Claudia FitzHerbert

Middlemarch: the novel that reads you

A review of Rebecca Mead's The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot. Too much 'my life', not enough George Eliot

Portrait of George Eliot, aged 30, by François d’Albert-Durade, whose family she lived with while in Switzerland [Getty Images/Shutterstock/iStock/Alamy]

The genesis of The Road to Middlemarch was a fine article in the New Yorker about  Rebecca Mead’s unsuccessful search for the origin of the remark, sometimes attributed to George Eliot, that ‘it’s never too late to become the person you might have been’. To Mead this seemed at variance with the concentration in Middlemarch on ‘the melancholy acknowledgment of limitation’. She sets her vain attempt to re-attribute that sentence in apposition to Eliot’s story of  Lydgate, the doctor whose scientific ambitions are dashed in the wake of his marriage to the implacable Rosamond Vincy: ‘I had aspired to make a link in the chain of discovery, and had failed.’ Mead’s project is to ask how her own life story informs her evolving response to Middlemarch. This entails thinking about George Eliot’s life in relation to Middlemarch, and the meaning of both for Mead. In brief, she sets out to show that ‘the book was reading me as I was reading it.’

Her own book is loosely structured around the eight sections of Middlemarch. Zadie Smith has described Eliot’s method of interweaving the many narrative strands in her novel as ‘a riot of subjectivity’: each new viewpoint utterly involves and convinces the captive reader. The arc of Mead’s argument is to demonstrate how the Middlemarch of Dorothea and Lydgate, which first fired her schoolgirl imagination with dreams of escape and intellectual ambition, is also, years later, the Middlemarch of her late onset absorption in the love story of Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, that speaks of the importance of childhood landscape and the need to love ‘something of where one comes from — and have emotional access to that love’. Mead, as a girl, longed to escape her provincial background, and after Oxford she left England for New York, where she still lives. ‘Middlemarch gives my parents back to me,’ she writes, of reading the book in middle age.

It is one thing to draw sustenance from a fully realised work of art, quite another when Mead mines Eliot’s life for parallels with her own. ‘Her abjection is deeply upsetting, even more than a century and a half after the fact,’ she writes of the remarkable series of letters which Marian Evans wrote to Herbert Spencer before settling for George Henry Lewes:

How could she…have thought so little of herself? Yet her despair is also utterly recognisable, particularly to anyone who has pursued a demanding career and lived alone into her early thirties, and has wondered if she might always be alone.

Mead makes much less of aspects of Eliot’s experience which she can’t easily appropriate: the holy wars of Marian Evans’s youth or the startling courage of her middle age when she embraced certain social exile by setting up with Lewes. (During the 24 years they lived together Eliot never accepted invitations to other people’s houses. The world — men — came to her.  Women, except the most stalwart inhabitants of Bohemia, stayed away.) Mead’s insistence, for example, that she has been helped by Eliot to enjoy her stepsons is bizarre: Eliot referred lovingly to Lewes’s children as ‘our sons’, but the facts suggest that she was artist enough both to borrow from their characters and arrange for their permanent absence from home. (Two went to Africa, where they picked up diseases which killed them.)

Conversely, when Eliot’s journal records her impatience with some noisy children on a train, Mead thinks it

surprising and difficult to find Eliot so unappealing… Her letters and journals are fascinating for the light they shed on her struggles and her achievements, and she is often admirable and almost always inspiring in them. But it is much harder to be in her company there, at length, than it is when reading her novels.

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Mead, for her part, is never less than companionable when she writes about
Middlemarch and only sometimes maddening when she brings herself into the story, with first-person descriptions of visits to houses where Eliot lived. These read as taster glimpses of the modern footstepping biographer at work and throw little light on the novel or its creator. Martin Amis’s quip that it is eternal human vulgarity to be more interested in a writer than the work is beginning to look dated. No doubt Mead’s publishers pressed her to put ‘more of herself’ into her book about Eliot, and Middlemarch. Is this because we have become more interested in books
about writing lives than in reading the lives of writers?

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