[First published in The Big Issue No 452, February 2014]
‘“What’s your favourite book?’ is a question that is usually only asked by children and banking identity-verification services” quips British writer Rebecca Mead in The Road to Middlemarch. And she’s right — there’s a sweet naivety to the question. To narrow down all the books a person has read, or for that matter ever loved, to just one is difficult for many dedicated readers.
But as the title of Mead’s biography suggests, there is one novel, out of the hundreds, possibly thousands, she’s studied over her long career as a literature student and journalist, that stands above the rest — George Eliot’s epic tale of provincial life, Middlemarch.
Mead, now in her mid forties, first read Middlemarch at the age of 17. “I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read [Middlemarch],” says Mead, “but I’d say five years haven’t gone by without me returning to it.” Anyone who’s ever journeyed through its 800-plus pages will no doubt appreciate Mead’s reading stamina.
First published in 1874, Middlemarch remains a classic of English literature. At once sweeping and intimate in its scope, Eliot’s serialised novel focuses on the quiet passions and failed ambitions of a close-knit group of townspeople in 1830s England. Of its many characters, the most well-known is Dorothea Brooke, a spirited young women trapped in a loveless marriage to Casaubon, an aging scholar.
Unlike their doomed romance, Mead describes her first encounter with Eliot’s novel in thrilling detail, much like a Victorian novelist depicting the first flush of courtship. As a teenager, bored and longing to escape her own rural home life, Middlemarch opened up an adult world of wonder and sophistication to Mead.
While the plot of a novel might stay the same over time, as readers we bring different meanings to a story at different stages of life. “When I first read Middlemarch,” reflects Mead, “I thought it was all about young love because that was what I was concerned with. Then when I was in my twenties, and establishing myself as a writer, I thought it was all about the difficulties of fulfilling one’s professional ambitions. In my forties, I thought it was about the resignations of middle age and realising what you may and may not do in your life. It has this incredible richness to it, and it has something different to say on each reading. I think that’s what the best books do.”
So what can a book published well over a century ago offer readers today? “Something George Eliot wanted her readers to do was to empathise with a character,” says Mead. “Eliot believed that we all needed to grow out of our own self-centredness. What she does with extreme skill is move you from the perspective of one character to another. So we empathise with Dorothea because she’s married to an older man who doesn’t understand her. But then Eliot shifts to see the marriage from Casaubon’s perspective. And it turns out he feels that she’s judging him and exposing him as a failure. We know these things happen in our own lives all the time. It’s a good reminder for readers to have.”
For those starting their own road to Middlemarch, Mead offers this advice: “It’s important not to think of it just as a “classic” and therefore intimidating and not fun. [Middlemarch] is actually very funny, and devastatingly acute in the way it describes the psychologies of its characters.”
This isn’t to say it’s stuffy and “self-helpy”, Mead is careful to point out. “[Middlemarch] is actually quite bleak and devastating in its emotional conclusions, but the voice of the book is so intelligent. It’s the kind of book you read and feel yourself to be in the presence of someone very wonderful.”
For Mead, researching this book was the closest way she could get to her idol. From visiting Eliot’s old homesteads to pouring over her diaries and letters to interviewing her surviving ancestors, The Road to Middlemarch offers a fascinating insight into the private life of George Eliot. “It sounds funny”, Mead says, “but I feel like I did meet her”.
Mead, like Eliot, is a very astute writer and The Road to Middlemarch brims with memorable passages worthy of underlining and dog-earing by the reader. Through focusing on Eliot’s classic novel, Mead hopes to show the way a book can “insert itself into…a reader’s own life story, until it’s hard to know what one would be without it.”
Of course, we all have our own Middlemarch. There’s the book with the ending we read over and over and still find ourselves moved to tears; the characters we have to keep reminding ourselves are actually fictional, even though their words speak so closely to our lived experience.
This is why you don’t need to have read Middlemarch to be moved by Mead’s book, and one of her great hopes is to encourage a new wave of Eliot readers. “To me it seems completely normal that you might read [Middlemarch] every five years,” Mead laughs, before adding in all seriousness, “I don’t know why everybody doesn’t read it every five years.”