Book review: The Road To Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead

REBECCA Mead is a staff writer on the New Yorker, though you don’t have to be a writer to be among the legion of readers who adore George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

Mead makes even quite hardcore literary criticism readable and engaging. Picture: Getty

The Road To Middlemarch: My Life With George Eliot

Rebecca Mead

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Mead loved the book from the first sentence, when she read it aged 17, and in a mood of mid-life restlessness has felt a need to revise this sense of deep engagement with the work.

Mead weaves commentary on the novel – ranging from gossipy to erudite – with the story of Eliot’s remarkable life, her loving but difficult family relations, defiance of religion, struggle for an independent intellectual life and blissful, scandalous cohabitation with married father-of-three George Henry Lewes (after she was rejected on the grounds of ugliness by the philosopher Herbert Spencer). When Lewes died, Eliot shocked Victorian sensibilities yet again by marrying a much younger man, John Cross, but she wasn’t naturally a controversialist: “Her aspiration was not for literary immortality – though she got that – but for a kind of encompassing empathy that would make the punishing experience of egoism shrink and dwindle,” Mead tells us. “She believed growth depends upon complex connections and openness to others, and does not derive from a solitary swelling of the self.”

Mead is particularly interested in other readers of Eliot, one of whom ran into the author on Regent Street during the serial publication of Middlemarch in 1871 and spoke about Lydgate’s marital problems as if they were not just ongoing but real. An even more interactive fan called Alexander Main was known as “The Gusher” for his hyperbolic praise and obsessive interest in promoting Eliot’s Wise, Witty and Tender Sayings; while in Oxford a don called Pattison and his wife Francis spent years denying that they were the models for Middlemarch’s miserable couple, Casaubon and Dorothea.

Mead’s long experience of profile-writing shows in the effortless ease of her prose, incorporating passages of quite hardcore critical writing (there’s one about authorial interjections) alongside anecdotes about her own life and loves. I wish more critical books were this literary, and this readable. Comparing the novel’s famous last phrases about “the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs” with an earlier draft which read “those who sleep in unvisited tombs, having lived a hidden life nobly”, Mead remarks wryly that seeing Eliot work her way towards sublimity “was like discovering Leonardo had first tried painting a snub nose on the Mona Lisa, or learning that the question Hamlet originally asked was ‘Not to be, or to be?’”

This book could have gone so wrong; the fandom, the “journey”, the parallels between Eliot’s life and the author’s (having stepsons, looking at art, falling for the wrong man). Mead could have been The Gusher, in fact, but has somehow sidestepped the difficulties and found common ground with an author who fully intended to meet her readers there.