Rebecca Mead’s Middlemarch Pilgrimage and the 3 Wrong Ways to Read a Novel

  All artists are possessed of the urge to render through some artificial medium the experience of something real. Since artists are also possessed of a desire to share their work and have it appreciated, they face the conundrum of having to wrest the attention of their audience away from the very reality they hope to relay some piece of—a feat which can only be accomplished with the assurance of something extraordinary. Stories that are too real are seldom interesting, while the stories that are the most riveting usually feature situations audiences are unlikely to encounter in their real lives. This was the challenge George Eliot faced when she set out to convey something of the reality of a provincial English town in the early nineteenth century; she had to come up with a way to write a remarkable novel about unremarkable characters in an unremarkable setting. And she somehow managed to do just that. By almost any measure, Eliot’s efforts to chronicle the fates of everyday people in a massive work many everyday people would enjoy reading were wildly, albeit complicatedly, successful.

Before Middlemarch, the convention for English novels was to blandish readers with the promise of stories replete with romance or adventure, culminating more often than not with a wedding. Eliot turned the marriage plot on its head, beginning her novel with a marriage whose romantic underpinnings were as one-sided as they were transparently delusional. So what, if not luridness or the whiff of wish-fulfillment, does Eliot use to lure us into the not-so-fantastic fictional world of Middlemarch? Part of the answer is that, like many other nineteenth century novelists, she interspersed her own observations and interpretations with the descriptions and events that make up the story. “But Eliot was doing something in addition with those moments of authorial interjection,” Rebecca Mead writes in her book My Life in Middlemarch before going on to explain,

She insists that the reader look at the characters in the book from her own elevated viewpoint. We are granted a wider perspective, and a greater insight, than is available to their neighbors down in the world of Middlemarch. By showing us the way each character is bound within his or her own narrow viewpoint, while providing us with a broader view, she nurtures what Virginia Woolf described as “the melancholy virtue of tolerance.” “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally,” Eliot once wrote. “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.” (55-6)

Eliot’s story about ordinary people, in other words, is made extraordinary by the insightful presence of its worldly-wise author throughout its pages.
Rebecca Mead

But this solution to the central dilemma of art—how to represent reality so as to be worthy of distraction from reality—runs into another seeming contradiction. Near the conclusion of Middlemarch, Dorothea, one of the many protagonists, assures her sister Celia that her second marriage will not be the disaster her first was, explaining that the experience of falling in love this time around was much more auspicious than it had been before. Celia, wanting to understand what was so different, presses her, asking “Can’t you tell me?” Dorothea responds, “No, dear, you would have to feel with me, else you would never know” (783). The question that arises is whether a reader can be made to “imagine and feel the pains and joys” of a character while at the same time being granted access to the author’s elevated perspective. Can we in the audience simultaneously occupy spaces both on the ground alongside the character and hovering above her with a vantage on her place in the scheme of history and the wider world?

One of the main sources of tension for any storyteller is the conflict between the need to convey information and provide context on the one hand and the goal of representing, or even simulating experiences on the other. A weakness Eliot shares with many other novelists who lived before the turn of the last century is her unchecked impulse to philosophize when she could be making a profounder impact with narrative description or moment-by-moment approximations of a character’s thoughts and feelings. For instance, Dorothea, or Miss Brooke as she’s called in the first pages of the novel, yearns to play some important role in the betterment of humankind. Mead’s feelings about Dorothea and what she represents are likely shared by most who love the book. She writes,

As Miss Brooke, 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. When I spend time in her company, I remember what it was like to be eighteen, and at the beginning of things. (43)

Dorothea becomes convinced that by marrying a much older scholar named Casaubon and helping him to bring his life’s work to fruition she’ll be fulfilling her lofty aspirations. So imagine her crushing disappointment upon discovering that Casaubon is little more than an uninspired and bloodless drudge who finds her eagerness to aid in his research more of an annoying distraction than an earnest effort at being supportive. The aspects of this disappointment that are unique to Dorothea, however, are described only glancingly. After locating her character in a drawing room, overwhelmed by all she’s seen during her honeymoon in Rome—and her new husband’s cold indifference to it all, an indifference which encompasses her own physical presence—Eliot retreats into generality:

Not that this inward amazement of Dorothea’s was anything very exceptional: many souls in their young nudity are tumbled out among incongruities and left to “find their feet” among them, while their elders go about their business. Nor can I suppose that when Mrs. Casaubon is discovered in a fit of weeping six weeks after her wedding, the situation will be regarded as tragic. Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity. (185)

The obvious truth that humans must be selective in their sympathies is an odd point for an author to focus on at such a critical juncture in her heroine’s life—especially an author whose driving imperative is to widen the scope of her readers’ sympathies.

            My Life in Middlemarch, a memoir devoted to Mead’s evolving relationship with the novel and its author, takes for granted that Eliot’s masterpiece stands at the pinnacle of English literature, the greatest accomplishment of one of the greatest novelists in history. Virginia Woolf famously described it as “the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Martin Amis called it “the central English novel” and said that it was “without weaknesses,” except perhaps for Dorothea’s overly idealized second love Will Ladislaw.  Critics from F.R. Leavis to Harold Bloom have celebrated Eliot as one of the greatest novelists of all time. But Middlemarch did go through a period when it wasn’t as appreciated as it had been originally and has been again since the middle of the twentieth century. Mead quotes a couple of appraisals from the generation succeeding Eliot’s:

“It is doubtful whether they are novels disguised as treatises, or treatises disguised as novels,” one critic wrote of her works. Another delivered the verdict that her books “seem to have been dictated to a plain woman of genius by the ghost of David Hume.” (217)

And of course Woolf would have taken issue with Amis’s claim that Eliot’s novel has no weaknesses, since her oft-quoted line about Middlemarch being for grownups contains the phrase “for all its imperfections.” In the same essay, Woolf says of Eliot,

The more one examines the great emotional scenes the more nervously one anticipates the brewing and gathering and thickening of the cloud which will burst upon our heads at the moment of crisis in a shower of disillusionment and verbosity. It is partly that her hold upon dialogue, when it is not dialect, is slack; and partly that she seems to shrink with an elderly dread of fatigue from the effort of emotional concentration. She allows her heroines to talk too much. She has little verbal felicity. She lacks the unerring taste which chooses one sentence and compresses the heart of the scene within that. ‘Whom are you doing to dance with?’ asked Mr Knightley, at the Weston’s ball. ‘With you, if you will ask me,’ said Emma; and she has said enough. Mrs Casaubon would have talked for an hour and we should have looked out of the window.

Mead’s own description of the scene of Dorothea’s heartbreak in Rome is emblematic of both the best and the worst of Eliot’s handling of her characters. She writes,

For several pages, Eliot examines Dorothea’s emotions under a microscope, as if she were dissecting her heroine’s brain, the better to understand the course of its electrical flickers. But then she moves quickly and just as deeply into the inward movement of Casaubon’s emotions and sensations. (157)

Literary scholars like to justify the application of various ideologies to their analyses of novels by comparing the practice to looking through different lenses in search of new insights. But how much fellow feeling can we have for “electrical flickers” glimpsed through an eyepiece? And how are we to assess the degree to which critical lenses either clarify or distort what they’re held up to? What these metaphors of lenses and microscopes overlook is the near impossibility of sympathizing with specimens under a glass.
Casaubon, Dorothea, and Ladislaw in the BBC miniseries

            The countless writers and critics who celebrate Middlemarch actually seem to appreciate all the moments when Eliot allows her storytelling to be submerged by her wry asides, sermons, and disquisitions. Indeed, Middlemarch may be best thought of as a kind of hybrid, and partly because of this multifariousness, but partly too because of the diversity of ways admirers like Mead have approached and appreciated it over the generations, the novel makes an ideal test case for various modes of literary reading. Will Ladislaw, serendipitously in Rome at the same time as the Casaubons, converses with Dorothea about all the art she has seen in the city. “It is painful,” she says, “to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that it is fine—something like being blind, while people talk of the sky.” Ladislaw assures her, “Oh, there is a great deal in the feeling for art which must be acquired,” and then goes on to explain,

Art is an old language with a great many artificial affected styles, and sometimes the chief pleasure one gets out of knowing them is the mere sense of knowing. I enjoy the art of all sorts here immensely; but I suppose if I could pick my enjoyment to pieces I should find it made up of many different threads. There is something in daubing a little one’s self, and having an idea of the process. (196)

Applied to literature, Ladislaw’s observation—or confession—suggests that simply being in the know with regard to a work of great renown offers a pleasure of its own, apart from the direct experience of reading. (Imagine how many classics would be abandoned midway were they not known as such.) Mead admits to succumbing to this sort of glamor when she was first beginning to love Eliot and her work:

I knew that some important critics considered Middlemarch to be the greatest novel in the English language, and I wanted to be among those who understood why. I loved Middlemarch, and loved being the kind of person who loved it. It gratified my aspirations to maturity and learnedness. To have read it, and to have appreciated it, seemed a step on the road to being one of the grown-ups for whom it was written. (6-7).

What Mead is describing here is an important, albeit seldom mentioned, element in our response to any book. And there’s no better word for it than branding. Mead writes,

Books gave us a way to shape ourselves—to form our thoughts and to signal to each other who we were and who we wanted to be. They were part of our self-fashioning, no less than our clothes. (6)

The time in her life she’s recalling here is her late adolescence, the time when finding and forging all the pieces of our identities is of such pressing importance to us—and, not coincidentally, a time when we are busy laying the foundations of what will be our lifelong tastes in music and books.

It should not be lost on anyone that Mead was close in age to Dorothea in the early chapters when she first began reading Middlemarch, both of them “at the beginning of things.” Mead, perhaps out of nostalgia, tries to honor that early connection she felt even as she is compelled to challenge it as a legitimate approach to reading. Early in My Life in Middlemarch she writes,

Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, 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 when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree. (16)

Much later in the book, though, after writing about how Eliot received stacks of letters from women insisting that they were the real-life version of Dorothea—and surmising that Eliot would have responded to such claims with contempt—Mead makes a gesture of deference toward critical theory, with its microscopes and illusory magnifications. She writes,

Such an approach to fiction—where do I see myself in there?—is not how a scholar reads, and it can be limiting in its solipsism. It’s hardly an enlarging experience to read a novel as if it were mirror of oneself. One of the useful functions of literary criticism and scholarship is to suggest alternative lenses through which a book might be read. (172)

As Eliot’s multimodal novel compels us to wonder how we should go about reading it, Mead’s memoir brilliantly examines one stance after another we might take in relationship to a novel. What becomes clear in the process is that literary scholars leave wide open the question of the proper way to read in part because they lack an understanding what literary narratives really are. If a novel is a disguised treatise, then lenses that could peer through the disguise are called for. If a novel is a type of wish-fulfillment, then to appreciate it we really should imagine ourselves as the protagonist.
George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)

             One of the surprises of Middlemarch is that, for all the minute inspection the narrator subjects the handful of protagonists to, none of them is all that vividly rendered. While in the most immersive of novels the characters come to life in a way that makes it easy to imagine them stepping out of the pages into real life, Eliot’s characters invite the reader to step from real life into the pages of the book. We see this in the way Eliot moves away from Dorothea at her moment of crisis. We see it too in the character of Tertius Lydgate, a doctor with a passion for progress to match Dorothea’s. Eliot describes the birth of this passion with a kind of distant and universal perspective that reaches out to envelop readers in their own reminiscences:

Most of us who turn to any subject we love remember some morning or evening hour when we got on a high stool to reach down an untried volume, or sat with parted lips listening to a new talker, or for very lack of books began to listen to the voices within, as the first traceable beginning of our love. Something of that sort happened to Lydgate. He was a quick fellow, and when hot from play, would toss himself in a corner, and in five minutes be deep in any sort of book that he could lay his hands on. (135)

Who among the likely readers of Middlemarch would object to the sentiment expressed in the line about Lydgate’s first encounter with medical texts, after “it had already occurred to him that books were stuff, and that life was stupid”?

Mead herself seems to have been drawn into Middlemarch first by its brand and then by her ready ease in identifying with Dorothea. But, while her book is admirably free of ideological musings, she does get quite some distance beyond her original treatment of the characters as avatars. And she even suggests this is perhaps a natural progression in a serious reader’s relationship to a classic work.

Identification with character is one way in which most ordinary readers do engage with a book, even if it is not where a reader’s engagement ends. It is where part of the pleasure, and the urgency, of reading lies. It is one of the ways that a novel speaks to a reader, and becomes integrated into the reader’s own imaginative life. Even the most sophisticated readers read novels in the light of their own experience, and in such recognition, sympathy may begin. (172-3)

What, then, do those sophisticated readers graduate into once they’ve moved beyond naïve readings? The second mode of reading, the one that academics prefer, involves the holding up of those ideological lenses. Mead describes her experience of the bait-and-switch perpetrated against innumerable young literature aficionados throughout their university educations:

I was studying English literature because I loved books, a common enough motivation among students of literature, but I soon discovered that love didn’t have much purchase when it came to our studies. It was the mideighties, the era of critical theory—an approach to literature that had been developed at Yale, among other distant and exotic locales. I’d never heard of critical theory before I got to Oxford, but I soon discovered it was what the most sophisticated-seeming undergraduates were engaged by. Scholars 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. (Thus, J. Hillis Miller on George Eliot: “This incoherent, heterogeneous, ‘unreadable,’ or nonsythesizable quality of the text of Middlemarch jeopardizes the narrator’s effort of totalization.”) Books—or texts, as they were called by those versed in theory—weren’t supposed merely to be read, but to be interrogated, as if they had committed some criminal malfeasance. (145)

What identifying with the characters has to recommend it is that it makes of the plot a series of real-time experiences. The critical approaches used by academics take for granted that participating in the story like this puts you at risk of contracting the author’s neuroses or acquiring her prejudices. To critical theorists, fiction is a trick to make us all as repressed and as given to oppressing women and minorities as both the author and the culture to which she belongs. By applying their prophylactic theories, then, academic critics flatter themselves by implying that they are engaging in a type of political activism.

In her descriptions of what this second mode of reading tends to look like up close, Mead hints at a third mode that she never fully considers. The second mode works on the assumption that all fiction is allegory, representing either some unconscious psychological drama or some type of coded propaganda.  But, as Mead recounts, the process of decoding texts, which in the particular case she witnesses consists of an “application of Marxist theory to literature,” has many of the hallmarks of a sacred ritual:

I don’t recall which author was the object of that particular inquisition, but I do remember the way the room was crowded with the don’s acolytes. Monkish-looking young men with close-shaven heads wearing black turtlenecks huddled with their notebooks around the master, while others lounged on the rug at his feet. It felt very exclusive—and, with its clotted jargon, willfully difficult. (145)

The religious approach to reading favored by academics is decidedly Old Testament; it sees literature and the world as full of sin and evil, and makes of reading a kind of expiation or ritual purging. A more New Testament approach would entail reading a fictional story as a parable while taking the author as a sort of messianic figure—a guide and a savior. Here’s Mead describing a revelation she reached when she learned about Eliot’s relationship with her stepsons. It came to her after a period of lamenting how Middlemarch had nothing to say about her own similarly challenging family situation:

A book may not tell us exactly how to live our own lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book. Now when I read the novel in the light of Eliot’s life, and in the light of my own, I see her experience of unexpected family woven deep into the fabric of the novel—not as part of the book’s obvious pattern, but as part of its tensile strength. Middlemarch seems charged with the question of being a stepmother: of how one might do well by one’s stepchildren, or unwittingly fail them, and of all that might be gained from opening one’s heart wider. (110)

The obvious drawback to this approach—tensile strength?—is that it makes of the novel something of a Rorschach, an ambiguous message we read into whatever meaning we most desire at a given moment. But, as Mead points out, this is to some degree inevitable. She writes that

…all readers make books over in their own image, and according to their own experience. My Middlemarch is not the same as anyone else’s Middlemarch; it is not even the same as my Middlemarch of twenty-five years ago. Sometimes, we find that a book we love has moved another person in the same ways as it has moved ourselves, and one definition of compatibility might be when two people have highlighted the same passages in their editions of a favorite novel. But we each have our own internal version of the book, with lines remembered and resonances felt. (172)

How many other readers, we may wonder, see in Middlemarch an allegory of stepparenthood? And we may also wonder how far this rather obvious point should be taken? If each reader’s experience of a novel is completely different from every other readers’, then we’re stuck once more with solipsism. But if this were true we wouldn’t be able to talk about a novel to other people in the first place, let alone discover whether it’s moved others in the same way as us.   
Lydgate in the excellent BBC miniseries

           Mead doesn’t advocate any of the modes of reading she explores, and she seems to have taken on each of them at the point in her life she did without any conscious deliberation. But it’s the religious reading of Middlemarch, the one that treats the story as an extended parable, that she has ultimately alighted on—at least as of the time when she was writing My Life in Middlemarch. This is largely owing to how easily the novel lends itself to this type of reading. From the early chapters in which we’re invited to step into the shoes of these ardent, bookish, big-spirited characters to the pages detailing their inevitable frustrations and disappointments, Eliot really does usher her readers—who must be readerly and ambitious even to take up such a book—toward a more mature mindset. Some of the most moving scenes feature exchanges between Dorothea and Dr. Lydgate, and in their subtle but unmistakable sympathy toward one another they seem to be reaching out to us with the same sympathy. Here is Dorothea commiserating with Lydgate in the wake of a scandal which has tarnished his name and thwarted his efforts at reform:

And that all this should have come to you who had meant to lead a higher life than the common, and to find out better ways—I cannot bear to rest in this as unchangeable. I know you meant that. I remember what you said to me when you first spoke to me about the hospital. There is no sorrow I have thought more about than that—to love what is great, and try to reach it, and yet to fail. (727)

Dorothea helps Lydgate escape Middlemarch and establish himself in London, where he becomes a successful physician but never pushes through any reforms to the profession. And this is one of Dorothea’s many small accomplishments. The lesson of the parable is clear in the famous final lines of the novel:

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is partly owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. (799)

Entire generations of writers, scholars, and book-lovers have taken this message to heart and found solace in its wisdom. But its impact depends not so much on the reader’s readiness to sympathize with the characters as on their eagerness to identify with them. In other words, Eliot is helping her readers to sympathize with themselves, not “to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.”

            For all the maturity of its message, Middlemarch invites a rather naïve reading. But what’s wrong with reading this way? And how else might we read if we want to focus more on learning to sympathize with those who differ from us? My Life in Middlemarch chronicles the journeys Mead takes to several places of biographical significance hoping to make some connection or attain some greater understanding of Eliot and her writing. Mead also visits libraries in England and the US so she can get her hands on some of the sacred texts still bearing ink scribbled onto paper by the author’s own hand. In an early chapter of Middlemarch, Eliot shows readers Casaubon’s letter proposing marriage to Dorothea, and it’s simultaneously comic and painful for being both pedantic and devoid of feeling. As I read the letter, I had the discomfiting thought that it was only a slight exaggeration of Eliot’s usual prose. Mead likewise characterizes one of Eliot’s contemporary fans, Alexander Main, in a way uncomfortably close the way she comes across herself. Though she writes at one point, “I recognize in his enthusiasm for her works enough of my own admiration for her to feel an awkward fellowship with him,” she doesn’t seem to appreciate the extent to which Main’s relationship to Eliot and her work resembles her own. But she also hints at something else in her descriptions of Main, something that may nod to an alternative mode of reading beyond the ones she’s already explored. She writes,

In his excessive, grandiose, desperately lonely letters, Main does something that most of us who love books do, to some extent or another. He talks about the characters as if they were real people—as vivid, or more so, than people in his own life. He makes demands and asks questions of an author that for most of us remain imaginary but which he transformed, by force of will and need, into an intense epistolary relationship. He turned his worship and admiration of George Eliot into a one-sided love affair of sorts, by which he seems to have felt sustained even as he felt still hungrier for engagement. (241-2)

Main, and to some extent Mead as well, make of Eliot a godly figure fit for worship, and who but God could bring characters into life—into our lives—who are as real and vivid as other actual living breathing human beings we love or hate or like or tolerate?

As Mead’s reading into Middlemarch an allegory of stepmotherhood illustrates, worshipping authors and treating their works as parables comes with the risk of overburdening what’s actually on the page with whatever meanings the faithful yearn to find there, allowing existential need to override honest appreciation. But the other modes are just as problematic. Naïve identification with the heroine, as Mead points out, limits the scope of our sympathy and makes it hard to get into a novel whose characters are strange or otherwise contrary to our individual tastes. It also makes a liability of characters with great weaknesses or flaws or any other traits that would make being in their shoes distasteful or unpleasant. Treating a story as an allegory on the other hand can potentially lead to an infinite assortment of interpretations, all of questionable validity. This mode of reading also implies that writers of fiction have the same goals to argue or persuade as writers of tracts and treatises. The further implication is that all the elements of storytelling are really little more that planks making up the Trojan horse conveying the true message of the story—and if this were the case why would anyone read fictional stories in the first place? It’s quite possible that this ideological approach to teaching literature has played some role in the declining number of people who read fiction.

What’s really amazing about the people who love any book is that, like Alexander Main, they all tend to love certain characters and despise certain others as if they were real people. There may be a certain level of simple identification with the protagonist, but we also tend to identify with real people who are similar to us—that’s the basis of many friendships and relationships. It’s hard to separate identification from fellow-feeling and sympathy even in what seem to be the most wish-fulfilling stories. Does anybody really want to be Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennet? Does anyone really want to be James Bond or Katniss Everdeen? Or do we just admire and try to emulate some of their qualities? Characters in fiction are designed to be more vivid than people in real life because, not even being real, they have to be extraordinary in some way to get anyone to pay attention to them. Their contours are more clearly delineated, their traits exaggerated, and their passions intensified. This doesn’t mean, however, that we’re falling for some kind of trick when we forget for a moment that they’re not like anyone we’ll ever meet.

Characters, to be worthy of attention, have to be caricatures—like real people but with a few identifying characteristics blown all out of realistic proportion. Dorothea is a caricature. Casaubon is for sure a caricature. But we understand them using the same emotional and cognitive processes we use to understand real people. And it is in exercising these very perspective-taking and empathizing abilities that our best hope for expanding our sympathies lies. What’s the best way to read a work of literature? First, realize that the author is not a god. In fact, forget the author as best you can. Eliot makes it difficult for us to overlook her presence in any scene, and for that reason it may be time to buck the convention and admit that Middlemarch, as brilliantly conceived as it was, as pioneering and revolutionary as it was, is not by any means the greatest novel ever written. What’s more important to concentrate on than the author is the narrator, who may either be herself an important character in the story, or who may stand as far out of the picture as she can so as not to occlude our view. What’s most important though is to listen to the story the narrator tells, to imagine it’s really happening, right before our eyes, right in the instant we experience it. And, at least for that moment, forget what anyone else has to say about what we're witnessing.