Rich rewards for reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch

My Life in Middlemarch

by Rebecca Mead

Book review by Nancy Tinari

Reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch gave me a renewed optimism about the endurance of excellent writing and appreciative readers. It reminded me that great writing has universal themes that bond readers across time and space. In her book, Mead has described the heart, mind, and art of one writing genius, George Eliot. Her examples of Eliot’s writing are striking; and what is more, Mead’s own words as she analyzes Eliot’s personal life and the repeated themes of her books are worthy of the author and the book she has been devoted to since she was a teenager.

Critics have praised My Life in Middlemarch highly, but have called it an “unclassifiable” book. I found its many facets wonderful. Mead, a lover of literature and a staff writer for The New Yorker, writes about how the book spoke to her as she read it regularly at different times in her life, starting when she was a teenager and continuing now as a journalist in her forties.

In her research for My Life in Middlemarch Mead was thorough. She wasn’t just a worshipper of a great writer—she didn’t shy away from exploring the thorny, less admirable sides of Eliot’s character.

Eliot became happier and wiser as she grew older, despite the physical ailments of ageing. She met the love of her life, George Henry Lewes, when she was thirty-two—middle-aged by the standards of her time. Moreover, Lewes had a wife and many children to support (though he was separated from them) and Eliot had the courage to live with him as a wife, considered a scandal according to the conventions of Victorian England. Mead is entranced by their love story, and believes that without Lewes’s love, support, and business acumen Eliot wouldn’t have been able to achieve her great success as a writer, especially the completion of Middlemarch.

Probably Mead’s biggest goal in writing My Life in Middlemarch was to convey the powerful themes of Eliot’s work. Mead wanted to understand Eliot at the deepest level. How did her personality and her life experiences shape her beliefs? What drove her as a writer? (Eliot was driven—she wrote the twelve hundred manuscript pages of Middlemarch over a period of two to three years, despite suffering from migraine headaches and other illnesses.)

For Mead, the main theme of Middlemarch is the individual’s process of attaining empathy for others, of escaping from the egocentric viewpoint. Eliot believed that only by reaching true understanding and sympathy for others could people increase the amount of goodness in the world. Mead quotes from a 1956 essay of Eliot’s entitled “The Natural History of German Life”. Eliot 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. (p. 158)

In another essay, written in 1858 about poet Edward Young, Mead quotes what Eliot wrote about morality:

In proportion as morality is emotional, i.e., has affinity with Art, it will exhibit itself in direct sympathetic feeling and action, and not as the recognition of a rule. ( p. 238)

Mead uses the marriage of Dorothea Brooke and Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch as an example of how Eliot shows the disastrous effect of not understanding, and not having sympathy for, one’s marriage partner. The extraordinary thing Eliot manages to do, according to Mead, is to elicit the reader’s sympathy for both Dorothea and Casaubon.

I was struck by Mead’s analysis of this because I read Middlemarch decades ago, and the one thing I remember most clearly about the novel was my distaste for Edward Casaubon. To me, he was a completely repulsive character. But Mead has given me a more nuanced view of him. She writes, “Eliot gives a chilling representation of a deadly, unbridgeable distance in marriage: the absolute failure of sympathy.” She convinces me that incompatibility in marriage “consists of two people failing each other in their powers of comprehension,” and she points out ways in which Dorothea fails Casaubon (his injuries to her are more obvious).

All of Eliot’s writing reflected the author’s own quest to share her belief that only by deeply understanding others can people make the world better. She wanted to change peoples’ perceptions. Mead describes Eliot’s motives:

She wanted to know how people worked—not to expose them or embarrass them, but to move them toward a greater self-understanding, and to achieve with them a greater intimacy, however fleeting. (p. 243)

Sympathy for others leads not only to good acts, but can help an individual to gain transcendence; to get beyond a sense of futility about one’s mortality and insignificance. Eliot achieved this kind of self-transcendence as she grew older, as her writing reveals.  Mead quotes a long passage that Eliot wrote at a time when she was deeply depressed. She was in her late twenties, and her father’s death was approaching. She felt isolated, describing herself as a moon, a “cold dark orb.” (p. 264) She expressed her sense of futility by writing “…we see ourselves and all about us as nothing more than miserable agglomerations of atoms… ” (p. 265)

But Mead shows, by quoting from Eliot’s works, that the writer moved beyond this sense of hopelessness and isolation. Mead’s words about Eliot ring beautifully too:

She believed that growth depends upon complex connections and openness to others, and does not derive from a solitary swelling of the self. She became great because she recognized that she was small. (p. 265)

Eliot’s attainment of transcendence is reflected in a condolence letter she wrote to a friend in 1870. Mead quotes this part:

I try to delight in the sunshine that will be when I shall never see it any more…I think it is…possible for us to gain much more independence, than is usually believed, of the small bundle of facts that make our own personality. (p. 265)

Mead gives another exquisite example of Middlemarch’s theme of transcending one’s own limited existence. She describes a scene near the end of the book. Dorothea has just passed a miserable sleepless night during which she pondered her (mistaken) discovery that Rosamond and Ladislaw (the man Dorothea loves) were in love. She looks out the window and sees a man, a woman carrying a baby, and other figures moving in the first light of a field. Mead quotes a lengthy passage from this scene; part of it is as follows:

Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold waking of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining. (pp. 272–273)

Ah, such writing! Mead has chosen well to give us this passage with its iconic images and words so beautifully expressing Dorothea’s epiphanic realization that she is part of something bigger than herself.

Mead analyzes another stunning example of Eliot’s superlative command of language. She starts by telling us that the final sentence of Middlemarch is “one of the most admired in literature.” The sentence is about Eliot’s character Dorothea Brooke, whom Mead describes as “a heroine of the ordinary.” Here is the final sentence of Middlemarch:

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

What I found most interesting was a different draft of that sentence that Mead found in a manuscript at the British Library. It reads:

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive; for the growing life of the world is after all chiefly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is owing to many of those who sleep in unvisited tombs, having lived a hidden life nobly. (p. 270)

Mead analyzes the differences between the two drafts at length, but I could immediately hear how much poorer Eliot’s first draft was. The lack of musicality in the first draft is obvious even to an untrained reader. It’s inspirational to find out that a writer of Eliot’s stature and experience could improve so much upon her own words. And in that final, masterful version we see a kind of English that is seldom written any longer: the sentence is long and contains many clauses, yet it is not difficult to read because of its perfect, balanced rhythm. Every word is carefully chosen to reflect the exact meaning and mood that Eliot intended.


Quotes in this blog post from:

Mead, Rebecca. (2014). My Life in Middlemarch. Toronto: Bond Street Books.