The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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February 15, 2014

My Life in Middlemarch

I suspected, when I first heard about My Life in Middlemarch, whenever and wherever that was, that it would be exactly my kind of book.  It felt incredibly good to come home from work last Friday and find that I could start reading it sooner than expected.  And it felt even better to pull it out every chance I had, all week long and most of this snowy afternoon.  I loved it.

Rebecca Mead is in her forties, from a small town in England, educated at Oxford, transplanted to New York, and The New Yorker, first as a fact checker and then as a staff writer, now living in Brooklyn, married to a writer, a stepmother to three boys and the mother of a fourth. She writes about Middlemarch as a book she discovered as a young teenager, then read again in her twenties, and in her thirties, and now, finding different resonances in the book and its characters every time she comes back to it.  A teenage girl longing to escape her provincial life can find a heroine in Dorothea Brooke; a writer in her forties can feel more empathy with Dorothea's first husband.

Memoirs where writers try to find or claim life lessons in a book or another life can seem very forced, or even very silly, but I didn't find that here. That might be because this reads like a memoir, a record of thoughts and impressions that genuinely happened before the book did, and also because Mead is interesting and likeable.  And the other saving grace is that it's not just her thoughts and impressions and emotions.  I thought this book was a perfect blend of commentary on the novel (Mead's and other people's, Eliot's contemporaries and her own), and biographical anecdotes about George Eliot, and visits to places from Eliot's life, and Mead's, and connections among all of this.

I enjoyed reading Henry James' and Virginia Woolf's impressions of the novelist and the novel.  {This is the kind of book that sent me paging ahead to the bibliography about a hundred times before I finished.}  George Eliot is wonderful to read about; I loved the chapters about Eliot's unconventional 'marriage' to George Henry Lewes ...

      My favorite image of Eliot and Lewis is provided by a neighbor who used to see them out walking Pug, and reported, Mrs. Cadwallader-like, '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.' The censorious glimpse from behind the net curtain is a peculiarly English phenomenon, and I derive delicious pleasure from the two Georges' carelessness about the judgment delivered by smaller minds and smaller hearts than their own.
      To later generations untroubled by the notion of cohabitation, Eliot and Lewes provide a model of coupled contentment. ... Robert Lowell, in an unrhymed sonnet about George Eliot, called their union 'Victorian England's one true marriage.'
      I'm inclined to join in this celebration of Eliot and Lewes' life together, and I cherish their late love all the more because it was not until I was thirty-five that I met the man who was to become my husband -- a kind, optimistic man whose strengths include the gentle power of making me feel beloved. He is a writer, too, and on those days when we are working in different corners of our house, or traveling together for research, or reading one another's work before any other editor has seen it, I think I have a glimpse of what Eliot and Lewes' writerly companionability must have been like. 'working, reading, correcting proofs, traveling, entertaining, receiving and writing letters, worrying, doubting their powers, experiencing a delicious hypochondria,' as Elizabeth Hardwick described it ... It would be hard to find a happier model for a writers' marriage than that of Eliot and Lewes.

and the section about the Pattisons, an Oxford rector and his younger wife, who may have been the models for Dorothea and Causabon, or not ...
      Today, the Pattisons' drawing room is the study of a don, a young, female one who teaches history, which might have pleased Mrs. Pattison. What would have been the Pattison's dining room is used as a reception room, and when I visited, sherry glasses were laid out on a table, ready for awkward students unaccustomed to aperitifs, emulating sophistication with the rector. But the rooms still bear the traces of their earlier incarnation, with gilded carvings of flowers and leaves around the fireplaces and doorways, a Persian rug underfoot, and a view onto quiet gardens and the Radcliffe Camera beyond.
      As I walked around the rooms, I wondered what the rector and his wife must have thought when they read Middlemarch -- as they both certainly did, although later, as Lady Dilke, Francis pretended she hadn't, doubtless to fend off the Dorothea question. I imagined Francis, frustrated in her marriage, recognizing her younger self in Dorothea's devout earnestness... and I pictured the rector comprehending Casaubon's miseries in the light of his own sense of intellectual underachievement.
      But that simple sense of recognition would not be the only way in which each would have received the book. ... As well as being religious, [Pattison] was an intellectual seeker; he arrived at Oxford longing for wise guidance and like-minded company. 'I thought that now at last I should be in the company of an ardent band of fellow-students, only desirous of rivaling each other in the initiation which the tutors were to lead into the mysteries of scholarship, of composition, of rhetoric, logic, and all the arts of literature,' he wrote. In the event, he was bitterly disappointed by the dullness of his peers and the uninspiring nature of his teachers.
      Reading this, I wonder whether the gruff Rector of Lincoln might have recognized himself in the ardent, devout, hungry Dorothea, just as much as he saw himself in her scholar-husband. ...
      Francis, too, might not simply have seen herself in Dorothea. The former Emily Francis Strong also had ambitions for writing large, authoritative works -- ambitions that eventually had to be scaled down to size, or remain unfulfilled. ... 'Sometimes I think even that the best use one could make of one's own life would be to devote oneself to knowing everything, to become a master -- at least in the general meaning of the word -- of all that the human mind has conquered in all fields,' she once wrote. 'But I am forty, and it is too late.'
      Too-lateness of this sort is Casaubon's condition, and if Francis revisited Middlemarch in middle age, surely she would have recognized aspects of herself in the sad, unproductive scholar. Like all readers of the novel after them, both the rector and his wife would have had their own internal version of Middlemarch, slightly different from anyone else's, informed by their own history and experience, shaped by the moods of their memories.

and the story, later in the book, about Alexander Main, a 'sad, shadowy' young man from Edinburgh who writes to Eliot, gathers quotations from her novels into a book, and becomes a kind of stalker.

If you're wondering, I think you might want to have read Middlemarch first, but fair warning:  now I want to read Middlemarch again, and then a biography or two of George Eliot, and then this again. :)


lyn said...

I agree with you. I loved it too. I definitely think you need to have read Middlemarch & the discussion of the novel was my favourite part but I also enjoyed the speculation about who the characters were based on & the personal glimpses of Eliot & Lewes.

JoAnn said...

I'm just starting MIddlemarch, so will be primed for this one... glad to hear you enjoyed it so much!

Bellezza said...

I'd like to read Middlemarch for the first time. If I remember correctly, I think I abandoned it with something like only 29 pages to go. I know, an idiot. Do you still want to blog with me? At least you out me in the mood to try again. xo

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