Maturing With Middlemarch

In My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead interweaves memoir and literary criticism, illustrating how George Eliot’s classic has affected her throughout her life.  In a review of the book, Hannah Rosefield describes why the novel endures:

Mead first read the novel aged 17, living in the southwest of England and preparing for university examinations, and she has read it every five years or so since. Middlemarch is, of course, not the only novel that changes with the age of its reader, but it does attract a particular kind of rereading. Writers, academics and non-specialist readers alike talk about a distancing from Dorothea as they grow older, a realization of the irony in Eliot’s portrayal of the girl who wishes she could have married Milton or any other great man “whose odd habits it would have been glorious piety to endure.” They discover their sympathy, especially if they are academics, for Dorothea’s elderly husband Casaubon, the scholar fixated on a project that he has neither the will nor the intellect to complete. To the young, Middlemarch is about the young; to the middle-aged, it’s about middle age.

Pamela Erens elaborates:

[Protagonist] Dorothea feels an inchoate longing to do or become something that the provinces don’t provide a ready picture of. Mead experienced this, too, although she had a better image of what might lie in the big world outside, and opportunities to reach for it.

The “it” in Mead’s case was Oxford University and a life of literature and journalism. But in Dorothea, Eliot was not writing simply about a woman born too soon for a career. Her portrait of youthful longing is more complex than that.

As Virginia Woolf put it, Dorothea and other Eliot heroines experience “a demand for something  —they scarcely know what — for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence.” The book speaks, writes Mead, to the part of girlhood that asks:

How on earth might one contain one’s intolerable, overpowering, private yearnings? Where is a woman to put her energies? How is she to express her longings? What can she do to exercise her potential and affect the lives of others? What, in the end, is a young woman to do with herself?

In this sense, Eliot is a poet of youthful longing (not merely in women but also in men) — of what it feels like to suffer “the burthen of larger wants than others seemed to feel,” as Eliot writes of Maggie Tulliver in her earlier novel The Mill on the Floss — and one can see why Middlemarch has hypnotized sensitive, introspective, ambitious young women for many generations.