In an essay published in the New York Times twenty years ago, the Barnard English professor and literary critic Mary Gordon observed that a “certain kind” of woman can effortlessly recollect the circumstances of her life when she first read Middlemarch, much as “Americans are all supposed to know what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was shot.”
Rebecca Mead is clearly that “certain kind” of woman. Growing up in coastal England, Mead, a longtime New Yorker staff writer, encountered Middlemarch in her teens and was smitten. “I loved Middlemarch, and I loved being the kind of person who loved it,” she writes in her new work of literary memoir, My Life in Middlemarch. “It gratified my aspirations to maturity and learnedness. To have to read it, and to have appreciated it, seemed a step on the road to being one of the grown-ups for whom it was written.”
Little bubbles of excitement about Mead’s book began floating around the Internet last fall, when the advance copies were sent out. Nicole Cliffe, the proprietress of a website called The Toast (where charming snark, feminist cartoons, and literary earnestness meet), declared in a blog post that the book made her cry on an airplane—before drinking a small bottle of wine, thank you very much—and started an online book group to first read Eliot’s book and then Mead’s.
The concept was clever, so much so that I (and I suspect I am not alone) regretted not having come up with it myself. George Eliot doesn’t have the modern celebrity of Jane Austen, which makes her all the more lovable for that “certain kind” of woman who aspires to moral and intellectual seriousness. Her life was also far more complex—and cosmopolitan—than most of her female peers. Eliot was a respected journalist and an undeniable proto-feminist; she braved the disapproval of family and society to live with the man she loved, although he happened to be married to another woman.
The problem is, Mead’s title is rather misleading. For a book called My Life in Middlemarch, there’s remarkably little of Mead, and remarkably little of Middlemarch. Instead, the book reverently traces the contours of George Eliot’s life and draws on her entire oeuvre, including The Mill on the Floss, which is far more autobiographical than Middlemarch. As a title, My Life in the Mill on the Floss has an obvious lack of pizzazz, but it might have proven more apt for Mead’s project. Mead haunts the landscapes of Eliot’s childhood and chronicles their predictable breaks with the past (Eliot’s country home is now a tourist motel next to a highway). She dwells on her awed encounters with Eliot’s manuscripts and possessions. Moving through the book, which mimics Middlemarch’s narrative arc, small details about Mead’s past trickle into meandering passages about Eliot’s life. Despite the book jacket’s ambitious claim—that aspects of Mead’s life “uncannily echo” that of Eliot herself—the reverberations are surprisingly banal. Both women have stepsons; both are from England; both are writers. The similarities end there.
In a way, this makes sense. Mead, in her work at The New Yorker, specializes in the profile, a sketch snatched from a few weeks or months of intense contact with a Person of Note. Because a profile plants itself in a particular time and place, the author often becomes a supporting character, an opinionated bystander who slips in and out of the story at will. Over the years, Mead has perfected the art of the cutting digression. In a recent profile of Jennifer Weiner, a popular chick-lit author who has criticized the literary establishment for relegating her to beach-book status, Mead observes that Weiner rather transparently repurposes her pet peeves as characters, who then get the comeuppance they deserve. “It seems possible,” she writes, “that a forthcoming Weiner novel will include a female writer of literary fiction—quite possibly slender and severely attractive—who will say something dismissive about chick lit, and who will wind up garotted with a pair of Spanx.”
Unfortunately, when Mead began My Life in Middlemarch, she sheathed her journalistic knives. Compared to her profiles, the book is downright pious. Opening a notebook of Eliot’s in the New York Public Library, Mead luxuriates in its smoky scent. “Maybe—just maybe—the book had absorbed molecules of smoke from a fireplace at the Priory, the house … that George Eliot bought in 1863,” she writes. “Perhaps the notebook—inscribed by George Eliot’s hand and containing a record of her thought and mind—had also been imbued with a trace of her material world, and could lead me back there.” Mead is used to telling stories; she is not used to playing a starring role. My Life in Middlemarch is less memoir than hagiography, the life and miracles of a literary saint recounted by an ardent disciple who hopes to draw some moral wisdom from the act of retelling.
This approach is somewhat apropos because for Eliot, fiction was itself a moral task. She once famously wrote: “The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. … Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”
But it also appeals to the vanity of that “certain kind” of woman who, as Mary Gordon noted, draws immense satisfaction from her identification with Middlemarch. Few nineteenth-century heroines resonate with this woman like Dorothea Brooke. Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina are too rash; Becky Sharp too conniving; Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennett too provincial; Tess Durbeyfield too pathetic. Dorothea is, in Gordon’s words, “above all serious, and although she considers herself passionate, she is not about to act in a headlong way.” By allying herself with Dorothea—and by extension, Eliot—Mead grasps for a bit of this gravity. She’s writing for anyone who likes getting snaps for having read and loved Middlemarch, and who sees an attack on the book as an attack on her own intellectual seriousness.
Critics of Middlemarch, beware: At one point, Mead sweeps aside Henry James, who had the audacity to contend that Eliot failed to turn the dashing and artistic Will Ladislaw into a three-dimensional character. “I find James’s failure to grasp Ladislaw entirely incomprehensible,” Mead writes. "(But then again I think James was fundamentally wrong in his appraisal of Middlemarch, which he admired as a ‘treasure-house of details’ but called ‘an indifferent whole.’)"
So what? Middlemarch is a messy book—that’s part of its appeal. Henry James may not have liked its expansiveness, which differs so much from his own tightly plotted works, but Mead’s indignation with his ambivalence is baffling. Even for a die-hard Eliot fan—forget Middlemarch, I’ve waded clean to the end of Daniel Deronda—this deification gets dull.
One crucial fact lies buried under all this reverence. Middlemarch is a deeply sad book; gifted people make fatally foolish choices and can’t escape the consequences, no matter how hard they try. This is not necessarily a book that you would want your life to echo. It has the capacity to inspire intense self-doubt in all manner of people, especially those who are ambitious. What aspiring scholar hasn’t felt the nagging fear that they, like Casaubon, will find themselves mired in a hopelessly narrow field? What social justice advocate hasn’t worried that they, like Lydgate, will fail in their high-minded quests and resort to less principled moneymaking endeavors?
Mead elides this sadness. She acknowledges a “vein” of melancholy in the famous last sentence, which declares Dorothea a saint of the ordinary, one of the countless women who “lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” But in the last few pages of the book, Mead returns to Eliot, who lived a life that was, if not happy, then certainly extraordinary. By focusing so owlishly on Eliot, she manages to lose the reason why Middlemarch is worth reading in the first place.