My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

RoadtoMiddlemarch

I remember vividly the first time I read Middlemarch. It was my second year in university and the reading list for the module on nineteenth century literature was HUGE. They didn’t come much bigger than Middlemarch. With a seminar and then essay looming the only way to get through this text was to lock myself in my room and read – from morning until evening. No time to really absorb the text etc, I just had to get enough of a sense of the plot and themes so I didn’t sit in embarrassed silence in the seminar. I made it but I wasn’t enamoured. And then within a few months had to read the whole thing again in preparation for the end of year exam. I packed it away with a feeling of joy that I’d not have to plough through it again.

Well that wasn’t really what happened. Many years later when I felt the grey cells gathering dust I embarked on a Open University degree  which had a module on nineteenth century literature. Which, guess what, had Middlemarch as a set text. I couldn’t avoid it since it featured in a compulsory question. I gritted my teeth and embarked on my third read.

Whether my more mature self was able to more fully appreciate Eliot’s writing  I’m not sure. Virginia Woolf did describe this as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people” so that may well be the case. The development of literary criticism in the intervening years also helped because they opened up new ways of reading the text. To my my surprise I found I was enjoying this chunkster. I enjoyed it even more on a fourth reading. I’ve now read it seven times and my appreciation of Eliot’s masterpiece deepens every time.

Given that experience I opened Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch wondering if she too had gone through the same learning curve. Part biography, part autobiography, part bibliography, it’s a personal reflection on the novel and how it has impacted her life. She first read it as a 17-year-old living in the southwest of England who, each week went to the home of a retired teacher of English literature to talk about books and prepare her for university entrance exams. From the first words she was enraptured,  continuing to read it through her early career years as a journalist and into love, marriage and a family.  Sometimes the connections she makes between an episode in her life and an episode in Eliot’s life or that of one of her characters, feel laboured. As for example when she draws a parallel between her own role as a stepmother to three sons to George Eliot’s devotion to the children of her partner George Henry Lewes.

Mead is conscious however of the dangers of over identification with characters one encounters in fiction:  “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,” she declares. Eliot herself was scornful of women readers who imagined themselves as the heroines and the most admirable character in the novel.She hoped for a more nuanced engagement from her own readers. What Mead argues is that the book is different for each individual reader who makes and re-makes it according to their own experience. So Mead’s Middlemarch is not the same as my Middlemarch or of yours but is no the less valid.

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 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 might begin.

As I experienced personally, Mead learned that favourite works can mean different things to us at different stages in our lives. In her twenties she empathised with Dorothea’s admiration of Casaubon as a man of knowledge and experience who could lead her out of the narrow world in which she had lived so far. Bent time she reached her thirties she felt the same scorn towards  Casaubon as do Ladislaw and most of the Tipton community aghast that a young woman like Dorothea should ‘throw herself away’ on this dusty old scholar. As a mature reader however she feels more tender towards a man fearful that the academic work to which he has devoted his life will not be acclaimed by his peers. Moreover a man who feels his wife, in pressing him to publish the work, is deliberately trying to undermine him. Fear of failure seems more tangible as the years advance finds Mead.

 

This is a thoughtful book which argues for the transformative power of art and of reading in particular. For people who know Middlemarch well, the book may not offer then a significant amount of new information but for those relatively new to the book and Eliot well, there is a lot to discover. Mead has done her research thoroughly, visiting houses and other places associated with different points of George Eliot’s life, delving  through archives, holding the pen with which she wrote her novels and letters and reading Eliot’s letters themselves.

One of the lasting impressions for me was a vignette in which Mead asks us to imagine a stout couple waddling along a road in London. To most passers-by they would not have attracted even a glance yet Eliot and her partner Lewes were some of the finest minds of their era and their unconventional lifestyle was considered scandalous. Together this unremarkable looking pair ambling along in suburbia were responsible for some of the most pleasurable moments in my life.

End Notes

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead was published in USA 2014 by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House. 

Rebecca Mead is a staff writer for The New Yorker. My Life in Middlemarch started life as an essay in that magazine.

 

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on July 14, 2016, in Biography, Book Reviews, Non fiction, United Kingdom and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.

  1. I’ve read this book as well: I love the scholarly, biographical approach. It really made me want to read Middlemarch {which I still haven’t done!}

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  2. Somehow your blog fell off my blog reader, not sure how! Anyway, I love Middlemarch – I once had to read it and write a massive essay in 48 hours but that didn’t put me off. I have re-read it a few times, and it has changed – I used to think it was about love and marriage and now I think it’s about politics and inheritance!

    As for this particular book, I wasn’t massively keen myself. I found it way too personal and there was too much conjecture. My review is here, if you’re interested https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2015/06/11/book-reviews-tempest-tost-and-the-road-to-middlemarch/

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    • My reader has done odd things too so I’ve also lost the feeds of many blogs. The fact you can read MM in so many ways it what makes it such a delight. Reading it in the context of an essay where she sets out her philosophy that writers need to exert sympathy for their characters is also an interesting experience

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  3. This book has always been on my to-read list. I have enjoyed other Autobiography/biography/bibliographies like “Spinster”, so this looks like a great new read.

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  4. I’ve never read Middlemarch!!

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  5. I’ve never read Middlemarch…and I’m mildly fascinated at the idea of re-reading a single book several times when I can barely wrap my mind around the many books yet unread that I’m yearning to read (though I suppose I must have, if not cover to cover then re-read of substantial bits during my school, college, and university years). Seriously, there is some mild anxiety about running out of time before I’ve read all the books I have a hunger to read. #bibliophileproblems That said, I found this a fascinating read. This insight jumped out at me: “What Mead argues is that the book is different for each individual reader who makes and re-makes it according to their own experience. So Mead’s Middlemarch is not the same as my Middlemarch or of yours but is no the less valid.” Perhaps because as a writer myself, it’s infinitely interesting the very different impulses that seem to pull at me people in response to my books. I’m thinking of one book in particular (Oh Gad!) in which I noticed a certain pattern in terms of the likeability or non-likeability of two particular (conflicting) characters based on …geography (I can’t think how else to put it and I won’t get in to it more here but that’s what that quote made me think of). Anyway, just wanted to say that though I’ve never read Middlemarch, I found this post highly interesting. As your posts usually are.

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  6. I first read Middlemarch back in the late 1980s when doing my A Level English Lit. I read it all the way through perhaps twice, then cherry picked out of it perhaps another 8 or t0 times (leading to read it all the way through perhaps 4 or 5 times).

    I was working when the BBC adaptation came out and one of the girls I worked with (not an academic by any means) had decided to get the book after watching a few episodes. In talking about it in the office, she was asking whether anyone else had read such a large book, so when she found out I’d read it about 5 times……”What? Why? Did you like it that much?” (“Was irrelevant whether I liked it, it was set text….”)

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    • The BBC adaptation was superb. Not a dud character in sight. I know of some ‘students’ who gave up reading the book and just watched the series and then of course struggled to write anything meaningful in essays.

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  7. The Book is still glowering at me from my TBR pile. Had not yet had the time – our courage – to tackle the monster. Having read your review and comments, I feel fear creeping through every cell of my being. But then I’m coming down with a cold, so now is clearly not the time.

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    • I make it sound far more daunting than it really is. You can read it just like a soap opera if you want – it has plenty of gossip and intrigue to fit that bill. But you can also have fun picking out some of the themes like thwarted ambition

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    • It can be chunked into sections (I cant remember if it’s actually split into specific volumes), e.g pre-Causabon, During-Causabon and Post-Causabon (if you read the book you’ll know what I mean) to make it less huge…..

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  8. I’d echo Guy on both points, although you have made it sound quite appealing. It’s the ‘laboured’ bits that are a little off-putting – seems a little egocentric. I loved your final paragraph!

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  9. Middlemarch is one of my best all-time reads. Not sure that I’d care for this though.

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    • Sometimes reading about a novel that you love isn’t ideal. I thought she strained a bit too hard to make connections so skipped some of that part and enjoyed the insights into the life of Eliot she provided.

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  10. Could someone who has not read Middlemarch enjoy this book? I read it when I sat in on a class called The Victorian Universe, but I have this terrible inability to remember books in detail, especially characters’ names (and wow, do Victorian chunkers have a lot of names).

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    • You’d be able to read the sections where she talks about Eliot’s life without any issue but I don’t think you’d get much of the rest of it if you don’t have a reasonable knowledge of the plot/characters.

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  11. I love Middlemarch, and if I could smuggle another book for desert island reading, it would be my choice after Ulysses.
    But I’m wary of this “book-about-me-reading-a-book genre”. If it’s literary criticism delivered in more palatable form for students, it might help young readers who had the same response as you did with your first reading. But otherwise, well, it seems a bit narcissistic to me.
    I think I’d rather re-read Middlemarch. I’ve only read it three times!

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    • I didn’t know this was a new kind of genre! The closest thing I’ve heard was Julie Powell reading Julia Child’s cookbook and making every dish in it. Powell went on to write a book about reading and cooking Child’s dishes, and then the book was made into a movie. I hope it’s lit crit that’s more palatable! I was just digging through a stack of book reviews written by scholars that I had in my desk drawer, and I couldn’t stop thinking how pretentious they were — how inaccessible to regular people who want to read books (and given the abysmal literacy stats in the U.S. and elsewhere, I think it’s a bit dangerous to make book reviews nearly incomprehensible because they’re so filled with jargon).

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    • Fair point – if that was all it was then I probably wouldn’t have finished it or if it did, then I wouldn’t have rated it that much. It was the mixture with the insights on Eliot and the experience of visiting her homes that tipped the balance for me.

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