Speaking on BBC Radio 4 recently, the crime novelist Ruth Rendell voiced her fears that reading is a dying art: “Reading is no longer something that everybody does as a matter of course,” she said. “Reading is becoming a kind of specialist activity, and that strikes terror into the heart of people who love reading.” Her comments struck a chord with discerning critics and writers. In a piece written for the Guardian, the often-divisive novelist and critic Philip Hensher proposed a radical government-enforced yearly reading quota. We have MD-regulated official recommendations for a suitable weekly alcohol intake, not to mention the dictate of no less that five pieces of fruit or vegetables a day, so, he suggested, “Why shouldn’t the government encourage the simple question: ‘Are you reading enough?’ An unambitious government recommendation that it is good for you to read 15 books a year whether man, woman or child.” Writing only a couple of days later in the Guardian’s sister paper the Observer, writer Rachel Cooke provided a more nuanced response to Rendell’s supposition, posing the important, but often overlooked question: “How are we to make sense of ourselves and the world that holds us if not by reading stories?”
“I know I sound like a tragic old Leavisite when I say that fiction and ethics are intimately bound,” she continues, “but I feel this to be true. Novel reading boosts empathy or, at any rate reminds us that things are complicated: fiction unpicks knots.”
With the timely coincidence so often encountered in the realm of fiction but scoffed at by those who believe real life is never so neatly arranged, across the Atlantic an elegant but impassioned answer to Cooke’s question is about to be published in the form of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, an extraordinary mixture of literary criticism, biography and personal memoir combined to form an irresistibly fresh appreciation of one of the most famous novels of the English language.
In 2002 the English author Francis Spufford published his memoir through literature, The Child that Books Built, then the first study of its kind. Now, a decade on, we’re seeing the sudden explosion of this genre. English playwright and journalist Samantha Ellis’s How to Be a Heroine: Or, what I learned from reading too much has just been published in the UK—a nostalgic trip through Ellis’s childhood and adolescent literary heroines, and all she’s learnt from them about love, life, and how to pursue a fulfilling career. I’d heartily recommend Ellis’s book to anyone who read and loved the likes of Anne of Green Gables, Little Women or Wuthering Heights, it’s a romp of a read, but it’s a different beast to Mead’s nuanced and thought provoking study, or indeed, The Threepenny Review editor Wendy Lesser’s meditation of a life lived in and through literature, Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books, which is also being published this month.
“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”, Mead writes near the beginning of My Life in Middlemarch. “But”, she astutely continues, “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.”
Now in her forties and living in Brooklyn, Mead first read Eliot’s novel of provincial life as a seventeen-year-old impatiently waiting for her life to begin in the small English seaside town where she grew up. Despite the fact the novel was originally published nearly a century before she was even born, Mead felt an immediate affinity with the text, it “wasn’t distant or dusty,” she explains, “but arresting in the acuteness of its psychological penetration and the snap of its sentences. Through it, George Eliot spoke with an authority and a generosity that was wise and essential and profound. I couldn’t believe how good it was.”
Her first, youthful reading of the novel drew immediate comparisons between her teenage self and Eliot’s heroine Dorothea Brooke. The book’s theme, “a young woman’s desire for a substantial, rewarding, meaningful life”, made Mead feel that the text was speaking directly to her. But her lifelong connection to the novel is based on something much more significant than mere character identification—Eliot herself was “scornful of idle women readers who imagined themselves the heroines of French novels, and of self-regarding folk who saw themselves in the most admirable character in a novel,” Mead warns, and this is only one small part of a reader’s relationship with a beloved novel—revisiting Dorothea today, the characters remains “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,” Mead writes, which in itself is a beautiful description of re-acquaintance with a beloved character, “I remember what it was like to be eighteen, and at the beginning of things.”
Virginia Woolf once described Middlemarch as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” and, indeed, Mead returns again and again to Eliot’s novel throughout her adult life—as an undergraduate at Oxford; as a young journalist at the beginning of her career in New York; through love affairs; and eventually as a wife, mother, and stepmother—and with every re-reading, she appreciates a new facet of experience offered in its pages. “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,” she writes wisely. Her use of both biographical information about Eliot’s life, and the brief glimpses of her own that we’re afforded—this is by no means an exhaustive autobiography, Mead’s too intelligent a writer to ever position herself center-stage—are perfectly balanced against the central narrative of the book, the story of Middlemarch itself. It’s another useful coincidence that just as Eliot found herself setting up home with a man with young sons, Mead too fell in love and married a father of boys, and a less thoughtful writer would be content to leave it at that, but Mead brings both Eliot’s maternal experiences to bear on the composition of Middlemarch, and her own on the interpretative process of reading: “Now when I read the novel in the light of Eliot’s life, and in the light of my own, I see her experiences 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.” Another wonderful turn of phrase, but this, I think, sums up Mead’s own work, too. My Life in Middlemarch is a deeply sympathetic and intelligent account of one woman’s “profound experience with a book”, without doubt a love letter to Eliot’s masterpiece, but also an important meditation on how our life experiences shape our reading, and our reading shapes how we choose to live our lives.