by Michelle Dean)
I have often said that I’d like to live in a book, but I’m sort of lying. Much as I love books, I confess that it sounds rather boring, the idea of living in and through just one. The confines of one plot strike me as too predictable and too confined.
Yet in My Life in Middlemarch, the New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead reports, however, that she has done just that. Joyce Carol Oates classifies Mead’s book as a “biblio-memoir” in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, but really it’s more biblio than memoir; the book does extra lifting as a serious critical study of George Eliot’s novel, as well as an exploration in the author’s biography (though there is not much new material here). We are given fleeting glimpses of Mead’s life as a writer and reporter for several magazines, and, yes, of her personal life too. But anyone hoping for the naked emotionalism of memoir as we usually see it done nowadays will be disappointed. Moreover: while theoretically I suppose you could read this book without reading Middlemarch, it’s hard to see that you could get the full benefit of its small moments of Eliot-inspired wisdom.
There is something fitting to the subject in Mead’s demureness, though. The last paragraph of Middlemarch, and in particular its last line, speak to the fact that even the quietest lives have some value. For those of you not well-versed in Middlemarch, the speaker here is talking about Dorothea Casaubon, the main character:
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 half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Remarks Mead, when she gets to this: “I cannot imagine reading these words and not sighing at the end of them.” I think she’s right: if this is a ringing endorsement of a life quietly lived, it’s one laced with a great many caveats. Mead goes on to point out that in the manuscript Eliot had this phrased much more strongly. “Half owing” becomes full “owing,” and that sort of thing. Eliot, I think, was just suffering from something most writers feel, which is the sense that they are no longer quite as convinced by a thought once they set it down on paper.
The fact is, as you learn from Mead’s book, Eliot herself was not really one for a quiet life, per se. She was not a Brontë or even a Jane Austen. Well known to other writers and intellectuals in her lifetime (Henry James even called her a “horse-faced bluestocking”), she lived a relatively public life for a 19th-century writer. When she began living in effective sin with her married lover, George Henry Lewes, it was a scandal because she did it openly. Most of Eliot’s life was lived in open defiance of the narrow channels a woman like her was expected to follow. She wasn’t, to put it in our terms, living according to any book that came before her.
When people say they wish they lived in books, I often think that what they must mean — because it is what I mean — is that they would like to live lives that seem freighted with meaning. Book characters have this advantage over us. In real life we spend a lot of time in unmoving lines, being annoyed at the people who shove us on the bus, eating things that seemed delicious in theory but in practice are sugary cardboard. And if even those tedious things happen in books, they do not happen in the flat, uninflatable way we experience them in our everyday lives. The mechanics of plot mean that every action provokes some kind of necessary reaction. And since we live in a world where things often feel meaningless, we envy that in book characters, their assurance that all those “channels which have no great name on earth” are actually headed towards something worthwhile.
I don’t know that there is really a bridgeable gap there. A lesser novelist (and lesser biblio-memoirist) probably would have wanted to be more reassuring to readers that the meaning is there regardless. Instead, they seem to both be telling you that even if they don’t know the answer, even if the world-historical-import of your own small little life is at best a work-in-progress, the only way to cope is to keep on reading. It’s salve enough for the uncertainty while you’re waiting to find out.