‘Having endless hours in which to create is hardly useful if most of those hours are spent in a paralyzing [half]-torpor of loneliness, overwhelmed by anxieties about that loneliness lasting forever, as I am surely not alone in having discovered’ — Mead, My Life in Middlemarch
‘If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally … The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joybs of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures’ … In viewing [Eliot's characters] I am invited to shed my wadded layer of stupidity, and to listen for the sound of growing grass …
Dear friends and readers,
Anyone up for writing My Life in Pride and Prejudice? or My Life in Mansfield Park? I can see myself writing a My Life in Sense and Sensibility — or to switch authors, My Life in one of the Barsetshire or Palliser books or a combination of Trollope’s works that precisely suited what I wanted to show about him and me. But I’d have to have a contract, a guarantee of publication first.
I’ve been reading two books in tandem: Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch and Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel [The Portrait of a Lady]. I’d read a chapter or so of one and then turn to a chapter or so of the other. Sounds crazy: not so much as the two writers, George Eliot and Henry James, knew and influenced one another, and held some of the same idealistic views towards the deep-feeling thinking realistic fictions they created. I’m told a third in this vein is Phyllis Rose’s A Year of Reading Proust. Paula Byrne seems to me trying to pull something of this off in the way her The Real Jane Austen is organized: around meditations she concocts over objects in Austen’s life that are arranged to give a chronological order to her fact-filled (or supposedly fact-filled) musings. Azar Nafisi gives the mode a political spin in her phenomenally popular Reading Lolita in Teheran.
Mead and Gorra’s are successful version of a new kind of biography cum-literary criticism (and vice-versa) where a writer-as-reader take the reader through a novel as a story, step-by-step, attaching each phase of the book to some phase in the book’s author’s life, some place they went to visit connected with the novel, or some person in the novelist’s life. Mead and Gorra (separately in their respective books) then themselves visit and re-live insofar as they can the circumstances that are parallel to the book; Mead adds a mostly upbeat account of her life (all her choices end in happiness at last), where she intersects with Eliot and/or Eliot’s characters. The first book to be written precisely in this way and perhaps the best of them all is Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: Confessions of a Romantic Biographer — which I once taught.
Both these books are intended to (and in me did) evoke thoughts which come out of Middlemarch or Portrait of a Lady (or some other related book by Eliot or James), its author or Gorra or Mead’s own life to the reader’s life. When you finish them a reread of the novels in question will be much enriched. Both books have the comforting intelligent tones of their writers taken over from the books they are inviting us to inhabit with them.
Maybe what’s liberating about these two books is they are a sort of biography where the writer does not have to follow the life history of the subject but can weave in what he or she wants and when, with the justification that well I’m going through associations from this novel. So we skip dull parts of the person’s life and also get new sorts of insight as the material is reconfigured.
What is so satisfying is how seriously both writers take their books and how seriously the original authors did. I wish I had time to type out some of the appercus in Middlemarch or Portrait quoted by Mead or Gorra, which speak to the book, Eliot or James and to me of course. Both books about landscape and self. Identity and self – as mirrored in these books. Since I don’t want to write too long a blog, and the purview of this blog beyond Austen and Austen-related matters is women’s or 18th century art, I’ll just write on My Life in Middlemarch, saving Portrait of a Novel for Ellen and Jim have blog, two.
Some specifics: Mead does not give away anything unconventional about herself. She describes her reactions in general terms which omit any details which might say embarrass her parents or herself for that matter — for example, how did she and they come to live in a community with no access to culture? I don’t mind that and don’t ask that authors necessarily give away that sort of thing. What I do ask is they tell something of their connection — and Mead tells enough about her private life however shadowily and through pollyanna lenses. I am drawn to parallels Mead sets up between herself and Eliot and Eliot’s characters – only like Carolyn Heilbrun in her life-writing we slide to quickly to an unpersuasively happy ending – like Eliot Mead fell in love with a man who had children from a previous marriage; like Dorothea in one case he was older. Mead would have us believe that it was difficult for her the way it was for Eliot to adjust but that in the end all was bliss. Mead does want us to see her connections with the characters in Middlemarch: the career trajectory, the aspirations of both central characters but will not tell us how she got where she did – at all.
Sometimes authors make up for a lack of intimate painful revelation by delving the themes – this is Maureen Corrigan’s ploy in her excellent Leave Me Alone I’m Reading, which is brave enough — today one must be brave to do this — to read the books as a woman reader bringing up feminist stances with no apologies – Mead is not quite brave enough for that when she hedges about the feminism of Eliot. At each turn, the comments are carefully couched so as not to reveal anything really distressing or unusual. She lives alone but has a fine job – by that time as a staff writer for the New Yorker. How she got that we are not told. No stories of homosexuality or lesbianism will be here.
Nevertheless or oddly, the strongest parts of Mead’s book are those which seem to connect to Mead’s way of seeing a life as a progress towards a career — this is a modern trope right now infecting literary criticism everywhere. It can be found in the 19th century too: Trollope ever ahead of his time writes his life of Thackeray as an account of how the man built a successful career as a journalist which he was well-suited for in all ways (but dilatoriness) and then as a novelist despite his not having the kind of gifts for consistent naturalism and a conventional morality demanded by his audience. Mead begins with Mary Ann’s painful break from her father and reprints and paraphrases the letter Mary Ann wrote to him. We feel her anger simmering beneath the piety. Mead suggests that although Eliot herself shows a slow success over decades of effort, she is the poet of “disappointment;” many of her readers pluck out of her texts that can serve as “inspirational mottoes” with twisted misquotations: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” It’s not there in her thousands of pages. Rather what is shown — in Middlemarch strongly — is “how it can grow altogether too late for lots of things:” “Eliot is the great artist of disappointment.” Dorothea is a “foundress of nothing”. A “melancholy willed seriousness resonates through all her books, but especially the stories of Middlemarch.
The excerpt printed in the New Yorker came from this section and it is alluded to in Joyce Carol Oates’s review of Mead’s book. On this review to me it’s obvious that Oates does not have the same respect for Middlemarch that Mead has. I am not surprised as the spirit inhabiting most of Oates’s books is utterly different from that of Eliot.
To turn to what Mead says about Eliot, her world, the worlds of Middlemarch: She has sections on real people in Eliot’s life (and her own, however vaguely identified) and sections on Eliot’s characters.
Her portraits of Lewes’s sons, frank about their mediocrity, racism and other values and showing how lovable they could be (through letters), was effective and relevant to us today. Mead shows how hard it was for someone like Lewes to find a place in the world for his sons (Trollope helped place one son in the post office as Frances Trollope had placed Trollope himself) – and we read the poignant story of Thornton’s life as a boy, his athleticism, his affectionate nature, how he and his brothers were shuffled off to schools, and in his case time in South Africa and fatal disease and painful death is effective. Mead connects the sons and Lewes to Ladislaw and Fred Vincy. The whole section fascinating in its way.
The section on Rosamund Vincy is superb. I remember how shocked I was when I was first online and reading with others to discover readers who could actually deeply (not just enough in the way Eliot would have us), but deeply empathize with Rosamund. After all don’t you want to be rich and have the “world” everyone else admires admire you. I liked particularly Mead’s way of reading the essay “Silly Lady Novelists” so that we are not confronted with yet another anti-feminist or women’s fiction diatribe (then one ought to read Eliot’s other essay on a later 17th century French woman’s letters which is deeply feminist) but this: “It’s an acid taxonomyh of terrible popular novels and their predictable heroine …” and implied (though again Mead too careful to say this) the kind of reader who enjoys books with these wretched values. Chick lit has stacks of it — I remember reading Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict and just wanting to barf. It was a book Rosamund would love.
Mead is also utterly convincing on the parallels between Mark Pattison, Lady Frances and Dilke with Casaubon, Dorothea, and Ladislaw: it gives her a chance to talk about real marriage as well as the book. She also doesn’t overdo it — at the same time as she shows up the special hiding of those who insist there is no parallel. It’s a biography of the real duo in itself. In Mead’s description of Eliot’s relationship with Lewes — her dependency on his business acumen, his closeness to her, their delight in one another’s unusual intelligence and attitudes I felt Lews was to Eliot like my Jim to me only I got to marry him. Mead defends those who mocked or denigrated or felt uncomfortable with this outwardly gay and cheerful man — who was a genius.
Mead beautifully and frankly goes over Eliot and Lewes’s inward relationship for which we have documents beyond the novel – and also what is found in Middlemarch. How Eliot was ostracized and thus even more dependent on Lewes. Everyone knows but for him there’d no novels; one of his motives was money. Eliot and Lewes chose to defy society and be themselves apart — of course they were taking on social roles of parians and did get away with it with enough people supporting them. I am feeling the choke of society myself and fled it many years I know — Jim enabled that. A wonderful annotation of Eliot’s on how Lewes kissed her after the first success. Jim congratulated me with a kiss after my speech at the Reform club. I will remember that always as a high spot of my existence.
If you search the Henry James e-journal, you will find a paper that discusses how Portrait is James’s rewriting of Middlemarch. Isabel, like Dorothea, wants very much to do something with her life and instead makes a bad marriage. While Dorothea ends up with Ladislow, Isabel rejects Casper. This is an over- simplification, but Isabel in a sense also rejects her sexuality, which is what, I suppose, makes her a lady in the end. (I’d say James didn’t want her liberated; he’s encouraging women to graciously accept their limiting place in society, a place that will help him secure his place as “The Master.”). In Daniel Deronda the mother shows one has a self apart which will break away, but James’s Isabel’s tragedy will be she cannot
There is a chapter called “the Empty Chair” in Gorra’s book where he tells of James’s relationship with Eliot: the visits to Priory Park, the reviews James wrote (Lewes kept them from her as they are ambivalent) and connections between James’s novels and Eliot’s – especially Middlemarch. The new perspective here is James also knew Eliot’s second husband Cross and now I must think of Cross as a successful banker who did the investments for Lewes and Eliot – I never knew that.
For Eliot Mead says “her novelistic powers had taken root in the fertile soil of her domestic happiness with Lewes, and [Eliot] had no faith in her ability to produce anything else without recreating as best she could, that sense of connectedness and inter-dependency.” I’ve always identified, and this is well done: Dorothea tells Celia that Celia would have to feel with her to understand her choices, so she will not talk of it. Mead says she had a relationship with someone like that of Eliot and Lewes. But she tells little specifically: I wondered how she got to be a staff writer for the New Yorker?
I wondered how Eliot lived with the reality that the last few years of Lewes’s life he was very sick, clearly starving because of some digestive or excretory disorder and nothing could be done. I assume neither Eliot or Lewes could write about this, so we have no record. However, since the very justification fot his type of biography — that it’s free conjecture pulling on the author’s fiction and the writers’ own life, then go for it. Tell, imagine, James’s remark that after Lewes died, Eliot had been “shivering like a person who had had a wall of her house blown off” xomes in here. Then Mead shuts down the curtain swiftly to Lewes’s death and moves on to Cross.
It’s in the generosity towards the only 7-8 month marriage of Cross and Eliot that we feel Mead’s strength again — it’s in her empathy. She takes the famous incident of Cross jumping out the window and puts it in full context: she tells far more; of their trip together and their talking of Lewes and how he missed this; of the new home they made together. It emerges that we can’t tell the source of the jump and there was much went right. And why should Eliot not seek some peace and happiness again; we see her from Cross’s point of view. Lucky woman to have won this twice.
I underlined some of the moral reflections of Eliot which resound to me: she longs to make those who read her books “imagine and to feel the pains and joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.” She identifies her as someone who tried to stay independent and was miserable and the implication is finally that if she must give up something in submission, it’s worth it:
Each of Mead’s chapters is headed with a title of Eliot’s sections of her book: so Two Temptations is on Bulstrode and moves into Edward Main. The tempted person where the text is extraordinary is Bulstrode, nothing one would not expect except this is the section which was exerpted for the New Yorker where Mead shows that Eliot was the poet of disappointment and how a distorted memory of some lines of Eliot has turned her in public media from a writer a bout “how it can grow altogether too late for lots of things” becomes this purveyor of upbeatness you can do anything at any age kind of thing. She moves into how after Eliot’s death started the first phase of negative comment, the resentment of her morality; and how she had “committed the unforgivable offense of being old.” Now Mead finds “Eliot’s melancholy willed seriousness resonates.” With me too. I’ll bring Scott in here: he has melancholy willed seriousness but the problem is his style and beyond that his outlook is not modern while Eliot’s is. Eliot’s Daniel Deronda is treated as a case of adoption – not illegitimacy as it would be by Scott (and Trollope too).
This moves into Alexander Main – this story was first told by Leah Price: Main was an admirer who wrote Eliot a worshipful letter and she did respond with gratitude; soon though he was proposing and then did make books out of her “sayings and wisdom.” This is just the sort of thing that Mead has just written against: pluck the saying out of the book. Why did Eliot succumb to this? Well it made money; the book was in its 8th edition before the end of the 19th century – readers will do this to books. And it advertised Eliot’s book. Perhaps Lewes was the tempted one here, but Eliot was drawn to this young man. Unusually Mead is compassionate towards him – his personal life which he kept hidden seems not to have been a smashing success until he produced these books of Eliot’s wisdom – not that he did it to push himself forward successfully …
As I went on with Mead’s book, I was won over. At the close of her section on Main, she suggests he is a kind of quintessential Middlemarch character himself. And his “circumscribed lonely life” “resonated in her novelistic imagination.” In the correspondence it’s all that is unsaid, what is quietly suggested about moral limitations, disappointments, loss.
In her last chapter Mead travels to Eliot’s childhood landscape – one coterminous with her own; throughout the book we visit landscapes, landscapes which connect to Eliot’s books (more than Middlemarch is covered), her career in London — and also to where the George Eliot society meets, where today a modern housing project has replaced a tavern, an institution replaced the rich and servanted households of large upper class houses into which Eliot was welcomed or herself rented and lived in. In the book’s close, she quotes moving passages from Mill on the Floss, making me want to suggest on Trollope19thCStudies that we read both _Mill on the Floss_ and Middlemarch_. Movingly (to me) she says that these two books contain lost landscapes, worlds Eliot could not have stayed in but which she felt her being rooted in and what she became. Mead talked of her older brother and self as children and how such a “landscape is imbued with the deepest memories.” From this angle, Mary Garth is the heroine of the book – Mead goes on to discuss Mary and Fred rather than Lydgate and Rosamund in London and Ladislaw and Dorothea, though she does do justice to the closing meditation of Dorothea by printing a first version of it and showing how the second qualified, deepened, made it more sad.
For me this brought home how I lived in an utterly different world – a Bronx slum, not much vegetation about – and how when I read these books I was not longing for a lost landscape, but one I never had and when I came to England and saw the White Cliffs of Dover and occasionally went here and there down south and the southwest the dream I never had resonated in my heart. For Eliot to be sensitive to the memories of childhood shows “moral maturity,” that is not to reject them; for her, Mead she is “restored anew to the place of childhood and what remains with her.” All well and good for them, but what if you hadn’t these privileges, and so for me I have invented a replacement, and with Jim kept it up.
It ends well — she goes to where George Eliot was writing Middlemarch and quotes a letter by Eliot describing herself writing and how the light form the sun turns yellow and blue through painted glass. This place does not at all exist any more; the very streets reconfigured, utterly transformed, but Mead finds a house nearby like it which also has decorated painted windows and tells you she too sees yellow and blue light.
The book has been her trying to relive Eliot’s experience of life that went into Middlemarch.
When I taught Advanced Composition in the Humanities at GMU (for a number of years) as their final essay, I’d ask students to find ad favorite book from childhood or some earlier time in your life and try to
‘remember what you were when you first read this book and the circumstances of your life; then to try to remember why you liked it. When you reread your book, try hard to call to mind how your present reading may differ from the first one. Write an essay about the experience of this rereading. [They were to research the books, author, genre &c. ] Another way to put this is: write about how the book seems to you now as opposed to the way you now remember it seemed to you when you first read it’
I did give other options: mostly because I know the room had plenty of people for whom books were unimportant or who don’t have deep thoughts when they read. So you could research the genre and write about the book as a type of children’s literature; you could research the author and put the book in the context of the author’s life; you could simply write about its themes as they seem to you now &c&c. Also I promised not to have papers read aloud if it was too personal but the serious problem for many was that books didn’t mean that much. For those to whom books did they loved the assignments.
Those who loved such assignments might love a book like this.
‘I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.’ Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time