Tuesday, December 1, 2015

My Life in Middlemarch

My Life in Middlemarch
Rebecca Mead (2014, Crown Publishers)

Rebecca Mead's book about Middlemarch is also about the life of Mary Ann Evans, and how she became George Eliot. Delving deeply into (Evans's) life and (Eliot's) work, Mead stands on the shoulders of many scholars, while adding cogent observations of her own. She weaves deftly between the action and characters of the novel, and the life and times of the author. There's also just enough of Mead's own history as a student of English literature, as a journalist, and as a sleuth poring over letters and diaries, and visiting places Eliot knew. It's all skillfully put together, without a wasted word.

The plot of Middlemarch is instigated by Dorothea Brooke's high-minded but foolish decision to marry a much older man, a clergyman and scholar named Casaubon. Eliot stretches the conventions of the nineteenth-century novel by making marriage the beginning of the story rather than the conclusion, as in the works of Jane Austen. "One thing is beyond any doubt: if this were Jane Austen's story, the courtship of the blossoming Dorothea by the dry-as-dust Casaubon would have been a comedy." But something more serious is going on: "The pages vibrate with Dorothea's yearning for a meaningful life. Her soul is too large for the comedy of manners into which she at first appears to have been dropped. She is bigger – her longings are grander–than the conventional story that others would write around her."

For a century and a half, young women readers have vibrated in sympathy with that yearning, including Mead, who experienced it as a drive to leave her home in an English seaside resort for Oxford University, and the unknown adventures beyond. Looking into the letters Mary Ann Evans wrote in her school days, Mead discovers another such young woman: "She, too, was waiting for her life to start–not complacently, or resignedly, but anxiously and urgently....She knew she wanted something. She knew she wanted to do something. She didn't know what it was. She just knew she wanted, and wanted, and wanted."

After her father's death in 1849, Evans made her way in London as a translator and writer of critical essays. In 1851, she met George Henry Lewes; she moved in with him in 1854, though he was married to someone else, with whom he had three sons. (He also gave his name to two more children his wife bore by another man. Victorian life could be complicated.) Lewes encouraged Evans to try her hand at fiction, as a potentially more profitable line of work, and the world is richer for it.

Mead describes how the two supported each other, and how Lewes's sons became sons to Eliot, who had none of her own. The couple hosted a regular salon; they knew Thackeray and Dickens, Florence Nightingale, and the philosopher Herbert Spencer. "Their life together took its own course, free of the necessity to observe propriety. They read widely, wrote copiously, talked endlessly." For twenty-five years, this unconventional menage was, by some accounts, one of the happiest marriages of the age. 
Mead says, "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." As a look into this process, My Life in Middlemarch is a marvel. 

Any Good Books – December 2015 

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