REVIEW: My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

In the midst of #readwomen2014 — the year of reading women’s books — comes a book about reading one of the most widely respected of women’s books, George Eliot’s Middlemarch. My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead is a beguiling mixture of memoir, George Eliot’s biography, and close reading of the novel.

It speaks to lovers of literature who may or may not have read Eliot’s work and raises some important questions about why and how we read.

Mead is on a mission to make you love George Eliot’s 900-page novel as much as she does, not only because it’s a great read but also because it can make you a better person. But how, exactly? Middlemarch is an expression of Eliot’s philosophy of compassion and fellow feeling. “We are called to express our generosity and sympathy in ways we might not have chosen for ourselves. Heeding that call, we might become better,” Mead writes.

Such message-driven fiction fell out of favor in the twentieth century, and Mead helpfully traces the ups and downs of Eliot’s literary reputation. Her “earnestness” made her old-fashioned and even the object of ridicule. Critics labeled her novels treatises and determined they weren’t really “art” in the modern sense. Mead argues that Eliot promoted feeling in her readers, not action: “She was more concerned with changing her reader’s perspective than she was with encouraging the reader to contribute to soup kitchens.”

For Mead, Eliot’s seriousness still resonates.

I imagine it will for many readers tired of aloof, detached fiction that analyzes without compassion.

Eliot’s fiction is an antidote to the disease Roxane Robinson identified in her Slate essay “The Cold Heart of James Salter”: “Somehow we no longer require compassion from the literature we admire. We admire writers who celebrate irony, disdain, contempt, who establish emotional distance rather than intimacy. We’ve come to confuse compassion with sentimentality and we’re slightly embarrassed by both. Have people changed, in some fundamental way? Is the human heart no longer in conflict with itself? Is this deep inner conflict no longer important?”

Robinson’s heartfelt rant recognizes a problem that lies at the heart of our reading lives. Do we read to connect — “Only connect,” as E. M. Forester wrote — or for analysis, amusement, or simply making ourselves feel smarter? Such pleasures are altogether different from what Eliot’s novels and My Life in Middlemarch provide.

We are invited to see ourselves in the pages of these books

and to reflect on how our lives intersect with those of others who may be altogether different from ourselves.

Mead believes that Middlemarch “has become part of my own experience and my own endurance.” At different stages of her life, it has taught her how to make sense of herself. In her teens, she saw herself in Dorothea’s yearning for a larger purpose. As a young adult, she recognized Lydgate’s discovery of his intellectual ambitions. As an adult, she empathized with Casaubon’s failure to accomplish his goals.

She argues that identifying with characters is something “even the most sophisticated readers do. It is where part of the pleasure, and the urgency, of reading lies.” Here is where the satisfaction of Mead’s book lies as well as she guides us through her own engagements with the novel’s various characters. There is less satisfaction in her reportage of visits to sites associated with Eliot, largely because they fail to connect her — and us — to Eliot and her novel. Often the buildings have been torn down or have been modernized beyond recognition. An exception is Mead’s opportunity to sit at the same window Eliot had once described herself sitting in front of, her writing on her knees. “I could conjure her more vividly than anywhere else I had pictured her in my travels,” she writes. As a result, so can we.

In her review of the book, Joyce Carol Oates wondered about a person’s obsession with just one book. Indeed, one might be skeptical about Mead’s focus on one novel. Of course, Middlemarch is a sprawling novel with multiple subplots. But as Michael Gorra showed in 2012 in his The Portrait of a Novel, sustained attention on one book, in his case Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, can be very rewarding. Both works offer the immense satisfactions of drilling deeply into the complexities of Eliot’s and James’s novels as well as illuminating the contexts in which the novels were written. One difference between the two books is Mead’s greater use of memoir and her own personal interaction with the novel. Gorra writes from the position of a literature professor, while Mead is resolutely a devoted fan.

Mead briefly examines and then dismisses a scholarly approach to reading.

Although it can “suggest alternative lenses through which a book might be read,” she mostly disagrees with the scholarly opinions she cites here and there in the book.

The most important thing Mead’s and Gorra’s books do is bring Eliot’s and James’s novels to life for us again, while scholarly engagements can kill them, as anyone who has been to graduate school knows. Each writer takes a different approach to rejuvenating our understanding of Eliot and James. Gorra takes us into James’s head as he wrote his famous novel while Mead takes us into hers as she read it. Gorra illuminates the book more from the writer’s point of view, Mead from the reader’s. Both are viable and rewarding approaches. One opportunity that Mead’s approach provides, but doesn’t take advantage of fully, is the exploration of other readers’ reactions to the novel.

My Life in Middlemarch would be even more illuminating if it was less narrowly focused on Mead’s feelings about the book. This is particularly noticeable in her discussion of Dorothea, a disappointing character for many female readers. Mead focuses on Dorothea’s yearning for knowledge and experience, with which she could identify as a seventeen-year-old. She helpfully articulates the burning questions Eliot is asking through Dorothea: “Where is a woman to put her energies? How is she to express her longings? … What, in the end, is a young woman to do with herself?” Dorothea, like so many women before and since, channeled her yearning for knowledge into her choice of a husband. He would open for her the book of life. But she is misguided in her choice of a husband, a moldy, solipsistic scholar who lacks the capacity for intimacy. Eliot shows the disastrous consequences of Dorothea’s choice but does not question the motivations behind her decision. Many female readers have lamented the fact that Eliot narrows the possible answers to the question of what a young woman can do to one, namely marriage. The fulfilment Eliot herself discovered in reading, translating, and writing is not allowed Dorothea or her other female characters. Instead, the rewards of intellectual endeavors are granted to male characters, like Lydgate, whose ambition is allowed to find an outlet in a vocation. We might recognize Eliot’s critique of the limitations that are placed on most women of her era, but we can also feel disappointed that her female characters can find no other outlet than marriage, particularly if we are trying to put ourselves into the novel, as Mead does.

Nonetheless, My Life in Middlemarch is a joy to read, especially the parts of the book focused on the novel itself. It is wonderful to watch an intelligent, perceptive mind grappling with and making sense of a literary work. It is surprising how few cogent, accessible readings of literature like this are written. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we can no longer assume that a critical mass of well-read individuals have read certain texts in common. Mead certainly makes a powerful argument for including Middlemarch on our list of must-reads.

My Life in Middlemarch

by Rebecca Mead

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