Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Middlemarch and the Subjective Response

            One might think that a personal memoir on one’s infatuation with a particular literary masterpiece, Middlemarch for example, would not likely have a wide readership.  But Rebecca Mead’s recently-published book My Life in Middlemarch has been selling well, according to a cursory check of The New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists.  And it is an interesting and eloquent book about the passions we have for our favorite books and authors. In the case of Mead’s book, though, readers probably need to have a similar respect, if not adoration, for Middlemarch and George Eliot.  I do.
            Mead’s book is a kind of scholarly memoir with ample doses of personal narrative, interspersed with anecdotes from Eliot’s life and relationship with George Henry Lewes, alongside analysis of Middlemarch.  Most literary scholars, however, will not think of My Life in Middlemarch as a scholarly text, and I thought about this issue all the while reading it.  Mead has done abundant research, and some of her most interesting passages recount her visits to numerous scholarly archives where she read Eliot’s manuscripts, as well as correspondence to and from the author.  Mead knows Eliot’s life and career well, citing the major research.
            So, what kind of book is My Life in Middlemarch?  Why isn’t it “scholarly,” or conversely, why isn’t “scholarly” writing more like Mead’s text?  It’s a moving exploration of one reader’s devotion to a novel and a writer.  Ruth Bernard Yeazell’s recent review essay “Growing Up with Middlemarch” in the New York Review of Books, finds Mead’s book all too reductive and forced in its design.  Mead discusses her life story as though her life and Eliot’s life and novel were all providentially intertwined.  True, some of these moments in Mead’s text struck me a little corny, such as when Eliot teaches Mead how to be a stepmother, but I found myself less troubled by the role of subjectivity in Mead’s reading of Eliot and her fiction.  Don’t we all do this, even those of us who are literary scholars? Aren’t our scholarly passions driven by our subjectivity?  Mead is just more obvious in telling us.  I do agree with Yeazell that Mead “domesticates” the novel too much, reducing it, “settling” it, much more so than Eliot does herself.  Okay.  But, isn’t this what happens when we read fiction and then write criticism?  We settle the text based on our selection of passages, our modes of analysis.
And while Mead undoubtedly is selective in her discussion of the text, she is quite clear in noting that our favorite books change as we read them again and again across our lives.  They speak to us in different ways as we age, but we continue to return to them for their wisdom:  “Most serious readers can point to one book that has a place in their life like the one that Middlemarch has in mine.  I chose Middlemarch—or Middlemarch chose me—and I cannot imagine life without it” (213).  This is a subjective and intimate approach to reading, one that criticism typically skirts.  Mead herself notes, “Such an approach to fiction—where do I see myself in here?—is not how a scholar reads, and it can be limiting in its solipsism.  It’s hardly an enlarging experience to read a novel as if it were a mirror of oneself.  One of the useful functions of literary criticism and scholarship is to suggest alternative lenses through which a book might be read” (172).  Yet, reading herself in the text, and writing her life according to its patterns, is exactly what Mead does; at the same time, My Life in Middlemarch is not simply a gushing encomium.
            Much of Mead’s book was a pleasure for me, perhaps because I spent my fall semester with a small group of English students reading Middlemarch with great care, responding to it both critically and emotionally.  That too was a tremendous pleasure, especially as I was able to introduce this profound novel and writer to students not familiar with either.  It had been many years since I last read Middlemarch, myself, and I was waiting for just the right group of students, who could handle Eliot’s mind contained within those ponderous sentences.  It was one of my best teaching experiences, and I learned a lot about Middlemarch and Eliot’s ethic of sympathy and imagination.  So, reading Mead was like returning to those two months last year when I had smart, honest conversations about Middlemarch with like-minded, earnest students.  We did see ourselves delving into the mind of Eliot, knowing her better, much like Mead endeavors to do.
            One of the Mead’s most revealing passages in My Life in Middlemarch is her account of Eliot’s correspondence with Alexander Main, a young man who was one of her foremost fans, to the point of excess.  He even published a collection of quotations taken from her work, Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings, in Prose and Verse, Selected from the Works of George Eliot.  Mead reads Main’s and Eliot’s letters to each other, recognizing herself in Main, in spite of his being a little creepy at times:  “Reading these letters about Middlemarch was a disquieting experience.  Main’s assumption of intimacy with Eliot made me cringe, and yet I recognized in his enthusiasm for her works enough of my own admiration for her to feel an awkward fellowship with him.  Main is the naïve reader writ large—the kind of reader who approaches a book not with an academic’s theoretical apparatus or the scope of a professional critic, but who reads with commitment and intelligence, and with a conviction that there is something worth learning from a book” (241).  It’s moving that Mead finds sympathy toward Main, in distinct George Eliot fashion, when Eliot scholars have given little serious attention to Main’s passion for Eliot’s work, expressed through his letters to her.
             I love reading criticism and watching literary scholars work at the rigorous analysis that leads to depth of thought.  So much of the time, this is extremely cerebral work, seldom playful, seldom emotionally engaged, as though writing literary criticism must be devoid of our articulation of our pleasure in the text.  How would literary studies be different if we all spent a little more time in Rebecca Mead’s mode of literary infatuation?  Why shouldn’t we speak plainly about our literary responses? 
            I am reminded of Nina Auerbach’s delightful essay “Dorothea’s Lost Dog,” which is a sassy and smart analysis of Auerbach’s dislike for Dorothea.  This reader response stems from little details about the Dorothea’s rejection of a Maltese dog and her mother’s jewels.  Auerbach immediately delves into subjectivity, noting her own special relationship with her own Maltese and her love of jewelry.  This critical move becomes a springboard for a thought-provoking character analysis.  Auerbach writes:  “No doubt my irritation at Dorothea is subjective, at least as far as jewels and dogs are concerned, but it pervades my reading of the novel and deepens my appreciation of its sometimes duplicitous subtlety” (90).  Then Auerbach confesses to always identifying with Casaubon.  Why not?  We respond to literature subjectively and emotionally.  As a literary scholar and writer, Auerbach is a delight in this piece, because she makes transparent the subjective response of her reading and its link to her ensuing critical analysis. 
            Middlemarch is a profound novel, and reading it should lead us to evaluate our own lives and relationships.  We all have special and deeply subjective relationships with such books and authors.  As a literary scholar, I am always eager to get students to read, to get them discover a special experience with literature, however trite that sounds.  Students need to see the passion we have for literature, if we expect them to become lifelong, engaged readers. 

Auerbach, Nina. “Dorothea’s Lost Dog.” Middlemarch in the Twenty-First Century. Ed. Karen Chase. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. 87-105. Print.
Mead, Rebecca. My Life in Middlemarch. NY: Crown, 2014. Print.
Yeazell, Ruth Bernard. “Growing Up with Middlemarch.” New York Review of Books. Apr. 24, 2014. 59-60. Print.

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