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Life, Wisdom And ‘Middlemarch’

Life, love and “Middlemarch.” Rebecca Mead on why she can’t stop reading George Eliot’s great Victorian novel.

A portrait of the British novelist George Eliot at age 30, by Alexandre-Louis-François d'Albert-Durade. (Creative Commons)

A portrait of the British novelist George Eliot at age 30, by Alexandre-Louis-François d’Albert-Durade. (Creative Commons)

George Eliot was a woman.  A Victorian.  A rebel.  Her great book, a novel,  was “Middlemarch.” 1874.  It went deep, deep into the lives of provincial English men and women.  Their marriages.  Their dreams and ambitions. Their failings and delusions and small triumphs.  It’s a Victorian-era book of wisdom on life and love.  A century later, Rebecca Mead made “Middlemarch” a kind of personal Bible for life.  A guidebook on how to live.  How to see and empathize with others. This hour On Point:  New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead on George Eliot and living with Middlemarch.

– Tom Ashbrook

Guest

Rebecca Mead, staff writer at The New Yorker. Author of “My Life in Middlemarch” and  “One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding.” (@Rebeccamead_NYC)

From Tom’s Reading List

Boston Globe: ‘My Life In Middlemarch’ By Rebecca Mead — “Mead illustrates how the reversal of the 19th-century marriage plot for which ‘Middlemarch’’ is famous is inextricably linked to Eliot’s personal experience of a long lasting, committed union as a state of happiness that far outpaced the seemingly all-consuming tribulations of young love. This state of equal partnership is mirrored in Mead’s life, and it’s no wonder that this ‘home epic’ speaks to her and has continued to appeal to generations of readers, regardless of gender.”

Salon: How great books shape us — “There’s a lot more going on in ‘Middlemarch’ than that, but the two bad marriages are what you notice if, like Mead, you’re a brainy young woman who wants to make something of herself and whose knowledge of life comes mostly from books. Eliot herself — born Mary Ann Evans, the daughter of a Midlands estate manager — was once just such a girl, and many readers first encounter ‘Middlemarch’ when they’re making the same sort of life decisions that confront Dorothea and Lydgate. ‘My Life in Middlemarch’ follows both Eliot and Mead as they obtain their educations and take their hard knocks from the world, while Mead explores which parts of Eliot’s life and social circle may have inspired parts of the novel.”

The New Yorker: George Eliot’s Superfan — “As I read Main’s copious correspondence I found myself alternately appalled and moved by the glimpses it offered into the life of this sad, shadowy man. There was something alarming, almost stalker-like, in his attentions. Over and over again he wrote Eliot long, effusive letters, then followed up with a demand for reassurance that his effusion had not given offense, then offered apologies for his neediness. On one occasion he told her, ‘I should like to see you in your home, but I think I should myself choose to be unseen the while—if that could be. I could not be disappointed in you, but you might easily be disappointed in me.’”

Read An Excerpt Of “My Life In Middlemarch” By Rebecca Mead

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  • http://onpoint.wbur.org/about-on-point/sam-gale-rosen Sam Gale Rosen

    My favorite characters: Camden Farebrother and Mary Garth. Spoiler alert: They don’t end up together. BUT THEY SHOULD.

    • http://onpoint.wbur.org/about-on-point/sam-gale-rosen Sam Gale Rosen

      To be clear, I like Fred Vincy too. I’m not a Fred-hater.

  • bridget_in_wisdom

    It ‘s remarkable that you should have this show today. I just finished Middlemarch yesterday. Savoring every word it took me a week to finish the last chapter not wanting the novel and the characters stories to end, and realizing in a way the story never ends. The last paragraph is especially meaningful, the impact that one person (Dorathea) can have on the world around them, and specifically the meaning of life in general.

  • Patty Oliver-Smith

    Middlemarch is also my favorite novel – It’s always with me. I too came to it after a false start in my 20′s, then did a master’s thesis on it in my 30′s. The textures and layers of the novel are infinite, but I chose to follow the elevated Wordworthian thread of Dorothea and Will’s love story in contrast with the more earthly, worldly (and painful) relationship of Lydgate and Rosamund. I saw Dorothea and Ladislaw as Eliot’s idealized relationship (influenced by her love of Wordsworth’s poetry). Lydgate’s story is sadly more realistic, but I love that Eliot interweaves the two stories. I have just bought Rebecca Mead’s book and can’t wait to read it.

  • passarinha

    Yes, yes, yes — Middlemarch is my favorite novel as well, one that I re-read every five years or so, always finding something new. One aspect in which Eliot is particularly perceptive is her treatment of religion, or rather the misuse of religion and piety as a means of justifying morally unjustifiable acts. Although the light she shines on our human foibles is unsparing, it is never without compassion or a sense of our shared imperfect humanity.

  • Joe KomaGawa

    George should have lived in Japan. Social empathy is assumed and has been shaped for a long time. Reading the literature , If find that most modern authors accepts this as given. However, the society does not always go in the right direction. We can acquire an empathy for symbols, which are completely separate from our lives conditions. Empathy doesn’t in my opinion create an understanding of justice. For Justice isn’t love. It sometimes requires detachment and insight from a higher perspective, a frame of the greater picture

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    Thanks for the literary show. Give us more! Keep them coming!

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