THE ROAD TO MIDDLEMARCHRebecca Mead Text Publishing, 320pp, $32.99
George Eliot is the literary equivalent to the Masonic handshake. ”You like George Eliot?” someone will say. ”Then I know who you are,” is the instant thought. It’s a recognition of being in love with the same person.
At 17, Rebecca Mead was given a novel featuring a 19-year-old heroine called Dorothea Brooke. The opening line is: ”Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” Miss Mead (non-fictional), born almost 150 years after Miss Brooke (fictional), and a century after the words were written, immediately needed to know more about the already remarkable Miss Brooke. She read on. In knowing Miss Brooke (Dorothea), Miss Mead (Rebecca) came to know herself. Middlemarch is accompanying her through life.
It’s a glorious thing for a writer to be able to formally acknowledge the love affair – often the deepest love affair of their lives – they have had with the work of another writer and to celebrate the sweet coincidences. The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot details how Middlemarch reflected, sustained, extended and disciplined Rebecca Mead’s life.
British-born Mead is an author and New Yorker journalist. Learned, candid and self-deprecating, she shares with Dorothea Brooke celestial humility and admirable discipline. She also has a useful practical charm – an ordered mind. Figuring a way to contain the complex magnificence of Middlemarch, reveal crucial biographical detail about George Eliot and sustain a delicate autobiographical harmony is a task fit to rattle a field marshal.
Rebecca Mead is steadfast and unrattled.
”I couldn’t believe how relevant and urgent it felt,” she writes about her provincial 17-year-old self in 1985, preparing for university exams, aiming to get into one of the ancient universities in Britain, and reading Middlemarch in the cumbersome Penguin edition, the cover featuring a perplexing picture of a Victorian woman out walking through sylvan countryside.
Victorian? ”The questions with which George Eliot made her characters wrestle would all be mine eventually. How is wisdom to be attained? What are the satisfactions of personal ambition and how might they be weighed against ties and duties to others? What does a good marriage consist of, and what makes a bad one? What do the young owe the old and vice versa? What is the proper foundation of morality?”
The 17-year-old missed many of the questions, but she knew that the point of reading is that even if we don’t think we understand, at some level we do, especially if the source of genius in an author is her acute psychological perception.
Virginia Woolf saw this, observing that Middlemarch is ”one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”. Woolf, snobbish and malicious, had reservations about Eliot (”the granddaughter of a carpenter,” she sniffs) but she recognised a genius superior to her own in her 1919 essay, when Eliot’s fame was at its nadir. ”As one comes back to the books after years of absence they pour out, even against our expectation, the same store of energy and heat …” Woolf also saw how loss of faith as a young woman was the source of her moral consciousness. There was, too, the alluring, mysteriously feminine aspect of Eliot that colours everything.
Eliot, when she was plain Mary Ann Evans from the Midlands, brilliant, religious, female and ugly, had a tormented young life. As she lost her faith, her beloved father rejected her and her abject letters to him make painful reading. Mead writes about these years with an unguarded and imaginative intimacy that comes as a shock. Then Eliot fell in love with Herbert Spencer, the greatest thinker of the day, only to be rejected because Spencer found it impossible to fall in love with a plain woman. Ivan Turgenev, on the other hand, said Eliot made him understand how it was possible to fall in love with a woman who wasn’t pretty. Turgenev is still read.
Eliot’s life was one long struggle against convention. The powerful men, and some women of her day, esteemed her radiant mind and clamoured for her friendship, but their ambivalent attitude to her as a female had as much to do with to do with her late blooming as a writer as did her loss of faith.
She was 37 when she began her first fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life, and wrote because she had met the man who gave her the love and affection to ballast her generous soul. Physically, George Henry Lewes might have been as unappealing as she was, but he was the model for the incandescent Will Ladislaw, Dorothea’s destiny after her false start with Casaubon. Ladislaw is the most enchanting incarnation of spring in fiction.
Mead suggests the way you have lived your life has the greatest effect on how you read books. It’s an arresting thought that, in her quiet way, she charts through the revealing (but not too revealing) comments about her emotional and moral progress in parallel with Dorothea’s. Like Dorothea, Mead had yearnings ”common to womanhood” and it is a revelation to see the fictional woman from the past integrate with the contemporary non-fictional woman. Mead’s capacity for directness, shared with Dorothea, brings freshness to her words and her own story is the perfect wire on which to hang talk about the infinite glories of Middlemarch; the tragic Lydgate and the terrible Rosamund, the luminous love between Mary Garth and Fred Vincy, the compassion Eliot has for the wicked Bulstrode and her admiration of his interestingly uninteresting wife.
Mead’s perception of Eliot’s use of childhood landscape – not as a site of sad nostalgia, but as restoration of the emotional intensity of childhood is bracing. In the landscape of our youth, Eliot says, there is nothing important – except that is where we learned to be human. Sensitivity to one’s childhood landscape is a sign of moral maturity.
There are deep – the deepest? – pleasures to be had here. All the devastating nuances of human behaviour in Middlemarch surface again, reminding us that Middlemarch, featuring ”a heroine of the ordinary”, is a step into a greater human consciousness, where sympathy for the human dilemma causes egotism to shrink.
Eliot and Lewes had famous ”Sunday afternoons” at their London house, where invitations were chased by the powerful and prestigious and much of their talk has echoed down the century. Rebecca Mead extends this talk. Perhaps this calm, thrilling book will do for George Eliot what Colin Firth did for Jane Austen.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.