“I chose Middlemarch – or Middlemarch chose me – and I cannot imagine life without it,” writes New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead in her new literary memoir My Life in Middlemarch.
Based on her 2011 New Yorker article “Middlemarch and Me,” Mead’s book explores these questions: “Where is a woman to put her energies? How is she to express her longings? What can she do to exercise her potential and affect the lives of others? What, in the end, is a young woman to do with herself?” These conflicts plague not only the fictional Dorothea Brooke but also the novel’s author George Eliot, memoirist Mead, and ardent fans of Eliot’s classic book.
Mead writes that "Middlemarch" captures the poetry of girlhood, of love and marriage, maternity, and duty. But in contrast with similar relationship-themed novels of its time, Middlemarch refused to present weddings as a fairy tale ending. Mead writes that every marriage in Middlemarch “suggests, instead, the start of a story, not its conclusion…. Every marriage … amounts to an epic journey, and adventure of discovery.”
When young Dorothea Brooke weds the scholar Casaubon, she hopes that their union is the beginning of her new life amidst cultured intellectuals. Instead, Casaubon spurns her ambitions, and Dorothea senses that not only is her husband’s grand academic project doomed – so is their romance. Eliot had set out not to write, as she had lampooned in one scathing essay, a silly novel by a lady novelist. Rather, she wanted to convey emotional complexity; she not only makes the reader identify with young, yearning Dorothea but also frustrated, unfulfilled Casaubon. It is thanks to this emotional and moral complexity that Virginia Woolf called "Middlemarch" “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”
But it’s Eliot’s own experiences that enabled her to bring such a rich world to life. Mead writes of Eliot’s “self-willed transformation from provincial girlhood to metropolitan preeminence.” Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans in 1819 in rural Warwickshire, was a precocious teenager who had to take care of her father’s household after the death of her mother. The author was “waiting for her life to start – not complacently, or resignedly, but anxiously and urgently.”
From Mead’s peek into Eliot’s early letters, she saw a certain precocity, even “a nascent feminism.” Early on, Eliot asserted her intelligence, crafting sometimes “slashing” cultural critiques. Then, as an adult, she embarked on a scandalous relationship, co-habitating with her partner George Henry Lewes, who was married to someone else, and raising his children as if they were her own.
“Middlemarch mostly concerns itself with the problems of young love,” writes Mead. “But the book was nurtured by love that was arrived at late” and that tested the social tolerance of her time.
Mead then relates the experiences of Middlemarch’s characters and of Eliot herself to Mead’s own life. A rural childhood rankled Mead, too: “I was aching to get away from this landscape. Oxford was the immediate goal, but anywhere would do.”
But later, as she pursues her literary ambitions and climbs the ladder at The New Yorker, she notes, “Middlemarch inspired me when I was young, and chafing to leave home, and now, in middle life, it suggests to me what else home might mean, beyond a place to grow up and out of.” Like Eliot, Mead becomes transformed by her romantic relationships. She says that she celebrates Eliot and Lewes’s late love because “it was not until I was thirty-five that I met the man who was to become my husband.” Ultimately though, the novel transcends Mead’s own interpretations. Says Mead, “My Middlemarch … is not even the same as my Middlemarch of twenty-five years ago.”
Well-reported – though with sometimes tepid prose – "My Life in Middlemarch" is more than a literary memoir. It’s an homage not only to Eliot and to her groundbreaking novel but also to books and how they help shape our lives.Mead observes, “When a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself.”
Insightful and keenly observed, "My Life in Middlemarch" looks to Eliot’s novel and highlights the best thing a book can be – a friend who understands us, who grows and changes with us, who helps show us who we are and who we would like to become.
Grace Bello is a Monitor contributor.