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How George Eliot’s Middlemarch taught Rebecca Mead about life (over and over again)

My Life In Middlemarch
Rebecca Mead
Bond Street Books

Like many other readers, I first picked George Eliot's Middlemarch because I had to, as part of an undergrad seminar on the Victorian novel. I was less daunted by its length than by its mass – the extra weight in my backpack, my wrists buckling under its bulk when I tried to read it in bed.

As I feared, the book engulfed me, though not how I expected. The first line of the novel tells us that the heroine, Dorothea Brooke "had the kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress." Middlemarch embodied the same unconventional loveliness, made all the more apparent for its prosaic, provincial setting and seemingly workaday plot. It filled me with fervent love, so much so that, after being trained for years to shrewdly analyze every thought I had about novels, I found myself unable to speak intelligently about the one I cared for most. (Even now, when someone asks me about it, I regress into pre-verbal incoherence, sputtering, "GAH SO GOOD.")

At first, I read Middlemarch naively, highlighting so many passages that my Penguin copy looked radioactive, feeling every emotion as deeply as a hermeneutic voodoo doll, sighing moonily over Will Ladislaw, the novel's lion-haired romantic swain. On later reads, I noticed its flaws – its glacial pace, flabby details, malice toward some characters and fluffery of others – and loved it more for those imperfections. It became an essential component of my sentimental education, stoking my nascent desire for achievement and actualization. As Rebecca Mead writes in her new memoir, My Life in Middlemarch, "the book was reading me, as I was reading it."

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By the time George Eliot wrote Middlemarch in 1872, she was an A-list celebrity novelist; only Charles Dickens surpassed her in the popular imagination. She was also a prickly essayist, slamming writers like Jane Austen for their so-called "silly novels." Her common-law relationship with the married, mutton-chopped literary critic George Henry Lewes was publicly condemned by polite society (the Victorians for once living up to their prudish reputation), but she and Lewes were still received into some of the most esteemed drawing rooms in town, where she'd play Beethoven at the pianoforte and converse with eminent Victorians like Robert Browning, Sir Frederic Leighton and Anthony Trollope. Yet despite her financial and critical success, Eliot was driven by a restless ambition, borne less of egotism than anxiety. That ambition, the desire to both experience and accomplish greatness, was the narrative engine that fuelled all of her heroines: Dinah, the pious Methodist preacher in Adam Bede; Maggie, the poor, unmannered spitfire in The Mill on the Floss; and Gwendolen Harleth, the social-climbing man eater in Daniel Deronda.

Middlemarch – both the book and its namesake provincial town – is filled with similarly hungry souls. Tertius Lydgate is an idealistic (albeit conceited) doctor determined to do good. Fred Vincy, a boyish Peter Pan who must find his vocation in order to win the girl he loves. Even the bloodless Edward Casaubon, one of the book's most shudder-inducing figures, is a tireless academic trying to complete his life's work. But no one better embodies the pangs of yearning than Dorothea Brooke, Middlemarch's achingly sincere narrative proxy, a bookwormish ascetic who marries the owlish Casaubon in the hope that she might absorb his greatness through osmosis.

In Dorothea, and in Eliot, Rebecca Mead found kindred spirits. The New Yorker staff writer first encountered Middlemarch as a 17-year-old schoolgirl, living in a small coastal town in the south of England, dreaming of something more. In her memoir, she documents her obsession with Eliot, trying to absorb the author's greatness like Brooke does Casaubon's. She visits Eliot's home near Coventry and examines her blue velvet reticule and ceramic soup tureens. She caresses Eliot's notebooks, inhaling the pages in the hopes that some of the smoky molecules might remain from the last time Eliot lit a fire.

Mead rereads Middlemarch every five years or so, watching it change with her experiences like a prism in the light. On her first read as a teenager, she yearns for what could be, antsy and eager to start her life. By the time she hits her 40s, she mourns the chances she passed up. "In a far from singular crisis, I had recently become consumed by a sense of doors closing behind me, alternate lives unlived," she writes. The older she gets, the more her sympathies grow – for the sensible Mary Garth, the feckless Fred Vincy, even the selfish Casaubon (she's a better person than I am). Her book stirs together literary criticism and biography, but it's mostly an introspective memoir. Mead owes her piercing self-knowledge to Eliot: "I think Middlemarch has disciplined my character," she reflects. "I know it has become part of my own experience and my own endurance."

At 1,000-odd pages, Middlemarch has the luxury of indulging in paradox. It undulates between irony and sincerity, realism and romance, cruelty and compassion. The one current that runs through every sentence is an indescribable sense of unfulfillment. The characters yearn and pine, often for something they can't quite name, and never quite reach their potential. In one of the novel's two misguided marriages, Tertius Lydgate weds Rosamond, a pretty but vapid porcelain doll (the anti-Dorothea) whose indulgent materialism bankrupts her husband, forcing him to forgo his scientific pursuits to join a high-paying, soul-sucking medical practice. (Mead quotes Henry James, who archly described Lydgate's story as "a tragedy based on unpaid butchers' bills, and the urgent need for small economies.")

In the other marriage plot, Dorothea Brooke, widowed by the crusty Casaubon, falls in love with and weds Will Ladislaw, her husband's handsome young cousin. It's hard to blame her – Ladislaw is a teen dream; even Eliot describes him with the giddy adoration of a One Direction fan – and their delicious slow-burn romance culminates in an electric declaration of love. In a Jane Austen novel, Dorothea's marriage to Will would constitute a tidy happy ending. In Eliot's, it's a small tragedy: instead of satisfying her desire to perform great goodness, Dorothea retreats behind her husband, serving him faithfully in his political career. She's content, but never fulfilled – the ultimate disappointment in Eliot's moral universe.

The classical definition of tragedy requires catharsis: a narrative pop that's as satisfying as a good sneeze. You feel a sense of purifying completion when Anna Karenina throws herself in front of the train, when Tess Durbeyfield hangs at Wintonchester prison, when Septimus Smith leaps out of a window. Eliot herself perfected the tragic ending in The Mill on the Floss, sending the beleaguered Tulliver siblings to their deaths in a freakish flood. In Middlemarch, however, she reinvented the concept by denying her characters – and by extension, her readers – that cleansing closure. Instead, Dorothea and Lydgate putter on, that sense of longing flickering weakly for the rest of their lives. Eliot characterized Middlemarch as a home epic, which Mead translates as "the momentous, ordinary journey traveled by most of us who have not even thought of aspiring to sainthood." By airlifting the beats of epic poetry to prosaic Middlemarch, it stands to reason that Eliot would document a form of suffering native to that setting: tragedy, writ small.

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Over the course of a half-dozen readings, Mead finds herself less moved by Dorothea's outcome than in the yearning that precedes it. She writes, "Dorothea remains for me the embodiment of that unnameable, agonizing ache of adolescence, in which burgeoning hopes and ambitions and terrors and longings are all roiled together." Dorothea's tragedy is not that she failed to satisfy her yearning, but that she dared to hope in the first place.

And we dare to hope with her. Sympathy, as Mead points out, is one of George Eliot's most impassioned causes. "Her credo might be expressed this way: If I really care for you – if I try to think myself into your position and orientation – then my world is bettered by my effort at understanding and comprehension," Mead paraphrases. She devotes less ink to Eliot's notion of empathy: How she wants her readers to feel the book as much as understand it. Both the readers and the characters feel Dorothea's intangible ache, experience the plot careen toward its crescendo. And both the readers and the characters are denied that closure. Eliot binds us inexorably to Dorothea and Lydgate – we're forever holding our breaths, waiting for fulfilment.

Rebecca Mead insists that you don't have to have read Middlemarch to enjoy her book. She's wrong. Reading her book without having finished Eliot's is as meaningless and hollow as reading a description of a painting you haven't seen. But after you've finished Middlemarch, Mead's book should be required reading – after all, experiencing a book through another's eyes is the quintessential act of literary empathy.

Emily Landau is the culture editor at Toronto Life magazine.

Editor's note: A Saturday book review incorrectly said Thomas Hardy's character Tess Durbeyfield was hanged at Stonehenge. She was arrested there, but hanged at Wintonchester prison. This version has been corrected

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