I don’t share Rebecca Mead’s awe for “Middlemarch,” but I share her enthusiasm for stretching the envelope of memoir.
My Life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead. Crown, 304 pp., $25.
By Helen Epstein
It takes a certain audacity to enter today’s literary marketplace with a memoir about one’s lifelong engagement with Middlemarch, the moralistic doorstopper by George Eliot. While several of my friends agree with Rebecca Mead and adore the novel, I’m a more reluctant admirer. Perhaps anticipating readers like myself, Mead opens with a lyrical and compelling argument for her project. Following Eliot’s lead, she composes a “Prelude” that gives such a vivid preview of the author’s voice, sensibility, and point of view that I abandoned my reluctance and dove right into this remarkable text.
“When I was seventeen years old,” Mead writes, “and still living in the seaside town where I spent my childhood, I would go for a few hours every Sunday morning to the home of a retired teacher of English literature to talk about books. She was the wife of an admiral in the Royal Navy and had been enlisted by my school to tutor me, along with a couple of my classmates, for our university entrance examinations.
“My town is in the southwest of England, in a mostly rural county that is cut through by narrow roads and hedgerowed lanes that discreetly delineate the ancestral holdings of landed families. The admiral and his wife lived in a village just outside town and their living room overlooked chalky hills, Here we sat, week after week, reading narrowly but closely: analyzing Metaphysical poets and dissecting tragic themes in Shakespeare. The biggest book we read was Middlemarch, by the Victorian novelist George Eliot…
“I had the Penguin English Library edition, a brick of a paperback nine hundred pages long. On the front cover was a detail from a painting of a young woman in a full white skirt and a long black tunic, climbing some stone steps to scale a fence…. the scene looks exactly like a stretch of countryside that lay within five minutes’ walk of my parents’ house.
“I was aching to get away from this landscape. Oxford was the immediate goal, but anywhere would do. My town had no colleges, no theaters, no museums. It seemed to me to offer no opportunity to live a cultured, intellectual life, which is what I avidly aspired to do, even if I had only a very imprecise notion of what that might consist of. I noted the subtitle of Middlemarch – “A Study of Provincial Life” — and as I looked out of my teacher’s window over hills that were frequently sodden with rain, grazed by forlorn sheep, my home seemed to me barely less provincial that the Midlands of the 1830s the book described.”
Though Mead emphasizes the class difference between her socially modest family and that of Eliot’s heroine Dorothea Brooke, she recalls identifying completely with the “ardent young gentlewoman who yearns for a more significant existence.” Initially required to read the volume, Mead adopted it, as so many teenagers adopt novels, as a manual for living, filled with important questions, scenarios and lessons for a 17-year-old girl. “How on earth might one contain one’s intolerable, overpowering, private yearnings? 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?”
Mead studied Middlemarch again at university and reread it after she graduated, moved to New York at 21 to attend journalism school, and went on to become a fact checker, copy editor, and writer at The New Yorker. While she sketches her roles there, as well as her experiences as a student, contributor, girlfriend, wife and mother, Mead downplays them. Her focus is her lifelong relationship to Middlemarch and how, more generally, readers and writers interact with books over time.
“Most serious readers,” Mead writes, “can point to one book that has a place in their life like the one that Middlemarch has in mine…My husband, the most avid reader I know, would choose In Search of Lost Time as his most treasured work. One friend insists on the primacy of David Copperfield, while another goes back to The Portrait of a Lady and I know them better for knowing that about them.”
While I don’t share Mead’s feelings for Middlemarch, I share her enthusiasm for stretching the envelope of memoir. This one has three unusual features. First, My Life in Middlemarch is an innovative expansion of the form, stretching memoir to reflect on a novel and using an unusual blend of techniques drawn from biography, autobiography, reportage, literary criticism, history, and travelogue to do it. Second, there’s Mead’s voice: direct, mostly serious, and passionately subjective, whether describing herself, the characters of Middlemarch or George Eliot. Third, Mead’s clever structure mimics Eliot’s division of her novel into eight parts, each preceded by an epigraph.
Mead, however, writes an idiosyncratic, journalistic but non-linear narrative that takes the reader down the reporter’s trail of Eliot venues, libraries, archives, bookstores and interviews, and, far less predictably, explores Mead’s extensive and complicated network of associations. She sees herself in Dorothea Brooke’s life as well as in Eliot’s; she compares real-life people and situations in Eliot’s life to people and characters in her novels; and, throughout, lets us know her opinions about them at various stages of her life.
For those of us who need a timeline, George Eliot was born Mary Ann Evans in 1819 in Nuneaton in Warwickshire. Her chronically ill mother died when Mary Ann was 16, and Evans grew up emotionally close to her father. She excelled in school and, early on, displayed the priggishness that puts me off Middlemarch. “She disapproved of singing, other than hymns; she dismissed novels as dangerous and frivolous,” Mead reports and comments, ruefully but with refreshing candor. “It would be satisfying to discover that the young George Eliot resembled Elizabeth Bennet, the clever if initially misguided heroine of Pride and Prejudice. Instead, she brings to mind Lizzy’s prim younger sister Mary, who charged with playing the piano at a dance, wants to supply concertos instead of reels.”
In 1842 at the age of 24, the brilliant, unmarried Mary Ann rebelled against her adored father by refusing to attend church and began what Mead calls her quest to become a moral person in the absence of a God. After her father’s death in 1849, she traveled alone through Europe and then, in her early 30s (then considered a matronly age), moved into a room in a house owned by London publisher John Chapman. She worked as an editor and journalist under the byline Mary Ann Evans, enjoyed an active professional and social life, and nurtured an unrequited love for social philosopher and arts critic Herbert Spencer.
Only in 1851 did Eliot met her eventual life partner George Lewes, who encouraged her to write fiction. Lewes was a philosopher and critic, father of three teenage sons, separated from his wife but not divorced. In 1854, when both were what was considered middle-aged, Eliot and Lewes took the extraordinary step of moving in together and were shunned by most of her family and many friends. They lived together in sin (sometimes with his sons) for the rest of their lives.
Their arrangement as well as their appearance occasioned much comment for the next three decades. Charles Eliot Norton wrote that Lewes “looks and moves like an old-fashioned French barber or dancing-master, very ugly, very vivacious, very entertaining.” The 26-year-old Henry James wrote of the middle-aged Eliot, “She is magnificently ugly – deliciously hideous.”
A neighbor reported that “they were both very unattractive people to look upon, and they used to wander about the neighborhood, the biggest pair of frights that ever was, followed by a shaggy little dog who could do tricks.” Mead contextualizes, as she does throughout the book, that “the censorious glimpse from behind the net curtain is a peculiarly English phenomenon.”
So is this memoir. Steeped in all things English, it is the perfect gift for an anglophile. For those less familiar with English geography, I wish Mead had included a map and a list of her dramatis personae. Dozens of the dead or living are quoted in addition to characters in Eliot’s books. I stopped reading several times to check on whom Mead was talking to and where – especially since almost every English house seems to have a name (Griff House, Rosehill, Bird Grove, Lowick Manor, The Priory, etc). But mostly I told myself I was lucky to be following this very intelligent memoirist’s interests as she moved between the key events of her own life and Eliot’s life, reported on Eliot’s supporters and critics, analyzed the characters and situations in Middlemarch and reflected on similarities to her own life.
To give you a sense of Mead’s mind and free-associative style, she ends Chapter Six in Chelsea, London. She has been musing on the time she lived there, a time of professional and personal turbulence. “I was tripping over myself with conflicting impulses toward commitment and toward freedom,” she writes. “I hadn’t yet discovered the two conditions need not be mutually exclusive, and that I might find freedom within commitment.” Her thoughts pass from her own home in Brooklyn to Londoners Oscar Wilde, John Singer Sargent, to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to the model she finds in Eliot’s example of a writer’s life: “embedded in a life of domestic commitment.”
Her next chapter begins abruptly in Coventry, the town that I had forgotten served as inspiration for the fictional Middlemarch and where Eliot and her widowed father moved in 1841. Mead wanders into a chain bookstore and is dismayed to find a illustrated paperback titled The Mill on the Floss: In Half the Time , “as if no young reader today might possibly pick up a novel written 150 years ago unless the book were in sexy, neo-Gothic drag.” She wonders if she would be alone “in welcoming a volume called Middlemarch: In Twice the Time.” She notices that much of the produce in the marketplace is now South Asian and comes upon a second-hand bookseller with a copy of Lytton Strachey’s Five Victorians. This leads to a digression on Eliot’s contemporaries, including Florence Nightingale, and a longer one on the ups and downs of Eliot’s reputation, mining a wide range of biographies, letters, diaries, and other people’s memoirs.
While Mead is, I think, overawed by the novel, she is refreshingly clear-eyed about the novelist. She not only acknowledges Eliot’s many detractors but quotes their complaints. She introduces evidence of Eliot’s faults with letters. “Some writers are as vividly engaging in their correspondence as they are in their published work,” she writes. “Think of D.H. Lawrence. But if you were to read George Eliot’s letters and journals to the exclusion of her novels, it would be easy to see her as pedantic, humorless – even unimaginative.” Mead finds the self-righteous letters that Mary Ann Evans wrote when she was Dorothea Brooke’s age moving ”because of their dreadfulness, not in spite of it.
There is lots more to quote in this eminently quotable book, especially Mead’s many insightful reflections on the various characters besides Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. “The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist,” is the extension of our sympathies,” she quotes Eliot. My Life in Middlemarch is Mead’s exploration of this benefit as well as an ambitious agenda for a memoir. I feel pleasurably enriched to have read it.