Rebecca Mead Lives In Middlemarch

Interview

Friday, February 14, 2014

At 900 pages, George Eliot’s Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life is a serious read for serious readers. It’s a Victorian epic, but on a small scale. Eliot meticulously details the extraordinary lives of mostly ordinary people living in a fictional English town. The novel's boosters argue that it’s the best English novel ever written. “Middlemarch can help you grow to be a wiser, more thoughtful person,” Rebecca Mead tells Kurt Andersen. “George Eliot talks about the power of lives that are not fulfilled on some grand scale, but that can have an impact on those people around them.” Mead, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is the author of My Life in Middlemarch. It’s part memoir, part biography, and part literary critique of a novel that, to her, has been something of a life manual.

Middlemarch was originally released as a serial, beginning in 1871. It caused the sort of sensation TV dramas do today. Kurt draws a line to Downton Abbey, but “in terms of its seriousness and its ambition and its inter-weaving of stories,” Mead suggests, “it’s closer to The Wire, if not in its content, then in its aspirations.” 

Mead first read the novel at the age of 17, and has re-read it every five or so years, identifying with different characters’ experiences over time — from the idealistic young woman to the ambitious doctor, to the older couple who had been betrothed since childhood. “I’m pretty sure I have not worn out my love for it in writing this book,” she tells Kurt. “I’ll be interested to see the ways it unfolds to me next time.”


→ Is Middlemarch the great 19th century novel that everyone should read? If not, what is?
Tell us in a Comment below.

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Guests:

Rebecca Mead

Produced by:

Sean Rameswaram

Comments [4]

Marshall from Texas

_Middlemarch_ is unquestionably a great and valuable book, and as for novels in English, it goes at or near the top of the heap. I have no problems with _Middlemarch_, but claiming that it's the greatest novel ever, or even of the 19th century, is another discussion, especially since it does nothing to challenge the social context in which it was written; it's about bourgeois people doing bourgeois things, written from a bourgeois perspective. It asks no hard questions about the morality of the social pecking order itself, and even features no poor people, really. Consider also, as a colleague pointed out to me, that Eliot wrote at the same time as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Zola, and Flaubert, and you have to conclude that English novelists of the period were playing a different and more comfortable game, in a country enjoying the most dominant epoch of its history. Despite Eliot's clear superiority to everyone else writing in the British Isles, that's a limitation.
_Anna Karenina_ is the greatest 19th century novel; the doomed love story is a canard to keep the reader interested in Tolstoy's anatomy of a country on the brink of collapse.

Feb. 17 2014 01:36 PM
Andrea from Montclair, NJ

Personally, I love Edith Wharton's use of language.
I have not read all her works, but I became a fan of hers when
I read Ethan Frome. She is most offen compared to Henry James,
yet I think her stories are far more engaging and her vocabulary
easier to follow for readers in our present time.
I am about to read a collection of her short stories about New York.

I would have called as Mr Anderson had invited listeners to do,
but alas could not find a phone number to leave such a message.

Feb. 17 2014 12:42 PM
H Hughes from NYC

What do you mean the great "19th century novel"? It is THE great novel.If the novel as a form is the ultimate expression of individual consciousness, then Middlemarch is the ultimate novel. It paints a picture of human life on a broad canvas. It's not about one character, one couple or one family, it's about a community. But all the characters and their stories present variations on the same theme, which is the ultimate existential question: What is a good life, and how do we live it?
The criticism Anderson mentioned in this segment, that the novel is too "moralizing" for some readers, rings hollow to me. I don't think it's prescriptive. It does assume that you can't ask the question of what defines "a good life" without struggling to define "good." Maybe in the 21st century we have a hard time thinking about "goodness" without equating it with goody-goodyness, but I think that's our problem, not Eliot's.

Feb. 15 2014 05:40 PM
Peter Young from Glenpool, OK

The best English language novel is Douglas Adams "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Off beat in irreverent, we follow a nebbish everyman "hero" as he takes his place as the last surviving earth man. Never comfortable in his own skin, Arthur Dent must confront his own insecurities and the very dangerous bravado of his traveling companions. There may be some life lessons, such as the answer the the question of life the universe and everything. But the laughs are far more important.

Feb. 14 2014 10:37 PM

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