Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch is many things: a biography of the great British novelist George Eliot; a critical study of Middlemarch, her best and most famous novel; and Mead’s own memoir of growing up, then growing older, with Eliot as her touchstone.
Though this hybrid form—as Joyce Carol Oates points out—is something of an established genre, such works typically focus on a writer’s entire oeuvre (Nicholson Baker’s Updike homage, U & I), a series of classic books, or some book proposal-driven stunt (My Year of Living Biblically). It’s far rarer to take a single work—especially one written within the past 150 years—and inhabit it completely, using that work alone to map one’s entire life. Mead finds that Middlemarch deepens as her own experience does—“the novel opened up to me further every time I read it,” she writes, as though Middlemarch is not something she reads from start to finish but journeys into over time. Though she offers vivid insight into Eliot’s life and work, My Life in Middlemarch takes this kind of chronic re-reading as its explicit subject, and exploring what we might gain by reading deeply, not just broadly.
When I spoke to the author for this series, I asked her to do the impossible: choose a single favorite line from the 900-page epic she’s been poring over since she was 17. Her current favorite didn’t stand out to her at 25, but speaks to her now as she’s a spouse, a parent, and a child mourning a parent: a line from the book’s finale in which Eliot describes “the home epic,” a stunning meditation on what it means to start a family.
Rebecca Mead is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of a very different book about marriage (One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding). She spoke to me by phone from her home in Brooklyn.
Rebecca Mead: When I first read Middlemarch at 17, I identified very strongly with Dorothea Brooke. I saw myself in her ardent, often misplaced yearnings for a more significant life. Like Dorothea, I grew up in a provincial English town. She has ambitions to make a difference in the lives of the ordinary people who live around her; but for me, home was a place to get away from as fast as possible. I couldn’t wait to go off and make my own life.
I loved the book so much that I began to return to it every five years or so—not on a strict schedule, but every so often it would occur to me that it was time to read it again. And as I read it through the years, it has come to mean different things to me at different stages of my life.
In my twenties, it was all about being a young person figuring out what love was and what a relationship might consist of.
In my thirties, it was much more concerned with Lydgate and his story of professional ambitions being compromised.
It was really when I read it again in my early forties that this phrase, “the home epic” came much more into focus for me. The phrase comes from a passage I initially passed by, but now strikes me as having profound resonance:
Marriage, which has been the bourne of so many narratives, is still a great beginning, as it was to Adam and Eve, who kept their honeymoon in Eden, but had their first little one among the thorns and thistles of the wilderness. It is still the beginning of the home epic—the gradual conquest or irremediable loss of that complete union which makes the advancing years a climax, and age the harvest of sweet memories in common.
This is a perfect characterization of the immense but mundane journey that all of us take in forming families. The thing every person does—most all of us, anyway—is live in a family at one point, and live in daily relation to our closest relatives. The combination, in this phrase “the home epic,” of grandeur and domesticity rings very true: because marriage is a huge and grand endeavor, but it’s also day-to-day. Sometimes, one doesn’t see the arc and the significance of the whole journey until looking at it from a distance, from a more removed perspective.
When Eliot says marriage “has been the bourne of so many narratives,” she’s alluding to the fact that many stories and novels of her time ended with a wedding scene. Here, though, she inverts the conventional wisdom, reminding us that marriage is never the end of anything. It’s the embarkation upon a great journey, one that can go in any number of different directions. You can have this complete union of joy and togetherness and real connectedness with a person, or it can be lost without remedy. And she goes on to show us marriages of both of those sorts.
She goes on from this chapter to talk about to talk about the marriage of Fred Vincy and Mary Garth. Of all the novel’s couples, their relationship is the most seemingly conventional—once, I might have said, the least exciting. They’ve been betrothed since childhood—they did a mock marriage ceremony when they were children. Fred’s in love with Mary, and Mary’s in love with Fred, but he has to pass various tests of being a grown-up before she’ll have him.
It’s a happy, contented union, one typified by absolutely shared interests and committed love to one another. And when I was a young reader, the story of Fred and Mary was not terribly interesting to me, I’m sort of ashamed to say. I didn’t see Mary’s wit and sardonic nature nearly so clearly as a young person: I saw only her sense of duty, and as a teenager familial duty wasn’t high on my list of priorities. It wasn’t until I was in my forties, reading it again, that I looked at that marriage—people who fell in love as children and stayed together forever—and thought: “oh my God, this is my parents.”
My parents met when they were teenagers, and married when they were 21. They were married for almost 60 years, until my father died. My parents’ marriage had never been anything I wanted to emulate in my own romantic life. It seemed fine for them, but not what I had in mind at all. I thought it was unromantic, and I wanted something more exotic. And yet, what I had not recognized was—what an achievement to have been married for so long! They had created this unity, this complete union. No matter what happens to me in my life, that experience of long-lived love throughout one’s life, with one person forever, is something I’m never going to have. I read this description of “that complete union which make the advancing years a climax, and age the harvest of sweet memories in common,” and it brings my parents back to me.
My father died when I was literally in the middle of writing this book—I had just finished the fourth chapter. I was in the States when it happened, and I flew over that day. But my mother was with him, and she described to me these last hours with my dad. I had an insight into their marriage, and her love for him, that I had never seen: that deep, deep well of shared experience. The phrase about age being this “harvest of sweet memories in common” was so apt. Middlemarch gave me the language to think about the richness of that love, in this very intense moment that my mother described to me.
I researched this book traveling back and forth between my home country of England and my own new country. I wrote it thinking about my parents, their house, their marriage—and then my own house and my own family and my own marriage. It was a tremendous thing Middlemarch gave me: an opportunity to go home and spend time with them, and to think about their life together. And it forced me to ask: well, what is the home that I’ve made? Where am I in this home epic?
In Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss there’s this idea that the place in which you grow up informs your whole being. Not just the landscape, but the texture of the earth, and the trees, and all of that forms part of your moral character. I’m bringing my son up in a very different environment, here in New York City, from the provincial landscape that made its impression on me. It’s loud. He’s been exposed to things I wish I’d been exposed to—museums, theatre. But he’s also exposed to elements of life that I was sheltered from, growing up in a provincial town in England. It’s very important to me, as an English person, that I convey to my child a sense of England being his heritage, too—a sense of where he’s “from,” should he want to reclaim it. To try to understand my own experience, I try to trace connections between where he lives, what he knows, where I’ve lived, what I know.
He may go further than I have gone from where I was from. I don’t know. The story continues. And that’s the home epic.
Middlemarch is a book about many things, of course: It touches on themes including electoral reform and the changing class nature of Britain, and the erosion of rural life. But I do think it’s a book about marriage—though not just about figuring how who you should marry and why. It is about domesticity in a broader sense—what should a home be? It’s about the order, I guess, of familial duty and piety. It’s about being in relation to our closest relations. And being in relation to the world beyond us—as Dorothea realizes when she looks out the window and sees she can’t absent herself from this palpitating life that’s going on out there.
That’s how it goes beyond marriage specifically, into a greater investigation of the role of openness and generosity. The different marriages in the book, the ones that work and the ones that don’t, show the necessity for entering into sympathy with one’s partner (married or not). And the failed marriages come with characters like Rosamund Vincy, who’s unable to step outsider herself. She has moments when she has a glimmer that there might be ways of looking at the world outside of her egocentric way, but she never learns to do that. And that’s not the task just of marriage, but the task of growing up—isn’t it?
Reading Eliot’s work—from teenage diaries and letters to her final novels— you can see how much her writing life was marked by this kind of growth. Middlemarch, a novel written in the last 10 years of her life, has the accrued wisdom, compassion, and sympathy of a person who has been less compassionate and sympathetic in the earlier years of her life. One of the great discoveries of writing my book was to go back and re-read her essays, which she wrote before she was a novelist, and discover that she could be unbelievably acerbic and critical. Devastatingly good as a critic, but this magnanimous broad-minded sympathetic person authorial presence that we associate with Middlemarch is less evident. Young Eliot was spiky and razor-sharp and really fun, but she grew into a greater compassion. She wanted to do more than show how clever she was by demolishing the works of other people. That’s a good aspiration to have.
As a journalist, I’ve learned from her. In thinking about what George Eliot did with her life, I’ve learned to be more interested in comprehending, and really trying to understand what motivates somebody. I’ve learned to try to approach people’s stories from a position of sympathy. I don’t need to be soft, but I need to try to enter into somebody else’s consciousness, as she does, as she encourages her readers to do. There are journalistic subjects with whom this approach—trying to understand an individual’s perspective, even when it’s difficult—wouldn’t be appropriate, but it’s the kind of work I try to do.
The high value placed on everyday, anonymous goodness in Middlemarch, and captured in the very idea of the home epic, sets us up for the novel’s stunning last line. George Eliot tells us that most of us will live ordinary lives, and yet those ordinary lives are worth living:
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, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
In a way, this is the obvious choice for the greatest line in Middlemarch. It probably is the greatest line. I don’t know how many tombstones it’s been on. She’s saying good doesn’t have to be done on the scale of a saint or a hero—in fact, the reason that world grows slowly better is because of the obscure loving acts of unknown people. I see the truth of this in the basic goodness of family relations. I try to remember this basic goodness in my work as a journalist. And I see it in my parents’ life, in their quiet, long-lived fidelity.
That last line, the music of it, the rhythm of it, are gorgeous and thrilling. And I think the greatest books—different books to different people and at different times—can speak to us in these moments of intense emotional resonance. They have so much to say to us and illuminate our experience, and show us better to understand what we’re going through ourselves.
There’s a line from Adam Bede: “the secret of our emotions never lies in the bare object, but in its subtle relation to our own past.” Whether it be a chair that reminds us of a loved one who sat in it, or a book that makes us understand a beloved person better. We all bring our own stories to the stories that we love. And maybe we love novels because they give us a framework to understand our own stories. My book is an attempt to describe that experience. I hope it will resonate with people who’ve had that experience—maybe with Middlemarch, but maybe with something else entirely—of what it is to be held by a book. We talk about “losing oneself in a book,” but a book can also be where you find yourself. That’s what great literature does for us. It gives us a richness and a density and a range that speaks to our emotions, and gives us a way to understand and live with them.