The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

10th Apr 2014

Road to Middlemarch
George Eliot is often touted as a classic bluestocking – unremarkable looks, intensely intellectual, died childless and unwed. But Rebecca Mead’s biography of the author, The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot, produces a nuanced picture of a brave and hard-working artist.

Mead is a British journalist, now living in New York. She has read Middlemarch every five years from the age of 17, and draws several parallels between her life and Eliot’s. Like Eliot, Mead works as a writer, and also like Eliot she has no biological children. Both women fell in love with men later in life who were both divorced with sons from a previous marriage.

As a girl, Mead grew up in the countryside, not far from the kind of scenery featured on the cover of the Penguin English library edition – meant to be bucolic, but in reality soporific. She was, like so many teenagers,”aching to get away… anywhere would do.”

Occasionally there’s a cheap ‘pulp’ style to her storytelling. She examines one of Eliot’s notebooks in the New York Public Library:

“I opened the first page, and as I did so I became vaguely aware of a slight scent in the air that was at once out of place and oddly familiar: the smell of the spent hearth. For a moment, I wondered if there could be a fireplace in the adjoining room – a silly thought, quickly dismissed. But then it dawned on me that the smell was coming from the notebook itself… I inclined towards the notebook and surreptitiously inhaled.”

The image of a researcher ‘surreptitiously’ sniffing her book in a public library will raise a smile (if not a snort of laughter) but the incident seems a bit over-written. If you’re not yet a fan of Eliot’s writing, you might struggle with Mead’s verbose homage.

Reading Eliot's first draft in the British Library... she finds that the beautiful last line of Middlemarch, "Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending," was first drafted as a sixty-word juggernaut.But her journalistic eye for detail and meticulous research turn up gems. Reading Eliot’s first draft in the British Library, for example, she finds that the beautiful last line of Middlemarch, “Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending,” was first drafted as a sixty-word juggernaut.

Snapshots of Eliot’s peers are entertaining and sharp; weird Herbert Spencer in his knitted onesie, lonely fanboy Alexander Main, and the Archbishop of Dublin who hid his copy of Middlemarch in his hat (so he could read it during boring speeches) were my favourites.

However, the reader waits pages for Mead to crack a joke or raise an eyebrow, and there is none of that comic absurdity that was so memorable in Middlemarch.

And she never seems to challenge or criticise Eliot. Mead writes that Eliot was scathing of readers – more accurately, female readers – who sought to self-identify with Eliot’s fictional characters. This detail makes Eliot seem more human, and more appealing, but Mead opts out of any debate about this aspect of the author’s personality.

In all earnestness, she declares that identifying yourself with characters in a novel is one of the first ways you meaningfully engage with stories: “Even the most sophisticated readers read novels in the light of their own experience, and in such recognition, sympathy may begin.” Eliot evidently did not agree, but her opinion is glossed over.

Mead also seemed to have taken all the politics out of her narrative. She never links Eliot’s work to modern day writing or politics – what was Eliot’s legacy, particularly for other women writers?

The strength of the book is Mead’s undisguised passion. Her dedication to capture so much of the correspondence and so many of the character and episodes in Eliot’s life is impressive.

Mead writes that “Eliot’s melancholy, willed seriousness resonates. It suggests that we, her readers, should take ourselves as seriously as she took us.” In doing so, Mead banks on the fact that Eliot’s feelings “resonate” through her book. While not dry or humourless, her book lacks the warmth and honesty of Middlemarch.

Readers will be amused and delighted by The Road to Middlemarch, but will probably wish they had re-read the novel instead.