Thoughts on “The Road to Middlemarch”

Rebecca Mead’s “The Road to Middlemarch – My Life with George Eliot” (2014) is an immensely readable book. In fact, I finished it in two days. The “only” prerequisite to enjoying it is that you have actually read Middlemarch. And, of course, that you like George Eliot’s writing and want to find out more about her.

Mead’s book is part autobiography, part biography, part travel memoir, part homage to George Eliot and her most celebrated novel. And because it’s this hybrid creation, not too scholarly but also not too simplistic, it’s fluid and easy to read. Many critics bore down on Mead precisely for that reason – I guess they expected to read a sombre literary dissection befitting such a masterpiece. (For some reason, Eliot’s novels are approached with a dead seriousness that even the woman herself, notorious for being a serious-minded person, would’ve found hard to match.) Instead, what they got is a highly personal, emotional perspective on Eliot that was nonetheless backed up by careful and methodical research, thus making it a pretty unusal blend of “the scholar’s approach” vs. “the reader’s approach.”

I don’t know what these people were expecting: although Mead has a degree in English from Oxford, she’s a journalist, not a literary critic and/or scholar. Her book is primarily a labor of love meant to show how books can influence our life, not a scholarly contribution to the already ginormous body of literature concerned with Eliot’s opus. That said, I have to confess that the more “scholarly” part of me would’ve liked to see more instances of close reading and strictly literary analysis, rather than the many half-romanticized train journeys to Eliot’s old haunts, but that’s just the nerd part of me. Again, that’s not what this book is about, and more scholarly/critical elements would’ve made it less accessible to the general reader. As it is, I think it’s a well-balanced mix of research and personal thoughts.

“And as I continue to read and think and reflect, I realize that {Eliot} has given me something else: a profound experience with a book, over time, that amounts to one of the frictions of my life. I have grown up with George Eliot. I think Middlemarch has disciplined my character. I know it has become part of my own experience and my own endurance.”

The parts I enjoyed most were biographical, where I became more closely familiar with Eliot’s personal life. It helped me understand why I’ve always responded so strongly to her writing, and why I fancied there was a connection of minds: from what I could glean of her personality, we seem to share quite a few traits, from thirst for knowledge and intelligence to the quest for self-improvement and morality without religion. The quote below is as if I personally wrote it, word for word:

“I regard the Bible as histories consisting of mingled truth and fiction, and while I admire and cherish much of what I believe to have been the moral teachings of Jesus himself, I consider the system of doctrines built upon the facts of his life and drawn as to its materials from Jewish notions to be most dishonourable to God and most pernicious in its influence on individual and social happiness,” Eliot writes.

I actually applaud Mead for writing a book like this, without pretensions and without condescension. As the back cover blurb puts it, Mead’s work is a “literary love letter” to Middlemarch, nothing more and nothing less. It celebrates reading and strives to show how books can make our lives richer and help us find meaning in it. I wish more “lay” people would write books about how they read books.

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