“My Life in Middlemarch”: How Good Books Shape Us

George Eliot is the least loved of the great English novelists. Like Dickens, he championed strong moral values ​​in his fiction, but unlike Dickens, he had the imagination to live those values ​​in his real life. High opinion is bad; doing it right is unbearable.

However, there are stories, and if I disagree with Rebecca Mead, in her new book “My Life in Middlemarch,” she describes Eliot’s landscapes as “sensually precise, ” but few writers are very skilled in interpretation. how countries and experiences and other people think of us. Eliot is the Rembrandt of our domestic life, and few historians since have compared him to that.

Mead first reads “Middlemarch” as a restless 17-year-old coming up in a rural seaside town in southwest England. His mind was surrounded by books and ideas, and the whole world outside, which he hoped to reach by way of Oxford. Thirty years later, Mead returned to Eliot’s great work, not for the first time, to consider how his understanding of it had changed. years and how the book changed him.

“Middlemarch,” unlike most novels of its time, begins with a marriage – the very young Dorothea Brooke to Edward Casaubon, a student 20 years her senior – and also involves her down with a second marriage, that of an ambitious doctor. Tertius Lydgate to the Beauty of the City, Rosamond Vincy. The town in question, Middlemarch, was a suburb like the one Mead grew up in, and was going through profound changes brought about by a political reform bill passed in 1832.

Dorothea and Lydgate did not want to be different, to use a new proverb. She hopes to reform medicine, a cause that saves lives, while she believes that she can help her husband write a great work (a tome called ” The Key to All Mythologies”) and in the process learn from it. Both marriages were disasters; Mr. Causabon as solid, dry, and Rosamond, who Lydgate considered to be the best Victorian of the “Angel in the House” – elegant, “docile” and unfathomable in her “high musing.” and important tasks” – a difficult and difficult one, demanding a standard of living that her husband could not have unless he became a lowly medical doctor.

There’s a lot more going on in “Middlemarch” than that, but two bad marriages are what you’ll see if, like Mead, you’re an ambitious young woman who wants to make something of herself. down and the person whose knowledge of life is obtained from books. . Eliot herself – born Mary Ann Evans, the daughter of a Midlands landowner – was just a girl, and many readers will first encounter “Middlemarch” when they make a series of decisions. of life facing Dorothea and Lydgate. “My Life in Middlemarch” follows Eliot and Mead as they receive their education and take their hard knocks from the world, while Mead explores the pieces of Eliot’s life and the social circle that inspired parts of the book.

Despite the age when university education was forbidden to women, Eliot became a famous novelist, scholar, translator and a great woman of letters in London. He lived for a time in the most oppressive house of his employer at the Westminster Review, John Chapman, with his wife, children and mistress, the children’s director. With the philosopher Herbert Spencer, he engaged in what Mead called a “quasicourtship”; they are best friends until Spencer tells Eliot without thinking that she can’t love him. “Physical beauty is sine qua non with me,” Spencer later wrote in a statement about the case; “as it is unhappily shown where the mental and emotional qualities of the higher.”

“I cannot pretend to preserve Eliot’s physical features,” Mead said bluntly. It may not be unusual for a writer to look at the respect for his work, but if the writer is a woman living in a society where women have little to do before marriage, in fact, his looks can make a big difference in his life. However, I can remember a college lecture where Eliot’s homeliness was presented as a model in the writing of “Middlemarch.” Even when Eliot started writing, he found a suitable partner in George Henry Lewes and lived with him for ten years. They were unable to marry (Lewes’s common-law wife had deserted him and his three sons), and their stay alienated some of their close friends and noble family, but Lewes and Eliot worshiped and supported each other for 24 years. poet Robert Lowell called it “The True Marriage of Victorian England.”

If Eliot had been beautiful, he might have married the faithless and abusive Spencer, we might not have “Middlemarch,” because Lewes took the romantic encouragement to persuade the wary Eliot to try his hand in history. In that sense, I think Eliot’s analysis of history has had a profound effect, but not in the way that my college professor did. As Mead puts it, Spencer was part of Eliot’s “education” and their relationship “informed his knowledge,” an understanding that gave him the depth and breadth to write “Middlemarch.” .”

Each chapter of “My Life in Middlemarch” takes an aspect of the story, an aspect of Eliot’s life and an aspect of Mead’s life to show how these three are connected. each other. This technique finds its best effect in the later chapters. At one point, Mead decided to read all the letters sent to Eliot by a sycophantic, “stalker-like” young Scotsman who later became the editor of a book called “Wise , Witty and Tender Sayings, in Prose and Verse, Selected from the Works of George Eliot.” Mead uses this event to slowly remove the tragic (as was common now in the Victorian era) view of fiction as a source of life lessons and motivational advice.

As Mead points out, this is the only best way to approach Eliot and his work. If Eliot had a “credo,” Mead explained, it might best be defined as “If I care about you so much—if I try to imagine myself in your condition and in your condition—then the more good of the world by my striving for knowledge and understanding.” Eliot’s stories are meant to expand the romantic imagination of her readers and invite them into the skin of her characters, something cherry-picking words cannot accomplish. By promising himself to stay in the Scottish library and read the many letters of the young man to Eliot, Mead forced himself to strengthen his romantic imagination, to expand and expand. until he discovers a lonely soul in this once “repellent” man. . This allowed him to understand why Eliot put up with him.

The best part is the chapter where Mead reimagines what she finds the least intimate relationship in “Middlemarch”: that between Rosamund’s feckless brother Fred and her young lover, Mary Garth. When Mead first read the novel, “I only wanted vague ideas from romance,” she recalled, “but I thought about the struggle in the exotic border.” The thought of wanting to get married in a place you’ve known all your life and then live in the small town you grew up in was something he couldn’t imagine.

However, the story of Mary and Fred is similar to that of Mead’s own parents, and as an adult, he will never see “love rooted in the same place, for a long time of life,” Mead can to see the “fulfilment of the dawn, eternal love with something like terror.” One of the final notes of “Middlemarch” is a picture of Mary and Fred, years later, “in the comfort of white hair,” enjoying a hold. “This verse meant nothing to me when I was young,” wrote Mead, “but now it resonates with depth and meaning,” even “nearly sixty years after their wedding day.” , my father died with my mother by his side. holding his hand and softly talking to him of the good memories we had together.”

The idea of ​​reading the same book differently at different points in our lives — in such a way that it becomes a different book with each reading — is far from new. But it would be hard to find a novel worth rereading than Eliot’s — or a better, fuller and more moving display of his enduring influence than “My Life in Middlemarch.”

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