I love Middlemarch and I loved Rebecca Mead’s book about it, which I snapped up when it was a Kindle daily deal. It’s part biography of George Eliot, part autobiography of Rebecca Mead, part lit.crit. Mostly though, it’s a book about reading.
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.
Like Rebecca Mead, I was seventeen when I first read Middlemarch; it was the very copy shown at the end of this post. Considering that it’s nearly fifty years old, it’s in very good condition, with white pages. Publishers must have used better quality paper in those days. I remember then hating Rosamond passionately, blaming her for Lydgate’s failure to achieve what he intended to. But as Mead says,
My Middlemarch is not the same as anyone else’s Middlemarch; it is not even the same as my Middlemarch of twenty-five years ago.
As I got older, I felt sorrier for Rosamond and could see the fatal weakness in Lydgate that led to his downfall. My seventeen-year-old self must have been a little in love with him.
As Mead points out, the book was issued as a serial, so to early readers there was more than one possible ending. She quotes a contemporary review, commenting,
And in the mind of the reviewer for the Athenaeum, a seed was sown for what might be coming in Middlemarch: the notion that Dorothea and Lydgate—who at this point in the story is still unmarried—might end up marrying each other
When Middlemarch was televised (1994!) my mother was glued to it. She hadn’t read the book and when Dorothea cried ‘Oh, I did love him!’, Mum thought she meant Lydgate. Rather telling, I think. To almost anyone, Lydgate seems a better match for Dorothea. Like most people, including, I suspect, George Eliot herself, I’ve never found Ladislaw worthy of Dorothea. But with authorial majesty, she explains all at the end of the book.
Of course, Middlemarch is far from just one love story; there are several, of which the most successful is Fred and Mary’s. Are they the real centre of the novel? They are the only lovers who settle down at home and perhaps stand for the enduring Englishness of the region and of the novel? Mead says,
What Eliot most seeks to convey is Middlemarch as a state of mind—as the condition of consummate ordinariness, of absolutely middling Englishness.
For me, she succeeds in that aim. For years I’ve described Middlemarch as my favourite book. This doesn’t work for Mead:
favourite isn’t, anyway, the right word to describe the relationship a reader has with a particularly cherished book. Most serious readers can point to one book that has a place in their life like the one that Middlemarch has in mine. I chose Middlemarch—or Middlemarch chose me—and I cannot imagine life without it.
Age changes us so that A book may not tell us exactly how to live our own lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book.
George Eliot, from her lofty moral and intellectual pinnacle, surely was showing if not how to live, how life might be lived. The justification of ordinariness with which she ends the book, the wonderful line about those who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs is full of hope, not disappointment. What am I reading now? Middlemarch, naturally. Suddenly, anything else I might be reading seems mere trash in comparison and I’m in that happy state where I long constantly to get back to it. Five/five stars to The Road to Middlemarch for the inspiration.