Two decades ago, Mary Gordon wrote that a “certain kind of woman remembers what was happening in her life when she read ‘Middlemarch,’ the way Americans are all supposed to know what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was shot.” Or when the twin towers fell.
Susan Sontag, for instance. “I had just turned 18,’’ she wrote in “In America,” “and a third of the way through burst into tears because I realized not only that I was Dorothea” — George Eliot’s earnest, self-deluding heroine — “but that a few months earlier, I had married Casaubon,’’ the dry doggy biscuit of a husband Dorothea had tricked herself into marrying, since none of the other “great men who odd habits it would have been glorious piety to endure” were available.
Rebecca Mead, whose new book, “My Life in Middlemarch, ” comes out Tuesday, was 17 when she first read it, eager to associate herself with what Virginia Woolf had called “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Her ode to the “one book I had never stopped reading” in the 30 years since then is only lightly autobiographical; standing next to Eliot, only a fool would have tried to draw too much attention to herself.
So what is it about this book that’s held so many of us in thrall for decades? That convinced my neighbor Michelle Brafman, a fiction writer, too, “that if I were the kind of person who put one of those bumper stickers of where their kids go to school on their car, mine would say ‘I’m a George Eliot person’ ”? That reassured Washington lawyer Andrea Paterson that she’d done the right thing in dropping out of that PhD program? Or made feminist biblical scholar Alice Bach, who lived at the Catholic Worker house in the Bowery for the last year of Dorothy Day’s life, feel that it was almost as much Dorothea as Dorothy who would have shaped her moral view of money?
“It kind of blew my head off,’’ says my college friend Lynn Joyce Hunter, a therapist, “because she knew me better than I knew myself, and knew that even if Disney thinks we want to marry princes, we actually want to marry men who help us understand the universe; of course’’ Dorothea would marry Casaubon.
You know a Dorothea Brooke or two, I’ll bet, even if you’ve not read the book Mary Ann Evans published under a pseudonym in 1871: Miss Brooke “was enamored of intensity and greatness,’’ her creator wrote, “and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects.” So, too, was she “likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractions, and then to incur martyrdom after all in a quarter where she had not sought it.’’ Poor Dodo, as her younger sister Celia called her, “liked giving up.”
In fact, she had “strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night to read old theological books!’’ She was book smart, yes, and due to come into an inheritance, yet prospective husbands had reason to keep right on walking: “Such a wife might awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her income which would interfere with . . . the keeping of saddle horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself in such fellowship.”
In Sunday’s New York Times book review, Joyce Carol Oates praised Mead’s bow to her favorite book, but sniffed: “There is something self-limiting if not solipsistic about focusing so narrowly on a single novel through the course of one’s life.” Then she prescribed “Ulysses” and “Crime and Punishment.”
Mead, who took no offense, laughed in an interview that she would like it known that she has read Joyce and Dostoyevsky, thanks. But would you only see Vermeer’s work once and then say “Okay, scratch that duty off the list?” Or see a single production of “Hamlet” and think, “Great, now ‘to be or not to be’ is one question that’s been asked and answered?”
Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles wasn’t kidding when he wrote that Eliot anticipated Freud by 30 years; her insight into human nature is extraordinary. As Margaret Meyers, a D.C. novelist and writing teacher who puts yellow mums on Eliot’s grave in London’s Highgate Cemetery every couple of years, says, “When someone writes a better book, I’ll read it” and be glad. Until then, “I don’t think anybody argues that the greatest intellect writing fiction in the 19th century was George Eliot. But on a personal level, many of us who love this book felt that until we found it, we were saints without a cause.”
Eliot certainly takes Dorothea’s yearning to do work that matters more seriously than any other novel I can think of. Yet for me, it’s her exploration of and even her definition of morality that makes reading “Middlemarch” the work of a lifetime. The moral life in Eliot’s work is not a list of dos and don’ts, but a habit of at least trying to see the world from the perspective of those we might not initially understand or like very much.
“Middlemarch” forces the issue by constantly shifting its point of view: Just when we couldn’t think Casaubon any more odious, she goes and shows us the world from behind his sunken eyes. Those who think Eliot got her revenge on all beribboned blonds through her treatment of Rosamond must have missed that it’s Rosamond who makes Dorothea’s happiness possible, by confessing that it’s Dorothea who Ladislaw loves.
There’s a line in Shirley Hazzard’s “The Transit of Venus” — “if you knew enough, antipathy would rarely be conclusive” — and Eliot’s work rarely does let it be conclusive. Eliot insists again and again that we see the world from the perspective of characters we might at first think irredeemably silly or cruel.
It matters that she does that for 800 pages, too; by the end, we’ve had some practice at seeing and then having to look again. It’s so out of fashion to think that a book could make us better people, but when Mead says that “you do have to have read ‘Middlemarch’ to be a fully evolved human being” she’s only mostly joking.
“My Life in Middlemarch,” which I loved, follows not just the different things Mead got out of “Middlemarch” at different times in her life, but her personal, even tactile attempts to better know Eliot, whose notebook she got to leaf through and whose pen she got to hold. “Thank you for not thinking that’s creepy,’’ she tells me.
Who, me? When I first read “Middlemarch,” in college, it wasn’t for an assignment, but because I was sure my writing teacher and mentor had been wrong just this once. I loved her, but did not see how she could say without any wiggle room that “Middlemarch” was the best book written in English, full stop. Then I looked up from page 799 and felt shockingly understood, too, in my aspirations and anxieties, my better aspects and my not-so-hot.
And that all this came from the quill of a woman in another country and century made me feel connected not only to Eliot, but to that “certain kind of woman” I now knew must be out there.