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A New Look At George Eliot That's Surprisingly Approachable

English novelist George Eliot (1819 - 1880), pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans, poses for a photograph.
Hulton Archive
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English novelist George Eliot (1819 - 1880), pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans, poses for a photograph.

Meg Wolitzer's latest novel is The Interestings.

I have to admit that the first time I tried to read Middlemarch by George Eliot, I ended up putting it aside after only 20 pages. My teenage self, feeding heavily at the time on Pearl S. Buck and Go Ask Alice, found the novel difficult and dry. But then one day, when I was older and more discerning and less antsy, I tried again, and this time I was swept in. This time, I guess I was ready.

Rebecca Mead never had such a problem. Her first time out with Middlemarch, at age 17, she found not only a way in, but the book came to serve as a touchstone that she sought out at critical moments in the years that followed. In My Life in Middlemarch, her unusual and deeply felt mashup of lit-crit, biography and memoir, Mead describes a long, complicated relationship with Middlemarch, and, by association, with its brilliant author, George Eliot.

Mary Ann Evans took as a pseudonym her life partner George Lewes' first name, and followed it with a surname that one early biographer speculated was "a further, concealed honoring: 'To L-- I owe it.'" In the more than 140 years since her masterwork was published, esteemed writers have referred to it as probably the greatest novel written in the English language, and it continues to be meaningful to many readers.

Though Mead describes her own meaningful experiences with the book, she also wrestles in a bigger way with what novels do, at least the great ones. Or what we do with them. "A book may not tell us exactly how to live our own lives," she writes, "but our own lives can teach us how to read a book." During her admissions interview at Oxford, she spoke passionately about the novel to an "English literature tutor ... a forbidding-seeming Scotsman who, I learned much later, was possessed of a magnificently dry sense of humor and was particularly partial to bright, ambitious, state-school students from the provinces ... " (Middlemarch's subtitle happens to be "A Study of Provincial Life.") After the interview, "I walked across the cobblestones of a narrow lane and stepped onto the wide, lovely sweep of the High Street in a state of exhilaration and anxiety. I felt as if my life were an unread book — the thickest and most daunting of novels — that I was holding in my hands."

And later on, the novel continues to give Mead an extended crash course in how to read a book. Both George Eliot and Rebecca Mead find themselves becoming stepparents, and while originally Mead doesn't think the book can teach her anything about step parenting, once she's researched Eliot's life, she realizes that Eliot's "experience of unexpected family" infuses the book with "the question of being a stepmother ... and of all that might be gained from opening one's heart wider."

For all its literary musings, this book is a surprisingly emotional study of a single novel and novelist. The frame that Mead creates — that of a bookish girl finding her mind opened wider (and later on, as a grown woman, her heart) is satisfying. Personally, I've always been a sucker for books that feature bookish girls. Whenever such a girl or young woman appears on the page, I feel that she's meant to be a stand-in for the reader, or at least an idealized version of the reader. And it's not just bookishness that resonates, but her implied desire to grow, to go on to bigger things than her life can currently give her. And it's gratifying to think that a book might just provide a way to do that. Mead makes for an extremely sympathetic and appealing stand-in reader throughout her book, though not one who's entirely fleshed-out. This is a deliberate choice. The big figure here, the one who's allowed to dominate, is George Eliot. Mead is too modest to want to take up a lot of space with glimpses of her own seaside childhood, life at Oxford, and, later on, love affairs and then marriage, step-motherhood and finally motherhood. And though I really enjoyed all the lightly rendered sections dealing with her own story, and would have certainly been happy to read more of them, she gives the juicy stuff to George Eliot, who doesn't disappoint.

Eliot, who was described physically by Henry James as "magnificently ugly — deliciously hideous," lived unmarried with her lover George Lewes, and told one friend that they practiced birth control. Her complex and liberated self — emotionally, sexually and, most of all, intellectually — is on full display here. And also on display is the heroine of Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke, and her terrible, mismatched marriage to the much older, pinched Reverend Casaubon; as well as various other figures who circulate in the town. It's been a long time since I've read Middlemarch, and my most recent encounter with it was, I confess, in the form of a BBC miniseries in the mid-'90s. But no matter. When Mead described these various characters, even minor ones whom I'd forgotten about, I imagined I was at a dinner party at which a really smart person was holding court about some real-life people I'd never met. But by the end of the meal I felt as if I knew them.

Mead describes the theme of the novel as "growing out of ...self-centeredness." And I got excited and thought, yes, yes, that's exactly what novels can do. She writes, "The bare object of a book... might ... have a subtle relation to our own past... Even the most sophisticated readers read novels in the light of their own experience, and in such recognition, sympathy may begin."

All of this brings up the obvious and very reasonable question: do you have to have read Middlemarch to read My Life in Middlemarch? I'm reminded of the old ad for rye bread that went, "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's." And I'm certain that you don't have to read (or re-read) Middlemarch to love this extraordinary book. But I have the feeling that you'll probably want to anyway.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Meg Wolitzer