Published by Broadway Books
“Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.”
In this bibliomemoir—a genre that combines memoir and literary criticism—Rebecca Mead writes about her relationship with George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and how it resonated with her through the various stages of her life.
Middlemarch is a portrait of a provincial English town, and was published in instalments between 1871 and 1872. The central character, Dorothea, is a young idealistic woman who scorns her peers’ preoccupations with marriage and children. She chooses to marry an older scholar, Rev. Edward Causabon, taking him for a great thinker and believing she can help him in his work. In reality, Causabon is a grey, self-absorbed, pretentious man, which Dorothy discovers too late. Other characters include Tertius Lydgate, an idealistic young doctor whose ambition to reform medical practice is stymied by marrying the wrong woman; and Will Ladislaw, Causabon’s passionate younger cousin who aspires to be a poet and falls in love with Dorothea.
Like Dorothea, Mead grew up in a small town in southwest England and was also looking for a more meaningful life, far from the provincial backwater she lived in. When she was 17, she discovered Middlemarch.
“This book, which had been published…almost a hundred years ago before I was born, wasn’t distant or dusty, but arresting in the acuteness of its psychological penetration and the snap of its sentences. Through it, George Eliot spoke with an authority and a generosity that was wise and essential and profound.”
Like most teenagers reading Middlemarch, Mead identifies with Dorothea (as I did when I first read the book). As she grows older, her reactions to the characters change. At one point she identifies more with Lydgate and his thwarted ambitions. When I was older, I grew a little impatient with Dorothea and leaned towards Mary Garth, the “clever, practical, sardonic” daughter of a “financially squeezed land agent”. Mary is a sensible, no-nonsense woman with uncompromising values, a quality she demands not only from herself but from those she cares about.
George Eliot, the woman who wrote this little world into existence, was born Mary Ann Evans in 1819. She took on the pen name George Eliot, so her work would not be judged by the standards applied to women (who were associated with light romances). Eliot lived with a married man, George Henry Lewes, which was seen as fairly scandalous at that time. But the couple were happy together, and Lewes’s three sons accepted Eliot.
The book weaves these three threads together: the plot of Middlemarch, Eliot’s life and Mead’s memoirs. Mead moves skilfully from one to another, writing about the characters living in Middlemarch in a way that makes them seem real. She visits the places associated with George Eliot and the houses she lived in, and looks at the original manuscript of Middlemarch and Eliot’s diaries.
Throughout the book, Mead draws parallels between her life and the lives of Eliot and her characters. Eliot’s “daunting, self-willed transformation from provincial girlhood to metropolitan pre-eminence” was “a good story to hear if one is an anxiously ambitious girl from a backwater town”. Like Eliot, Mead settles down with a man who has sons of his own, and the domestic arrangements of the Eliot-Lewes household echo some of Mead’s.
This is such a great way to write memoirs: interlinking your story with that of a well-loved novel that accompanies you in your important moments. And I can understand why Middlemarch has this hold on people’s imagination. Eliot encapsulates a world in the microcosm of the little town. Virginia Woolf called it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”.
I loved Middlemarch, which, like Mead, I first read when I was 17. I used to climb up to the roof of our house in Delhi, which was accessible by rungs set into the wall of the little room on the terrace. In the small space under the sloping roof—which did not meet in the middle, allowing some sun to get through—I was generally left alone. That is where I met Dorothea, Causabon, Lydgate and the others; where I lost myself in a world that was, in time and space, so far from mine but also so much like mine.
Mead’s book has got me hunting through my shelves for the book, which I plan to reread.