I’ve not read much in the genre of writers writing about their reading, so I may have had some misconceptions about what Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch was going to offer me. At any rate, the expectations I had were almost entirely disappointed.
My reading of Middlemarch, I hasten to say, was no disappointment; I was quite taken with that sprawl of a novel, its plot(s), its portrait of 1830s English life, its pathos and humor, the authorial voice. I supposed, that in then turning to Mead, my reading would be enhanced–deepened–the way a very incisive review or the ideal book club can enhance the experience of reading by way of insight into themes and situations, and solid arguments on this matter or that. And all this with a memoirist twist, as promised in the cover copy–the voice of someone who’s breathed in the air of the text for a long time and is in plump literary health on account of it.
Well, Mead does love Middlemarch, first reading it at 17, and swept up in it, as young readers will be, especially those who, like Dorothea Brooke, long for a Teresa-like or “epic” life, “enamoured of intensity and greatness.” I resonate with youthful yearnings like that. (And perhaps yearn still.) But beyond this, Mead’s life in Middlemarch consists mostly in teasing out the life of George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans). She ambles about places Eliot lived such as Coventry, sniffs one of her notebooks (a smell “like the lingering trace of a fire burning in a long cooled grate”), talks to people down the genealogy ladder from Eliot and her common-law husband George Lewes, holds a pen that Eliot actually wrote with. I had the feeling I often have in popular personal journalism, which is that experiences are undertaken and self-consciously experienced for the sake of the writing project, rather than the writing emerging organically from the experiences as they were.
What Meads offers of her own life are hints about how her life parallels the novel. That she would find similarities is not surprising, for Middlemarch has so many well-created characters and its themes are marriage and money and status, universal themes in any period. I couldn’t quite get at how she’s been “shaped” by the book, which raises the bigger question for me: how do beloved texts actually work in us? That question isn’t answered here to my satisfaction, though Mead does raise an interesting ancilliary point in reference to George Eliot’s relations with Lewes’ sons and Mead’s gain of stepsons by marriage: “our own lives can teach us how to read a book.” She finds Middlemarch “charged with the question of being a stepmother.” I, with no personal acquaintance with that role, didn’t notice this.
Nevertheless–and I emphasize the word–I enjoyed Mead’s book and am not sorry to have read it. Eliot, Mead notes, “is the great artist of disappointment.” In Middlemarch, the high ideals and lofty expectations of a Dorothea Brooke or Tertius Lydgate will be tempered by life’s realities. This may be disappointing, but need not mean failure. An ordinary life, however hidden and quiet, “changes the lights” around it. So it was with Mead’s book too, once I adjusted to what it was instead of my expectations. Mead, staff writer at The New Yorker, writes well (startling, in fact, how many fine essays of hers I’ve been bumping into lately as I foray about on various topics on the web). And what I got, over the course of the book, was a sense of George Eliot’s person and biography. I didn’t know much about her beyond the bits I retained from some lesson in school tons of years ago: that she had to use a male pseudonym to be accepted by the public as a serious author and that she was in an unconventional relationship with a married man. If I came away from Middlemarch liking Eliot the author, I came away from My Life in Middlemarch liking Eliot the person. George Eliot was a generous, good woman with an impressive intelligence, strong will, and pleasantly acerbic humour. I’m grateful to Mead for the introduction.