Lost in Eliot
By Rebecca Mead
It seems a safe prediction that there will never be a George Eliot theme park, a miniseries called “Lost in Eliot,” a movie called Eliotland, or a Middlemarch-and-zombies mash-up. I feel similarly confident (though I presumably won’t be there to witness it in 2071) that when the 200th anniversary of Middlemarch arrives, it will pass with little of the hoopla that surrounded the same milestone for Pride and Prejudice. Eliot just isn’t a novelist who attracts that kind or degree of fandom — or whose name makes any imaginable spin-off a sure-fire commercial success. Perhaps it’s that her most epigrammatic statements are too uncomfortable for tote bags and fridge magnets: it’s hard to imagine the market for a bumper sticker reading “The quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity,” much less “Children may be strangled, but deeds never.”
But Eliot does inspire deep admiration and even affection in many of her readers, as Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch eloquently illustrates. “Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism,” Mead remarks in her Prelude, but
when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. 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.
For her, that book has been Middlemarch, and her book, part memoir, part biography, part literary commentary, is a thoughtful, often moving meditation on her experience rereading George Eliot’s masterpiece over the course of her life.
Mead read Middlemarch for the first time when she was seventeen and found it “riveting, from the very first sentence of its first chapter.” Speaking as someone who has assigned Middlemarch to hundreds of students not much older than that, I would say that her reaction is not entirely typical (though speaking as someone who read Middlemarch for the first time at eighteen, loved it, and has been rereading it ever since, at least as often and as appreciatively as Mead, I would also say that I find it entirely credible, and not a little endearing). Many readers approach Middlemarch with trepidation or leave it in frustration.
Not that the novel is not difficult in the way, say, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is difficult. It is, as the subtitle promises, “A Study of Provincial Life.” It chronicles the intersecting stories of a range of characters in a small English town on the eve of the 1832 Reform Bill that, by altering the balance of political power in Britain, launched an era of broader reform and modernization. There’s idealistic Dorothea Brooke, whose naïve yearnings for an intellectually significant life blind her to the faults of her unlikely suitor, the pedantic scholar Mr. Casaubon; ambitious Dr. Lydgate, whose hopes to reform his profession are derailed by the limpid blue eyes of the Mayor’s self-centered daughter Rosamond; shrewd, forthright Mary Garth and her faithful but feckless sweetheart Fred Vincy; Mr. Casaubon’s bright but erratic cousin Will Ladislaw, who adores Dorothea, flirts with Rosamond, and struggles to find his place in a rapidly changing world.
In themselves, the individual successes and failures, joys and sorrows, that make up the plot are not that different from the ingredients of many other novels, of its time or our own. It’s the expansive historical context, the psychological depth and subtlety, and, above all, the wry, humane philosophical commentary of the omnipresent and often intrusive narrator that distinguish Middlemarch from a conventional family saga and give these stories of quite ordinary people their extraordinary resonance.
But it is also these qualities that, for some readers, come between them and the novel’s pleasures: it is long, it is prosy, and its conspicuous erudition can leave even the keenest reader feeling a bit of a dunce. One of the nicest things about My Life in Middlemarch, then, is that it dispels any lingering aura of intimidation around Eliot’s masterpiece. Instead, from the beginning Mead creates an atmosphere of inviting intimacy, with an evocative anecdote to draw us in. Sitting in a carrel in the Rare Books Division of the New York Public Library, Mead opens one of Eliot’s own notebooks, begun in 1868, in the very early days of her work on Middlemarch — and notices a faint odor, “like the lingering trace of a fire burning in a long-cooled grate.” It’s a pulse-quickening moment: she could be breathing in the very atmosphere of Eliot’s own library, inhaling “a trace of her material world.” Like the moment when she holds one of Eliot’s pens (“it felt heavier in my hand than I expected”), the sensory connection closes the distance between them, and between us.
My Life in Middlemarch is built around connections, though not usually as literal as these. Mead’s approach is essentially personal: she explores the novel’s effect on her own personal life, and she also emphasizes the person behind the authorial pseudonym, and the personal stories at the heart of the novel. Its chapters are named for each of the books of Middlemarch itself, and in each of them Mead interweaves these three strands of autobiography, biography, and literature in patterns reflective of Eliot’s titles. Chapter 2, “Old and Young,” for instance, opens with Virginia Woolf’s famous remark that Middlemarch is “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Mead hears in this “a slight affectation of youthful arrogance” that she attributes to Woolf’s own identity as a “clever child,” positioning herself “to supersede her distinguished but fatigued elder.” This is a stance she recognizes from the early days of her own writing career, toiling as a fact-checker at New York Magazine and “mak[ing] jokes at the expense of certain writers we worked with.”
In Middlemarch, it’s young Doctor Lydgate who exemplifies this combination of idealistic aspiration and impatience with his established predecessors, as Mead then explains — and in the story of how he discovers his medical vocation when he serendipitously opens an encyclopedia to the entry for “Anatomy,” Mead also finds herself reflected:
One need not have discovered one’s precise vocation at an early age, as Lydgate did, to know something of the experience of developing a germinal passion by browsing in a library. Intellectual passion — a love for that “which must be wooed with industrious thought and patient renunciation of small desires” — is rarely accorded the attention that romantic love commands, as Eliot points out; but the reader whom Eliot addresses will likely recognize this other, overlooked passion, because the chances are that he or she has felt it, too. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life when I was in my teens; but the solitary lunchtime hours I spent in my school library, looking at art books or reading literature, were both a discovery in their own right, and a taste of the pleasures of study and thought.
This passage about Lydgate’s vocation is one of many in which George Eliot’s intrusive narrator is conspicuously present, and this leads Mead into a discussion of this narrative technique, which she rightly suggests “can strike today’s reader as awkward and off-putting.” But because “those moments of authorial interjection” press her readers towards “a wider perspective, and a greater insight” than they are ordinarily capable of, she argues that they are part of the “grownup” character of the novel — and thus we return to Woolf, whose “epigrammatic observation” rings true for Mead in part, she says, because of the way the novel enables us to see its young characters “from Eliot’s authorial perspective of heightened, mature sympathy.”
Each chapter moves around in this way between Eliot, Mead, and Middlemarch. Chapter 3, “Waiting for Death,” begins with the story of Eliot’s step-son, Thornie Lewes, who arrived home from South Africa terribly sick — terminally, it turned out — in 1869, just as Eliot was getting started on the novel that became Middlemarch. Mead explains the complex family situation, including George Henry Lewes’s break from his legal wife Agnes and the many ways in which Eliot and Lewes cared for Lewes’s three sons once they had established their own unconventional, though stable and devoted, relationship. Mead then turns to her own romantic involvement, in her “midtwenties,” with a man who had a young daughter:
I often dreamed about the daughter. She became part of my life without my being any part of hers; and it was difficult to be invisible to her when she was so vivid to me . . . Eventually, I did meet her, and when that day arrived I discovered that she was smaller than she had become in my imagination: a little human animal with soft nut-brown hair and bright eyes and an open expression. Eventually, too, I came to love her — not out of a sense of responsibility, nor out of love for her father, but for her, in herself, her sweet nature and good humor and irresistible intelligence. In all my imaginings about what it would mean to have her in my life, I had forgotten to include the prospect of joy.
Other parts of this chapter focus on Fred Vincy and Will Ladislaw, each — like Thornie — a “young man seeking to determine his course in life,” and on the broader theme of parenting in Middlemarch, including a nice tribute to the easily-scorned Mrs. Vincy, whose “distress as her first-born son lies in mortal danger” is portrayed with compassion easily linked to Eliot’s own suffering as Thornie died in her arms. In Chapter 6, “The Widow and the Wife,” Mead highlights love and marriage in the novel, in its author’s life, and in her own. Mead is particularly touched by the enduring happiness Eliot and Lewes found together, at an age and after experiences that made them all the more appreciative of it: “the sense of grateful, joyful indebtedness was mutual.” Mead celebrates their “late love” all the more because it was not until she herself was thirty-five that she found “the man who was to become my husband”:
He is a writer, too, and on those days when we are working in different corners of our house, or traveling together for research, or reading one another’s work before any other editor has seen it, I think I have a glimpse of what Eliot and Lewes’s writerly companionability must have been like. . . . It would be hard to find a happier model for a writers’ marriage than that of Eliot and Lewes.
Lewes, known for his irrepressible vivacity and Bohemian unconventionality, can seem an unlikely partner for someone as intellectually serious as Eliot: as Mead reports, “some of Lewes’s contemporaries found him altogether too ebullient,” and Jane Carlyle (wife of the eminent and irascible historian Thomas) unkindly called him “the Ape.” Mead finds many of his qualities reflected in Middlemarch’s Will Ladislaw: “there is enough of Lewes in Ladislaw — who is disparaged for lightness, frivolity, foreignness, and dilettantism — to suggest that Eliot meant him to be her beloved’s vindication.” Reflecting on their devotion, broken only by Lewes’s death, and on “Eliot’s sober, moving characterization of the conditions of marriage, its demand for self-suppression and tolerance” in Middlemarch, Mead thinks again of her own marriage and finds “greater hope for my own life.”
My Life in Middlemarch is organized by associations of this kind rather than rigorous argumentation. In fact, the book has no overarching thesis and presses no prescriptive conclusion on its readers beyond its claim for the incalculably diffusive effect of reading. It doesn’t even specifically advocate that others read Middlemarch: if you haven’t already, you may well want to by the end of My Life in Middlemarch (which would be one of the book’s happiest results), but it might not mean to you what it means to Mead and that’s fine: her task is not to sell you on it but to tell you about it. There’s something refreshing, even relaxing, about this lack of didacticism, and it’s also true to Eliot’s own resistance to “pedagogic moralizing” and “men of maxims.”
At the same time, this approach has its risks, and Mead’s intricate patterning falters occasionally when she moves with too little clear necessity from one topic to another: juxtapositions are not the same as transitions, and while they can be suggestive, they can also be abrupt and occasionally confusing. In Chapter 3, for instance, Mead describes a portrait of Thornie Lewes:
He appears to have been carefully groomed for the camera, and is wearing a formal coat and bow tie, with his hair smoothed down in a manner incompatible with roving the hillsides looking for wildlife massacre. Held proudly in his hands is a gleaming rifle.
Two blank lines later, we begin, “Fred Vincy, the eldest son of the mayor of Middlemarch, is being groomed for the clergy.” That empty space feels like a gap that needs at least a bit of explanatory prose to bridge it, and moments like these are common as Mead picks up and puts down her different strands.
There are larger organizing principles that give the book as a whole greater continuity, though in practice they too suggest some strain in deciding where to place or how to order things. The biographical and autobiographical portions of each chapter are more or less chronological across the book, and we also follow Mead as she visits each of Eliot’s residences in turn, from her childhood home near Coventry to the site of the Priory, Eliot and Lewes’s last home. But this forward movement is not entirely consistent: by the end of Chapter 6, for example, we have followed Eliot through her marriage to John Cross after Lewes’s death, and then to her death. Then in Chapter 7 Mead looks at her changing critical reputation — but in Chapter 8 we go back to the time of the novel’s composition and Eliot’s “sunset years.”
Mead does not track the plots of Middlemarch quite in order either. This is understandable given her thematic approach, and also apt, as the novel too does not proceed in strictly linear fashion. Still, among other things, it felt odd to get an extended discussion of Mary Garth in Chapter 8 after her briefer appearance during the detailed consideration of Fred in Chapter 3, and I might have made Lydgate and Rosamond, rather than Ladislaw, prominent in Chapter 6, rather than (or as well as) in the earlier sections where they do figure — though that would have led to more dispiriting conclusions about marriage. The dispersal of Eliot’s key plot points across Mead’s chosen themes also makes it hard to discern the movement of the novel towards its own crisis and resolution. Dorothea’s encounter with Rosamond in Eliot’s Chapter 81, for example, is touched on only in passing, in Mead’s Chapter 4: we get little sense of its climactic place in the novel’s moral structure.
Then again, Mead’s not writing a thesis, and for the most part she moves us artfully from point to point on her particular web, along the way providing a thorough if somewhat diffuse overview of many facets of the novel. Mead says, “I hope that I have written a book that can be read by people who haven’t read Middlemarch.” In this, she has admirably succeeded: My Life in Middlemarch is as friendly an introduction as I can imagine to an extraordinary woman and a great novel.
But what does it offer people who have read Middlemarch, including those who know it very well? Certainly they don’t need to be introduced to the characters, or to have the plot recapitulated; if they also know the major events of Eliot’s biography, that adds up to a significant proportion of My Life in Middlemarch that they will find very familiar, if elegantly articulated. Some readers might also find Mead’s primary emphasis on plot and character superficial, considering the novel’s complexities: she rarely and only briefly addresses the novel’s literary form, its philosophy, or its literary and historical contexts, and none of her readings are particularly close, provocative, or new. Her overarching interest in making connections between herself and the novel might also come across as solipsistic.
Mead clearly anticipates complaints of this sort. Indeed, there were moments in My Life in Middlemarch when I could have sworn Mead was actually, even literally, warning me off — because these are just the criticisms I levelled against the New Yorker essay that was a trial run for this book. Discussing the many letters Eliot received from young women insisting that “Eliot must have modeled Dorothea upon her,” Mead acknowledges that
Such an approach to fiction — where do I see myself in here? — is not how a scholar reads, and it can be limiting in its solipsism. It’s hardly an enlarging experience to read a novel as if it were a mirror of oneself. One of the useful functions of literary criticism and scholarship is to suggest alternative lenses through which a book might be read.
But she goes on to defend the practices of “ordinary readers”:
all readers make books over in their own image, and according to their own experience. . . Identification with character is one way in which most ordinary readers do engage with a book, even if it is not where a reader’s engagement ends. It is where part of the pleasure, and the urgency, of reading lies. It is one of the ways that a novel speaks to a reader, and becomes integrated into the reader’s own imaginative life. Even the most sophisticated readers read novels in the light of their own experience, and in such recognition, sympathy may begin.
Fair enough! Later, in her discussion of Alexander Main (compiler of the 1875 volume Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings in Prose and Verse Selected from the Works of George Eliot), whose effusive admiration earned him the nickname “the Gusher” from Eliot and Lewes, Mead again speaks up for the unsophisticated reader: “Main does something that most of us who love books do, to some extent or another. He talks about the characters as if they were real people — as vivid, or more so, than people in his own life.” Main, she proposes,
is the naïve reader writ large — the kind of reader who approaches a book not with an academic’s theoretical apparatus or the scope of a professional critic, but who reads with commitment and intelligence, and with a conviction that there is something worth learning from a book.
“I recognized in his enthusiasm for her works enough of my own admiration for her to feel an awkward fellowship with him,” she says.
Mead’s readings are not naïve, and she could not be “dismissed as trivial and erring,” as she notes Main has been. But her book, as she is clearly aware, is also not a ground-breaking contribution to our understanding of the literary or philosophical meaning of Middlemarch. Of course, it doesn’t have to be, to be something special of its own: the note of defensiveness that comes through these sections rings false in a book that is otherwise clear about and true to its own purpose, which is “to consider how Middlemarch has shaped my understanding of my own life.”
This is not the only way to approach Middlemarch. It is not, frankly, my own preference, as either a reader or a writer, and as a result I approached My Life in Middlemarch with some skepticism. But Mead won me over. The book is not just more expansive than the New Yorker essay: it is also better balanced, more thought-provoking, and, unexpectedly, more self-effacing. If anything, as a memoir it is too reserved; Mead gets personal but never confessional (perhaps in talking about her own life she feels, as she does about Eliot’s honeymoon with her second husband, John Cross, that it’s better to “step back from the bedroom — as a Victorian novelist would have been obliged to do”), and her story does not rise to any epiphanic heights. Rather, she is quietly reflective about the ways Middlemarch has “become part of my own experience”:
When I turn the last pages of Middlemarch and read about Fred and Mary, I think of my parents, who met when they were barely past childhood, and who grew white haired together; until in the hours before dawn one winter morning, nearly sixty years after their wedding day, my father died with my mother at his side, holding his hand and speaking softly to him of sweet memories in common. Middlemarch gives my parents back to me. In the pages of my imagination they are still together, watching me and watching over me from the window of their lives, under the pale sunlight of the place I came from and still call home.
She is also often poetic, as in her description of “the landscape of my childhood, with its torn clouds scattered across unpredictable skies, its stony strand tossed with driftwood and bladder wrack, its backwater footpaths lined with crab apple trees and blackberry bushes.” Looking at that landscape, where Eliot and Lewes also rambled long before, Mead meditates on Eliot’s belief that “our earliest experiences provide the ground upon which our characters are built.” Looking back is not empty sentimentality but “a sign of moral maturity”:
Being reminded of this is one of the things her books do for me, by connecting me with the child I was before I had ever heard of a writer called George Eliot. In the green fields and shady byways of my youth, Eliot glimpsed the site of her own youth, in imagination, and when I read her books I am restored anew to that place of childhood. She shows me that the remembrance of a childhood landscape is not mere nostalgia for what is lost and beyond my reach. . . . It is an opportunity to be in touch again with the intensity and imagination of beginnings. It is a discovery, later in life, of what remains with me.
What My Life in Middlemarch ultimately offered me — what I cherished about it — was its celebration of the continuities as well as the changes that mark our growing into ourselves, and of the special role books so often have in this process as tangible symbols of who we have been, are, and aspire to be. “Most serious readers,” Mead rightly notes, “can point to one book that has a place in their life like the one Middlemarch has in mine. I chose Middlemarch — or Middlemarch chose me — and I cannot imagine life without it.” Like hers, my life has been immeasurably affected by rereading Middlemarch. That I read it differently than she does (that I ask different things of it and want to say different things about it) is only a reflection of the novel’s own richness, and of the different way in which it has grafted itself to me. “My Middlemarch,” as Mead says, “is not the same as anyone else’s Middlemarch”; My Life in Middlemarch is, as it should and could only be, Mead’s George Eliot book, not anybody else’s. And the story she tells, irresistible to any fellow reader, is of a life “changed by books, reshaped by reading, transfigured by the slow green growth.”
Rohan Maitzen teaches at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings.