Rebecca Mead, “George Eliot and Me”

If Rebecca Mead’s “George Eliot and Me” * didn’t take up eight pages (eight pages!) in the New Yorker‘s anniversary issue, I would just let it go by without comment. But the New Yorker is prime literary real estate, and eight pages is a lot. It seems a fair assumption that Mead’s essay should be  significant in some way–that it should represent outstanding work of its kind. When, after reading it through three times, I still couldn’t find the payoff–well, that does seem to call for some discussion.

It’s not that “George Eliot and Me” is a terrible piece or anything–Mead is no Brenda Maddox (though she reports attending a talk by Maddox at which–surprise!–Maddox recounts the Curious Incident of the Honeymoon Defenestration). Then again, I notice Mead does think it’s important to tell us how plain Eliot was (however did I manage to write a whole essay on Eliot without feeling any need to bring this up?!) She also shares Maddox’s ageism, describing a female scholar she meets as “a tall woman, no longer young but still striking.” But? (This whole encounter is oddly described, actually: Mead introduces this scholar as a “notable exception” to a “maxim” she has just quoted, from Adam Bede: ‘The way in which I have come to the conclusion that human nature is loveable [sic]–the way I have learned something of its deep pathos, its sublime mysteries–has been by living a great deal among people more or less commonplace and vulgar.” I can’t tell if Mead means that this woman, though commonplace and vulgar, is an exception to the conclusion that human nature is lovable [if so, what a snidely gratuitous dig this is!] or, because she is not commonplace and vulgar, an exception to the idea that you can’t find lovable human nature in more glamorous guise.)

Anyway, as I was saying, it’s not a terrible piece. It’s nice to hear from someone who has loved Middlemarch a long time and feels she has learned from it. I felt a certain kinship with Mead on these grounds, especially at the beginning of the essay: “The first time I read George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” [I guess using quotation marks for novels rather than italics is New Yorker house style?] I was seventeen years old, and was preparing to take the entrance examination for Oxford University.” “Hey, me too!” I thought–except that I was eighteen and backpacking across Europe. So, not quite the same, but still, like Mead, I first read the novel early in my progress towards adulthood. Also, like Mead’s, my identifications and interpretations have changed over the years, not just because my own experience challenged my earlier assumptions and values, but because I learned to read the book better. Mead, too: on her early readings, she says, she “relished the satire” but “missed, more or less completely, the irony in the portrayal of Dorothea.” It’s an easy mistake; I made it too, once upon a time. And Mead and I share admiration for the novel’s moral wisdom, though I don’t think I’ve ever made Mead’s larger, and apparently continuing, mistake that “everything I might need to know about marriage, about love, about life itself, was encompassed in the novel’s eight hundred and fifty pages.” That’s a lot to ask of any novel–and it reduces the novel (as most of Mead’s comments d0) to a fairly literal set of lessons and examples that can be copied out epigrammatically.

Thinking it over, in fact, that attitude that the novel operates primarily at this level–as ‘philosophy teaching by examples,’ rather than as a richly organized aesthetic artefact–is what seems to me the essay’s greatest and most disappointing weakness. Nothing Mead says about Middlemarch is wrong, but none of it is going to surprise or even interest people who have thought much about Eliot or Middlemarch already, and none of it gives any sense of Eliot as an artist or a thinker: all we get, by and large, are one-sentence quotations used to illustrate points of character, theme or moral lesson. In the online “Ask the Author” chat that the New Yorker hosted, Mead mentions Zadie Smith’s essay, so she knows that there are richer ways to talk about Middlemarch.There are certainly richer ways to talk about The Mill on the Floss, which Mead mentions only to imply that it is “verbose,” which she then uses as an excuse to mention the (appalling) phenomenon of “a volume called ‘The Mill on the Floss: in Half the Time,’ an abridgement for those unable to countenance a six-hundred-page book.” I don’t think she means to endorse this absurdity, but juxtaposed against her “verbose” comment, it rather comes across that way. I see she didn’t get past her earlier lack of interest in Romola, either, here simply called Eliot’s “often tedious excursion into Renaissance Florence.” Sure, Romola is hard going and probably not a great novel. But you have eight pages in the New Yorker to talk about George Eliot! There’s so much more to be said about George Eliot’s novels, if you’re willing to work at it a little, to get outside your own head, and to explore not just her “maxims” (remember her cautions about people who live by them, after all–that’s one of the tedious philosophical bits that is probably left out of the truncated version of The Mill on the Floss) but her ideas and her craft. How did Mead figure out the irony at Dorothea’s expense, for instance, if not through the electric combination of Eliot’s intrusive narrator and her shifting point of view?

But perhaps in complaining about the superficiality of the literary discussion in the essay I’m making a category mistake . Maybe the main point of “George Eliot and Me” is not to talk about George Eliot, at least not in depth, but about the effect of her work on Mead’s own life and personal development. “I have gone back to ‘Middlemarch’ every five years or so,” she tells us, and her “emotional response” has evolved each time. She has learned to understand why Will’s “youthful energies and Byronic hairdressing” would have appealed “to his middle-aged creator,” for instance. (Oops, that’s actually another Maddox-like moment: Eliot the acknowledged cradle-snatcher, fantasizing about a sexy youngster!) Mead has also used Middlemarch to test prospective partners: when one tells her he “admired the climactic scene of Will and Dorothea…clutching each other’s hands, at last, as a thunderstorm rages,” she knows “things would never have worked between us.” Poor guy: done in by the pathetic fallacy! Eventually Mead married someone who “prized ‘Middlemarch’ as much as [she] did.” There’s some genuine human interest in these anecdotes, at least for a fellow Middlemarch lover who (true story) began a long tradition of reading aloud to her own husband by bringing Middlemarch along on their honeymoon. (We gave up on this tradition round about the time Frankenstein got thrown across the room for its terrible prose…but that’s another story. Maybe I should pitch it to the New Yorker.) But there’s still not a lot of substance here for someone hoping to find those precious eight pages used to advance public appreciation for one of the greatest novelists in the English tradition. I’d have to be really interested in Mead–rather than George Eliot–to be happy to read so much about her. Or, alternatively, she’d have to use her personal experience of reading Middlemarch to take us to some place more universally revelatory or insightful.

That’s not what happens in “George Eliot and Me,” though. It doesn’t articulate and illustrate the genius of George Eliot, and neither does it use its autobiographical form to build to some personal revelation or to a larger intellectual debate about, say, whether it is a good thing or not to derive one’s moral lessons from literature (now that’s a very Victorian conversation!)–or how one might do so in a rich and complex enough way that the literary texture of the source is not sandpapered out in favor of bland platitudes. (Where is the moral challenge of George Eliot’s “celebration of the unremarkable” in Mead’s commentary? The village dance which concludes the essay oddly summons up the most conservative aspects of Eliot’s rural nostalgia–as if the happy peasants of Raveloe had nothing to answer for in Silas Marner’s long isolation, or Arthur Donnithorne’s birthday dance weren’t undermined by Hetty’s seduction and abandonment.) Instead, we wander off with Mead as she tries to track down the source of a quotation often attributed to George Eliot: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” It is, indeed, surprising that despite the tenacity of the attribution, this line cannot be traced to any of Eliot’s works. Mead asks a lot of experts about it, including Rosemary Ashton and Rosemarie Bodenheimer (both of whom have written wonderfully about Eliot’s life and writing). Not only do they say they can’t find a source for it, they also, quite rightly, note that it doesn’t seem to fit with Eliot’s explicit moral philosophy, which makes rather a big deal about the way our choices have an indelible effect on our characters and futures. Mead even interviews the author of a self-help book who used the quotation as her title: “I was depressed for a few days, and then I remembered the quote.” Eventually Mead resigns herself: she can’t find a source for the quotation or conclusively prove Eliot never said it. “Like Lydgate,” she says, “I had aspired to make a link in the chain of discovery, and had failed.” Along with some interspersed biographical material, this quest plot takes up nearly three of the eight pages. It might have been worth the space if the investigation was “linked” to something significant. (Lydgate, after all, is hoping to find “the primitive tissue” of life.) I wonder, for instance, why this is quite such a popular quotation, why it seems to satisfy so many people as something George Eliot said. Does it bring her within a safer community of women–reassuring, nurturing–and make her more conventionally feminine than is easily done if we quote from Mead’s least-favorite of her novels, Romola? “Children may be strangled, but deeds never” doesn’t go very well on a greeting card. Or how about this, from Felix Holt: “It is not true that love makes all things easy: it makes us choose what is difficult.” Try selling that on a wall plaque.

It feels churlish, in a way, to be so critical of an essay that speaks so sincerely of its author’s admiration for one of my own favorite books. It’s a good thing to tell more people how great Middlemarch is. Mead and I both think that Austen is more popular because she’s easier on (and for) her readers. As Mead says, Eliot “surpassed her precursor” (but why does she go on to say that the reader “marvels at Jane Austen’s cleverness, but is astonished by George  Eliot’s intelligence”? Why “astonished”? I’m impressed–humbled–challenged–provoked by it, but not at all astonished). But the essay is a disappointment. It’s long (“verbose,” even), cluttered, and solipsistic, as if the greatest interest of George Eliot’s life and work really is that they have played a big part in Rebecca Mead’s life and work. At a time when it’s common to hear online writing decried for its lack of editorial oversight, rigor, and credibility, to see eight pages in one of the most prestigious magazines in the literary world used for something no better than this gives the lie to the claim that these supposed features of Old Media produce the best results. It’s not terrible–parts of it are even pretty good–but it’s certainly not great, and given its very prominent placement, it surely should be.

*The essay is called “George Eliot and Me” on the magazine cover, but “Middlemarch and Me” inside the magazine.

21 thoughts on “Rebecca Mead, “George Eliot and Me”

  1. Amateur Reader March 1, 2011 / 2:04 am

    Oh, thank goodness! It wasn’t just me! I read the piece once, and then skimmed it again, looking for the point, which I had obviously overlooked. I haven’t read Middlemarch – I thought the piece might stir the juices, so to speak. It did not! Did no harm, I guess.

    The quest for the faux quotation would have made a pretty good two-part blog post. Absolutely puzzling to see it given such prominence, and so much space.


  2. JoVE March 1, 2011 / 10:45 am

    “At a time when it’s common to hear online writing decried for its lack of editorial oversight, rigor, and credibility, to see eight pages in one of the most prestigious magazines in the literary world used for something no better than this gives the lie to the claim that these supposed features of Old Media produce the best results.”

    This is a very important point. I think those who decry “new media” are a bit too nostalgic in their view of old media. There has always been variable quality. And variations in values and tastes. All media have an audience and write to that audience. It seems that this piece has missed it’s mark for at least some of its audience, though.


  3. Stefanie March 1, 2011 / 11:41 am

    I am so glad you mentioned this before I noticed it in my library’s copy of the New Yorker. I think I will skip it and put my time into reading something better, like maybe George Eliot.


  4. Susan Messer March 1, 2011 / 11:08 pm

    Funny coincidence. I just received a copy of this article in the mail, from my sister, a day or two ago. Read only the first page so far. I’ll have to finish it and then come back and read your post. I like synchronicity.


  5. Elaine M. Hyman, PsyD March 2, 2011 / 9:12 am

    The fire of your envy is palpable. The NYker essay was, to me, a new form of personal essay. Not meant to be lit crit. And readers do differ in their tastes. So you have a right to differ with Mean in her tastes within Eliot’s works.

    To me the search for the source of the quotation-that-never-was represented and portrayed the quest and desperate hope of aging baby boomers who, sometimes fall prey to the shallow, the quasi-spiritual positive-mindedness trend in this country that women, in particular, seem to embrace. At the same time, to have another chance in old age, to hope for one, is invigorating, a holy grail. To have all this (satire of American culture, reflections on life course) supported by a great work of literature made Meads essay a valuable and pleasurable experience.


  6. Rohan Maitzen March 2, 2011 / 11:31 am

    Elaine, I actually share Mead’s taste “within Eliot’s work,” as far as I can tell (except, I guess, for the greater credit I’m willing to give Romola). I just wish she had done something different–something more substantial or exciting–with the rare opportunity she had. I expect every writer feels a little pang of envy regarding the few who publish in the New Yorker–but I’m morally certain I would have applauded and cheered and sent copies to all my friends and family if I thought it was a great essay, because Mead and I both think Middlemarch deserves all kinds of attention and readers, and because I’m always excited to find writing that I think combines great style and great thought. But for me, despite the aspects of the essay I did enjoy, overall it was just a disappointing read. I tried to be as clear as I could about why. Clearly you got a lot out of Mead’s essay, however, perhaps because you were looking for something more personal than I was–and finding it. As you say, readers do differ in their tastes. I’m intrigued by your symbolic reading of her quest for the quotation, which actually seems to me to go further with the potential of that story than she did.


  7. Amateur Reader March 2, 2011 / 11:48 am

    Rohan, if there’s still “fire” in your envy, you’re doing something right.

    This “new form” of personal essay goes back to Montaigne.


  8. Elaine M Hyman,PsyD March 2, 2011 / 3:53 pm

    OK, friends, romaneurs, and GE lovers, let’s get some excellently fulfilled and non-disappointing pieces pouring fourth. I want excellence, too. I guess I didn’t realize what was missing. Let’s get our Montaigne rolling. I can’t wait to hear what my novest sister, Susan Messer, above, has to say once she reads the, finishes the Mead. She wrote me that I came on as if personally attacking the owner of this blog space. I did not I tend that, was just fired up by some of the more bitterbites, lit my fire, and was, I guess, defending my own taste. Otherwise, hooray for lit lovers and for great lit, forever!


  9. Elaine M. Hyman, PsyD March 2, 2011 / 8:05 pm

    The tendency in his (Montaigne’s) essays to digress into anecdotes and personal ruminations was seen as detrimental to proper style rather than as an innovation, and his declaration that, ‘I am myself the matter of my book’, was viewed by his contemporaries as self-indulgent. In time, however, Montaigne would be recognized as embodying, perhaps better than any other author of his time, the spirit of freely entertaining doubt which began to emerge at that time. He is most famously known for his skeptical remark, ‘Que sais-je?’ (‘What do I know?’).


  10. Rohan March 2, 2011 / 8:38 pm

    hooray for lit lovers and for great lit, forever!

    Amen to that. I think the Zadie Smith essay I’ve linked to (which is also, in an expanded version I think, in her collection Changing My Mind) is already a good example of what I consider a more “fulfilled” piece, though it is also less personal.


  11. Dorothy W. March 2, 2011 / 11:01 pm

    I very much enjoyed this post. I read the Mead article and thought it was okay and promptly forgot about it — which I guess is the problem, since there was so little that was memorable. I’m looking forward to reading the Smith essay when I pick up Changing my Mind sometime this year.


  12. Susan Messer March 3, 2011 / 11:16 am

    Read the article last night. Hard not to be influenced by the discussion here, but overall, I was very excited at the beginning (the author’s personal engagement with “Middlemarch”) but far less engaged by the rest: the visit to the towns and homes and conferences/societies and the search regarding the quote. The latter part felt like padding to me, the need to fill pages, as if an editor said, “I like the idea, but you need to take it further,” and so she did. But why should the NYer need to fill pages when we have so many brilliant and talented writers who would give practically anything to have a paragraph in the NYer? I love a meandering essay, but in this one, the meandering didn’t meander in the directions I like. And I agree that some of the writing/editing wasn’t as clear as it could have been–not always sure whether something was meant as a compliment or an insult, as you pointed out, Rohan.

    This piece did remind me of a couple of thing re: engagement with beloved books. I was once obsessed with Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” (using the quote marks, like the big kids) and reread it many times. Then I came across an essay by Susanna Kaysen (who wrote “Girl Interrupted”) called “On Rereading the Magic Mountain.” The essay, published in a very good literary magazine called “Agni,” used to be online (I checked; it’s not anymore), and when I found it, I loved it the way I think I could have loved the NYer essay if the Nyer essay were more like the Kaysen essay–focused the whole way on Kaysen’s personal engagement with the novel. Kaysen, along the way, also compared a new translation with an older one but never lost focus on how the book affected her.

    The Mead piece also reminded me of something a friend told me, when Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” was published–that she’d seen an essay about one person’s discomfort at reading the novel as it challenged and limited her own view of Woolf, who she referred to as “my [ital] Virginia Woolf.” In fact, I just found a dissertation online called “A Virginia Woolf of One’s Own” that explores Cunningham’s treatment of Woolf.

    And one further thing: On Open Letters a few weeks ago, Lisa Peet linked to and discussed a related, amusing idea: Which novel would you like to have sex with? Not which character, but which novel? Some interesting responses to that one.

    Anyway, I love this idea of passionate engagement with an author or a book. And I do think that Mead in the NYer let me down in exploring that passion.


  13. Bookboxed March 3, 2011 / 2:24 pm

    I haven’t read the article as I don’t subscribe, but your piece did make me think of the following.
    Here in the UK in recent times we have been subjected to a tv documentary style in which the presenter is as, if not more, important than the subject, so we have to watch their feet ascend steps and journey with them between locations. It’s about wider audience appeal, but it’s putting plenty of people off. It also seems to be about some sort of voyeuristic experiencing of the subject through their experience, which is being paraded, as though it offers some kind of authenticity. I wonder if this new way of writing, if that’s what it is, is related.
    I always thought that the key thing about Montaigne was that he was really writing about himself and his subjects provided the material for his explorations. That would sort of fit in: George Eliot as a key to the article writer, not the other way around.


  14. Rohan Maitzen March 3, 2011 / 10:39 pm

    Bookboxed, I think you’re right that there’s a trend in this direction, at least in the more popular media. And I think all of you who are pointing to a tradition of the personal essay are probably right that this is more what Mead was aiming for than the kind of more literary analysis I much prefer (in my mind, it’s the rare individual who is personally interesting enough to pull this off). I could be guilty, then, of blaming her for not writing in a different genre than the one she chose–maybe that’s unreasonable of me. But I did try to find the personal journey or revelation story and didn’t–or something along the lines of what you are talking about, Susan, when you say “engagement with beloved books”–again, that’s certainly one aspect of the piece, but where did it really go?

    I thought that thread at Like Fire was very, um, suggestive as well!


  15. Susan Messer March 3, 2011 / 11:11 pm

    I don’t think you’re guilty of anything, Rohan. Look at how much thinking you’ve generated.


  16. Alison Booth March 10, 2011 / 8:28 pm

    I came across this as I was writing about how often I encounter pieces in major publications confessing to the personal response to literature. Rohan, I think your blog is terrific and the response to Mead captures mine as well. I did think that Mead was unusual in doing a bit of ethnographic practicum, visiting the author society (Miriam Bailin is writing about about the latter phenomenon). And she had the one interesting point that the spirit of Eliot is not in fact as reassuring as the “Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings” use of her (if I have that title right) or the bumper stickers. Yep, it’s often really too late in life. Anyway, good discussion, thanks.


  17. Rohan Maitzen March 11, 2011 / 11:49 am

    Thanks for your comment, Alison, and for reading! It’s true that the ‘ethnographic’ bits are an interesting angle but I found many of her comments quite patronizing.

    Maybe we underestimate the marketing potential of George Eliot bumper stickers. Mrs Cadwallader might be a good source? And Mr Casaubon, too: “I desire an interval of complete freedom from guests whose desultory vivacity makes their presence a fatigue,” for instance. 🙂


  18. Jan Henderson April 13, 2011 / 9:19 pm

    Four things I got from the Mead essay. 1) I’m rereading MM and am in heaven. 2) The quotation about gout: “a disease which has a good deal of wealth on its side.” I’m a historian of medicine and this illustrates a perpetual theme. 3) Like Elaine M. Hyman, I was interested in the self-help appeal of the words Eliot never wrote. 4) I discovered this blog.

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.


  19. Susan Messer April 26, 2011 / 6:29 pm

    A week or so ago, I saw over at Publishers Lunch that Mead is expanding the article and has a book deal to do so.


  20. Rohan April 26, 2011 / 6:56 pm

    Well, I guess in a couple of years I can “expand” this post into a review of the book…


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