The Big Idea: Rebecca Mead

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Even on a rainy December day, London’s Highgate Cemetery tempts the smart-phone photographer. It’s hard to leave without a shot of the weirdly gigantic bust of Karl Marx, who’s buried there, or of the orange and black headstone made to look like the cover of a Penguin paperback, the epitaph its “title.” The least photogenic grave, though, is the one I’d come to see. Mary Ann Evans Cross aka George Eliot (1819-1880) lies beneath a dull monument overrun with ivy, her names barely legible. When I posted my prize on Facebook, a friend responded: “What are we looking at here?”

I was moved by Eliot’s nondescript final resting place. An intellectual powerhouse who taught herself German and published major translations in her twenties, a bold Victorian woman who worked as a journalist and lived with her married lover, George Henry Lewes, for many years, and author of seven novels including her masterpiece, Middlemarch, Eliot still feels, to modern readers, warm, accessible, real. Her modest grave, which sits near, but at a discreet angle from Lewes’s, suits her.

I returned from London eager to re-read Middlemarch, but also to learn more about Eliot herself. So, I was delighted to get a copy Rebecca Mead’s new book, My Life in Middlemarch. Mead, a staff writer for the New Yorker, is the author of One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, and many essays and profiles, most recently of Jennifer Weiner. Mead, a native of Weymouth, England, first read Middlemarch at seventeen, and, now in her forties, it remains her favorite book. In My Life in Middlemarch, which began as an essay in the New Yorker, Mead explores the novel, Eliot’s life, and her own. Mead’s research took her home to England several times while her father was dying, and her love of her parents, to whom My Life in Middlemarch is dedicated, suffuses the book as much as her love of Eliot’s novel.

Middlemarch, first published in wildly popular installments in the 1870s, tells several intersecting stories about residents of an English town in the 1830s. The principle characters include: Dorothea Brooke, an ardent, intelligent young woman who, disastrously, marries an older man, the cold and pompous Mr. Casaubon; Tertius Lydgate, an idealistic young doctor trying to bring medical reforms to the provinces; Mr. Bulstrode, a prominent citizen whose shady past threatens to ruin him; and Fred Vincy, a feckless debtor in love with the sober and responsible Mary Garth.

I spoke with Mead by phone recently about Eliot and Middlemarch, Jennifer Weiner and VIDA, about the way a single, great book can illuminate our lives over decades, and about how our reading of that book changes as we grow older.

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The Rumpus: Why were you so taken with Middlemarch when you first read it at seventeen?

Rebecca Mead: I think it was a combination of things. Partly it was that I knew that it was considered to be this great landmark novel, maybe the greatest novel in the English language, and I wanted to know why. It felt like a passport to being the kind of person that I wanted to be: a literary, well-read, intellectual person. I came from a background where there wasn’t anybody very much like that. My parents were readers but they had left school, both of them, at fifteen, and nobody in my family, other than my older brother, had ever gone to university. I was aspiring to something that I wasn’t already part of. So there was that.

And there was the challenge of its being this massive book that I was thrilled to think of myself reading and understanding and conquering. It seemed a very accomplished thing to try to do. And that’s just it as an object, as a cultural artifact.

But then when I read it, I just loved it. I couldn’t believe how relevant it felt to my own life, even though it was written more than a hundred years before I was born, and was about people with whom I had, materially, very little in common. But it felt so utterly relevant emotionally. The kind of crisis that the character Dorothea was experiencing was, I felt, parallel to my own sense of ill-formed or unformed aspiration or ambition. And I felt there was such wisdom and intelligence in the book—more than I knew what to do with. It was just the most dazzlingly brilliant thing I’d ever read. And difficult—but not more difficult than I could handle—and completely absorbing. I loved it.

Rumpus: How many times have you read it since then?

Mead: I wish I had kept count. I’ve always gone back to it, at least every five years. I read it when I was seventeen, and then I read it again in college—probably more than once, because I had to take exams on it. And then I read it again in my mid-twenties, when I was very interested in what it had to tell me about love and what marriage should be or shouldn’t be. And then I read it again in my early thirties, when the story of Lydgate and his professional struggles came into a new focus for me because I was, at that point, having professional struggles of my own, as we all do. And then again, later, the story of Bulstrode seemed to loom larger, the terrible errors that he makes and can’t rectify. But the crucial reading for beginning My Life in Middlemarch was when I was about forty.

Rumpus: So much of the book involves young people figuring out love and work, yet, you write, it’s, at least in part, “a book about young people for older people.” Virginia Woolf called it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” How has your understanding of Middlemarch evolved as you’ve gotten older?

 

Mead: When I first read it as a young person, I thought it was all about the dramas of young people and their ambitions and hopes and just being at the outset of things. And when I read it when I was a little older, when I was in my twenties, it was about the question of what a marriage should be—what should we give and what should we receive? And I was preoccupied with those things because I was churning through a number of long-term relationships myself, and wondering if I was going to get married ever and whom among these people I might be with or not.

And then this question of professional ambition and the possibility of professional failure looms much larger as one gets older. And it’s no longer all in prospect. Some of it is actually things you’ve done and haven’t done. And I guess when I read it in my early forties the mood of the book seemed very much to be one of resignation, showing how one might live with a more limited range of ambition or a more limited sense of accomplishment. For a lot of people, I think turning forty is a moment when you think, There are all these things I haven’t done and I’m not going to do. One really has the sense of doors closing that one had previously thought were still open. When I read it at that time, I was exhausted from having a small child and feeling kind of depleted and depressed. So that theme of the limitations of life seemed very much in the forefront. That was when I wrote the essay for The New Yorker that the book began with and grew out of.

I have to say that I’m now forty-seven and in a different phase. And though I haven’t sat down and read the novel from beginning to end like a normal reader does for a long time—though I’ve been living with it for the past few years quite intimately—I now don’t feel that sense of it being all about the resignation of middle age. I feel much more—and this is entirely a function of writing the book and having the experience of exploring it in this way—I feel now a kind of optimism and opening up of possibility that I didn’t feel.

Rumpus: That doesn’t surprise me at all. I have much more creative energy in my fifties than I did when I younger. There’s a surprising amount of liberation in limitation.

Mead: Yes!

Rumpus: Your biography and George Eliot’s overlap to some degree. Both women from provincial English towns, both with three step-sons [though Eliot never married Lewes, she considered his sons her step-children]. I wonder to what extent those similarities moved you, or made it more likely that Middlemarch was going to be your special book than, say, To the Lighthouse, or Huckleberry Finn, or any other great novel.

Mead: Early on, when I first knew about George Eliot, I was inspired by the little that I knew about her life. I knew that she was a remarkable woman who had made herself into the leading intellectual of the day—or one of them, at least. And I was very interested in the fact that she’d written under a male pseudonym. I didn’t know quite what to make of it, but it was an interesting choice to make. I was also very intrigued by her not marrying Lewes. I’m sure that if she’d been able to she would have done without hesitation. All those things made her very interesting to me, as I was a person who wasn’t thinking about getting married at a young age. In my twenties I was thinking about what I wanted from a relationship, but I wasn’t anywhere even close to getting married. I wasn’t sure that I would ever have children. There was an unconventionality about her life that struck a chord.

Rumpus: Do you sense that she chose writing over motherhood? That she felt those two weren’t compatible?

Mead: It’s such an interesting question. To know what she really felt about not having borne a child would be incredibly interesting to me because she didn’t ever write explicitly about it, or at least not in any detailed way. All that we know is what we can deduce. She chose not to marry when she was in her mid-twenties and an offer was made to her by somebody whom she really did quite like. One can assume that part of the decision not to marry—which, again, she didn’t write about—was that she didn’t want to go into that path of childbearing and motherhood. Childbearing at that time was a very dangerous thing for mother and child, and exhausting—as it remains. There are lots of good arguments for not doing it—more then than there are now.

Rumpus: You mention that there is some evidence that she and Lewes used birth control.

Mead: Yes, she said to one of her friends that they took care that they weren’t going to have kids. And it was probably very responsible of them to do so, because he had a lot of children already and it would have been a stigma to be an illegitimate child—though she knew people who were illegitimate children, including one of her closest friends. She thought about it. Maybe every woman goes through thinking: is this the path I’m going to take or not going to take? And there’s no reason to think that she also didn’t have those thoughts and those discussions with herself.

She definitely felt that there was an aspect of herself that was maternal, and she wanted to find a way to express it. At the time there was much more of a cultural expectation that a woman would have a maternal side, so she may have been amplifying those feelings in order to conform to some idea of what a woman might be. But I find the places [in Middlemarch] where she does go into the mind of a mother incredibly moving. There’s this moment I write about where she imagines Mrs. Vincy fearing her son’s death, and I’m a mother and I know what that is, too. There’s this profoundly sympathetic entry into the perspective of this suffering woman, a character who’s otherwise almost entirely played for comic value.

Rumpus: I was fascinated to learn from your book that that the character Eliot herself identified with most was Mr. Casaubon, the disappointed and failed academic.

Mead: It makes perfect sense, though, doesn’t it? As a young reader you look at him and think, Ugh, he’s awful, or, How beastly he is to Dorothea, and you tend to agree with everyone who has so many critical things to say about him. And then you get to his age, which I am roughly now, and see how awful it must be to be him, and the pain of knowing that your life has been wasted, and you’ve married someone who you fear is critical of you rather than supportive, and that you’re going to be found out, and that you don’t feel the kind of depth of love or emotion you hoped that you might…it’s terrible, his plight! The complexity of his character and the way she wrenches the reader’s sympathy away from Dorothea and over to Casaubon is so brilliantly done. She knew exactly what he was feeling.

Rumpus: I want to talk about Middlemarch as a novel about morality—morality, as you point out, distinct from religion. I lost count of the number of times Eliot uses the word “consequences” in Middlemarch. There is a sense, in the novel, that good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior punished. But what is the moral lesson? At one point, Eliot writes, “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other.” You write “the necessity of growing out of…self-centeredness is the theme of Middlemarch.” How do you feel about Middlemarch as a moral book, or even as a moral guide?

Mead: I think the moral core of Middlemarch is exactly that: we must grow out of our self-centeredness. We must recognize that everybody has their own center of self and that the world looks different, even if only minutely, from a different perspective. To reduce it, though, to a kind of moral code would be appalling.

It is a very moral book. Eliot was very concerned with the role of fiction in discovering what a morality without God might be. But I don’t think that Middlemarch is didactic. She strove hard to make it not didactic. It’s not that she wasn’t didactic elsewhere. There are other books in which she’s much more didactic.

When I started thinking about writing about George Eliot in the first place, one of the ways I got into this was through the phrase that I wrote about in The New Yorker: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”

Rumpus: Which, you mention, Eliot never actually said, though it’s attributed to her on a lot of canvas tote bags.

Mead: I’ve never been able to find anywhere where it appears. She might have said it, but I don’t know where or to whom and I’ve not been able to find out. And it seems to me not something she would have said. So at the very outset of thinking about her I thought, well, what are the things that she said? Are there a dozen things that she said that you could live by? I very quickly realized that this was not the way to think about her at all. Middlemarch is 900 pages long because it needs to be, because it needs to show you this process of moving out of self-centeredness into a larger understanding of the perspective of others. And it needs to give you the experience of doing that, and it does that fictionally. Just to tell you that that’s what you need to do is reductive and kind of awful.

Rumpus: Eliot is aphoristic, though. She’s very quotable.

Mead: Yes, there are lots of great lines you can pull out of Middlemarch. But as Alexander Main, who collected the wit and wisdom of George Eliot in multiple volumes shows, if you try to extract the wit and wisdom of George Eliot in quotation form, it quickly dies.

Rumpus: I want to ask a bit about the construction of your book. When you wrote the New Yorker piece, did you know you were starting a book? Or did you write the piece and then say, “Well of course, this is the book I was born to write”?

Mead: I started thinking about a book even before I did the New Yorker piece. I’d written a book a few years ago about the wedding industry. It was quite a different kind of a book, a journalistic exposé. In order to do it, I spent a lot of time in a world that was quite alien to me—and quite alienating to me. And having done it, I resolved that if I was ever going to write a book again, I wanted it to be about something that I loved. And one day I was talking with my husband and I said, “I should write a book about Middlemarch, because I love that book more than anything I can think of, other than the obvious.”

I told my editor at The New Yorker that I wanted to write about George Eliot, but I hadn’t figured out how. It took me quite a long time, probably another couple of years, to get anywhere close to writing the piece. And, in fact, the New Yorker piece involved me going over to England and going to meet with members of the George Eliot Fellowship, which is the literary society devoted to her. I did all that off my own bat. I didn’t do it on assignment. I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I got back from that trip and I was having lunch with my editor-in-chief David Remnick, and he said “What have you been up to?” and I said, “I just went to England on this trip,” and he said, “You have to write a personal piece about George Eliot and your love of Middlemarch.”

So I did that. But I’d done it in the spirit of maybe there was going to be a book, maybe there wasn’t. I’m incredibly lucky to work for a magazine where you can have an obsession and somebody will say, “Sure, write 6,000 words about it.” The article was very useful in helping me figure out what the book might be. And although most of it isn’t repeated in the book—the book is mostly a new thing—it helped me find an approach and a voice.

Rumpus: I love hybrids of memoir with literary criticism, biography, and other kinds of nonfiction, but not many people have done them well. It seems to me that what’s perilous about this genre is that it can feel disjointed—all that interrupting yourself with space breaks. I wondered whether in your early drafts, one of the challenges was getting the right balance and flow of all the elements. Did you go through a draft and say, “Uh oh…need less Rebecca…need more George Eliot….,” and so forth?

Mead: There were several drafts, but I have to say that the first draft is not so different from what you’re reading. I had the idea of my chapter headings being the [titles of the] books of Middlemarch before I started writing—so that was very helpful in structuring. But I have to say, this book flowed so easily. It wasn’t hard to do. The morning that I sat down to start writing it I had paragraphs in my head already—not that I had composed, but that were there to be found. I know a lot of people talk about how hard writing is, and sometimes it is, but most of this wasn’t hard at all. It was emotionally involving, very intense.

As to getting that balance between the different threads of the story: after I’d written it, when I got editors’ notes back, they asked for a bit more of me. Not so much stories of my life, but a bit more of my analysis of things. I think that as a journalist, or maybe just as an English person, I had to be pushed a little bit to put myself in it as much as I did. But not that hard. There were so many places where it felt like things fit together in this kind of uncanny way, coincidences of my biography and her biography, like having three step-sons. I didn’t want to overstate the similarities between me and George Eliot—not least because she’s a raging genius and I’m not. But there were these similarities of being a reporter in a city and breaking away from one’s provincial home, and other ways I connected with her life. And there were also just physical coincidences and things that happened that made me sometimes feel that I was in that strange sense where everything fits together and you don’t know whether you’re inspired or psychotic.

Rumpus: You write that Middlemarch gave your parents back to you, gave your childhood back to you. How so?

Mead: This book was conceived in the years when my father was very ill. My father had deteriorating heart conditions and became increasingly immobile and unwell. During the couple of years when I was going back to England periodically to visit George Eliot’s grave or to go to her home in the Midlands—I’m not sure I articulated this to myself, but part of why I was doing this book was to go back to England. And I was going back to England because I wanted to see my parents, to see my father as he was fading away, really. I knew when I sat down to start writing that it was highly unlikely that my father would live long enough to see the book published, let alone to see me finish it. I sent my parents the chapters as I wrote them because I wanted him to read what I had written while he still could. And because I write in an early chapter about my parents’ own parents and the very humble origins from which they came in London, growing up during the war, and I wanted them to know that I had done this and that there was kind of a tribute to them and their history in this book.

My father died as I had just finished writing Chapter Four—exactly halfway through the book. I wrote the book very quickly. It took about five months to do the first draft. I was writing the first half of the book with the agitation of my father’s decline, and the second half of it with the knowledge of his death and the coming to terms with that. So the whole book was very, very charged with that experience and with a desire to honor my parents, and to thank them for having allowed me to leave and go and become a writer in a different country—it’s a big thing to do.

Rumpus: And you dedicate your book to your parents.

Mead: Yes. I feel I owe so much to them. I don’t want to get sappy about it, but you reach a point in the middle of your life, hopefully, where the criticisms you might make of your parents when you’re younger, when you’re trying to distance yourself from them, are reconciled, and you recognize all they’ve done for you. This was a way of paying tribute to them.

And it’s also true that when I read Middlemarch in those late years of my father’s life—my mother, thank god, is still doing well—to see Fred and Mary, who I really had no interest in when I was young, to realize that they were my parents, revealed the book anew to me. It also revealed my parents’ marriage anew to me, because they had always been a sort of backdrop to my own self-involved drama—and then to realize how much there was to admire and wonder at in a marriage that lasted sixty years and a love affair that lasted longer, because they knew each other since they were fifteen. I’m in awe of that as a life accomplishment. That gave me a different way to look at the characters of Fred and Mary and to appreciate the beauty of how they end up.

Rumpus: It occurs to me, listening to you speak about your parents, that My Life in Middlemarch recapitulates Middlemarch. It charts your own growing out of the self-centeredness of youth. It’s such a beautiful resonance that you could come back to the book in middle age and see its characters in light of your parents’ lives rather than in light of your own.

Mead: Yes.

Rumpus: Middlemarch feels fresh and timeless and yet it is very much rooted in Victorian England. Eliot writes a lot about the role of science in medicine, the Reform Bill, and other 19th century issues you need footnotes to understand. Based on your study of Middlemarch, what advice would you give modern novelists who reference, say, social media, or 9/11—about making work set so firmly in a specific time feel timeless? How does Eliot pull this off?

Mead: I don’t presume to give advice to modern novelists, not being one myself. With Middlemarch, I enjoy reading those very specific, grainy details of real life because they embed the story in reality. The theme of science was very important to Eliot and was very much reflected in the choice of metaphors she uses. They were really important to her. They’re not just tossed in for the sake of looking up to date. I think novelists embed their stories in reference to the world we live in now. You have to, otherwise it’s going to read like a pastiche of 19th century novels. Only time will tell whether people are still reading The Circle [Dave Eggers’s dystopian novel about the Internet] in fifty years.

Rumpus: This may be a stretch, but does your new book echo your other work, including your recent profile of best-selling writer Jennifer Weiner in the New Yorker?

Mead: Oh, definitely. I wrote explicitly in the Weiner profile about the essay George Eliot wrote, “Silly Novels By Lady Novelists.” In figuring out what sort of fiction she, herself, wanted to write, Eliot wrote this excoriation of popular female writers of her time. It’s a devastating piece.

Rumpus: After her identity was revealed, people still called her “George Eliot, as if she were a hybrid creature, neither male nor female,” you write. In 2014, we still seem to be in such a conflicted and difficult place about women writers, about the representation of women writers in major publications, as documented by VIDA and as Weiner discussed with you regarding her designation as a writer of “chick lit.” How might Eliot have felt about all this?

Mead: I wouldn’t presume to say, but plenty of feminists have not applauded her. She went through a period of being quite unpopular with feminist critics because she was insufficiently committed to the cause. People would ask her to sign on to campaigns for better education for women and she was resistant in that she thought everybody needed to be better educated and she didn’t want to align herself too firmly in that way. She was supportive but she was only quietly supportive. She wasn’t a campaigner. I don’t think she would have been making those arguments that VIDA and Jennifer Weiner are making—in many ways very valid arguments. George Eliot didn’t throw herself into those kinds of debates. She preferred to expend her energies elsewhere, and she’s been criticized for it.

Going back to your question about the continuum through my writing and the influence of Middlemarch: with Jennifer Weiner, I was thinking about women writers and where women writers are now. And in some ways there’s dispiritingly little change. But George Eliot’s choice of a masculine pseudonym is complicated. She wasn’t just hiding her gender—she was hiding her identity. She was such a controversial person and she wanted her book to be taken seriously without being contaminated by the kind of notoriety she had at that point for living out of wedlock.

Rumpus: Do you miss George Eliot, now that your book is done?

Mead: No. I am grateful to her for having given me the chance to think about her and think about myself and, hopefully, write something that isn’t just about her and isn’t just about myself and which other people can find themselves in, too. I miss shutting my door and having five hours of uninterrupted writing. And I miss being in books and manuscripts. The research for this book was really fun. Delicious. I hope I can find a way to do that kind of thing again. But no, I don’t miss her. She’s with me.

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“The Big Idea” features interviews with writers, artists, scientists, activists, and others who take a long and broad view of an issue, problem, or concept, and pursue it over many years. Visit the archives here.

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Featured image of Rebecca Mead © by Elisabeth C. Prochnik.