Middlemarch grasped the human condition like few novels before or after

George Eliot Middlemarch
What George Eliot’s Victorian masterpiece can teach us about struggling, erring humans Corbis

I don’t know if women can have it all, a question that has spawned innumerable “think pieces,” but they should surely have more than Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of George Eliot’s 1874 novel, Middlemarch. Married to the classical scholar Edward Casaubon, whose mind is parched and whose body is inert, Dorothea realizes that her “maiden dream” of a fulfilling union is over, now that she has married a man who another character quips has blood that is “all semicolons and parentheses.” Many years later, Susan Sontag would recall a similar sensation upon reading Middlemarch: “I had just turned eighteen, and a third of the way through the book burst into tears because I realized not only that I was Dorothea but that, a few months earlier, I had married Mr. Casaubon.” But at least Sontag, unlike Dorothea, could (and did) divorce.

George Eliot was, of course, a woman, born Mary Anne Evans in 1819. That she wrote about women might lead the reductive mind to conclude that Middlemarch is “women’s fiction” instead of the rightful peer of Moby Dick as the finest English-language novel of the 19th century. Middlemarch is human fiction, and remains, to this day, the only book to have given me nightmares. Subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life,” it renders huge the smallness of the individual. We are all provincials, Eliot says, though our provinces vary. Nothing could be more frightening.

It took me a while to get to Middlemarch, to see past Hemingway’s braggadocio and Proust’s logorrhea and finally discover Eliot’s quiet wisdom, adorned as it was in daunting Victorian vestments. It’s a real shame that the book’s length and subject matter are off-putting to many readers today, especially those with a Y chromosome. Middlemarch will teach the bespectacled young man from Brooklyn or Austin or San Francisco far more about this business of living than all of Jonathan Franzen’s feeble ejaculations.

My Life In Middlemarch, by the New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead, is modest — in a good way. It does not purport, like Alain De Botton’s idiotic How Proust Can Change Your Life, to shake the ground. Nor is it onerously academic, reveling in the picayune disputes between academics. This is Mead’s life inside a book, inside the fictional Midlands village Eliot created. By the end, though, this could be your life, too. As Mead writes, "She makes Middlemarchers of us all."

Born and raised in southwestern England, Mead first read Middlemarch when she was 17 and immediately identified with Dorothea, in her words “an ardent young gentlewoman who yearns for a more significant existence.” Without dramatizing her own life, Mead describes how that longing carried her to Oxford and then New York, where she came to work for what she coyly refers to as a “weekly magazine.” The result is an artful nesting doll of a book: Mead writing about her own life, about how that life has been lived a good deal within Middlemarch, and about the woman who wrote that novel, whom Henry James once cruelly called “deliciously hideous.”

I won’t speculate on Eliot’s appearance, though Mead notes that she was asked for her hand in marriage in her mid-twenties, an offer she refused. She moved to London in 1850, becoming an editor at The Westminster Review. There was an affair with the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who admitted to no “indications of a warmer feeling” for her, as he reflected three decades later in a letter. In 1854, she began an unconventional relationship with George Henry Lewes, who was already married… with children. Mead, who had a fruitless fling with a Yale professor and later married a man (her current husband) who had children from a previous marriage, appreciates the “open defiance” of convention Lewes and Eliot displayed. In 1880, two years after Lewes died, Eliot finally married; her husband, John Cross, was 20 years younger. Today, we would crassly call her a cougar. Eliot was aware that she was treading in strange territory, writing in a letter, “When I act in a way which is thoroughly unexpected there are reasons which justify my action, though the reasons may not be evident to you.”

There may be a touch of intellectual haughtiness in that response, however justified Eliot’s defensiveness over her marital status may have been. Pronouncements of assured conviction stud Middlemarch, and Mead is clear-eyed enough to admit that the “intensely moral” Eliot may frighten less-serious readers. Mead is an admiring but careful reader, selling Middlemarch without overselling it, explaining the book without dumbing it down. In one amusing passage, she points out that Eliot describes Dorothea and her younger sister as both “about twelve years old.”

She also grows with the book, out of her own “Dorothea youth” into a fuller appreciation of the limits life places on aspirations. In one poignant passage, Mead describes how, as she has aged, her dislike of Casaubon has diminished. Middled-aged herself, she has come to feel “a tender sense of kinship with that sad, proud, dessicated man.”

Much like Casaubon, a Victorian novel is an easy target, and one could pelt endless criticisms at Eliot for melodrama, moralizing and a lack of syntactical economy. But there is much more in Middlemarch to admire than to criticize. Not only is Eliot a first-rate noticer, as Saul Bellow famously said every novelist should be, but she is unafraid to extrapolate from the personal to the universal, giving her novel the kind of sweep that today’s small-bore, write-what-you-know scribes never achieve. Eliot writes, for example, that "we are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves." Mead says this is the kind of big idea that has kept her an eternal reader of Middlemarch, and that she hopes “to be enlarged by each revisiting” of the novel. She also cites a Cambridge scholar who says that a scene between Dorothea and the young intellectual firebrand Will Ladislaw “may be the closest the Victorian novel ever came to describing an erection.” Don’t laugh at that. Or do, rather.

In the end, what comes through is Mead’s appreciation for Eliot’s “large, perceptive generosity," her desire that we “enter the perspective of other struggling, erring humans.” The Victorians were plenty voluble; rarely, though, do we think of them as large-hearted. Here, Mead makes a convincing case that some of them were. No, Middlemarch will not teach you how to run a hedge fund, fix your marriage or get your kid into Princeton. But it is one of our very finest novels, one of the wisest, and one of the most thrilling to read.   

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