“Most serious readers,” Rebecca Mead writes, “can point to one book that has a place in their life like the one that Middlemarch has in mine.” George Eliot’s most loved novel is more than an old favorite for Mead; it is a moral and emotional touchstone that reveals new riches with each rereading and at every stage of her life.

I take Mead’s word for it that there are other books with the same powers of enchantment. That Middlemarch is specially captivating I can attest from personal experience. “The acuteness of its psychological penetration and the snap of its sentences” dazzled Mead, a staff writer for the New Yorker, when she read it for the first time as a teenager. I picked up Middlemarch at the same age and was likewise spellbound, beginning with its famous prologue about the young St. Teresa of Ávila and her search for “some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self.” Eliot’s broad perspective, her erudition and wit, her lifelike characters, and her serious attention to moral questions convinced me that her work was, as Mead says, “wise and essential and profound.”

That description unfortunately makes the novel sound like a tedious sermon, but My Life in Middlemarch captures the pleasure of Eliot’s fiction as well as its character-building properties. Mead describes how Middlemarch was received at the time of its publication in 1871–72, and how its reputation, and its author’s, have grown and changed since. She also mines Eliot’s biography to uncover the sources of her wisdom. At the same time, Mead’s book is a memoir, a moving account of her own experiences reading Middlemarch and learning its lessons.

Eliot subtitled her long, wide-ranging novel “A Study of Provincial Life,” and in it she traces the interwoven stories of several inhabitants of a fictional English town. She begins and ends with Dorothea Brooke, the earnest young woman whose unfortunate marriage to the older, scholarly clergyman Edward Casaubon—“a modern Augustine,” she believes—sets the plot in motion. Casaubon turns out to be less noble and generous than Dorothea had imagined, and that early mistake seems likely to condemn her to a lack of fulfillment in romance or any other endeavor. Eliot next introduces Tertius Lydgate, an ambitious young physician who plans to reform the practice of medicine and is disappointed by the pettiness of local politics and by a wife, the beautiful but superficial Rosamond Vincy, who is more of a hindrance than a helpmeet. Around Lydgate and Dorothea, whose painful progress toward maturity forms the backbone of the novel, Eliot gathers a village of supporting characters with their own public faults and private hopes and hurts. A narrator comments on each one’s thoughts and motivations from an omniscient and benevolent perspective, ironic but not snide, compassionate but not condescending. The result is a work of fiction whose scope is epic but whose subject matter is deliberately down-to-earth: a “home epic,” concerned with the “unhistoric acts” on which, as Eliot writes in her conclusion, “the growing good of the world” depends.

Reading Middlemarch for the first time as a teenager, I identified closely with Dorothea and her yearning for a meaningful vocation—a reaction I have in common not just with Mead but with scores of readers, beginning with those Victorian women who wrote to Eliot insisting that the character must have been based on themselves. I still remember the astonishment I felt when, in a college English course a few years later, a classmate wrinkled her nose in mock self-doubt—sorry not sorry, as they say on Twitter—and sighed, “I don’t know, I just think Dorothea is...annoying.” I was stung, insulted on Dorothea’s behalf.

Of course, in the eyes of her family and friends, Dorothea is a bit annoying—so high-minded, so hard to please. Her deep principles and pious ambition, her “exalted enthusiasm about the ends of life,” make her a misfit in a society focused on temporal, “trivial” concerns. As Mead so keenly puts it, “Her soul is too large for the comedy of manners in which she at first appears to have been dropped.” Dorothea’s uncle, sister, and disapproving neighbors cannot see the noble motives behind her errors and inconsistencies. That breadth of insight is Eliot’s gift, and challenge, to the reader. “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings,” she once wrote, “is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.” In other words, says Mead, “generating the experience of sympathy was what her fiction was for.”

Having sympathy for others requires knowing that everyone must grow at his or her own pace, and helping them along when you can. “Character too is a process and an unfolding,” Middlemarch insists. Beginning with Eliot’s origins in Warwickshire as Mary Ann Evans, Mead applies that insight to the author’s own life, tracing her evolution from precocious (and sanctimonious) child to self-taught intellectual and essayist to pseudonymous novelist and literary giant of the Victorian age—and, in her personal life, from devoted daughter to heartbroken young woman to blissful wife (or “wife”) and stepmother. She did not begin to write fiction until she was thirty-seven years old, after publishing a lot of sharp-tongued criticism. “If one is accustomed to think of George Eliot as she ended up—the novelist famous for the generosity of her comprehension,” Mead writes, “it’s shocking, and not a little thrilling, to read these earlier essays and discover how slashing she could be.” Her talent for the cutting remark finds expression in Middlemarch in the characters’ gossip about their neighbors—but the narrator intervenes to remind us of the gossips’ own limitations and blind spots. In Mead’s telling, Eliot comes into focus as a woman who, like Dorothea, needed to feel loved to fulfill her potential, and who grew in virtue and compassion over the course of her life.

George Eliot spent twenty-three very happy years with George Henry Lewes, a man she met relatively late in life, whom she called her husband but could not marry because of circumstances that prevented him from divorcing his former wife. (Stereotypes about Victorians and their hangups are much complicated by the tale of the Leweses.) Eliot then surprised their friends by marrying John Cross, who was twenty years her junior, a year after Lewes’s death. When Mead tells the story of their brief, odd marriage, including Cross’s unexplained leap from a window in Venice during the couple’s honeymoon trip, she demonstrates what it means to approach a subject with compassion instead of sensationalism. Many commentators have snickered that Cross must have panicked when confronted with the obligations of the marital bed (especially given his wife’s much-remarked-on ugliness). Mead points out the major flaw in this interpretation—the incident happened weeks into their honeymoon—and takes the high road: “My own inclination,” she writes gently, “is to step back from the bedroom—as a Victorian novelist would have been obliged to do—and to let the event stand in its singular perplexing strangeness, one episode in Eliot’s life, but not its defining one.... Whatever she and Cross discovered about themselves and each other in their marriage must surely be in some ways unavailable or obscure to us.” That delicacy echoes the way Eliot challenges readers to look at Dorothea’s disappointing marriage from the perspective of both parties—“Mr. Casaubon, too, was the center of his own world”—or to regard Rosamond Vincy (who had been schooled in “all that was demanded in the accomplished female—even to extras, such as the getting in and out of a carriage”) as not less a victim of unrealistic expectations and limited horizons than is Tertius Lydgate.

A combination of thorough research, elegant writing, and a willingness to admit when things remain “unavailable or obscure” makes Mead a commendable guide. Her first book, One Perfect Day, an acute critique of the American wedding industry, is sharp but not cynical, and likewise in My Life in Middlemarch she is committed to telling the full truth of what she uncovers, resisting the temptation to downplay context and complexity to suit her own purposes. The result is highly rewarding—a reflection on the novel that contains compelling depths of its own.

Writing about her time studying English at Oxford in the 1980s, “the era of critical theory,” Mead recalls learning that “texts” were not to be read, but rather “interrogated, as if they had committed some criminal malfeasance.” Her reading of Middlemarch, by contrast, is frankly enthusiastic and affectionate. She relates enough of the book—its story, its memorable lines and moments—that even someone who has never read it could follow her analysis, without getting bogged down in summary or lengthy quotations.

Her use of Eliot’s biography is likewise sensitive and intelligent. There are parallels in the two women’s lives that Mead is careful not to overstress—Eliot, like Mead, went from a bright young girl in small-town England to a single woman of letters in the big city, and from early romantic disappointments to happy marriage and an unanticipated but joyful life as stepmother to a family of boys.

One aspect of Middlemarch that doesn’t much capture Mead’s interest is religion. She writes feelingly, and admiringly, of the courage it took for the young Mary Ann Evans to abandon her family’s practice of Christianity (after a devout adolescence, captured for posterity in her priggish letters), and of the humanism that replaced Eliot’s religious belief and inspired her work. Without discounting “Eliot’s insistence upon taking moral questions seriously, and considering them in their complexity,” Mead seems happy to set religion aside as soon as Eliot herself has done so. “The loss of faith that she underwent in Coventry,” Mead writes, “was the beginning of a lifelong intellectual process of separating morality from religion—of working out how to be a good person in the absence of the Christian God.”

Still, Eliot remained steeped in religious scholarship even after she stopped believing. Hers was a post-Christian consciousness writing in a still-Christian age (if, to her mind, a decidedly post-Catholic one); she knew that the sort of goodness she wanted to inspire was also a central concern of Christianity, as she knew that religious piety was too often an excuse for avoiding the messy business of neighborly charity. Concerning the reader’s presumed lack of sympathy for Casaubon, Eliot writes, “The chief reason that we think he asks too large a place in our consideration must be our want of room for him, since we refer him to the Divine regard with perfect confidence; nay, it is even held sublime for our neighbor to expect the utmost there, however little he may have got from us.” Mead writes perceptively that Middlemarch is “concerned with the emotional repercussions of a kind of immature provincialism of the soul—a small-minded, self-centered perspective that resists the implications of a larger view.” It is a small-mindedness that flourishes in believers and nonbelievers alike, now as well as then, and Eliot’s program of developing virtue through exercise of the imagination is not a substitute for the Golden Rule so much as an approach to living it.

Writing about Middlemarch led Mead back to the English countryside where she grew up, and to an adult’s appreciation of the significance of home and its role in forging character. “Loving something of where one comes from—and having emotional access to that love—is a moral imperative for Eliot,” she writes. “For Eliot, being sensitive to one’s memories of childhood is a sign of moral maturity.” Christian belief was indelibly part of Eliot’s background—intellectually and personally, it was where she came from. It was also, she presumed, where her readers were coming from, and her novels are written with an expectation of biblical literacy that today’s reader may not possess, or even know enough to miss. When Eliot explains that Dorothea cannot be satisfied with the typical pastimes of “a Christian young lady of fortune,” she lists among these “the perusal of ‘Female Scripture Characters,’ unfolding the private experience of Sara under the Old Dispensation, and Dorcas under the New.” Anyone might recognize that as a description of a likely-to-be-boring text. But it is also a satire of the limitations of religion conceived as a kind of finishing school for ladies, and of the idea that intelligent women might content themselves with just the “female” parts of Scripture, and with “private experience” as the extent of their spiritual development.

Dorothea Brooke, like the young Eliot, is at the novel’s opening a markedly religious young woman, who acts “as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles” and has “strange whims of fasting like a Papist.” (That she is not, and could not become, a Papist is another thing Eliot assumes her readers will know.) Her relations are all Christian believers, nominally at least, but Dorothea is one who can’t be casual, or ladylike, about it. Eliot jokes that she lacks “that common-sense which is able to accept momentous doctrines without any eccentric agitation.” Mead does not say much about Dorothea’s religiosity, but it was one of the characteristics that most resonated for me when I first read Middlemarch. Her piety is callow but sincere. She wants a life free of vanity and triviality and can’t be contented with moral compromise. “How can one ever do anything nobly Christian,” she snaps in a rare fit of temper, “living among people with such petty thoughts?”

One advantage of getting older, as Mead has discovered, is appreciating Middlemarch more with each visit—a reader who starts out identifying with Dorothea may progress, like Mead, to fellow-feeling with Lydgate; with Celia, Dorothea’s no-nonsense sister; or even with Casaubon. “But why always Dorothea?” Eliot (or her narrator) asks at one point, cutting off midsentence to turn to Casaubon’s point of view. Dorothea, she means to demonstrate, is not the only one who feels misunderstood, or who would benefit from more understanding. And she stumbles not because she longs to live a nobly Christian life, but because she thinks her immediate neighbors are obstacles to be overcome instead of the people among whom that longing must play out. Her path to maturity and happiness requires overcoming her own provincialism of the soul.

For Dorothea—unlike St. Teresa—“the time was gone by for guiding visions and spiritual directors.” And yet Mead, and many others, have found in Eliot’s fiction something as much like spiritual direction as fiction can offer. The author’s generous perspective, and her narrator’s engaging voice, make Middlemarch not just an entertainment but, for the receptive reader, a powerful antidote to self-centeredness. By her own account, Mead has absorbed that lesson well. Her thoughtful tribute to the power of Middlemarch will send any reader back to Eliot’s work with eyes newly opened to its treasures.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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Published in the July 11, 2014 issue: View Contents
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