There are books that remain with us throughout our lives-books we return to time and again for solace and guidance. But wouldn’t it be hard if you were asked to pick a single favorite? I could name 10 or 12 titles that I love and that have touched me deeply. But it would be impossible for me to narrow down my list to one choice. That’s why they say that asking a bookworm to pick a favorite book is like asking a mother to pick a favorite child. Not for Rebecca Mead, a staff member of the New Yorker who has no trouble in professing a preference. For her it was just one book that had such a lasting impact on her- the nineteenth century novel, Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life, written by the English author George Eliot. She has been fascinated with the book her whole life, has re-read it many times and has written a bibliomemoir entitled My Life in Middlemarch detailing her journey with the novel, her affinity with the author and how she can relate to the characters and experiences delineated. In the beginning of her book, Mead makes this profound observation about reading:
Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.
Mead’s perception of Middlemarch changed with age and maturity as the book helped shape her life through its various stages. But the book is not a primer on Middlemarch. Read it only after you’ve read the novel otherwise you’d be lost. I read it as a companion piece to Middlemarch right after I finished reading the mammoth novel.
I have to admit that I trudged through the first few chapters of Eliot’s sprawling novel numbering almost 900 pages and divided into eight books. I was familiar with George Eliot’s Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss from school days. I’m not one to be daunted by the size of a book. I’ve read the likes of Proust and Tolstoy. It wasn’t the size but the tedium of the first few chapters. There were too many characters and plots and an omniscient narrator with a didactic authorial voice with moral asides and digressions. But I was determined to persist as Middlemarch is widely believed to be among the 100 best novels of all time and I’m glad I did. The first three books were ponderous but once I started Book 4, I couldn’t put it down.
Eliot understands life in all its complexity- what we have on display is the full panorama of provincial life in Victorian England with piercing insights into human nature. Eliot highlights the preoccupations of the middle class- marriage, money and morals and skillfully captures the frailties and foibles of her characters. It is a vast canvas and a study of manners in the 19th century in the manner of Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine which also served as an inspiration to Eliot.
Virginia Woolf made the astute observation that Middlemarch is “…The magnificent book, which with all its imperfections, is one of the few English books written for grown-up people.” While a Jane Austen plot commences with a romance and courtship and ends with a marriage and a happily ever after, Middlemarch starts off with the idealistic Dorothea Brooke’s disastrous marriage to the scholarly and much older Edward Casaubon and continues with the equally idealistic Dr. Tertius Lydgate’s troubled romance and subsequent disappointment in marriage. Eliot dauntlessly subverts the commonplace tropes of Victorian novels. There are no characters that are inherently good or evil ; they are all flawed and human and therein lies the beauty of the novel. Each and every character evokes the empathy of the reader. I can understand how the book influenced the way Mead viewed life and how each reading left her with a new perspective. I am determined to revisit the book this year itself as it is the bicentennial of its publication and to re-read it slowly to savor the exquisite writing and reflect on the psychological insights.
Mead’s book is part memoir, part biography and part literary criticism. She dwells on George Eliot’s unconventional life and loves, her break with orthodox Christianity, how her writing developed and how she was perceived by her contemporaries. She was shunned by family and friends for her scandalous relationship with George Henry Lewes who was married to another woman and had a family. The book also details her emotional attachment to Herbert Spencer, the philosopher who believed in ‘meliorism’ and her marriage to John Cross, a man twenty years her junior who on their honeymoon in Venice jumped from the hotel window falling into the Grand Canal.
The book is replete with interesting details about Eliot’s personal life. Eliot was renowned for her uncomely appearance lacking in feminine charm. In a letter to his father, Henry James described her thus : “She is magnificently ugly — deliciously hideous. She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth, and a chin and jaw bone qui n’en finissent pas (never-ending)… But there was
something disarming about her intellectual radiance for he continues to say, “Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a few very minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her. Yes behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced blue-stocking.” The most fascinating tidbit for me was learning about Eliot’s epistolary relationship with a Scottish fan, Alexander Main, who had a stalkerish obsession with her and even wrote a book entitled Wise, Witty and Tender Sayings of George Eliot reducing her literary lines into pithy aphorisms. Eliot seemed to have been flattered by his idolization and even encouraged the relationship.
Mead first read the book when she was seventeen. She grew up in a provincial setting not too different from the fictional Middlemarch and like Dorothea yearned to pursue her ambitions and make sense of her life. And like the heroine of Middlemarch, she has a relationship with an older scholarly man. She compares her parents’ stable marriage to that of Fred Vincy and Mary Garth’s loyal relationship. Not only does she find parallels with the characters but also with Eliot and her life. Eliot thinks of Lewes’ three sons as her own and Mead herself marries a man who has three sons whom she adores. I felt this was the weak part of the memoir. Some of the links she establishes with her own life seem tenuous and although she provides us with juicy details about Eliot’s life, she doesn’t disclose much about her own which seems so lackluster compared to that of the author she reveres. I would say that a memoir is somewhat of a misnomer for this book and it would fit better under the genre of biography.
What I did enjoy was discovering a kindred spirit- an avid reader whose love of the written word shines through every page. She frequents libraries and book stores poring through manuscripts- she delights in reading lines changed later by Eliot and analyzes how they would have altered the import of the plot. She spends hours looking through Eliot’s notebook in the rare book collection of the New York Public Library and embarks on literary pilgrimages to Nuneaton and Coventry to inhabit the world of her idol. I also found Mead’s excessive admiration of Eliot endearing when she jumps to her defence for all the criticism she faced from her contemporaries for both her personal and professional life.
Mead’s book illuminates her own life along with Eliot’s and shows us how the fictional world collides with the real world. Life imitates art just as art imitates life. It added a new dimension to my understanding of George Eliot and Middlemarch. I thought about my own favorite books and what they mean to me. What a beautiful feeling it is to connect with a writer from another time and space and equally beautiful it is to connect with a fellow bibliophile from another time and space!