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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.

 

Sunday Salon: A hit, miss and a maybe

I’ve talked before about the issue that most readers face at some point — what to do when the book you’re reading just isn’t grabbing your attention.  Do you just try to get the end as quickly as you can on the basis that:

1. it might, just might, get better or
2. you’ve invested money/ time in this book so you may as well finish it?

Or are you one of those people who believe there is little point in reading something you don’t enjoy when there are so many thousands of better books to be discovered. I used to be in the first group but in the last couple of years my attitude has moved far more to the second.

Which is why this week I had my first ‘did not finish’ experience of 2014. And just possibly my second.

Quiet DellQuiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips is a fictionalised account of a based on a real life serial murderer called Harry Powers who used lonely-hearts columns to con lonely women into thinking he would marry them. Among his victims was Anna Eicher, a single mother,  and her three children, who perished in a torture chamber under his garage.  He was hanged in 1932  An interesting story but one I couldn’t read further than page 30 because the author takes so long to get going. I don’t look for the literary equivalent of Hitchcock’s brick through the window approach to grab attention at the beginning of a book — slow pace is fine as long as I feel there is a purpose for that pace and a promise of a story progression at some point . With Quiet Dell I got neither. The opening was a ponderous  introduction to Eicher and her family and the background of her marriage.  I didn’t get any strong sense of the location in West Virginia or of the characters as real people, just a lot of detail. As if the author was clearing her throat ready for the main performance ahead. Not having a lot of interest in throat clearing, I ditched the book.

DublisqueAfter that miss, I turned to Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas which has been languishing on the bookshelves for more than a year. I bought it as part of my plan to read writers from countries along the Equator. I wanted something by a Spanish author that wasn’t a classic in the vein of Cervantes but was rather more literary than Carlos Ruis Zafon, much as I enjoyed Shdow in the Wind. I landed on Matas who is considered one of the most distinguished and inventive  of contemporary Spanish novelists  and whose most recent novel Dublinesque had been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2013.

Samuel Riba is a sixty year old recovering alcoholic whose publishing business has collapsed. Nothing in life seems to matter to him any more except what he fears is the imminent end of the book in the era of digitalisation. On the strength of a dream he hatches a plan to take three of his former authors on a pilgrimage to Dublin to celebrate Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce masterpiece Ulysses is set.  While there they will also commemorate the end of the Gutenberg era.

One hundred pages into the book we are still nowhere near Dublin. Instead we’ve had a lot of talking, a lot of reflecting and a mass of literary references, many of which I don’t understand. I can appreciate the skill that’s gone into the novel but it’s not making for a pleasurable experience as yet. I’ll keep going for a while, at least until they get to Dublin, and then decide.

RoadtoMiddlemarchFortunately I do have one book that is an absolute hit even though I haven’t got very far along yet. You may remember in last Sunday’s Salon posting, I was sharing my excitement at the prospect of The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot by Rebecca Mead but also wondering if I could last out until my birthday before acquiring it or could I justify breaking my book buying resolution to get it before that date. Thanks to the generosity I’ve seen in the blogosphere, my dilemma is over. Tanya at 52booksorbust.wordpress.com came to my rescue by donating a copy she didn’t want (thanks again Tanya). It’s every bit as good as the reviews I’ve read indicated it would be. I just have to be careful not to read it at breakfast otherwise I will never get to work.

So that’s been my week — what are all of you up to? Any hits or misses to share?

Sunday Salon: Reading wish list

sundaysalonIt’s two months now since I decided to stop buying new books until my To Be Read collection got down to a manageable level. So far I’ve succumbed just the once. I even managed to walk into a book shop last weekend and out again without giving way, despite the many enticing offers on the table. I did pick up three books from the sales table in the local library and was on my way to the counter when the inner voice told me that actually none of them were that interesting. Back they went.

So the bookshelves are slowly getting slimmed down. What’s putting on weight is the list I keep of books to read in the future because of course, I might have stopped buying for a while, but authors haven’t given up writing and publishers haven’t sent their presses for a holiday just so I can catch up.  It would help for sure if I didn’t read book reviews in the weekend newspaper arts sections or the newsfeeds from book blogs I follow or the publishers’ e-newsletters to which I subscribe. But then I’d feel I was really missing out wouldn’t I?

Off the scores of books I’ve added to my wish list in the last couple of weeks, the one I’m looking forward to most is The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot by Rebecca Mead.

 

Mead, a writer for the New Yorker, has read Middlemarch multiple times at different points in her life, each reading casting new light on the book that Virginia Woolf considered ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’. Reading it as an eighteen year old, Mead saw mostly the romance theme, empathising with the heroine Dorothea Brookes, and despising her husband Casaubon. Reading the novel later as an adult, she felt a greater sense of kinship and empathy for this “sad, proud, desiccated man'”. The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot mixes close readings of the text with Mead’s responses from her different readings with biographical insight about Eliot herself drawn from letters, diaries and notebooks.

Middlemarch is one of my three favourite novels of all time. It wasn’t always that way – in fact the first time I read it was as part of an undergraduate course and I just couldn’t wait to get to the end. Luckily a friend persuaded me a few years later to give it another go. The light bulb went on and has never gone off since that time. Just like Mead, the more times I read it, the more nuances and interpretations I discovered and the more clearly I saw how Eliot’s humanist and scientific ideologies were woven into the novel. If ever I was stuck on a desert island and had only one novel available, this would be the one.

I’m not sure how long I can hold out before adding Mead’s book to my shelves.

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