My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead, Crown, 2014.
I felt very excited when I heard this book had been published. Yes! A memoir about a woman’s relationship with a classic novel! That is right up my crooked little avenue. I must admit to having an intense, one-sided, relationship with a few books (and their implied [imaginary] authors), so I thought I would really enjoy reading about Mead’s love for Middlemarch.
Sadly, the book is more biography and literary criticism than it is memoir. Oh, there are snippets here and there about Mead’s life, and a travelogue of sorts, as she relates how she visits some of Eliot’s homes, and peruses her papers in libraries. And, by the way, how terrible is it that Eliot’s former residences have not been preserved as national treasures? I do not even want to think about Eliot’s ex-study at the now dilapidated Bird Grove being used as a room where young women are taught how to sew – Eliot’s head would surely be spinning if she knew that. Sewing is such a gendered activity and to teach it in the room where Eliot wrote and thought and dreamed is a kind of sacrilege as far as I am concerned. However, although Mead admits to being a little nonplussed at the poor condition of the building, she writes that learning to sew is acquiring a skill and a means of making a living, ‘a way for young women to rely on their energies and resources, and thereby be better equipped to bear the pressures imposed by fathers and brothers’ (p.71). Mead is talking about young Bangladeshi migrant women and she seems quite content with the notion that learning to sew for a living is a positive outcome for them, when clearly, given the tenor of the book, if she had been restricted to sewing for a living she would have gone raving mad. I may be a little biased on this point because once upon a time, in another country and in another incarnation, I worked in a sewing sweatshop for a few months. It was the only job I could find in a small country town – sewing the leg seams of children’s pyjamas. Oh my. The tedium; the aching back; the boredom of spending eight hours a day controlling the wild antics of an industrial sewing machine. I quit one day when I could take no more, and I was so glad to bid farewell to the other women – and the rats that used to scuttle up the aisles and provide us with comic relief from our labours. Commercial sewing is not something to aspire to; it is something (mostly) women do when they have no other choice of employment and I would argue that all young women in England should have other choices – as Mead herself did. She read Middlemarch before she escaped her own provincial life and went to study at Oxford. It seems that she identified with Dorothea’s yearning to live a more full and interesting life than the one for which she was destined, so I am puzzled that she seems to think that learning to sew in order to make a living is a good outcome for other women. Does Mead think that girls and women from the migrant Bangladeshi community do not have the same aspirations as she did? I must admit to feeling rather uncomfortable about this casual display of a privileged mindset – because attending Oxford and doing a master’s in journalism at a NYC university is not the average person’s educational experience. Yes, her own hard work and her brain got her there, but most people are not offered those opportunities. Most people are stuck with the equivalent of ‘learning to sew’, despite their hopes and dreams. Having escaped her own provincial destiny, I thought Mead would have expressed sympathy for women whose future seems to be linked to a sewing machine, but she appears to be quite content with the status quo.
I am not on the ‘same page’ as Mead, either, when it comes to Middlemarch. I do like Middlemarch and think it is a wonderful novel, but I have never been able to take Dorothea seriously. As I see it, Dorothea is extremely conceited and stupid. She shows little evidence of intelligence and has absolutely no common sense, and far from identifying with her, well, she just makes me laugh. I see Middlemarch as social satire with some overly-didactic philosophy mixed in. The narrator attempts to elicit a sympathetic response from the reader towards many of the characters in the book, a ploy that is part of Eliot’s belief that a sense of ‘fellow-feeling’ could be fostered through fiction. I tend to be stubbornly resistant when anyone tries to direct my thoughts and feelings, and my contrary self simply refuses to be empathetic when I read Middlemarch. Instead, I find the narrative hilarious, clever, and often quite vicious. For me, Dorothea represents all the silly young women in the Victorian era who were desperate to fall in love and marry, and then found that their fantasies had nothing to do with reality.
Dorothea had an income of seven hundred pounds a year, which is about half a million pounds in today’s money, so Mead tells us. I could live quite satisfactorily on that, but Dorothea comes from a world of such privilege that she thinks it is a mere trifle and she she thinks that she needs more than she already has in order fulfil the conceit that she is destined to do great good in the world. She wants more prestige, as the wife of a noted scholar, and more money, as the wife of a reasonably well-off man. I think Dorothea gets exactly what she deserves and her stupidity and pride and folly is a lesson to women that they should not project their fantasies onto men, marry them, and expect to live happily ever after. Although, Eliot does allow Dorothea to marry Will and have a more fulfilled life than she would have had as Casaubon’s widow, but I think she would have chaffed at the bit and been unhappy as Will’s parliamentary wife, stuck at home with the children most of the time, doing her little ‘good works’ here and there. Celia, on the other hand, is practical and down to earth. Rather than striving to have what she wants, she is content to want what she can have, and so she marries the rich baronet next door and chooses to be happy. This is, clearly, another telling of the Marianne/Elinor dichotomy in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, where the philosophical issues surrounding the debates between the Englightenment’s championing of ‘sense’ and Romanticism’s championing of ‘sensibility’ are teased out in the narrative. Indeed, Dorothea is shown in contrast with Mary Garth, the eminently sensible young woman who knows exactly what she wants, and with Rosamond Vincy, who is very beautiful but far from sensible.
Anyway, Mead became a journalist after university and lived in NYC. She is a staff writer for ‘The New Yorker’ and as that implies, she writes beautifully. However, this is simply not the book I was expecting. It is biography lite and literary criticism extra-lite, and there are only tiny little insertions of ‘memoir’. As I remember it, the book was promoted as being a memoir, but we get a narrative about Eliot’s life and what she believed and did. I think that Eliot was a true genius, because she was just so brilliant and learned and intelligent, but this book focuses more on Eliot’s physical appearance* and her relationships with her partners and stepchildren than it does on her wide and varied areas of intellectual endeavour and achievement, and I think that is a great pity.
I have to admit to finding this a rather disappointing read, although I think it will probably suit people wanting a basic introduction to Eliot and Middlemarch. Mead does not give away much about herself and I found her an aloof presence hovering around the edges of the book. She does not seem to see the humour in Middlemarch – and it is often totally hilarious, with its strong satire and deep irony. Yes, Middlemarch is a truly great and accomplished novel and everyone should read it, but I find its intrusive narrator far too preachy and overtly didactic to want to make the book, or its author, my life’s companion.
*Mead seems to be overly concerned that Eliot was considered ‘plain’. She was widely acknowledged as being very plain, but it did not seem to hold her back in life. In fact, it may have worked to her advantage because no one ‘snapped her up’ as a young bride, so she had time to mature intellectually without being dictated to by a husband. I spy a silver lining.