanding a prose that often approximates poetry. That said, In her scholarship, she owes a considerable debt, among others, to Rosemary Ashton’s 142 Strand: A Radical Address in Victorian London.

If you read Middlemarch, whether for the first time or anew, I highly recommend you try out Mead’s testament of affection as a sequel to this greatest of Victorian novels.
I did, and for all my reading of Middlemarch and study of George Eliot over the years, Mead made me wiser and more sensitive to Eliot’s resonance in my own life and for
our own time.

–rj

About RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.
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