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.
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.