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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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Trees in the Pavement by Jennifer Anne Grosser

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Trees in the Pavement by Jennifer Anne Grosser      Christian Focus Publications, via Amazon $7.99 (US)

e-mail: info@christianfocus.com  http://www.christianfocus.com

I was delighted when fellow blogger Jennifer Anne Grosser asked me to review her book, Trees in the Pavement. However, when I began reading, I was concerned as to whether I was the right person to write about it. The book – which is aimed at children and young adults – is published by Christian Focus Publications, an organisation which is obviously keen to promote the Christian message throughout the world.  Jenn is the daughter of pastor/missionaries and has herself worked with refugees. Although she has no religious axe to grind, it’s clear her  themes revolve around finding meaning through physical, spiritual or philosophical displacement.

Now, my religious views are my business and we are all entitled to our own beliefs; so I decided that I would only review Trees in the Pavement if  the novel’s focus was neither overtly “preachy”, nor so couched in religious dogma that it would be inaccessible to a wide audience.

What I found was an insightful book that – if it preaches anything at all – endorses religious tolerance and inter-racial understanding. In fact, I think it should be on a general curriculum reading list for Secondary schools, so that they can discuss these very important topics.

Zari and her family flee to England from war-torn Kosovo in the 1990s. They are Muslims and find it hard at first to mix with their ethnically diverse neighbours. Zari – who is 4 or 5 when the novel begins – meets the Jamaican family next door, Pakistani  and British children at school and Jennifer Grosser pushes political correctness aside to talk about the conflicts that ensue between the races due to ignorance, stereotyping or misunderstanding.  Through Zari’s eyes, the reader sees the varied, cosmopolitan and multi-racial society of Britain today. When Zari’s elder sister Jasmina decides to become a Christian, huge gulfs open up within the family and threaten to split it apart.

Written in a deceptively simple style that mimics Zari’s childlike grasp of the world, Trees in the Pavement may be aimed at a young audience but it makes us all think about the nature of prejudice, acceptance and compromise. Yes, you could say that Grosser’s message is a Christian one of “love thy neighbour”.  But the take-home message is universal – whatever an individual’s beliefs, all races are part of an inter-dependent Brotherhood of Man.

Grosser is currently seeking representation for Favored One, a novel about a well-known woman in First century Israel.

Anyone interested in seeing Trees in the Pavement come out in digital format, can indicate their interest in the comments on the “That’s a Jenn Story” page on Jenn’s blog (http://thatsajennstory.wordpress.com/stories-for-sale/).


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All men are islands: Michelle de Kretser revisited

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Questions of Travel, by Michelle de Kretser

Published by: Allen & Unwin, $39.99

It’s no secret that I am a huge Michelle de Kretser fan, and would love to see Questions of Travel win the Miles Franklin Award this year. De Kretser is the bridesmaid of literary fiction, and though she’s won many prizes, has been passed over for major awards like the Man Booker and what used to be known as the Orange.  What I love about her work is the scope of her literary landscapes. She tracks down concepts, themes and ideas like a hungry hunter; satirical one moment, reflective the next, her prose is witty and elegant, her characterisations delve deep. And she respects her readers, offering them intelligent observations that make them think and question long-held values and assertions.

Questions of Travel was extensively reviewed when it appeared last year. The lives of its central characters, Ravi, who seeks asylum in Australia, and Laura, a compulsive nomad, are set out in dual, episodic narratives, each covering a similar timeline.  Laura travels the world, first just another Australian backpacker seeking new experiences, and then with increased emotional disconnectedness; Ravi longs to see the world and escape from the instability of war-torn Sri Lanka. Their life paths cross briefly when IT specialist Ravi and editor Laura work at the same travel publishing company in Sydney, then just as quickly spring apart. And though both experience the death of loved ones, longing and loneliness, this is not a conventional love story. So what is Questions of Travel about?

What strikes me on reading the reviews is that the novel resonates in many ways. For some it is a musing on the differences between the Third World and Australia; some approach it as an exploration on the nature of travel itself: does travel broaden the mind and our connectedness to others or simply reinforce cultural stereotypes? Others believe the work dissects changing patterns of society from the 1960s to 2004.

It is all of those things, of course, and more. The book’s two, seemingly contradictory, epigraphs offer a clue. The first is taken from a 1956 poem by Elizabeth Bishop: “But surely it would have been a pity/not to have seen the trees along the road/really exaggerated in their beauty.”  The second, from EM Forster’s Howard’s End: “Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle.”

De Kretser seems to favour an anti-pastoral, anti-Romantic view – arguing that the spectacular wonders of the world can be appreciated from a distance but offer little consolation in the ebb and flux of contemporary life. The expanse of the novel and its motley collection of characters, uncovers  violence, terrorism and murder, the plight of refugees, the  shallowness of modern sexual relationships, the snide humour of office politics. In London, Laura falls in love with Theo, a quintessential Romantic, the gay, self-destructive  son of German refugees who surrounds himself with kitsch objets trouvés and faux antiques, as a barricade against the passing years. In Sri Lanka and Australia, Ravi meets fellow-countrymen whose ambition and drive harness the Internet for commercial success.

It is within the world wide web that history and geography finally meet: arguably the most spectacular technological development of the 20th century, the Internet facilitates extraordinary freedom for virtual travel across time and space – yet its pathways are littered with abandoned websites, forgotten blogs and the flotsam and jetsam of dotcom failed start-ups. Questions of Travel suggests that our individual flight paths are equally littered with the debris of the human heart.

Read it: for intelligent, multi-layered narrative and superbly crafted prose.