The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot, by Rebecca Mead, Granta, RRP£16.99, 304 pages
It is now accepted that the emergence of certain traits – a talent for dancing, a soprano voice – requires not nature or nurture, but both. So it is with the emergence of novels. Characters and story, form and themes, require a complex mixture of events both external and internal to the author, to see their expression on the page. Despite the reductive ideas of many literary biographers, novels are not just memoir or fiction, but both.
It is this fuzzy halo around the act of creation that New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead investigates in The Road to Middlemarch. Her captivating and lucid book mixes biography, memoir and close reading to symphonic effect. The eight chapters share the names of the books of Middlemarch and each sheds a particular light on the novel, George Eliot and Mead herself. It is part of the book’s force and its message that the novel is never separated from the author, or its reader, or the events of their lives.
Dickens acknowledged this connection between the reader and the work. In a letter to Eliot, he wrote: ‘‘Adam Bede has taken its place among the actual experiences and endurances of my life.” Middlemarch occupies this space for Mead – though, crucially, the experience of it has not remained fixed. When she read it at 18 it seemed to be all about its fervent heroine, Dorothea Brooke, and it was easy to loathe Dorothea’s frustrated older husband, Casaubon. But, “having reached the age of Casaubon”, Mead feels “a tender sense of kinship with that sad, proud, desiccated man”.
Eliot felt the same way. When asked who was the model for Casaubon, she “silently tapped her own breast”. This seems a gesture of great intimacy and Mead’s command of the letters, diaries and notebooks has the effect of maintaining it. Motherhood is particularly well observed. At 32, Eliot began her relationship with the critic George Henry Lewes, which brought with it his three sons. Though Eliot referred to them as “our boys” in her letters, she revealed her initial nerves to a friend: “I hope my heart will be large enough for all the love that is required of me.” Mead also faced anxieties about a partner’s daughter but, as she writes, “In all my imaginings about what it would mean to have her in my life, I had forgotten to include the prospect of joy.”
Eliot’s heart was large enough for her to be “unspeakably happy” for more than 20 years with Lewes, a man referred to by one of his circle as “the ugliest man in London”. A description of them out walking does seem, in its way, to be one of true love: “The biggest pair of frights that ever was, followed by a shaggy little dog who could do tricks.” As Mead says, Eliot “makes late love sound irresistibly romantic”, and the experience of loving and being loved was, she argues, the precursor to Eliot finding her voice. Lewes was sunny and quirky and indispensable to Eliot – and her writing was essential to them both. Eliot described reading him a death scene: “We both cried over it, and then he came up to me and kissed me, saying, ‘I think your pathos is better than your fun.’ ”
The project of The Road to Middlemarch is not scholarly, nor does Mead attempt any revelations. There are three writing modes at work in it – biographer, memoirist and critic – and each one is at the service of the other in flowing interconnection. Though Mead’s research trips are part of the unfolding story of the book, it is her own reflections that give Eliot’s concerns an enchanting warmth.
For Mead, Middlemarch is “a book that had once seemed to be about the hopes and desires of youth”, which in later life “seemed to offer a melancholy dissection of the resignations that attend middle age”. Eliot, Mead concludes, “is the great artist of disappointment”; her characters stumble “not into inexorable tragedy … but into limited, mortal resignation”. But it is key to Mead’s thinking that this was not a statement of despair but one of humanist faith. Eliot’s aspiration, she argues, was “for a kind of encompassing empathy that would make the punishing experience of egoism shrink and dwindle”.
Rebecca Mead will be talking to Isabel Berwick at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday 22 March