The subtitle of this book is My Life with George Eliot. Rebecca Mead has read Middlemarch every five years since she was 17 & has been profoundly influenced by the novel. She is also fascinated with the author & this book is a combination of personal memoir, biography of Eliot & exploration of Middlemarch, the characters & their origins.
I enjoyed this book so much. I think Middlemarch is a remarkable book. I’ve read it twice, most recently last year for dovegreyreader’s group read, Team Middlemarch (all the posts are still there if you want to start your own group read) & it’s completely absorbing. I was a little apprehensive about the idea for The Road to Middlemarch as there’s a great temptation for the author to gush & for the personal story to overwhelm the criticism. I think Rebecca Mead has balanced the different aspects of the book very well. The genesis of the book was an article Mead wrote for the New Yorker (almost exactly three years ago, on February 14th, 2011) about Eliot but her interest in Eliot was already deep. The book is structured as the novel is, in eight Books with the chapters of The Road to Middlemarch bearing the same titles as the original.
Born in the UK but living in the US for most of her adult life, Mead tells her own personal story alongside Eliot’s. She also visits many of the places associated with Eliot & I loved these sections. Mead handles the manuscript of Middlemarch, visits the place where Eliot was born, travels to libraries in the UK & US to see & touch objects Eliot owned. She describes Eliot’s life, from her provincial childhood to her renunciation of religion, decision to live in London, her work as an editor, meeting with George Henry Lewes, the man she would live with for 20 years & her work as a writer. She quotes from Eliot’s notebooks & letters & the recollections of those who met her. Following in her footsteps gives Mead a chance to meditate on the changes time has wrought on the places Eliot once knew as well as sparking memories of her own life.
The most interesting part of the book for me was the deep exploration & discussion of the plot & characters of Middlemarch. Mead explores the beginnings of the book. Eliot wrote the first Book, Miss Brooke, first & only then decided to introduce Tertius Lydgate & his story which made the novel more ambitious & expansive. As the subtitle of the novel puts it, A Study of Provincial Life. She discusses the possible models for Dorothea & Casaubon; the authorial voice; the humour in the book & the things that Eliot leaves out. For instance, we learn a lot about Lydgate’s childhood & origins but virtually nothing about Dorothea’s. Eliot writes that Dorothea’s parents died when she & her sister, Celia, were “about twelve years old.” This imprecise statement puzzles Mead every time she reads the novel but she concludes, “George Eliot doesn’t need to provide Dorothea with a fleshed-out childhood, or a detailed history. She comes into the world of the novel fully developed, like a second Minerva.” I also enjoyed the discussion about Mary Garth, one of my favourite characters. I was glad to see how seriously Mead considers Mary & her relationship with Fred Vincy. Their relationship is one of the love stories in the book, just as important as Dorothea & Will Ladislaw or Lydgate & Rosamond.
Middlemarch has not given me George Eliot’s experience, not on my first reading of it, or my latest. But in reading her works and her letters, and learning about her life and the lives of those near to her, it becomes clear to me that she could not have written this novel without her individual contact with sorrow. And as I continue to read and think and reflect, I also realize that she has given me something else: a profound experience with a book, over time, that amounts to one of the frictions of my life.
The friction of life, mentioned in the quote above, is a reference to something Eliot said, “There must be the actual friction of life, the individual contact with sorrow, to discipline the character.” Mead’s exploration of the writing of Middlemarch, the life of the author & her own life as it has been affected by the author & the novel is a wonderful exploration of the effect reading can have on one’s life. I’ve always loved reading around my favourite books. Knowing about the circumstances of composition, the reception of the work & where it fits in the life of the author & the period enriches my experience of reading. It may not be necessary to “know” who Casaubon was based on (& there’s more than one candidate, anyway) but it’s fascinating to look at the parallels between life & fiction. The Road to Middlemarch is a book that has enriched my understanding of the novel & made me want to reread it all over again.