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A PASSION FOR MIDDLEMARCH: REBECCA MEAD’S LIFE IN FICTION

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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.


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Confessions of a Biblioholic

 

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Hello. My name is Dina and I’m a Biblioholic. I’ve been in denial for years but now it’s time to come clean. My addiction to books is ruining my life. I went out shopping for groceries yesterday and came back with the complete works of John Cheever. My fridge is empty, the washing neglected. I haven’t cleaned my house in weeks. I’m even finding Patrick White easy to read. I need help.

Thanks for the applause and synchronised hellos, and the warm welcome, Ms Facilitator. It’s such a relief to discover that I’m not alone. All of you here, drinking camomile tea, understand my affliction. Sally, I really appreciated sharing your Jane Austen obsession. How well I know the sharp pangs of Darcy Syndrome, although I was afflicted by Knightley Disease myself – the lure of the older man –  which progressed into Rochester Phenomenon for far too long, as I recall….Martin, your Henry James fixation is perfectly natural, who wouldn’t empathise with the desire for intricate, meticulously observed sentences, where the passion for detail – every element of a room’s furnishings, for example, carefully notated – mingles with keenly-fashioned dialogue, edged with sound psychological realism and a hint of authorial comment?

I apologise, Ms Facilitator, believe me,  I’m not trying to reinforce behaviour patterns, I’m simply saying – of course I realise Fay’s suffering from Novel-induced Tourette’s. But here’s my take on it: she’s in the grip of Gritty Millennial Realism.  There’s only one way out, going cold turkey on all novelists under 35. How about a mammoth dose of Hemingway? OK. OK. Maybe that wasn’t such a great idea.

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Let’s chant. Hold hands. Close our eyes. Our mantra for this week is inspired by our Bible, Biblioholism: The Literary Addiction by Tom Raabe (paperback).

We shall destroy our credit cards

We shall answer the telephone and speak to friends

We will not read book reviews

We will cross the road when we see a public library

When we spot a bookshop, we will turn the corner and pop into a café for a coffee and muffin instead.

I admit it was flippant, Ms Facilitator, to say swapping this class for a Weight Watchers weigh-in was taking the cake. And naturally I recognise the gravity of our condition.

Peter, I’m sorry your wife has moved out, I really sympathise, although negotiating this pile by the kitchen – just one week’s reading, I think you said – must have been pretty awkward.

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Peter, stop crying, I’m not being judgmental – come back – we’ll get through this. All of us. We just have to have faith.

Let me get this right, Ms Facilitator: by watching the movie of the book, you’re saying we’ll be drawn into an appreciation of other media, and gradually increase our consumption of competing distractions? I get it – a gradual weaning, a softly, softly approach – how about Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper in For Whom The Bell Tolls? Oh, that’s on your Recommended Next Steps, is it, along with Omar Sharif in Dr Zhivago? I’m impressed. And I think you’ve got a great track record, only losing one group member to Game of Thrones.

See you all next week.