If Rebecca Mead’s “George Eliot and Me” * didn’t take up eight pages (eight pages!) in the New Yorker‘s anniversary issue, I would just let it go by without comment. But the New Yorker is prime literary real estate, and eight pages is a lot. It seems a fair assumption that Mead’s essay should be significant in some way–that it should represent outstanding work of its kind. When, after reading it through three times, I still couldn’t find the payoff–well, that does seem to call for some discussion.
It’s not that “George Eliot and Me” is a terrible piece or anything–Mead is no Brenda Maddox (though she reports attending a talk by Maddox at which–surprise!–Maddox recounts the Curious Incident of the Honeymoon Defenestration). Then again, I notice Mead does think it’s important to tell us how plain Eliot was (however did I manage to write a whole essay on Eliot without feeling any need to bring this up?!) She also shares Maddox’s ageism, describing a female scholar she meets as “a tall woman, no longer young but still striking.” But? (This whole encounter is oddly described, actually: Mead introduces this scholar as a “notable exception” to a “maxim” she has just quoted, from Adam Bede: ‘The way in which I have come to the conclusion that human nature is loveable [sic]–the way I have learned something of its deep pathos, its sublime mysteries–has been by living a great deal among people more or less commonplace and vulgar.” I can’t tell if Mead means that this woman, though commonplace and vulgar, is an exception to the conclusion that human nature is lovable [if so, what a snidely gratuitous dig this is!] or, because she is not commonplace and vulgar, an exception to the idea that you can’t find lovable human nature in more glamorous guise.)
Anyway, as I was saying, it’s not a terrible piece. It’s nice to hear from someone who has loved Middlemarch a long time and feels she has learned from it. I felt a certain kinship with Mead on these grounds, especially at the beginning of the essay: “The first time I read George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” [I guess using quotation marks for novels rather than italics is New Yorker house style?] I was seventeen years old, and was preparing to take the entrance examination for Oxford University.” “Hey, me too!” I thought–except that I was eighteen and backpacking across Europe. So, not quite the same, but still, like Mead, I first read the novel early in my progress towards adulthood. Also, like Mead’s, my identifications and interpretations have changed over the years, not just because my own experience challenged my earlier assumptions and values, but because I learned to read the book better. Mead, too: on her early readings, she says, she “relished the satire” but “missed, more or less completely, the irony in the portrayal of Dorothea.” It’s an easy mistake; I made it too, once upon a time. And Mead and I share admiration for the novel’s moral wisdom, though I don’t think I’ve ever made Mead’s larger, and apparently continuing, mistake that “everything I might need to know about marriage, about love, about life itself, was encompassed in the novel’s eight hundred and fifty pages.” That’s a lot to ask of any novel–and it reduces the novel (as most of Mead’s comments d0) to a fairly literal set of lessons and examples that can be copied out epigrammatically.
Thinking it over, in fact, that attitude that the novel operates primarily at this level–as ‘philosophy teaching by examples,’ rather than as a richly organized aesthetic artefact–is what seems to me the essay’s greatest and most disappointing weakness. Nothing Mead says about Middlemarch is wrong, but none of it is going to surprise or even interest people who have thought much about Eliot or Middlemarch already, and none of it gives any sense of Eliot as an artist or a thinker: all we get, by and large, are one-sentence quotations used to illustrate points of character, theme or moral lesson. In the online “Ask the Author” chat that the New Yorker hosted, Mead mentions Zadie Smith’s essay, so she knows that there are richer ways to talk about Middlemarch.There are certainly richer ways to talk about The Mill on the Floss, which Mead mentions only to imply that it is “verbose,” which she then uses as an excuse to mention the (appalling) phenomenon of “a volume called ‘The Mill on the Floss: in Half the Time,’ an abridgement for those unable to countenance a six-hundred-page book.” I don’t think she means to endorse this absurdity, but juxtaposed against her “verbose” comment, it rather comes across that way. I see she didn’t get past her earlier lack of interest in Romola, either, here simply called Eliot’s “often tedious excursion into Renaissance Florence.” Sure, Romola is hard going and probably not a great novel. But you have eight pages in the New Yorker to talk about George Eliot! There’s so much more to be said about George Eliot’s novels, if you’re willing to work at it a little, to get outside your own head, and to explore not just her “maxims” (remember her cautions about people who live by them, after all–that’s one of the tedious philosophical bits that is probably left out of the truncated version of The Mill on the Floss) but her ideas and her craft. How did Mead figure out the irony at Dorothea’s expense, for instance, if not through the electric combination of Eliot’s intrusive narrator and her shifting point of view?
But perhaps in complaining about the superficiality of the literary discussion in the essay I’m making a category mistake . Maybe the main point of “George Eliot and Me” is not to talk about George Eliot, at least not in depth, but about the effect of her work on Mead’s own life and personal development. “I have gone back to ‘Middlemarch’ every five years or so,” she tells us, and her “emotional response” has evolved each time. She has learned to understand why Will’s “youthful energies and Byronic hairdressing” would have appealed “to his middle-aged creator,” for instance. (Oops, that’s actually another Maddox-like moment: Eliot the acknowledged cradle-snatcher, fantasizing about a sexy youngster!) Mead has also used Middlemarch to test prospective partners: when one tells her he “admired the climactic scene of Will and Dorothea…clutching each other’s hands, at last, as a thunderstorm rages,” she knows “things would never have worked between us.” Poor guy: done in by the pathetic fallacy! Eventually Mead married someone who “prized ‘Middlemarch’ as much as [she] did.” There’s some genuine human interest in these anecdotes, at least for a fellow Middlemarch lover who (true story) began a long tradition of reading aloud to her own husband by bringing Middlemarch along on their honeymoon. (We gave up on this tradition round about the time Frankenstein got thrown across the room for its terrible prose…but that’s another story. Maybe I should pitch it to the New Yorker.) But there’s still not a lot of substance here for someone hoping to find those precious eight pages used to advance public appreciation for one of the greatest novelists in the English tradition. I’d have to be really interested in Mead–rather than George Eliot–to be happy to read so much about her. Or, alternatively, she’d have to use her personal experience of reading Middlemarch to take us to some place more universally revelatory or insightful.
That’s not what happens in “George Eliot and Me,” though. It doesn’t articulate and illustrate the genius of George Eliot, and neither does it use its autobiographical form to build to some personal revelation or to a larger intellectual debate about, say, whether it is a good thing or not to derive one’s moral lessons from literature (now that’s a very Victorian conversation!)–or how one might do so in a rich and complex enough way that the literary texture of the source is not sandpapered out in favor of bland platitudes. (Where is the moral challenge of George Eliot’s “celebration of the unremarkable” in Mead’s commentary? The village dance which concludes the essay oddly summons up the most conservative aspects of Eliot’s rural nostalgia–as if the happy peasants of Raveloe had nothing to answer for in Silas Marner’s long isolation, or Arthur Donnithorne’s birthday dance weren’t undermined by Hetty’s seduction and abandonment.) Instead, we wander off with Mead as she tries to track down the source of a quotation often attributed to George Eliot: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” It is, indeed, surprising that despite the tenacity of the attribution, this line cannot be traced to any of Eliot’s works. Mead asks a lot of experts about it, including Rosemary Ashton and Rosemarie Bodenheimer (both of whom have written wonderfully about Eliot’s life and writing). Not only do they say they can’t find a source for it, they also, quite rightly, note that it doesn’t seem to fit with Eliot’s explicit moral philosophy, which makes rather a big deal about the way our choices have an indelible effect on our characters and futures. Mead even interviews the author of a self-help book who used the quotation as her title: “I was depressed for a few days, and then I remembered the quote.” Eventually Mead resigns herself: she can’t find a source for the quotation or conclusively prove Eliot never said it. “Like Lydgate,” she says, “I had aspired to make a link in the chain of discovery, and had failed.” Along with some interspersed biographical material, this quest plot takes up nearly three of the eight pages. It might have been worth the space if the investigation was “linked” to something significant. (Lydgate, after all, is hoping to find “the primitive tissue” of life.) I wonder, for instance, why this is quite such a popular quotation, why it seems to satisfy so many people as something George Eliot said. Does it bring her within a safer community of women–reassuring, nurturing–and make her more conventionally feminine than is easily done if we quote from Mead’s least-favorite of her novels, Romola? “Children may be strangled, but deeds never” doesn’t go very well on a greeting card. Or how about this, from Felix Holt: “It is not true that love makes all things easy: it makes us choose what is difficult.” Try selling that on a wall plaque.
It feels churlish, in a way, to be so critical of an essay that speaks so sincerely of its author’s admiration for one of my own favorite books. It’s a good thing to tell more people how great Middlemarch is. Mead and I both think that Austen is more popular because she’s easier on (and for) her readers. As Mead says, Eliot “surpassed her precursor” (but why does she go on to say that the reader “marvels at Jane Austen’s cleverness, but is astonished by George Eliot’s intelligence”? Why “astonished”? I’m impressed–humbled–challenged–provoked by it, but not at all astonished). But the essay is a disappointment. It’s long (“verbose,” even), cluttered, and solipsistic, as if the greatest interest of George Eliot’s life and work really is that they have played a big part in Rebecca Mead’s life and work. At a time when it’s common to hear online writing decried for its lack of editorial oversight, rigor, and credibility, to see eight pages in one of the most prestigious magazines in the literary world used for something no better than this gives the lie to the claim that these supposed features of Old Media produce the best results. It’s not terrible–parts of it are even pretty good–but it’s certainly not great, and given its very prominent placement, it surely should be.
*The essay is called “George Eliot and Me” on the magazine cover, but “Middlemarch and Me” inside the magazine.