The reading of Middlemarch is a little like learning of the death of Kennedy - it's a time that sticks in our memories. I finished my copy, an elderly hardback borrowed from the library, in National Women's Hospital after the birth of my third child. It was probably not a wise time to be tackling Eliot's opus, fogged as I was with hormones and exhaustion. Writer and journalist Rebecca Mead first read the great 19th century classic at 17, and has read it again at five-yearly intervals.
"Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism," she observes, "and it's a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself."
And that has been her experience with this novel, which has spoken to her at every stage of her life: "The book was reading me, as I was reading it."
The Road to Middlemarch began as an essay written for the New Yorker and retains a kind of journalistic, intimate tone. George Eliot's life, her childhood, her enduring relationship with writer and critic George Lewes, her travels and other books take centre stage, with Mead herself always hovering close by.
Born in England, Mead has spent most of her adult life in America. Like Eliot, she supported herself through writing, met her husband relatively late and step-mothered three of his sons. Unlike Eliot, Mead bore a son of her own and leads a life not so different from millions of women around the world today. There are occasions when the juxtapositioning of her personal experience becomes wearisome, even though the authorial personae is engaging, warm, and passionately in love with her subject.
Proto-feminist, pioneering agnostic and brilliant writer Marian Evans enjoyed wide respect and healthy sales, making enough money to support her stepsons and beloved George Lewes whose full name inspired her pseudonym, "Eliot" coming from the "L" of Lewes. She referred to him as her husband, although they were never married.
Interweaving biography, criticism and musings on the grand novel itself, Mead is supported by some impressive research. In the process-observing style of many modern histories and biography, we accompany her on her pilgrimage, on one occasion to the New York Public Library. While she reads and handles a notebook Eliot kept in the 1860s, Mead becomes aware of a slight scent, "the smell of a spent hearth", and wonders if there could be a fireplace in the next room, "a silly thought, quickly dismissed". Then she realises the scent is "coming from the notebook itself". The experience is almost mystical, beautifully described, and leads into a vivid description of Eliot's period in the Priory, St John's Wood, in London.
Virginia Woolf famously said that Middlemarch is "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people". It is a multi-layered, vast novel, concentrating mostly on love and marriage. There are three marriages in the narrative, most particularly Dorothea Brooke's self-sacrificing, miserable commitment to dour Reverend Casaubon. Again and again throughout her tribute, Mead muses deeply and wisely on how our perceptions of the three marriages change as we mature. She references Eliot's other novels with the same rich understanding formed from years of reading the work and thinking about it, her pure response seemingly untrammelled by her university experience of "scholars who applied the tools of psychoanalysis or feminism to reveal the ways in which the author was blind to his or her own desire or prejudice, or they used the discipline of deconstruction to dispense with the author altogether".
When Eliot died in 1880 she was pronounced the Voice of the Age. Mead's long love affair with the woman and her work could bring her back to mainstream contemporary readers.
The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead (Text Publishing $40).