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.


Revisiting George Eliot’s Middlemarch

MiddlemarchJust finished reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch a few minutes ago. I actually had read it in grad school, but since that was several decades back, much of it had become a tabula rasa for me in rereading it.

What got me started was New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead’s recent memoir, My Life In Middlemarch, that intriguingly offers parallels to Middlemarch gleaned from her own life.

Rereading this novel of 900 pages came easily to me, since I’ve always admired Eliot deeply for her keen mind and “truth of fellow feeling,” expressed movingly in her earlier Adam Bede. I also identify with her painful transition from evangelical piety to fervent humanism. It will be interesting to see if Mead finds affinity with this aspect.

No other writer, apart from John Stuart Mill has influenced me more.

Unfortunately, I suspect Eliot isn’t much read by people today apart from English majors, but that’s a pity since Eliot never fails to deliver on those fundamental truths promoting understanding and tolerance and, consequently, a greater happiness, despite all hell breaking loose around her.

Set in 1832, the novel’s action occurs against the backdrop of Britain’s political turbulence in the guise of the First Reform Bill addressing social inequity and the first serous environmental impacting of the Industrial Revolution with the coming of the railroad.   Thus, Middlemarch offers parallels with our own times and lessons to be learned.

Virginal Woolf famously commented that Middlemarch was “one of few English novels written for grown-up people” (Times Literary Supplement, November 1919).

Eliot, surprisingly for someone writing before the nascence of modern psychology, exhibits a profoundly intuitive grasp of the inner origins of human conduct. Middlemarch is ultimately a novel about wrong choices and their consequences, or of great aspirations and colossal blunders. Freud might have found it demonstrative of the psychical conflict between Id (idealization) and the Super Ego (reality) with its polarity of indulgence vs restraint.

Middlemarch also exhibits a Darwinian flavor: those who adapt, survive; those who can’t, perish, a pervasive thread prescient of the incipient rise of naturalists like Zola, Hardy, Dreiser, Crane and Norris, who would convert determinism into literary art.

At the same time, Eliot exhibits a heightened sympathy for her characters caught in the web of human weakness, however well-meaning. Take the idealists Lydgate and Dorothea, for example. Both want to promote the public good. Both tragically make wrong marriages, blinded by youthful idealization, frustrating their ameliorative quests. Both live with the anguish of narrowed options as a result.

Lydgate emerges a nearly Hamlet figure, knowing what he must do to save his marriage to the narcissist, spendthrift Rosamond, yet unable to muster the necessary resolve. Ironically, his innate sensitivity proscribes his hurting someone he loves, impinging not only on his happiness, but potential to shift the paradigm of traditional medical practice to one rooted in modern science and innovation.

Then there’s the quixotic Dorothea, marrying a man thirty years older than herself, believing it will amend her cultural shortcomings and lead to achieving a social good by helping her pedantic husband, Casaubon, succeed in his massive, never ending study, The Key to All Mythologies, only to find him a repressive, paranoid, vindictive spouse indifferent to her selfhood and social idealism. As with Lydgate, Eliot holds nothing back in her graphic depiction of Dorothea’s descent into an emotional maelstrom.

In many ways, Middlemarch is our first feminist novel, replete in its championing the right of women to self-realization in a patriarchal society.   Consider Lydgate’s sexist notion of the ideal woman:

An accomplished creature who venerated his high musings and momentous labors and would never interfere with them; who would create order in the home and accounts with still magic, yet keep her fingers ready to touch the lute and transform life into romance at any moment; who was instructed to the true womanly limit and not a hair’s breadth beyond–docile, therefore, and ready to carry out behests which came from beyond that limit.

Eliot also succeeds brilliantly in taking the pulse of small town life dominated by its xenophobia, unyielding mores, and proclivity for gossip. Appropriately, Eliot’s sub-title, A of Provincial Life, hints that a principal theme of her story embraces the quest for emancipation from the tyranny of one’s small-minded fellows.

Middlemarch isn’t by any means a perfect novel, as Virginal Woolf noted in her essay, among its weaknesses a fondness for using two sentences when one would suffice.

Some Eliot readers find her editorializing intrusive, as though she can’t risk readers missing her point or foregoing an opportunity to superimpose her worldview; but I don’t mind this at all, for her rummaging through the morass of conflicting emotions in her characters and expansive reflections work to heighten my sensibility to the novel’s nuances and, best, expose me to Eliot’s spacious mind and resonant empathy sufficient to encompass even the hypocritical banker Nicholas Bulstrode, cloaking himself in religious piety. Her empathy enlarges my own.

The Guardian in its ranking of the 100 best novels written in English, ranks Middlemarch at 27th, and deems it the greatest of Victorian novels, no mean compliment in an era of Dickens, Trollope, Hardy and Thackeray. There are others, however, and not a few, who rank it first among the myriad novels written in English. Noted critic Harold Bloom thinks Middlemarch is among the greatest novels written in any language (Western Literature, 1994).

I always like to end any book review I write with resonant passages that may entice readers. While there are many in Middlemarch. I like this one best, coming at its close:

But the effect of her [Dorothea] being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Great books deserve re-readings, as by their very nature, they never fail to enlarge our awareness, advance our human sympathy, and promote optimism for, if not a better world, at the very least, a life lived in reconciliation with our fellows.



















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