The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot
Rebecca Mead
Granta, March 2014

This cover is stunning, whatever else I think about the book.

This was one of the 2014 releases that I was most excited about, but now that I’ve finished it, I’m not so sure. I went into this book expecting both personal and literary analysis of the themes and language of Middlemarch; I ended up with something else entirely. This book is really a sort-of-kind-of biography of George Eliot, stitched together with autobiographical details from Mead’s life; the whole thing was occasionally pushed into the framework of discussing Middlemarch, mostly towards the end, but it wasn’t at all what I’d expected.

Much of the book consists of Mead detailing the steps a biographer would take to learn about the person she’s writing about: she visits the various places that Eliot lived; she holds Eliot’s own fountain pen, passed down the generations; she goes to the British Library to look at original manuscripts. The author’s reactions to each of these are detailed very thoroughly; her awe and excitement are completely understandable, but also rather tedious. Mead often seemed to be striving to draw quite tenuous connections, not between her own life and that of Dorothea Brooke (or any other inhabitant of Middlemarch), but between her own life and Eliot’s. For example, her assertion that Middlemarch has a lot to say about being a stepparent, on the grounds that Mead and Eliot share that particular quality, seems a trifle overstated, particularly given that no evidence is presented from within the text to support her point. I also found the instances in which Mead speculates about Eliot’s own thought processes, often without any recourse to texts from the time, rather grating.

On occasion, the autobiographical details Mead inserts are fascinating and touching. For example, she discusses her own past relationship with an older man both fondly and critically, and admits that she understands how Dorothea could have believed herself in love with the scholarly Casaubon, whose blood is “all semicolons and parentheses” (I can definitely understand this too). In this section, she discusses how her attitudes towards both Dorothea and Casaubon have changed as she herself has matured. This is the type of thing I was expecting when I first picked the book up, and it’s when my interest was most engaged. However, at other times, the autobiographical aspects seem rather shoehorned in; in particular, Mead discusses her parents’ experiences of the war for maybe a page, crammed in between utterly unrelated biographical information about Eliot. This was jarring, and it happened on several occasions throughout the book.

Also, I did not realise (perhaps foolishly, but still) that there would be major plot spoilers for all of Eliot’s other works contained within this book. It really peeved me to learn exactly what I can expect from Daniel Deronda and The Mill on the Floss, which I have not yet read. I expected Mead to assume familiarity on the part of her readers with the plot of Middlemarch, but that was the only one of Eliot’s books mentioned in the blurb, so I didn’t think I needed to read all of her other works before this. Even works by Dickens and others get partially “spoiled”, which I think is rather unnecessary—I don’t think it adds anything to the book.

I certainly enjoyed aspects of the analysis, especially towards the end, where Mead goes rather deeper into literary criticism and waxes lyrical about the role played by Mary Garth. I hadn’t truly appreciated the importance of Mary Garth and Fred Vincy when I read the book, and I enjoyed her analysis of Mary not only as a foil for Dorothea, but as the “true heroine” of Middlemarch. When I next reread Middlemarch, I will have Mead’s points in the back of my head, and I’m sure they will help me to see something new in this wildly complex novel. There is also a point where Mead writes, evocatively, about what it means to love a novel:

“What’s your favourite book?” is a question that is usually only asked by children and banking-identity services–and favourite isn’t, anyway, the right word to describe the relationship a reader has with a particularly cherished book. 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.

In short, the concept of The Road to Middlemarch is lovely, and on occasions when Mead allows herself to be unselfconscious and reflect on what the book means to her (and has meant to her over the years), it shines very brightly. Unfortunately, most of the time it reads like a rather uneven biography of Eliot, marred by pointless speculation not really connected to Middlemarch. Certainly, reading it has prompted my interest in reading about people’s personal relationships with reading (my Books on Books shelf on Goodreads has suddenly increased rather drastically in size), for which I’m grateful. However, it largely failed to deliver what I expected, and was a bit of a disappointment all around. Unlike Middlemarch, I won’t be revisiting this.