This appeared in the latest issue of the Sunday Guardian -- although, by mistake, under a different byline.
When I first read George Eliot's Middlemarch, the question I asked myself was: what makes it a novel? There's a profusion of characters of various ages and backgrounds, facing different predicaments, many of whom never meet, with parallel, sometimes interlocking narrative strands. On the other hand, if, as the novel's subtitle has it, it's meant to be a study of English provincial life, why the emphasis on Dorothea Brooke, commonly held to be the novel's heroine? This reaction seemed a faint echo of Henry James’ own mixed admiration for the novel: it was “a treasure house of detail”, but “an indifferent whole”.
One of the answers to the question of what holds it together, I later realised, is that of a distinct sensibility. Eliot, with her famous authorial interjections and empathy for all her characters, was tying the whole together with a magisterial understanding of what it means to be human, with human yearnings that are satisfied -- or not.
One of the satisfactions of reading New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead's new book on Eliot's novel is that it delves into this answer, and offers many more besides. My Life in Middlemarch is Mead's investigation into Middlemarch’s origination and conception, and the ways in which it intersects with her own life. It’s a beguiling combination of a devoted reader's analysis, explorations into Eliot’s life and relevant vignettes from Mead’s own experiences. Fittingly, the book’s structure mirrors Middlemarch itself.
As Mead reminds us, the novel was an amalgamation of two ideas that Eliot separately toyed with: the first, a study of provincial manners, and the second, simply called “Miss Brooke”. Bringing them together, she created a master-work, a clever inversion of the marriage plot that was “arresting in the acuteness of its psychological penetration and the snap of its sentences”, with, as Eliot wrote, “tolerant judgment, pity and sympathy” extended to every character.
The most famous thing ever said about Middlemarch was Virginia Woolf’s observation that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”. It’s a statement that Mead unpacks, concluding that what Woolf meant, perhaps archly, is that it’s for “those who are old enough to appreciate the artistic representation of failure rather than success.”
Mead reads Eliot’s diaries and letters, visits the author’s childhood house and walks the streets that she herself would have walked, in Coventry, London and Oxford, among others. She explains the ways in which Eliot’s life shaped her fiction, and how her fiction shaped her, detailing the effort required for Mary Ann Evans to turn herself into George Eliot. (She also speculates on the origins of the characters: were Casaubon and Dorothea based on the Rector of Lincoln and his wife? How much of Lewes, the man Eliot lived with, was there in Ladislaw?)
My Life in Middlemarch is also a paean to re-reading: “The novel opened up to me further every time I went back to it.” Through episodes from her own life – moving from the provinces to the city, affairs, marriage, children – Mead highlights how Middlemarch provided revelation at every stage: “The questions with which George Eliot showed her characters wrestling 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?” From an immersive identification with Dorothea, Mead moves on over the years to appreciate and sympathise with the other characters, Lydgate, Ladislaw, Rosamond, Fred, Mary and even Casaubon. As she puts it, the book was reading her as she was reading it.
Mead’s assessment of this “home epic”, then, shows how Eliot draws us deep into her fictional panorama and “makes Middlemarchers of us all”. In answering the question I put when I first read it, it makes me want to return to Middlemarch myself.