In her second book, My Life in Middlemarch, New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead offers a thoughtful examination of the book that has turned out to be a touchstone of her life.
What inspired you to write this book?
I decided I wanted to write about something I loved. The last book I wrote, One Perfect Day was a journalistic exposé of the wedding industry. The business of weddings had engaged me because it seemed so alien, but reporting on it meant spending a lot of time immersed in a world that—not to put too fine a point on it—horrified me. After that experience, I thought if I were going to ever spend several years of my life immersed in another world, I wanted it to be one that would delight and excite me. George Eliot had long fascinated me, and her greatest novel, Middlemarch, was one I returned to again and again. So beginning the research that would eventually turn into My Life in Middlemarch—the slow re-reading of Eliot’s books, and the travel to sites of her life—was a way to recover the joy and the pleasure of reading. It was a glorious opportunity to stop and think about why Middlemarch is so great, and why it meant so much to me.
"[A]t an early age, I chose Middlemarch and it chose me; and I have lived with it for so long I do not know who I would be without it."
What was your introduction to Middlemarch?
I first read Middlemarch when I was 17, studying to take the specialized entrance exams to Oxford University. I was living in a provincial seaside town in England, and spent a few hours every Sunday at the home of an English teacher, who was tutoring a handful of students from my school. Middlemarch begins with the character of Dorothea Brooke, who is 19, living in a provincial town, and yearning for a more meaningful life. Of course I identified with her completely: I was Dorothea, even if I wasn’t wealthy, eligible and beautiful, as she is. But the book is so much more than the story of one young woman’s quest for meaning and fulfillment. It’s a rich, complex portrait of the interconnected lives of the residents of the town—their aspirations, their failures, their love affairs, their professional ambitions, their moral quandaries, their dreams and their limitations. As I sat in my teacher’s living room—with the book on my lap and my own hopes in my heart—it seemed to me the wisest thing I had ever read. It still seems that way.
Of all the classic 19th-century novels, why is Middlemarch your favorite?
I’m not sure whether one can have—or should admit to having—a “favorite” book, at least once one has reached adulthood. Different books speak to different parts of our selves, and there are lots of other 19th-century novels (and 20th-century novels) that I love. I could tell you that I love Middlemarch above other books because I know of no other novel that gives so complete a portrait of the ordinary residents of an ordinary town. Or I could tell you that George Eliot gives a reader access to the interior lives of her characters as no novelist had done before her. Or I could say that the combination of ironic observation and compassionate insight that characterizes Middlemarch is unmatched by any other author. But it would be truer to say that at an early age, I chose Middlemarch and it chose me; and I have lived with it for so long I do not know who I would be without it.
How many times have you read the novel and at what points in your life?
I’ve not kept to a precise schedule, but I’ve read Middlemarch about every five years or so. The first time I was a teenager, eager to get on with life, and at that point it seemed to be all about being a very young woman eager to get on with life. When I read it in my 20s, stumbling from one misbegotten love affair to another, it seemed to be all about the meaning of marriage, and what true commitment might be. In my 30s, when I was seeking to establish myself seriously as a writer, the story of Tertius Lydgate, the doctor who starts out with high professional ambitions and ends up failing to fulfill them, came to have a much more significant resonance for me. And by the time I was in my early 40s—when I started to think about writing My Life in Middlemarch—the book that had once seemed to be all about the hopes and aspirations of youth now seemed to be all about the resignations of middle age. I’m due for another full re-read; I wonder what it will say to me next time.
What do you think Virginia Woolf meant when she called Middlemarch “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”?
I think Woolf was referring to the way in which the satisfactions offered by Middlemarch—and there are many—are complex ones, much like the satisfactions of life itself. Middlemarch isn’t a romance with a happy ending, or a tragedy with a sad one. Full of hopes for passionate love and intellectual companionship, Dorothea makes a disastrous marriage at the beginning of the book to the dry, pedantic Edward Casaubon. She ends up falling in love with Will Ladislaw, Casaubon’s young cousin, but life with him, Eliot suggests, has its own limitations. There is an atmosphere of melancholy in much of the book, especially its conclusion. A lot of Eliot’s contemporary readers found the book altogether too melancholy. A reader is left wondering about the paths chosen by, or chosen for, the book’s many characters—because, as Eliot writes, “every limit is a beginning as well as an ending.” It probably takes a grown-up to recognize the truth of that.
Middlemarch is so rich it can speak to a reader at any age, and in any circumstances. My book is about the way these different themes have come in and out of focus as the years have passed, and about how much Middlemarch has continued to offer me as my life has changed.
You quote Eliot’s phrase “the common yearning of womanhood” when talking about the novel and, in particular, its heroine, Dorothea Brooke. Would you say this is the central theme of Middlemarch—and of your book as well?
I think it’s certainly a central theme of Middlemarch: Dorothea aspires to live a more meaningful, valuable and helpful life than the one she seems destined for by virtue of her birth and class. And it’s the theme that first resonated so much with me, when I was a young, aspiring person myself. But Middlemarch is so rich and intricate that it has many themes of equal importance, certainly not all of them about being a woman, young or otherwise. In characterizing Lydgate and Ladislaw, Eliot offers different iterations on the problem of how to be a worthy man. In the story of Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, the mayor’s son and a land agent’s daughter, she examines the foundations for a good marriage, and the growth in character that love can prompt. In the character of Nicholas Bulstrode, the corrupt banker, Eliot analyses questions of moral obligation and self-deception. Middlemarch is so rich it can speak to a reader at any age, and in any circumstances. My book is about the way these different themes have come in and out of focus as the years have passed, and about how much Middlemarch has continued to offer me as my life has changed.
How has your relationship with Middlemarch changed over the years?
It has changed in surprising and rewarding ways. In my late 30s I become a stepmother to three sons, and so now when I read Eliot’s depictions of Ladislaw, Lydgate and Fred Vincy as they stumble on their sometimes-hapless ways to maturity, I do so in light of the three young men who came into my life as boys, with all their own dramas and triumphs.
Another surprise has been the evolution in the way I read the love story of Fred Vincy and Mary Garth. When I was young, I had more or less no interest in their boy-and-girl-next-door love affair, because I wanted much more exotic romantic adventures for myself. But after many years and many love affairs of my own, I have come to regard early-dawning, long-lived love with something approaching awe. Fred and Mary’s story has taught me to look differently at the marriage of my own parents, who met when they were 15, married at 21, and who stayed married for 60 years, until my father’s death, which happened when I was halfway through writing My Life in Middlemarch. I thought about my parents a lot while I was writing it; the book is dedicated to them, and their influence is on every page.
How has living in New York for the past 20 years influenced your experience of reading the book?
It’s hard to say, since I don’t know how I would have read Middlemarch had I remained living in England. But I’ve certainly discovered there is nothing uniquely British about the desiccated scholar Edward Casaubon, or the dilettantish, passionate Will Ladislaw, male types of which, it turns out, there is no shortage in the United States! Writing the book was, in a way, a means for me to reckon with my identity and my heritage as an Englishperson, albeit an Englishperson who is self-confessedly Americanized in many ways. It was a way of looking back at where I had come from, and how it had made me—and of thinking about where I might go, and what I might do, next.
The human traits of desire, hypocrisy, nobility, weakness and sympathy that Eliot illustrates, with such subtlety and humanity and humor and insight, can be just as easily found in my neighborhood in 21st-century Brooklyn as in a 19th-century English town.
Surprisingly, you found a lot of primary research sources in the States—particularly at the New York Public Library and Yale. Do you happen to know how this trove of Eliot-related material landed on this side of the pond?
Yale University acquired a significant cache of letters written by George Eliot in the early 1930s, and the university added to that collection over the decades, so that now it holds more than 800 letters, as well as journals, notebooks,and other documents: a wonderful treasure trove. Eliot’s letters have been edited by her great biographer, Gordon S. Haight; so I didn’t need to read most of those in manuscript. But I did go to Yale to read the letters written by one of her three stepsons, Thornton Lewes, about whom I write at some length. He was a marvelous character and, incidentally, a very talented writer. (Had he not died tragically young, at 25, he might have gone on to write the best memoir of George Eliot we would ever have had.)
What I didn’t know before I started researching my book was that a notebook George Eliot had been using in the very years during which she wrote Middlemarch ended up in the collection of the New York Public Library, only a few steps from the offices of The New Yorker, where I work. Going to the rare-books reading room, calling that notebook up and getting to touch and turn the pages that Eliot had touched and turned was thrilling. I felt an almost supernatural connection—not to her, exactly, but to her home in London. I felt as if I had been transported, as if I could see and sense the parlor of the Priory, with its musty fireplace and its heavy drapery. It sounds corny—or like I’m making it up—but it’s completely true.
Middlemarch seems the quintessential novel of life in Victorian England. Why do you think it still speaks to readers today?
Middlemarch in some ways is a quintessentially English novel: It’s set in a deliberately average provincial town and is concerned with the customs and practices of 19th-century English life. There’s even a whole political subplot concerning the Reform Act of 1832, the background of which isn’t exactly common knowledge among typical American readers (or for that matter, among typical British ones). But outdated dress codes and superannuated modes of transportation aside, the town of Middlemarch is everywhere. The human traits of desire, hypocrisy, nobility, weakness and sympathy that Eliot illustrates, with such subtlety and humanity and humor and insight, can be just as easily found in my neighborhood in 21st-century Brooklyn as in a 19th-century English town. She makes Middlemarchers of us all.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE
Read our review of My Life in Middlemarch.