While she has escaped her bucolic upbringing, Rebecca Mead continues to read Middlemarch
Middlemarch is not a real place. It’s the town at the heart of George Eliot’s breathtakingly long novel, a study of a “web” of characters living in the English Midlands between the years 1830 and 1832, the tail end of the Georgian era and the beginning of the Victorian. The plot of Middlemarch is complex, highlighting, to a greater or lesser degree, the interconnected dramas of a dozen individuals from a range of social strata, all living in or near the town.
I’ve read Middlemarch once, in one two-week stint while on vacation. This is possibly the best way to read a Victorian doorstop, when there’s time to labour through the unfamiliar vernacular until it becomes invisible, time to let the plot build up and surround one like an elaborate house. I read it on a sunny deck under a cloudless sky.
Rebecca Mead has been reading Middlemarch her entire life—every five years or so, according to her bestselling 2014 bibliomemoir, My Life in Middlemarch.
In her favourable review of Mead’s work, Joyce Carol Oates usefully defines bibliomemoir as “a subspecies of literature combining criticism and biography with the intimate, confessional tone of autobiography.”
Mead’s journey through the biographical and literary highlights of Eliot’s life is nestled within her own journey as a young woman on the move from rural England to New York City (she is now a staff writer for The New Yorker). As Oates points out in her review, bibliomemoirs only work when there is something at stake for the writer; in Mead’s case, she wished to recover, in writing My Life in Middlemarch,“the sense of intellectual and emotional immersion in books that I had known as a younger reader, before my attention was fractured by the exigencies of being a journalist.”
Though Rebecca Mead never expands on the importance of place to her reading of Middlemarch, her emotional connection to the novel is firmly anchored in her own adolescent home of southwest England. On the front cover of her first copy of Middlemarch, Mead reveals, was detail from a landscape painted in 1839—a landscape that looked “exactly like a stretch of countryside that lay within five minutes’ walk of my parents’ house.” The town of Middlemarch, for Mead, could easily have been located just over the next hill.
But Mead doesn’t sit still in contemplating the landscapes important to Middlemarch or its author. She travels through the geographical landscape of Eliot’s life—her childhood haunts near Nuneaton, her home on the Strand in London, her travels in Rome—and her tour of these places forms a framing device for the book.
In Mead’s narration, the physical loci of Eliot’s life are airbrushed both with Mead’s naked admiration for her subject and the amateur historian’s subjective backward glance. The reader has to ask whether she is genuinely encountering Mead’s subject, or whether these places are obscured by nostalgia.
Mead is aware of her subjectivity. Before she lulls the reader into the summery microcosm of Eliot’s England, reimagined, she issues a warning to herself, “It was so soothing, this middling Englishness, that I had to be on my guard lest nostalgia slip into sentimentality. I was in danger of being too invested in my melancholic attachment to a half-remembered, half-idealized homeland.”
Mead’s gentle treatment of Eliot’s settings can’t be dismissed as merely a nostalgic meander through Mead’s subjectivity; it makes My Life in Middlemarch accessible.
The abstracted construction of place in the literary imaginary is a useful rhetorical tool—it has endless power to persuade, because places described only in outline, or defined by general qualities rather than minutiae, can be populated with the reader’s own experiences.
Earlier in this essay, I described the deck on which I read Middlemarch as “a sunny deck under a cloudless sky”; these are general qualities which can be applied to virtually any setting. But here are the particulars: the sun was too hot in its searing blue setting, I was surrounded by mosquitos, and I was reading Middlemarch in an effort to temporarily escape the exigencies of my own private and professional lives. My space on the deck, like every other space, was particular, not abstract, and particularly ill-suited for reading, but I can mine my memories of it for generalized features that serve a particular purpose. All writers do this, all of the time. It’s nothing new.
But the openness of Middlemarch allows for emotional transposition: while on that deck, I was in Middlemarch. Any interaction the characters have with place, in Middlemarch, serves only to throw emotional complexities into high relief. It never works the other way around. Take for example a passage in which the novel’s principal protagonist, Dorothea, goes for a walk, “There had risen before her the girl’s vision of a possible future for herself to which she looked forward with trembling hope, and she wanted to wander on in that visionary future without interruption.” Surrounding Dorothea’s trembling hopefulness is a peripheral sketch of landscape that includes “shrubbery,” a “park,” and a “bordering wood.”
Place, in Middlemarch, serves only as a backdrop to the action, so the action—built around essential human problems like bad marriages, financial instability, workers’ rights—is universal.
And the abstraction of place is deeply important in offering readers entry-points into the writer’s literary imaginary.
Reading Middlemarch in Winnipeg
Winnipeg is a hotbed of Middlemarch appreciation
But is Middlemarch accessible? And what relevance does this fictional town really have for Canadian readers? Why should we care about these 900-odd pages, written—for all Eliot’s nonconformity—under the Victorian mantra of “moral instruction,” as Rebecca Mead reminds us?
Middlemarch depicts a town totally detachable from its geographical setting, with problems that are relevant to literally any community. Eliot’s brilliance lies partly in this abstraction of place; for her, Middlemarch serves as a platform or a “web” connecting people, and connecting people with the real consequences of their occasionally just, occasionally unjust communal activity.
What are the consequences of gossip to the health of the community? Middlemarch dwells on this at length. What is the duty of the rich to the poor? As Mead points out, in a moment of personal crisis, Dorothea looks out her windows on “the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance,” realizing that her private grief does not excuse her from her responsibilities as a landowner to the social well-being of her tenants. Middlemarch is obsessed with the ills that can befall a community when its members look to their own interests before those of their neighbours. Middlemarch is not a town trapped in a gilded frame from the 17th Century, or a stop on a scenic journey through England’s fictional history. Middlemarch is everywhere.
My Life in Middlemarch is testament to the power of abstracted place as a platform for human drama. Mead can find innumerable entry-points into Middlemarch, and so can we, whether we live in Winnipeg or in Würzburg. And once in Middlemarch, we can find ourselves changed by what we encounter.
In Robert Pogue Harrison’s Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, Harrison exegetes Boccaccio’s Decameron, analyzing the linkage between the Decameron’s garden setting and the transfiguring power of storytelling. In The Decameron, a group of young people, having escaped the plague-ridden city for a garden retreat, spend their days telling each other stories. They have not escaped the reality of the plague—they’ll have to return to the city eventually. But the stories, like the idyllic garden surrounding the storytellers, Harrison claims, serve a larger purpose than that of distraction.
“The stories of the Decameron, like the garden settings in which they are told, have intervened in reality after all,” argues Harrison:
By recasting reality in narrative modes, they allow what is otherwise hidden by reality’s amorphous flow of moments to appear in formal relief, just as a garden draws attention to the aesthetically determined relations of things in its midst. That is the magic of both gardens and stories: they transfigure the real even as they leave it apparently untouched.
Rebecca Mead concludes My Life in Middlemarch by turning tables on her use of place in examining Eliot’s life. Just as our landscapes infuse our writing, she argues, books impact landscapes over time as readers turn ideas into action. In the final chapter, seated in Eliot’s summer home and looking through the window, Mead writes, “through that window was a larger vista: a landscape changed by books, reshaped by reading, transfigured by the slow green growth.”
While on a walk in Winnipeg’s melting March streets last week, I came across our Little Red Library, a doorless red plastic cube containing a constantly rotating stock of books that stood on the Assiniboine River Trail this winter until its hasty removal with the encroaching spring. The first title that came to hand—of the 200 or so available in the hutch—was Middlemarch, a tired 1950s paperback with a few pages aggressively folded to mark passages of lost import to an unknown reader.
Winnipeg, 5,900 kilometers from this mythic locale, and nearly 200 years on, is still reading Middlemarch. It might have to do with Eliot’s matchless gift for plot, or her ability to cut through to appearances to the naked seed of potential at the heart of any character. But place—and readers’ ability to relate to it—has little, if anything, to do with the power of this book on the literary imaginary.