On the Life Stories podcast (available on iTunes), memoir writers talk about their lives and the art of writing memoir. Recently, Rebecca Mead discussed My Life in Middlemarch, which combines elements of her own history with a literary biography of the 19th-century British novelist George Eliot and an appreciation of her most famous novel, Middlemarch — which Mead has read every five years or so for the last quarter-century. “Every time I go back to it,” she confides, “my relationship to it has evolved. I see different things in it, and it brings new things to me every time.”
Below are some highlights from that conversation — the entirety of which you can listen to right here:
4. Mead first read Middlemarch when she was 17 years old…
“I was living in a provincial seaside town in England where I grew up and I was studying for the entrance exams to university. I was so seized by it and captivated by it, and I especially identified with the character of Dorothea Brooke, who was this young woman yearning for a more significant existence… as was I, desperate to get away from where I lived and where I was from and get out in the world and do something —although, like Dorothea, I didn’t know exactly what that was going to be.
I knew that critics regarded it as the greatest novel written in the English language, and I wanted to know why. I wanted to be one of those people that understood why and to be among those that appreciated its greatness. Growing up in England, especially, Middlemarch is sort of a summit of English literature; it’s one of those peaks that you attempt to surmount. So it was important not just to read it, but I wanted to have read it. I wanted to have conquered that particular summit.”
5. As she’s grown older, her appreciation of the novel has changed…
“When I was a young person, reading it not just as a teenager but in my twenties, I was very consumed with the stories of the love affairs, who’s going to marry whom and where is everybody going to go… Now I’m in my mid-forties, the same age as Edward Casaubon, the dry, dusty scholar whom Dorothea marries to her cost at the beginning of the book — a figure who, when I first read Middlemarch, seemed old and repellent in so many ways, and he still has lots to be said against him, but now I feel much more sympathetic towards his plight and his own sense of failure in everything that he has tried to do.
I think that when you’re young, you tend to think that grown-ups have grown up, and once you’re a grown-up, you realize that you’re always still growing up. It’s never over. And of course the distance between 45 and 25 looks much shorter when you’re looking at it from the 45-year-old end than it does when you’re 25 years old. I have much more sympathy now towards people that I knew who were in their mid-forties when I was in my mid-twenties than I had at the time, for sure.”
6. My Life in Middlemarch has its origins in something George Eliot didn’t write…
“The book began with a piece that I wrote for The New Yorker, an essay about George Eliot, specifically investigating the source of a quotation which is often attributed to her: ‘It’s never too late to be what you might have been.’ I believed, and I still do believe, that she didn’t say that. It doesn’t appear to be in any of her books, and I haven’t been able to find an original source for it anywhere.
When I was 42 or so, thinking about doing this, I felt very strongly that it was too late for certain things to happen. I mean, one does, at that age. You know, it’s too late to have kids, or it’s too late to marry the person that you didn’t marry earlier in your life… you realize that there are things that you haven’t done that are going to remain undone. So it was in that mood, that mood of reflection, that I wanted to go back to Middlemarch and to think about the ways it had influenced me and shaped my understanding of myself and my own life.”
7. What was the most surprising thing Mead learned in her research?
“I had always known that George Eliot lived with George Henry Lewes. They lived together for 24 years; they weren’t able to get married because he was married to someone else and he couldn’t get a divorce. So I knew that she’d had this long-term relationship, but what I hadn’t really registered is that he was the father of three sons whom she helped raise and support. The most uncanny moment in doing my research was noticing that and realizing that I, too, had married a man who came with three sons who were more or less the age of Lewes’ children when George Eliot came into their lives. (My husband also happens to be called George, which is another level of strangeness…) People often talk about George Eliot as a childless author. She wasn’t. She had stepchildren, and having stepchildren is not not having children. So I feel that that experience of mine is my way of reading her life. It may not be everybody’s, but it certainly was a big influence on how I thought about her and what she must have experienced.”
8. Has Middlemarch taught Mead how to lead a better life?
“I don’t think Middlemarch tells you how to live your life; thank god it doesn’t! It’s not a set of instructions, it’s not a self-help book, and it would be bizarre to try to read it and follow its ‘rules’ or something. But I do think that our own life experience obviously informs how we read, and it means that our readings of different novels through different times become richer and change, and that’s the measure of a great work of literature — that you can go back to it time and again, time and again, and it will tell you something new, not just about what’s in it but what’s in you.”
9. Could Mead have written My Life in Middlemarch with any other book as the hook?
“There’s nothing that comes close. I mean, there are other books that mean a great deal to me, particularly poetry I read when I was young that runs through my head often, and there are other novels that I love. But there’s nothing that has played this role in my life, where I’ve felt … like a craving every five years or so that, god, it’s time to read this again.”