"The book, which had been published serially in eight volumes almost a hundred years before I was born, wasn't distant or dusty, but arresting in the acuteness of its psychological penetration and the snap of its sentences," she writes now. "Through it, George Eliot spoke with an authority and a generosity that was wise and essential and profound. I couldn't believe how good it was."
Mead would go back and read Middlemarch every few years. It was the book of her life. Like all truly great books, it seemed to change every time, yet still spoke to her wherever she happened to be. "There are books," she notes, "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." Her new book, My Life in Middlemarch, is about her own particular relationship to her Book of books.
My Life in Middlemarch is a pastiche of memoir, literary criticism, and biography, but mostly it's a celebration of George Eliot and her greatest creation. Like a medieval pilgrim, Mead travels to key sites in Eliot's life: Nuneaton, the country town where she grew up as Mary Ann Evans; Coventry, the larger Midlands town where she spent her young adulthood and which became the model for Middlemarch; London, where Evans made her career as a writer. Much of the landscape of Evans/Eliot's life has been destroyed by bombing during World War II and also by modernity; several houses she lived in have been transformed into inns and schools, the towns have grown up closely around them, and Mead has to work very hard to imagine what they were like in the mid-1800s. She has better luck with objects—a pen; an inlaid writing desk almost too beautiful to use; the leather-bound notebook Eliot kept while she was working on Middlemarch, painstakingly indexed and (possibly?) retaining a whiff of smoke from the fireplace in her study.
Mary Ann Evans was considered one of the cleverest women of her time, and also one of the ugliest. Romance eluded her until her late 30s when, in a tiny London bookshop, she met George Lewes, another writer. Lewes, unfortunately, was already married. His wife, however, was not insane and locked away in an attic. Instead she was merely flagrantly unfaithful—four of her seven children were fathered by men who were not Lewes—but in Victorian England, divorce was legally almost impossible. Still, it was considered a terrific scandal when Evans moved in with Lewes and lived with him as his wife. The "marriage" was apparently a very happy one (an occurrence quite rare in Victorian literary circles; for a catalog of misery, check out Phyllis Rose's Parallel Lives), and it lasted until his death in 1878. Lewes was the one who encouraged Evans to write fiction; in gratitude, she took his first name as her pen name, and "Eliot" may have been a contraction of "L: I owe it." (I've also heard "George Eliot" came from "to George, I owe a lot.")
In Middlemarch, Eliot is careful to show compassion and understanding toward all her characters, even those, like the hypocritical banker Mr. Bulstrode, the spoiled beauty Rosamond, and the fussy scholar Mr. Casaubon, who seem less than worthy of any kind thoughts. Mead acknowledges that the sympathy can sometimes be forced, but she appreciates that it's even there at all. (Jane Austen, for instance, would have skewered them all joyfully and mercilessly.) But in the end, Eliot herself, the all-seeing narrative voice, wise and compassionate, with a depth of book knowledge that Mr. Casaubon would envy—just look at the range of quotations for the chapter epigraphs!—is the most sympathetic character of all. (In life, apparently, she wasn't always like this, particularly in her late teens when most people are at their most obnoxious, but who is?)
Mead, in early readings, identified most with passionate, idealistic Dorothea Brooke, who yearns to be a modern Saint Teresa and whose idealization of marriage to an older gentleman who could teach her things leads to a disastrous union with Mr. Casaubon. In her 20s she empathized with Lydgate, the ambitious young doctor, but now, writing My Life in Middlemarch, she seems to feel closest to Eliot herself.
I must confess, I felt a slight distance from My Life in Middlemarch. This had less to do with Mead than the fact that I am mostly immune to Middlemarch. The first 150 pages or so are tough going. Eliot has a tendency to stop the narrative and deliver little sermons about larger issues of life. The first two times I attempted the book, they just stopped me dead. (As in, shut up already George, we all know how smart you are.) At the recommendation of several people whose taste in books I admire, I gave it another shot last Thanksgiving, but I made sure it was the only reading material I had on a long plane flight. That helped. By the middle of part two, during the account of Fred Vincy's disastrous attempt to pay back his gambling debts, the story got me enough to carry me past the sermons. (Fred and his true love, Mary Garth, became my two favorite characters in the entire book, along with the gossipy Mrs. Cadwallader who, Mead points out, is sometimes nasty but always right.) But nothing on the book spoke to me on a truly personal level (except for various characters worrying about money), and, much as I enjoyed reading about Mead's quest, I felt no need to go back to it. I don't think I ever will. (That said, there's a fun discussion of both Middlemarch and My Life in Middlemarch going on right now on the Toast.)
That's OK, though. Rebecca Mead has her Book and I have mine. Technically, I have several books that I've read several times that have never stopped meaning something to me, but Mead inspired me to go back to the very first one, which I too discovered when I was 17 and which, like Mead, I enthusiastically discussed at a college interview. (And, like Mead, I got in!) That would be The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham.
But when I finally bit the bullet a few years ago and went back to it, I loved it all over again. OK, not the parts about the airman seeking enlightenment in India: he seemed like a pompous bore and his mission pure self-indulgence. (The ex-airman has the freedom to pursue enlightenment because of a modest annual income. Can you really trust trust fund enlightenment?) But I grew much fonder of one of the other nonenlightened characters, the kindly arch-snob Elliott Templeton, and I loved the narrator. He's known as Mr. Maugham, and he's a lightly fictionalized version of the author: an older, worldly gentleman who has traveled widely, is comfortable in the drawing rooms of the minor nobility and also in student cafes and the 1930s Parisian equivalent of Denny's, a friend to countesses and artists' models, and, best of all, confidant and confessor for all the other characters. This is, of course, a narrative device (how else can he know all the details of the story he's telling?) but he's such an excellent listener—interested, witty, inclined to reserve judgment, willing to let others talk on uninterrupted without interjecting some boring story from his own life—that it's entirely believable that everyone would pour their hearts out to him over a cup of tea.
Not that he's a boring nonentity. Here is a quote the sums up the life and character of Mr. Maugham: "I have ridden a pony through Central Asia along the road that Marco Polo took to reach the fabulous lands of Cathay; I have drunk a glass of Russian tea in a prim parlour in Petrograd while a soft-spoken little man in a black coat and striped trousers told me how he had assassinated a grand duke." It's a bit ridiculous, yes, but in the most wonderful way, mostly because that's the only time in the book these incidents are mentioned or even alluded to. This is a man who has lived. Who would want to be enlightened when they could be Mr. Maugham?
I think I thought that when I was 17, too. I just didn't want to admit it.
As Mead points out, it's a good book that can still teach you things 20 years after you first read it.
Now—what's your Book?