The Summit: Rebecca Mead on My Life in Middlemarch

The Brooklyn café in which Rebecca Mead and I have arranged to meet is adorably French, but the early-December weather outside its expansive front window, with its stately park view, reminds me of England. Chilly, damp, and gray, it’s the perfect day to curl up with a deliciously absorbing book.

Mead’s own My Life in Middlemarch, which springs from an essay she wrote for The New Yorker, where she is a staff writer, or the book it celebrates, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, would both fit the bill.

A book about a book? It may sound strange — Mead says it “seemed a bizarre thing” even to her — but in her deft hands, the unusual concept has yielded unusually compelling results. Mead employs the tools of memoir, biographical research, literary theory, and shoe-leather reporting to enthusiastically dig into her long-term relationship with Eliot’s masterpiece, which she first picked up as a seventeen-year-old student dreaming of life beyond her childhood home in an English seaside resort town.

The novel that Virginia Woolf once famously called “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people” — and biographical details she’d gleaned about the writer behind it — seemed to the teenage Mead to hold all the promise of adulthood and its worldly intellectual pursuits. Later readings — while a student at Oxford, establishing a career in New York, falling in love, marrying, becoming a parent — revealed different, not to say deeper meanings: a character or relationship seen in a new light, a theme or passage imbued with fresh resonance, a life lesson emerging for the first time.

Ultimately, My Life in Middlemarch is not a book about a book so much as a book about our long-term relationships with our most treasured books — as Mead writes, “the way a book can insert itself into a reader’s own history, into a reader’s own life story, until it’s hard to know what one would be without it.”

Shivering over a cappuccino on that December morning but exuding warmth, Mead talked with me about the ways she has discovered her life in Middlemarch. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. —Amy Reiter
The Barnes & Noble Review: How much of your motivation in writing this book is to share your love for Middlemarch and George Eliot’s writing with those who, despite what passes for a good education in this country, have never read it?

Rebecca Mead: It wasn’t a motivation. The book wasn’t written out of a pedagogical impulse. I’m so thrilled that people are reading Middlemarch — I think it’s the most amazing book ever — but that wasn’t at all why I wrote my book. I wrote it for me. I wanted to go back to Middlemarch and think about why I loved it as much as I did and spend more time with it. I wanted to be in it in a different way — not just to reread it again but to investigate it. But it’s fantastic to see how younger readers than me… are responding to it.

BNR: It’s good to know that readers who pick up Middlemarch for the first time well past their teens haven’t completely missed out, though they won’t be able to track their responses to it at different stages quite they way you have.

RM: I have a friend who teaches at Princeton, and he tells his students that they won’t get Middlemarch necessarily now, but they should reread it when they’re forty and come back and tell him what they think. He’s been teaching long enough that some of them have come back and said, “Yes, now I get it.”

BNR: But one of the points you make is not that you didn’t get Middlemarch when you were younger, but rather that you got it in a different way than you do now, as you approach middle age.

RM: I think my response at seventeen was completely valid. But there was a lot about it I didn’t understand — and knew I didn’t understand. It seemed to point the way to a greater understanding.

Reading the book felt like an incredibly grown-up thing to have accomplished. I mean, I’d read long books before — Crime and Punishment or whatever everyone else reads when they’re sixteen — but I don’t think I’d read one quite that long. There was a sense of having summited a peak of English literature. It felt like a distinguished thing to have done.

BNR: You wrote that you loved Middlemarch and “loved being the kind of person who loved it.” The book and your love for it has been part of your identity ever since. Do you feel like this stage of your life is the perfect moment to appreciate Middlemarch?

RM: I don’t know. It could be sixty. I’m not there yet. But George Eliot was fifty-two when she wrote it. I’m not fifty-two yet, but the book has that kind of accrued wisdom of age, looking back on the errors of youth, but with such compassion and understanding, as opposed to the criticism one might have with one’s younger self when you’re just a little bit further away. So it’s an incredibly mature book. You don’t have to be forty-five to appreciate it, but you feel that you are in the presence of an incredibly wise, kind, but not sappy person, somebody whose vision is absolutely astute and who’s capable of making completely realistic assessments of everybody she’s writing about, but is doing it with such compassion. I don’t think I was conscious of the compassion when I was younger.

The first time you read it, you’re reading it for story. But as an older reader, as much as I read it for story, I read it for authorial attitude.

BNR: When you go back to it, do you read it all the way through, or do you dip in and out?

RM: It’s probably been between two and three years since I’ve read it all the way through. But the next time I read it, I will go back to the beginning and read it to the end. I don’t have, like, the greatest hits: The scene where Casaubon learns he’s going to die, that’s one of my favorites! [Laughs]

BNR: Specific pages dog-eared from your teenage years…

RM: Actually, I have the copy I had when I was a kid. It’s falling apart from age, but I’ve saved it. A few years ago, when my husband and I moved into our house, we sorted through all our books and threw out duplicates. I had this copy in my hand and decided not to throw it away, because it was so much part of my youth. It’s like my torn-up old teddy bear that I’ve passed on to my son with warnings that he must never harm it.

BNR: Your love for Middlemarch is very personal. How did you feel about sharing it with the world? As a reporter, you’re not always compelled to do that when you write.

RM: Right. I’d written a book about the wedding industry, in a spirit of comic inquiry and horror. I was interested in the business and why weddings were the way they were, but it wasn’t done out of personal motivations. I wasn’t planning my wedding or anything like that. It just seemed like a good story worth reporting. But it involved spending a lot of time in a world I didn’t much like, and that wasn’t a particularly wonderful experience. I thought after that, if I ever write another book, I’m going to write it about something I love. This seemed a bizarre thing, in a way — to write a book about a book, especially about the greatest book there is. But I knew I wanted to approach this somehow.

BNR: You started with an article in The New Yorker.

RM: I told my editor I wanted to write a piece about George Eliot, but it took me maybe another two years to get round to. I was reading her books and diaries, trying to figure out what I wanted to write. I decided to approach it like a reporter, so I went to England to write about the George Eliot Fellowship, which is this literary society based around her work.

I was still trying to figure out what the piece might be and happened to be having lunch with [New Yorker editor] David Remnick, and he said, “What have you been doing?” I said, “Well, I just went to this literary society of George Eliot people.” He knew I loved Middlemarch, so he said, “You have to write a personal piece about George Eliot and Middlemarch  and your love for it.” So I wrote a draft and gave it to my editor, Daniel Zalewski, who’s brilliant, and he said, “This is great, but you need to make it more personal. You only get one chance to do this, and you have to do it properly.”

I had begun the piece with a scene from George Eliot’s youth, but instead I began it by talking about my own youth. It’s a big leap to take, because you’re sitting there thinking, Nobody’s gonna care. Nobody’s gonna be interested. This is embarrassing. Who do I think I am? You have to just push through that. And maybe nobody’s going to be interested, but my editors told me to do it, so I’ve got permission, right?

BNR: What surprised you most about the response? 

RM: I was surprised that other people could find their own experience in mine, even if mine was very different. Most of my readers didn’t grow up in a coastal town in England, but you can grow up in a provincial place, or anywhere, and feel, as I felt, that there is a world beyond that you want to get out in, and you don’t know what it is, and you have aspirations, but you don’t know what they are, and you want to be in love, but you don’t know what that means. All those things are very common. Although I had told my story, it made sense to other people.

The book is personal, but it’s not profoundly confessional. You don’t know every secret of my life. I want to give enough that a reader can identify me without giving so much that a reader won’t see herself or himself in me.

Also I’m English, so I can’t possibly give up that much.

BNR: But interestingly, in your book, you suggest that reading in search of our own reflections is a naïve approach.

RM: I think most of us read at quite a simple level. We might have more sophisticated things and critical things to say, but we read something because it engages us, because we love it. Most people read for pleasure, to exist in a different world for a little while, to relax. That’s why I read. So I wanted to represent that.

BNR: And celebrate it.

RM: People talk about books as a guilty pleasure, as if there should be guilt about pleasure in reading. Or is it that a book that’s not in the “guilty pleasure” section of the bookstore, but is instead in the “literature” section, could not be a pleasure? There’s almost nothing more pleasurable than reading Middlemarch. It’s just so smart, so funny, so intelligent. That’s all the pleasure you need.

BNR: George Eliot wrote to edify. As you note, she hoped that exposing her readers to different perspectives would improve them and, incrementally, the world. Do you think about your reader’s moral betterment?

RM: No, I don’t think I wanted to do that like a project: set about the moral improvement of my readers. That would be such a nineteenth-century thing to do. But I do think George Eliot’s belief that by incremental change the world becomes a better place is probably true. It’s perhaps the only thing you can believe in a world where you’ve given up on the idea of a supernatural god. I would say that, since she’s been alive, the incrementalism of it has prevailed more than the improvement. If we are improving incrementally, it’s taken us a really long time, and probably will continue to. But I love the closing moments of Middlemarch. And I do think that by treating another person with compassion, compassion is spread and hopefully we encourage others to do likewise. It’s not a very efficient way of changing the world, but it might not be less efficient than any other.

I feel inspired by George Eliot, by her life and what she believed and what she did, and I wanted to convey that sense of admiration and inspiration. So I hope other people will be moved by her message, insomuch as there is a message, as much as I am. Whether we’ll all start being better people I don’t know. Maybe we’ll be better readers.

BNR: What was the process of writing the book like?

RM: It was glorious. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it because writers always talk about how much pain and suffering there is in writing and how hard the work is, and if you confess to having pleasure, maybe you’re not doing it right or working hard enough. But I loved, loved, loved writing this book.

It was a different writing experience from others I’d had. I’ve always liked writing. Some people just love the reporting and the writing is torture. I’m not one of those people. But it was an intense emotional experience. There are parts I made myself cry while writing. I’ve never done that before. I’ve made myself laugh, or I’ve made myself think, Well, that’s a very good sentence. I’m pleased with that, but I’ve never had this feeling of Oh my God, I’m writing something that’s really important to me.

While I was writing the book, my father was dying. He died, in fact, when I was exactly halfway through. He’d been ill for years, and I knew he was declining. I didn’t think he would live long enough to see it published. Part of the underlying, unconscious motivation, I’m sure, to writing the book was to be able to go back to England and visit frequently. I did go back a lot.

The book in some ways is all about my parents, and the end is about looking at my parents’ lives. I was very conscious that I was writing it in the midst of this change, where one generation was leaving. I was sending my parents chapters as I was writing them. My father read the first four chapters. I wanted him to read it. I wanted to honor him.

BNR: Is George Eliot a feminist icon?

RM: It’s funny. She was not. In the first wave of feminist criticism in the ’70s and ’80s, she was not celebrated, partly because of this reputation she has of being moralistic. Her work wasn’t seen as boundary breaking and she doesn’t lend herself to deconstruction and the academic trends prevalent then. Also I think early feminists thought she didn’t go far enough. Yes, she lived out of wedlock with George Henry Lewes, but she would have liked to have married him, if she could have. She wasn’t anti-marriage.

She didn’t always want to put her name to feminist causes. She disliked arguments for women’s education because she thought that everybody needed education. She didn’t like being called upon to be a spokeswoman for women. So that didn’t endear her to that kind of feminist that was looking for transgressiveness and that sort of literary model.

BNR: Yet so many of her decisions seemed brave and modern.

RM: Her family wasn’t poor, but they were modest, provincial. She was largely self-educated. Just the ambition to do that and to reject an early proposal of marriage, knowing she was probably not going to get hundreds of others. She was obviously an extraordinary person, but sometimes even extraordinary people don’t get to flourish, and she made sure she did. I love her ambition for that. But she went through a lot of sadness in part because of it.

When she was in her early thirties, writing criticism and living on her own in London, she enjoyed the freedom, but [her writing] has this prickliness, as if she’s defending against anybody criticizing or hurting her by making snarky comments in letters to her friends or writing these incredibly smart but devastating critical pieces about people. I loved discovering that George Eliot, because the wise, generous George Eliot of later grew out of this spiky, defensive, not very happy young woman. She seems so familiar. We all either know people like that or were people like that, minus the overarching genius.

BNR: You spend time in the book addressing her looks. And I found myself needing to search for her portraits online, too. Why is how she looked so important to us? Of course, it shouldn’t be…

RM: No, of course, it’s not important, but I wanted to address it because the way in which it is important is that everyone who met her commented on it.

BNR: You quote Henry James as calling her “magnificently ugly,” “deliciously hideous,” and a “great horse-faced bluestocking.”

RM: Yeah, but he was not the only one. Everybody had to comment on it.

There was an incredibly useful book a guy called K. K. Collins sent to me out of the blue after I wrote the piece for The New Yorker. He did some incredible research work of finding accounts of meeting her. I went through this book gathering references to the way she looked. What’s interesting is that they’re conflicting.

Some people say she was tall and some say she was small. Some people say she was massive. I think she had kind of a heavy face but a tiny body. One of her dresses was preserved in a museum in Nuneaton, and she’s little. But people remarked on the weight of her head. So I think the fact that everyone commented on the way she looked made it worthy of further comment and investigation.

Also I would love to see her. I go to parties and look around to see who might look a little bit like her. I’ve seen a few women and I think, oh, maybe that’s what she looked like. I realize it’s sort of bizarre to go to parties and look around to see who looks like George Eliot, but that’s what I do.

There’s only this one photograph of her. I went to look at portraits of George Eliot to try to come face to face with her as best I could and to try to conjure her in some almost supernatural way. And I feel defensive on her behalf.

BNR: Well, when someone is called a horse-faced bluestocking!

RM: I know! I mean, I’ve got a little horse-faced bluestocking in me, too! I don’t look like Rosamond, either. Big nose, she had a big nose. And so I just wanted to reclaim that subject.

All her biographers, with more or less sophistication, write about the way she looks. One of her early biographies says, “What a tragedy it must be to look in the mirror and see — ” They all thought it was worthy of comment, so I couldn’t not have written about it. And I love the descriptions of her in which people talk about the way that she seemed initially ugly or plain and then this beauty would steal forth, because we’ve all met people like that, too.

BNR: You talk about the sketch of her in which you noted, with relief, that she looks like someone who would be good to talk to. What do you imagine it would be like to meet her?

RM: People who knew her describe her as a great listener. She would recognize in people things that they hadn’t seen about themselves and give it back to them. Alexander Main [a George Eliot fan who published her quotes in book form], whom I write about in the book, said, “I’d like to see you, if I could not be seen.” I feel a little like that. I’d like to see her, if I could not be seen. It would be amazing to watch and hear her listening. Of course, there are things I’d want to ask her.

BNR: Such as…?

RM: If I were to get to ask George Eliot one question, I think it would be, “Do you mind that I wrote this book?”

BNR: Where do you hope you leave George Eliot’s reputation with this book?

RM: I hope it will make more people want to read her books and inform more people about her life. But this is very much my version of Middlemarch and somebody else might have a very different read of it. It’s an attempt to say what the book meant to me.

I hope that people will be able to read my book without having read Middlemarch. I hope that my book will appeal to people who just care about reading.

I feel like, although George Eliot is widely recognized as being great, especially in America, she’s not as widely read as she should be. I don’t expect to propel her to Jane Austenian levels. I very much don’t want to have “Ladislaw and Zombies” or something.But I feel like she deserves more. She deserves to be embraced and not to be built up as a monument you can’t touch or approach. I hope people aren’t scared of Middlemarch now. It’s a funny, accessible, smart book. It’s not a scary book.