What’s the Book of Your Life?

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 4 2014 7:45 AM

George Eliot Country

Rebecca Mead on the book that defined her life.

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Illustration by Gustavo Duarte

Ask some readers their favorite book, and they’ll rattle off a list of five or 10 but cannot narrow their dedication to one book or author. Ask others, and they’ll respond without hesitation with their single favorite of all time. New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead is the latter kind of reader. Her author is George Eliot, and her life-changing book is Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, the 1874 novel that turned the ever-popular Austenian marriage plot narrative on its head by having heroine Dorothea Brooke’s courtship result in a fraught marriage at the novel’s very beginning, instead of a happy marriage at the very end.

Mead’s new book My Life in Middlemarch, which first began as an essay about her complete infatuation with the book in The New Yorker, covers a lot of territory and might best be called a “life in letters” book. This poorly named genre is as broad in its scope as it is in its quality, ranging from any literary biography to the umpteenth explanation of what Jane Austen taught me to Geoff Dyer’s brilliant D.H. Lawrence noncriticism Out of Sheer Rage. What these books share is a deep love of the written word and a belief that “a book can insert itself into a reader’s own history, into a reader’s own life story, until it’s hard to know what one would be without it,” Mead says. As Mead’s title suggests, she makes the case that she sees her own life path clearest in relationship to what’s between Middlemarch’s covers.

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Mead’s relationship to Middlemarch is a bond as strong as a Victorian marriage, with little room for a divorce. It is, she says, “one book I had never stopped reading.” She sees her identity and life as changed as a result of her first reading and subsequent re-readings, and she sees her moments in her life anew each time she reintroduces herself to the world and characters of Middlemarch. There’s no fighting or shrugging off her identification with the book, even if the relationship is complex. Instead, the book is always there for her and, with each revisit to Eliot’s imaginary 1830s Everytown, there are new notes to discover under the surface. Her first encounter with the book at age 17, when she grew up wanting to escape a sleepy English town not unlike the novel’s, left her immediately entranced:

I couldn’t believe how good it was. And I couldn’t believe how relevant and urgent it felt. At seventeen I was old enough to have fallen in love, and I had intellectual and professional ambitions, just like Eliot’s characters. ... The questions with which George Eliot showed her characters wrestling would all be mine eventually. How is wisdom to be attained? What are the satisfactions of personal ambition, and how might they be weighed against ties and duties to others? What does a good marriage consist of, and what makes a bad one? What do the young owe to the old, and vice versa? What is the proper foundation of morality?

When a book has staked a reader through her heart as thoroughly as Middlemarch did to Mead, it’s a delight to get swept away with her into George Eliot country as she mines archives and literary landscapes and landmarks for tidbits and revelations. (My favorite? Eliot let a strange semistalker named Alexander Main publish a collection of excerpts of her work under the title Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings. He then confessed in a letter to her that he enjoyed “clipping and slashing great gashes out of writings every line of which I hold sacred, and finding a delight almost fiendish in the work of destruction.” Gulp.)

Mead’s is a superserious superfan’s quest to understand more about a book and its author but also about how a book can become so personally significant—how or why a reader might desire to find new ways to access a novel she’s already had multiple love affairs with, and whether this type of literary tourism is meaningful or just a form of navel-gazing.

Certainly such endeavors aren’t fully embraced by the literary establishment. It’s murky territory, if not downright frowned upon, to get too mired in the biography of a writer in an attempt to get closer to a beloved book. Literature students are taught that work should stand on its own, and meaning shouldn’t be extracted outside of a book’s cover. But as a reader, I’ve never been able to shut down my interest in a favorite writer’s life or my interest in the circumstances behind the act of creation of a work I love. As early as middle school, I remember tracking down a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien after tearing through The Lord of the Rings, and then it was Lewis Carroll biographies in high school. Over the last few years my reading habits have turned into real-life adventures, traveling to writers’ houses across the country and in the U.K., trying to pin down why such places are preserved and beloved. Mead can’t let her favorite author or the author’s houses alone either, though she is carefully aware of the skepticism that will greet such an endeavor.

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Author Rebecca Mead

Photo by Elisabeth C. Prochnik

On her visit to Eliot’s childhood home, Griff House, Mead explains, “Visiting the former homes of famous writers tends to be a compromised and often unsatisfying endeavor; by contrast with a painter’s studio, the nature of literary creativity is not easily suggested by the site of creation.” She recognizes her mission has a “quasi-objective spirit of inquiry” because of her personal investment in the novel. She hints that even Eliot herself might have skepticism about Mead’s passion for the novel. After the publication of Middlemarch, Eliot received letters from women who identified so closely to Dorothea and her poorly matched marriage that they believed her character had been modeled on them. Mead points out that “such an approach to fiction—where do I see myself in here?—is not how a scholar reads, and it can be limiting in its solipsism.”

Eliot “scorned women readers who imagined themselves the heroines of French novels,” and questioned the legitimacy of literary tourism as well. On her own journey to Friedrich Schiller’s home in Weimar, Germany, Eliot remarked on the “stupidity of people tricking out and altering such a place instead of letting one see it as he saw it and lived in it.”

And yet Mead is pulled to Eliot’s landmarks anyway, though skeptical at first. As she tours the much-changed Griff House, she observes, “It felt ridiculous to be wandering these rooms, trying to ignore the glowing fire-escape signs and the soft rock on the sound system, and attempting to imagine the house as it was.” But after many visits and tours of landmarks in “George Eliot Country,” Mead comes full circle to the value of what’s around her—and it’s at Eliot’s home Brookbank, where the author wrote Middlemarch, that Mead allows her imagination to transform her experience. Looking out the same window Eliot gazed out of, Mead sees her favorite author. “I could imagine her there: I could conjure her more vividly than anywhere else I had pictured her in my travels.”

Along her journey, Mead gives readers a full picture of Eliot’s own incredible life. Eliot forged an editorial career for herself before writing her novels and fought for a full and rich (and scandalous) love life, despite being ridiculed by literary high society, including Henry James, for her homely looks. She lost her family’s support for entering into a long-term relationship with George Henry Lewes, a cuckolded but still-married man, who generously raised and gave his name to his wife’s three sons from another man.

Who knew Eliot’s life was so deliciously complicated? It’s a downright departure from her forebear-novelists, the Brontës and Ms. Austen, who were mostly bound to the home, their words escapes from parlor-room domesticity. Eliot was a pioneering career gal, and Mead, inspired by Eliot in forging her own journalism career, looks repeatedly to the characters in Middlemarch for insight into her own work and love life, with varying success. First, she notes her relationship with a much older scholarly man, which vaguely mirrors the relationship between Dorothea and Casaubon, but her lover comes with a young daughter and Mead comes up empty-handed when mining the text for advice on the complexity of her situation. Later, Mead marries a man with three sons, which parallels Eliot’s unconventional relationship with Lewes and his three boys. During her introduction to the family, Mead recalls Dorothea’s words about “the need for patience with young men—who may seem idle and weak because they are growing.”

These personal connections notwithstanding, Mead’s relationship to Middlemarch is deeply intellectual. Indeed, Mead keeps her journalistic inquiry at arm’s length when it comes to discussion of her own upbringing, love affairs, and career decisions. I found myself frustrated from time to time by Mead’s reluctance to let the reader get as close to her as she gets to Eliot. But that matters little. Mead’s writing will make you want to read Middlemarch if you haven’t, and re-read it if you have. Mead’s is a wonderful close reading of not just a book, but also a life, and a life in reading.

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My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. Crown.

A.N. Devers' work has appeared in Electric Literature, Tin House, and online in The New Yorker and the Paris Review. She is the founder of Writers’ Houses.