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293 pages, Hardcover
First published January 28, 2014
"[Eliot’s] most straightforwardly autobiographical character is Maggie Tulliver, and as a grown woman Eliot discussed with a friend the ways in which The Mill on the Floss was inspired by her own history. Everything in the novel was softened, she said; her own experience was worse."This nonfiction is a hybrid of criticism and biography, but I argue it may be best viewed as a series of connected essays. It can’t be strictly chronological but at the end of each chapter Mead leaves us with a large conclusion and insight that would stand alone but only leaves us wishing to know more.
"He is a frail creature tortured by his own insufficiencies…Once Eliot was asked whom she had in mind as the original Casaubon; in response, she silently tapped her own breast. As I read Middlemarch in middle age, [Casaubon’s] failures and fears no longer seem so remote or theoretical to me as they once did, when I was in my Dorothea youth."Mead begins by telling us she wanted to understand why some people considered it the greatest novel in the English language, but she was also simply captured by its relevance and urgency though written nearly one hundred years before her birth. She wanted to see how Eliot’s life shaped her fiction, and how that fiction might have shaped Mead herself, it being a lens though which she looked at life time and again. What a large task for even an experienced biographer! But Mead was a journalist, and this may have been her salvation: "how to ask questions, how to use my eyes, how to investigate a subject, how to look at something familiar from an unfamiliar angle." Even so, what Mead has done is nearly mystical in its containment and inclusion.
"greatly admired the novelist George Sand: 'I shall never think of going to her writings as a moral code or text book,' [Eliot] wrote to a friend…'I cannot read six pages of hers without feeling that it is given to her to delineate human passion and its results…that one might live a century with nothing but one’s own dull faculties and not know so much as those six pages will suggest.'"Yet in the very next paragraph Mead admits she’d never read George Sand. I haven’t either, though I have tried in youth and again lately as an adult…I just couldn’t manage it. The experience reminds me that all of us find our inspiration in such disparate and (can I say?) unlikely places. We are all working within our own limited spheres and with "dull faculties" but it turns out finding inspiration has as much to do with the inspired as it has to do with the object of that inspiration.
"But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for 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 in half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."
“Her credo might be expressed this way: If I really care for you—if I try to think myself into your position and orientation—then the world is bettered by my effort at understanding and comprehension. If you respond to my effort by trying to extend the same sympathy and understanding to others in turn, then the betterment of the world has been minutely but significantly extended.”
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for 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.
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive; for the growing life of the world is after all chiefly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is owing to many of those who sleep in unvisited tombs, having lived a hidden life nobly.
"What if I tried to discern the ways in which George Eliot's life shaped her fiction, and how her fiction shaped her? I wasn't so naive as to think that novels could be biographically decoded, but novels are places in which authors explore their own subjectivity, and I wanted to think about what George Eliot might have sought, and what she might have discovered, in writing Middlemarch.
And cloaked in this quasi-objective spirit of inquiry was another set of questions, these ones more personal, and pressing, and secret. What would happen if I stopped to consider how Middlemarch has shaped my understanding of my own life? Why did the novel still feel so urgent, after all these years? And what could it give me now, as I paused here in the middle of things, and surveyed where I had come from, and thought about where I was, and wondered where I might go next"
Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it's a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself.My Life in Middlemarch is a rather niche book; I think the only people who think that they must read this book are (1) people who have read Middlemarch, and (2) people for whom Middlemarch has had a significant impact. Lucky for me, I fall snugly into these parameters.