Thursday, July 23, 2015

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

Rebecca Mead manages to sort George Eliot’s personal life from her fiction, enlightening us on both:
"[Eliot’s] most straightforwardly autobiographical character is Maggie Tulliver, and as a grown woman Eliot discussed with a friend the ways in which The Mill on the Floss was inspired by her own history. Everything in the novel was softened, she said; her own experience was worse."
This nonfiction is a hybrid of criticism and biography, but I argue it may be best viewed as a series of connected essays. It can’t be strictly chronological but at the end of each chapter Mead leaves us with a large conclusion and insight that would stand alone but only leaves us wishing to know more.

Mead was able to lay out with ravishing clarity the twists and turns of a long-ago life, pair it coherently with the novels that were the result of that life, while at the same time making us interested in the life and work of Mead herself. Many of us have a favorite novel, but perhaps not so many of us revisit it at different stages in our life to see how our perceptions have changed and what it means for our understanding, and for our judgment. One of the loveliest true things Mead shares with us is how her distaste for the "sad, proud, dessicated" Middlemarch character of Casaubon waxed and waned through the decades she revisited the book:
"He is a frail creature tortured by his own insufficiencies…Once Eliot was asked whom she had in mind as the original Casaubon; in response, she silently tapped her own breast. As I read Middlemarch in middle age, [Casaubon’s] failures and fears no longer seem so remote or theoretical to me as they once did, when I was in my Dorothea youth."
Mead begins by telling us she wanted to understand why some people considered it the greatest novel in the English language, but she was also simply captured by its relevance and urgency though written nearly one hundred years before her birth. She wanted to see how Eliot’s life shaped her fiction, and how that fiction might have shaped Mead herself, it being a lens though which she looked at life time and again. What a large task for even an experienced biographer! But Mead was a journalist, and this may have been her salvation: "how to ask questions, how to use my eyes, how to investigate a subject, how to look at something familiar from an unfamiliar angle." Even so, what Mead has done is nearly mystical in both its containment and inclusion.

When describing Eliot’s beginning consciousness of an artistic life, Mead tells us Eliot
"greatly admired the novelist George Sand: 'I shall never think of going to her writings as a moral code or text book,' [Eliot] wrote to a friend…'I cannot read six pages of hers without feeling that it is given to her to delineate human passion and its results…that one might live a century with nothing but one’s own dull faculties and not know so much as those six pages will suggest.'"
Yet in the very next paragraph Mead admits she’d never read George Sand. I haven’t either, though I have tried in youth and again lately as an adult…I just couldn’t manage it. The experience reminds me that all of us find our inspiration in such disparate and (can I say?) unlikely places. We are all working within our own limited spheres and with "dull faculties" but it turns out finding inspiration has as much to do with the inspired as it has to do with the object of that inspiration.

Much has always been made of Eliot’s looks and yet she managed to make a life so full of love she wondered if she had enough in her. In middle age (when she was thirty-two), she was pursued by George Henry Lewes, a man married in law only, and moved in with him, adopting his name to fit in better with society. She was brave in spite of social constraints, and had enough fierce intelligence to know that her life was her own to live. "One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy," Eliot wrote to a friend. Her long liaison with George Henry Lewes ended only when he died twenty-four years later. Eliot displayed such boldness and intellectual courage in her unconventional life.

Eliot, born in 1819, died in 1880, only eight years after finishing the fourth book of Middlemarch. It had been published in eight five-shilling installments from December 1871 to December 1872 and was received with great acclaim among the general populace. The critics were, well, critical. Lewes died in November 1878, and seventeen months later Eliot married John Walter Cross, a man younger by twenty years. Both Lewes and she had known Cross since 1869 and had addressed him as "nephew." She had her reasons, she told a friend, and once again proved her independence of thought and great social courage.

Now for my admission: I have never read Middlemarch, though I think I might try now. I especially liked the final sentence of that novel, which Mead tells us was not always as it appears in the books. It went through drafts until finally Eliot thought she said what she’d intended. Below, it reads to me like a sad but painfully true kind of epitaph:
"But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been in half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

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