Every keen reader falls in love with a particular book in their youth. You’re astonished to learn the world contains Other People who think and feel just as you do. Sometimes, the passion wanes and rereading only makes you wonder what you ever saw in it, like an embarrassing boyfriend you’d rather forget. Sometimes, you and your entrancing volume mate for life. That’s how it has been for English-born Rebecca Mead, a staff writer for the New Yorker. She first encountered George Eliot’s Middlemarch when she was 17, studying the novel for her Oxford entrance exam. It called to her then – bookish girls can’t help falling for the clever and passionate Dorothea, trapped in her 19th-century straitjacket – and Mead has relied on it as a kind of life manual ever since, returning to it with changing eye to see what Eliot has to say about X, Y or Z: love, marriage, female ambition and ardour, the hearts of men, the lot of pretty women and plain ones, the thwarting of hopes. Eliot, she finds, remains wise on them all, particularly the thwarting. Mead describes her as “the great artist of disappointment”, but not of despair, given the novelist’s insistence that even the unrealised life is thoroughly worth living. (Recall Middlemarch’s famous closing sentence about hidden lives and unvisited tombs. Eliot makes you feel quite sanguine about ageing and failing.)
Mead has interwoven Eliot’s biography with an homage to Middlemarch and the way its insights have applied to her life, or can apply to anyone’s, really. She is the best kind of devoted reader: sensitive and admiring without being mawkish, her pages full of intelligent close reading and considered personal reflection. It’s like sitting through a sparkling session of a book group where the brainy person gets to do all the talking. It’s only the device of journalistically bringing herself into the narrative now and again that occasionally falls flat (tough, too, to compete with Eliot’s unconventional existence and a circle that included Henry James, Florence Nightingale and Turgenev). Still, the marketing department was probably relieved to hear the book was going to be “personal” and not some dull business about a fusty, dead female writer who wasn’t Jane Austen.
Except that Eliot is far from fusty, or even dead, really. That’s Mead’s point. Middlemarch is an archly feminist novel – “[Lydgate] held it one of the prettiest attitudes of the feminine mind to adore a man’s pre-eminence without too precise a knowledge of what it consisted in” – but it’s also a human novel that holds the world up to a light as illuminating now as it was in 1871.
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