by Edith Cody-Rice
Rebecca Mead is an English journalist in mid life and a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine currently living in Brooklyn. She first read George Eliot’s great English novel Middlemarch when she was 17 and admits that she has been obsessed by it through her life. George Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans, was arguably one of the greatest English novelists of the 19th century, along with Charles Dickens and, living an unconventional life with her married (but not to her) literary critic partner George Henry Lewes, she made a stellar career writing fiction about her English compatriots. Middlemarch, completed in 1871-1872 and published serially, is her crowning achievement, regarded by many as the greatest English novel. As Virginia Woolfe noted, it was one of the few English novels written for grown-up people. It does not end in a happy wedding, as does Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and other romantic novels with feminine heroines of that century.
Eliot’s characters resemble real people with real yearnings and she allows their illusions and vanities to lead them into unhappy endings which she does not attempt to resolve. Her principle characters all live in the midlands English town of Middlemarch. There is Dorothea, a high minded, wealthy young woman who could choose her life and whose ideals lead her into a miserable marriage with a desiccated older and minor scholar whom she thought great. Then Lydgate, a young idealistic doctor appears, and through immaturity about what qualifies as the perfect wife, marries a perfect little consumer Rosamond Vincy, whose expensive tastes force him to abandon his ideals and take up a lucrative but spiritually unrewarding Harley Street practice in London. Both these main characters ultimately fail to realize their potential in life. In a twist that is unusual in romances, but quite possible in real life, Rosamond’s feckless brother Fred Vincy matures into a happy man married to a sensible woman, Mary Garth.
George Eliot had a deep grasp of the nuances of character and Rebecca Mead has reread the book every five years or so since she first encountered it. My Life in Middlemarch is a combination analysis, with snippets of Eliot biography as well as a memoir of Ms. Mead’s own progress through life and the way in which she sees that Middlemarch has followed her, or preceded her, as she gains some new insight, or recognizes the maturity of Eliot’s insight with each successive reading. As she grows older she swerves from her early admiration of the high minded Dorothea to recognize that the wisest character in the book is Mary Garth, the artisan’s daughter who recognizes the essential values in life, marries the imperfect man she has always loved and stays in Middlemarch, while the more flamboyant characters move off to less satisfying lives in London.
My Life in Middlemarch reads a bit like an academic postgrad paper, although it is peppered with a few too many personal references for that. This is a book for devotees of English literature, as Ms. Mead evidently is, and it is interesting to travel with her on her journey to maturity. The author has said that one need not read Middlemarch to enjoy her book, but I cannot imagine that the book would sustain the interest of someone who does not know the characters in the novel. For those who love the novel, however, this is an interesting look into its growing influence on a modern woman.
My Life in Middlemarch is published by Doubleday Canada