Finding oneself in ‘Middlemarch’

 <span class="cutline_leadin">My Life in Middlemarch.</span> Rebecca Mead. Crown. 293 pages. $25.
My Life in Middlemarch. Rebecca Mead. Crown. 293 pages. $25.

Middlemarch is one of those books whose fans reread it once every few years, and no wonder. It’s not only an absorbing story, or rather a big set of interconnected stories (all set in the same English town around 1830), in which you can lose yourself. It’s also that rare thing, a literary classic that will probably make you a better person, simply because of what it does to you when you read it.

Through the famously wise, articulate narrator, and through the viewpoints of George Eliot’s characters — the heiress Dorothea Brooke, wondering whom to love and how to do good in the world; Edward Casaubon, the fatally ambitious would-be scholar; the aspiring physician Tertius Lydgate, drawn to the vain beauty Rosamond Vincy; the sensible farm girl Mary Garth; — readers learn, New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead writes, “to understand the unfolding of events from the perspectives of multiple characters,” how to imagine what other people think and feel, and how to do right by them.

In My Life in Middlemarch, Mead offers reasons to open the Victorian novel for the first time and grist for fans. Mead weaves together, ably and quickly, tips for new readers, her takes on its characters and her quiet adventures in literary tourism, visiting Eliot’s hometown, her dwellings in London, her stepson’s descendents and so on.

Mead also lays out her own life and career, which took her from the English port of Weymouth (close to the spot where Eliot finished her novel) to Oxford University, to New York City, to disappointment in love with an older man, and then to a happier life as spouse, mother and stepmom.

That life in some ways mirrors Eliot’s own. Born Mary Ann Evans in 1819, in the agricultural center of Nuneaton, the Victorian author grew up boundlessly curious though strictly religious, a poor fit for the provincial, traditional England whose landscape she nonetheless loved.

Evans endears herself to Mead through her later “diligent effort to become an educated person,” which also meant a loss of faith. She escaped to London, to translating, editing and writing essays (“her critical judgment could be astringent, even snarky”), and then to fiction and verse, with the great novel (her next to last) appearing in 1871-72.

In the metropolis, she fell first for an unsuitable older man, the self-important polymath Herbert Spencer, and then a suitable one, George Henry Lewes. Married in all but name, Eliot and Lewes stayed together happily for more than 20 years.

Mead finds tender instruction not just in the author’s life but also in the people around her. Lewes’ impulsive middle son, Thornton (“Thornie”), pursued a hair-raising military career in British South Africa, then came home to convalesce, drawing out what Eliot called her otherwise “unused stock of motherly tenderness.” Thornie gave Eliot a type for the late-blooming hero Will Ladislaw and a new way to think about family.

Mead also sketches the self-important, crotchety Spencer; the wholly admirable Lewes; the sad, lonely Oxford don Mark Pattison; and his unhappy younger wife, Emily. These last two resemble Casaubon and Dorothea. In each case Mead’s take, modeled on Eliot’s, becomes a model for our own: Reading her, we might indeed (to quote Eliot) “begin to see things again in the larger, quieter masses, and … believe that we too can be seen and judged in the wholeness of our character.”

In a spate of informal books about famous authors, from A Jane Austen Education to Julie and Julia, Mead’s work stands out for its brevity (beside its voluminous source), for its calm (no violence and few sudden moves), and for its perfect match of writer and subject. The Victorian figure “spoke with an authority and a generosity that was wise and essential and profound,” to Mead and to other Victorians, who could revere Eliot with guileless sincerity.

Stephen Burt reviewed this for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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