We all have gaps in our reading: it’s impossible not to, there’s just too much out there. Even narrowing it to the established classics, those works of literature that have been defined by longevity, makes for a formidable cross-section of eras, styles and nationalities. One of the big gaps in my own personal reading was George Eliot. I’d always meant to … never got round to … been put off by yet another entirely turgid BBC adaptation … The excuses were always there.
Then I was offered a review copy of Rebecca Mead’s The Road to Middlemarch, which I accepted enthusiastically, intrigued by the cover blurb’s promise of “literary biography, deep reading and personal memoir”. And if as a result I finally tackled a volume of Eliot, so much the better. After just ten pages of Mead’s book, I was in a quandary: I was wholly won over by Mead’s critically intuitive but winningly warm-hearted prose style and could have devoured the book in one sitting. But I was acutely conscious that it would yield so much more if I read Middlemarch first.
I ended up reading the two in tandem. Mead structures her account of Eliot’s keystone work, placing it in the context of her life and career, in parallel with the eight books of Middlemarch. I pendulum’d between Eliot and Mead over the course of three weeks, feeling like I’d come to know both writers as well as exhaustively touring every scrap of geography that was distilled into Eliot’s quintessentially provincial English town. Serialised during 1871-72 and set just prior to the Reform Act of 1832, Middlemarch is one of the most immersive and unflinching portrayals of the politics, prejudices and patriarchy that underpin English society. With the media sharpening its claws over the George Eliot Hospital while I was reading it, and a major subplot in Middlemarch detailing the financial shenanigans and administrative string-pulling behind the establishment of a new hospital, the old cliché never seemed truer: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Middlemarch is primarily a study in defeated idealism: Dorothea Brooke’s is misplaced, Tertius Lydgate’s is poisoned by hubris. But there’s so much more to it, and Mead traces the book’s importance – one might even say centrality – to her life, teasing out the aspects that struck the most resonant chords at different stages in her own personal journey. The Road to Middlemarch is aptly titled: Mead’s peregrinations take us through her life, through Eliot’s, through English history and the English landscape, and through the drawing rooms, farmyards, offices and billiard halls of Middlemarch itself. It’s a perfect companion piece to a colossus of a novel, illuminating, intelligent and richly rewarding in its own right.