The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot – review

Rebecca Mead's stylish and personal meditation on George Eliot's masterpiece makes Middlemarchers of us all

The last few years have seen a surge in non-fiction books about the origins and afterlives of classic fiction, and, as with the writing of lives, so the writing of the lives of books can be literary, historical, biographical, autobiographical, essayistic or some combination of them all. Michael Gorra's 2012 Portrait of a Novel probably leads this new field, a magisterial blend of scholarship, literary criticism, biography, social history and a bit of travelogue, as Gorra retraces Henry James's writing of The Portrait of a Lady. This year promises a bonanza of similar projects, with the emphasis on making classic literature "accessible" to modern audiences, including Reading Dante, by Prue Shaw; Give War and Peace A Chance, by Tolstoy scholar Andrew D Kaufman; and Kevin Birmingham's The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, which is due out this summer. There are several others in the works, including one by New Yorker contributor Daniel Mendelsohn, about reading The Odyssey with his ailing father, while I recently published a book on the genesis of The Great Gatsby, so I have something of a stake in this game.

And now comes a stylish meditation called The Road to Middlemarch, a personal reflection on Eliot's masterpiece and the meanings it's had for Rebecca Mead, a British journalist living in New York City. The book began as an essay for the New Yorker, where Mead is a staff writer, and that style inflects the finished version: it is elegant, thoughtful and readable, written with clarity and a gentle sympathy that seems a reflection of Eliot's own generous wisdom, while veering away from some of Eliot's more astringent asides. Mead is determined to make the novel that Virginia Woolf famously described as "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people" accessible again, to a culture whose definition of maturity has altered over the 150 years since Middlemarch was published. Eliot subtitled her book "A Study of Provincial Life", and its interest in ordinary lives is paralleled by Mead's interest in ordinary readers, the novel's wide perspective that, Mead contends, "makes Middlemarchers of us all".

The Road to Middlemarch concerns Mead's own life in only the most tangential, discreet ways: far more of it retells the life of George Eliot. Mead offers instead points of connection, moments when Middlemarch became her guidebook. She first read it as an ambitious 17 year old, immediately identifying with "a young woman's desire for a substantial, rewarding, meaningful life". This sense of affinity does not tempt her into uncritical admiration of Eliot's heroine, Dorothea Brooke, although Mead's admiration for Eliot's novel is, if not uncritical, certainly unqualified. Middlemarch is not to everyone's taste: some readers find Eliot's voice tiresomely bossy, forever interjecting an edifying moral exemplum. But Mead will have none of that: her book is an unapologetic apologia for loving the books that we love. Her connections with Middlemarch have evolved with her life: for example, she discovers analogues in her own role as a stepmother to three sons to George Eliot's devotion to the children of her partner George Henry Lewes. Mostly, however, Mead reflects on intellectual passion, the importance of literature to the development of the life of the mind.

Indeed, she goes so far as to say that Middlemarch, the fictional town, is itself primarily "a state of mind, the condition of consummate ordinariness"; so it should be unsurprising that she concerns herself with the ordinary details of Eliot's life as a writer and woman, reflecting on various aspects of Middlemarch, its composition, and its ensemble cast – not just Dorothea, her lover Will Ladislaw, and poor silly Casaubon, but also Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy (who gets rather short shrift, perhaps because she may test even Mead's sympathy), while even marginal characters such as Fred Vincy have their moment in the spotlight. Reflecting on identification and imaginative affinities, Mead defends readers who feel connections to characters and authors against charges of naive or presumptuous reading. She understands the risks: "such an approach to fiction – where do I see myself in here? – is not how a scholar reads, and it can be limiting in its solipsism." But Mead sees in Middlemarch a kind of intelligence to which she aspires, "its range, its wit, its seriousness, its erudition, its deep feeling". Identification, Mead protests, is a legitimate and necessary aspect of reading: "it is where part of the pleasure, and the urgency, of reading lies" for ordinary readers. She wants to find art in the "absolutely pedestrian and ordinary", although only in her acknowledgements does Mead declare outright that her project is vindicating "the naive reader I remain and aspire to represent".

Fair enough, although one need not accept that "scholarly" and "ordinary" readers are so different. Mead explicates with a light touch; for those who do not know Middlemarch and Eliot well, there will be much here to discover. Others may find less to learn but still much to enjoy – although some might welcome more of the language of the novel itself, which is in shorter supply than one might expect from a literary homage. That said, Mead cannot be accused of leaving Eliot to write her book for her, and certainly she did her homework, visiting archives and puzzling through the cramped handwriting of 150 years ago.

In the end, if Mead defends our right to read as we choose, she also believes we are improved by choosing great books. In this she is fully with Eliot, who declared: "If Art does not enlarge men's sympathies, it does nothing morally." But Mead also reminds us that Eliot's philosophy of education was not limited to the moral: "One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy," she once poignantly wrote. Mead concludes: "There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree." But which is the tree and which the graft? These literary tributes are accused by some of being parasitic, lesser works battening on the great. But literary criticism has always been charged with parasitism – with being derivative, dependent, debased. Some of us might argue instead that criticism has a symbiotic relationship to great literature: good literary criticism, after all, seeks not to destroy its host, but rather to help it flourish in different environments, to adapt and evolve in changing worlds. Or, to extend Mead's metaphor, we might say that good literary critics should be good gardeners, grafting, weeding, and husbanding our world's limited resource of literary masterpieces. If Mead assists Middlemarch in flowering for new readers, as she assuredly will, then she has more than done her job.

• Sarah Churchwell is the author of Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby.

Contributor

Sarah Churchwell

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
George Eliot, Middlemarch and me

When Rebecca Mead read Middlemarch at 17 it spoke to her yearning for escape; in her 20s it was a warning against a bad marriage; and in middle age Eliot's experience as a stepmother echoed her own

Rebecca Mead

28, Feb, 2014 @4:00 PM

Article image
The Life of George Eliot by Nancy Henry - review

Despite 37 previous biographies, there are still questions to be asked about George Eliot, Kathryn Hughes discovers

Kathryn Hughes

01, Jun, 2012 @9:55 PM

Article image
My hero: George Eliot by Lisa Appignanesi
My hero: George Eliot by Lisa Appignanesi

Lisa Appignanesi

15, Apr, 2011 @11:07 PM

Article image
The Transferred Life of George Eliot by Philip Davis review – how a novelist shared her wisdom
Eliot steps in to her narratives to unravel the contradictions of human behaviour. This study skilfully explores how in doing so she drew on her own experiences

John Mullan

31, May, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
My hero: George Eliot by Cynthia Ozick
'Morally serious, historically judicious and passionately just'

Cynthia Ozick

20, Apr, 2012 @9:55 PM

Article image
In Love With George Eliot by Kathy O’Shaughnessy review – an ardent homage
What really happened on George Eliot’s honeymoon? The novelist enters where biographers fear to tread

John Mullan

21, Dec, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
What Middlemarch means to me

Martin Amis, AS Byatt, Kathryn Hughes and John Mullan reflect on how Middlemarch has changed for them as they have got older

Martin Amis, AS Byatt, Kathryn Hughes and John Mullan

28, Feb, 2014 @4:00 PM

Article image
Book reviews roundup: The Unexpected Professor, The Black-Eyed Blonde and The Road to Middlemarch
What the critics thought of The Unexpected Professor by John Carey, The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black and The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

21, Mar, 2014 @6:15 PM

Article image
George Eliot: is this a new portrait of the author as a young woman?
The long face, the flinty eyes and the open book in the background – is this newly discovered sketch
the young George Eliot? Experts believe it is, and that it has a romantic story of its own to tell

Kathryn Hughes

05, May, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
What is the role of the left in times of political crisis? Reading George Eliot after Brexit
Felix Holt may not have as many fans as Middlemarch, but on its 150th anniversary, and as the political establishment dissolves around us, Kathryn Hughes finds new relevance in a depiction of a society turned upside down

Kathryn Hughes

08, Jul, 2016 @8:00 AM