Rebecca Mead George Eliot
The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead Published by: Text, $32.99
Why do we love some books more than others, and revisit them again and again? Perhaps we identify with their heroes or heroines; maybe a writer’s style speaks to us in a singular way; or we view the novelist as a role model, a light to guide us.
For Rebecca Mead, that special novel is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. She’s read it every five years or so since the age of 17. Born in England, Mead moved to New York after university and has worked as a journalist ever since. Now a staff writer for The New Yorker, Mead’s new work – part memoir, part biography – takes Middlemarch as a starting point to revisit both her own life and Eliot’s. By deconstructing the novel, she re-interprets it through a 21st century lens, and shows how her life has frequently paralleled and been enriched by its story and characters.
As she writes: “What would happen if I stopped to consider how Middlemarch has shaped my understanding of my own life? Why did the novel still feel so urgent, after all these years? And what could it give me now, as I paused here in the middle of things, and surveyed where I had come from, and thought about where I was, and wondered where I might go next?”
Middlemarch, Virginia Woolf said in her 1919 essay re-appraising Eliot, “was one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”. By then, Eliot had fallen out of favour. Her moralistic authorial interpolations were viewed as sanctimonious, her views on how to build a better society considered old-fashioned, ill-suited to a modern world. Woolf’s essay in the Times Literary Supplement was a first step in re-establishing Eliot’s reputation.
Yet in her day, Eliot’s star shone bright. The daughter of a provincial clergyman, she was unconventional and ambitious. From her early teens she realised she was an agnostic and refused to accompany her father to church. Headstrong and rebellious, she turned her back on her family’s expectations of a good marriage and moved to London to live independently. She adopted the pseudonym ‘George Eliot’ when she first started publishing novels, to be judged impartially by her peers and avoid being pigeon-holed as a “woman writer” (it’s almost scary how contemporary this sounds). But long before that, Marian Evans edited the thinking person’s magazine, the Westminster Review, translated, wrote essays and was an integral part of the Victorian literary scene.
She was not a good-looking woman. Portraits display her big nose and lantern jaw. Henry James describes her as charming despite her unfortunate plainness. But her voice was melodious, her conversation scintillating. When she met the writer and social campaigner George Henry Lewes at the age of 38, she moved in with him freely, even though he was still married. Despite the shocked tut-tuts of society, they lived together contentedly for over 20 years until Lewes’ death.
Mead contrasts this meeting of minds with the marriage of Middlemarch’s heroine, Dorothea, to the pedantic clergyman Casaubon. Straight-laced, puritanical and mean-spirited, he is the polar opposite to the passionate Dorothea, a young woman whose stifled intellectual yearnings lead her to this ill-fated choice. Dorothea longs to escape her provincial roots and become her husband’s partner and helpmate as he writes his great opus, ‘The Key to All Mythologies’. But he deliberately sidelines her and the work is never finished. Middlemarch portrays a doomed marriage with extraordinary exactitude and empathy. Through her research, Mead traces the possible models for the couple, Mark and Francis (sic) Pattison. He was a young, ineffectual Oxford don. She was a forward-thinking young woman who, unsatisfied by a partner so obviously her intellectual inferior, eventually divorced him and remarried.
Still, Mead judges Casaubon more kindly now than on her first reading of the novel. Eliot, she says, was able to recognise the limitations of human beings, and one of her strengths as a novelist is her uncanny ability to write about stumbles and failures, characters whose endings are unspectacular and whose lives are unremarkable. It is this, says Virginia Woolf, that makes Eliot among 19th century novelists, “so large and deeply human.’
Mead’s ever-changing relationship with Middlemarch and with Eliot herself is at the heart of this book. She literally grows up with the novel and reads it anew with fresh insight and admiration. As an adolescent, desperate to leave her seaside childhood home, Mead identifies with Dorothea’s longings for travel and intellectual challenges, yet later she reflects as an adult on her youthful pretensions, and the importance of home in moulding personality. As a writer, her transition from the provinces to Oxford, to New York and to a career in journalism echo Eliot’s own life path. Even her relationships are viewed through the prism of Eliot’s experience. On becoming a step-parent, Mead recalls Eliot’s own emotions towards children not her own whom she comes to care for deeply. Eliot’s social conscience, far from preachy, is a reflection of seriousness and commitment to society which Mead also strives for in her own work.
The Road to Middlemarch binds two very different women together through their shared love affair with a novel. Exquisitely researched, it sheds new light on Eliot and on 19th century fiction. Mead has written an engaging, wise and fascinating tribute.
I’ll be interviewing Rebecca Mead in the next edition of my Pageturners podcast next month.