A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Like no other novel, Middlemarch divides humanity I find. Only those who have never considered reading it are indifferent. It is enormous, and a challenge. It inspires passionate defence in those who love it, and loathing in those who do not. I love Middlemarch, with all faults, its length and longueurs, for all the author’s voice chuntering away in the reader’s ear may be unwelcome at times – but I have learnt to recommend it with circumspection, and to gauge when to retreat and stop pressing it on people.
This superb, persuasive book The Road to Middlemarch makes me realise that I lack the skill and the language, and, yes, maybe the courage to articulate what I found so magnificent about this novel, and the extent to which it has shaped my thoughts and outlook on the world. It makes me think anew about why I might return to certain books, including Middlemarch, time and again, as if to draw more sweet water from a well. Being swept along by plot and action, page-turning to find out what happens next, is one of the great pleasures in a reading life, but deep reading and re-reading is another. I should like to think that this book might persuade to someone who has been daunted by the size and scope of the novel to try it.
Rebecca Mead, who writes for the New Yorker, is younger than I am, but so much of her life story and how she describes it connecting her to Middlemarch resonated with me. She grew up in the country, went to grammar school, was one of the first of her family to go to university. Both she and I have been Dorothea – in my case especially the young Dorothea, so alive, so certain, so myopic, so inexperienced, so annoying (many of us grow out of it, including Dorothea. Fortunately most of us are spared the learning process she had to undergo). Rebecca Mead has created a reading memoir, where her life story, George Eliot’s, and the genesis of Middlemarch are intertwined with her own constant returning to it. What I love, and can relate to, is her examination of the different reactions she has to it at different stages of her life (she re-reads it at five-year intervals).
This review, I’m afraid, is going to consist pretty well entirely of me agreeing violently with Rebecca Mead. So much that I vaguely see in my re-reading she reveals and illuminates. In one passage, she casts light on Eliot’s understanding of Sympathy (beyond ‘feeling sorry for’, stretching much further towards what we would perhaps call Empathy), and the extent to which the characters that could seem so easy to love or hate in a manichean way are written to excite our sympathy in their humanity and complexity. I care deeply for Casaubon, and suffer for him – so does she. Here, Rebecca Mead examines the life and times of the possible inspiration for Casaubon, and speculates on the emotional and spiritual toll that failed scholarly ambitions might take. I find much to pity in Rosamond Lydgate, rooted in her upbringing and preparation for a woman’s life. I understand Tertius Lydgate is not a conventional hero, and love the way in which his connection with Dorothea is both so profound and so unlikely to result in the standard romantic outcome.
This novel confounds expectations at every turn, and this book illustrates from Eliot’s life, thought and intellect how that comes about. For someone who loves the novel, and presses it on the unwary possibly too often and without adequate words to recommend it, I know far too little about the life and milieu of its author. This book will be now an indispensible companion for me – an incisive, affectionate introduction to George Eliot’s life and literary times, as well as a persuasive, elegant literary commentary on her greatest novel. It follows Eliot from the Midlands (my familiar home) to London, from emotional disappointment to a profoundly contented unconventional marriage to G H Lewes, from journalism and translation to fiction (her creativity liberated by her life with Lewes). It deals with the reception both of the author and her works, and examines how much of Eliot’s own history might be seen as inspiration for her portrayal of the denizens of Middlemarch.
However, the best reason to read this book, whether you love or loathe Middlemarch, is that it is in itself beautifully and elegantly written, thoughtful and moving, self-revealing. It can be read at the level of a memoir of growing up with literature and continuing to grow (Virginia Woolf said that this was a novel written for grown-ups, and Rebecca Mead examines what this might mean), and the positive effect of great writing on the formation of a person and a writer. I would recommend this book (far less daunting in length than its inspiration) to any reader – to someone who like me loves, reads and re-reads Middlemarch and finds something new in it every time; to someone who has never read Middlemarch and is discouraged by its length; to someone who loathes Middlemarch with a passion, begging him or her not to be put off by its connection to the loathed object, but to read this memoir for its own sake: for its elegance, its openness, its erudition. And, who knows, for its persuasive power to inspire a fresh attempt to read this most profound and humane of novels.
Rebecca Mead: The Road to Middlemarch. My Life With George Eliot. London: Granta, 2014. 293pp ISBN 13: 9781847085160