Friday, March 21, 2014

My life & Middlemarch

I was introduced to "Middlemarch" by George Eliot nearly 35 years ago, by my favourite English prof. I had never heard of it before, but he told us it was his all-time favourite book, and quite possibly (he thought) the greatest novel ever written in the English language.  His own well-worn copy had underlining and margin notes in several different colours -- a different colour for each time he had read it (and this was not his first copy).  It was a huge thick book, slow moving, but I ultimately did enjoy it.

I hadn't thought much about "Middlemarch" until just recently. Rebecca Mead has written a book called "My Life in Middlemarch," about the novel and her own experiences reading it. I've read several reviews (mostly good) & articles about the book. And then in today's Globe & Mail, this interview with her. I was particularly struck by these two paragraphs at the end:
Through her examination of the hold Middlemarch has over her, Mead – who has three children, including two step-children – reconciled her own feelings about ambition and the idea that it can, indeed, be too late to be the person you thought you might be. When she started the research, she was in her early 40s, in that uncomfortable place of new middle-age, realizing that doors of opportunity were closing. 
But now, she is more hopeful about the happiness and satisfaction that lie ahead. Middlemarch attaches more beauty and romance to the accomplishment of enduring love rather than to the follies of young love, even though that’s what preoccupies many. “Whether we are married or have kids or not, most of what we do is humble and small, and yet it has a kind of incredible grandeur,” Mead says, offering a quote that Eliot herself might have spoken.
So I haven't read the book (yet) -- but those last two paragraphs have got me thinking. Is it too late to be the person I want to be? It's definitely too late for me to be a mother. Yes, I know there are those who would argue that it's never too late, if I just persevere and never give up and spend enough money, somehow, somewhere, some way, I could be a mother... 

Well, call me a pessimist or a quitter (I wouldn't, but that's your prerogative) -- but I think it's true that, as we age, we start to come to terms with the fact that we're just not going to get to do everything we ever wanted to do or thought we would do. There are some doors of opportunity that are indeed closing -- and, once closed, will never open again (or will only be pried open with great difficulty and at great cost).  Our time, money, patience and other resources are limited, and that becomes more & more evident the older we get.  It's up to us to decide how we want to spend those resources, where our priorities are -- and those priorities often change as we age & evolve.  I am not entirely the same person I was when I first read read "Middlemarch" in my early 20s -- or when I was 37 and pregnant with Katie. or 40, when I decided I had to stop infertility treatments for the sake of my sanity. And I'll probably have changed again, in big or small ways, by the time I'm 60 or 75 or older.

That said, while it may be too late to be the person you once wanted to be, it's never too late to try to be a better person, to strive for something better. We might never reach that goal, but isn't the fun in the trying? The journey, vs the destination?

Our lives may not be the ones we pictured for ourselves when we were younger... but yes, there can be happiness and satisfaction and even grandeur sometimes (and I love that she mentioned "whether we have kids or not" -- it was probably that one line that provided the spark for this blog post). 

Thoughts? Anyone else read "Middlemarch," Mead's book, or both?

I have to admit, I went out & bought a copy of Mead's book (I have "Middlemarch" on my e-reader, and put it on my to-(re)read list). I don't often re-read books these days, but I might have to make an exception here. I'll let you know if/when I get around to reading either or both. ;) 


  1. Loribeth, I have come across your blog from time to time through Mel's round up and I have just realized that I need to make sure I never miss a post - this is post has bowled me over. So thoughtful and thought-provoking - I know it will jumpstart some thoughts for me - reexamining where I am at as compared to what I thought I would be, where I thought I would be and what this all means in the grander scheme of happiness, which is my ultimate goal as I ride out my own journey through life.

    I love this. Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Hi Loribeth - I normally lurk but your post on Middlemarch resonated with me. I believe it is the greatest book ever; I first read it when I was a teenager and loved the story of Dorothea but in later years identify (in some ways, though not all!) with the stories of both Lydgate and, to a lesser extent, Bulstrode. George Eliot was an exceptional writer and I used to work near the cemetery where she is buried and so found great comfort in visiting her grave regularly.
    We have a daughter , adopted (from China), now aged 5 after many years of failed fertility treatment. Although your's and my situations are not the same I do identify with your thoughts (we are a similar age) and I love your blog. You have motivated me to read this new book about the book. Many thanks for your insightful and kind words.

  3. Northern Star & China Mum, thanks so much for de-lurking with your kind words! You've both made my day. :)

  4. I read this and foolishly thought I could dash off and read Middlemarch before commenting. (I suspect I might have read it many years ago, but I can't remember! Sign of old age?)

    Oh, we definitely get to a stage when we realise it is too late to be the person we thought we might be. But you know, the person I thought I might be at 20 is different to the person I thought I might be at 30, 40 and now at 50. Yes, I have had to say good-bye to some dreams - I wrote this six years ago (

    But I have new dreams now - priorities have changed, I've come to terms with talents I don't have in sufficient quantity to use as I might like, but I have discovered new talents too.

  5. Oh I love Middlemarch. My favorite quote from it is "But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

    I see it as a story about disappointment, but also about finding value and dignity in the way we meet it. George Eliot's characters frustrate me sometimes in the way they accept their fates, but I think that's her point--that sometimes heroism looks like that instead of like something glamorous.

    I have this book on my summer reading list!

  6. @Brooke: I forgot that line about "unvisited tombs." Coincidentally, dh & I were visiting Katie at the cemetery this weekend and talking about who's going to come to visit us there when we're gone. Answer: nobody. Maybe the nephews once in a very great while, but it's an hour's drive for them, so I doubt they will make the trip very often, if at all.

    Last fall, we drove an hour & a bit north to enjoy the scenery and visit the graves of my great x3 grandparents & their daughter (my grandfather's great-aunt). We owe so much of what we know about our family's history to this unmarried, childless woman, who has been dead almost 65 years, and yet I am willing to bet that my parents & I are the only relatives to have visited her grave in the last 30 years.

    But then, dh admitted, it's been years since he's been to visit his mother's grave (about a half-hour's drive for us), so having kids is no guarantee...

  7. Hi Loribeth

    Just to add, I was sufficiently inspired by your blog and lovely comment to buy the book for my e reader! It is nice to have something good to look forward to reading soon. Many thanks again.

  8. I've read both books. Middlemarch was my library book club's selection for February (always classics month, which nicely coincides with my birthday!), and another woman and I brought My Life in Middlemarch. This was my third reading, and I got far more out of it now, 11 years into marriage. I love the quotation Brooke cited above.

  9. Not sure what happened, but the previous comment was mine. : )

  10. Can you believe that with all those literature courses and reading for pleasure that I've never sat down with Middlemarch. You may have convinced me to add it to the to-read list.

    I love this: "That said, while it may be too late to be the person you once wanted to be, it's never too late to try to be a better person, to strive for something better. We might never reach that goal, but isn't the fun in the trying? The journey, vs the destination?"

  11. I've never read Middlemarch either. I am a huge admirer of Jane Austen, who is often compared to Elliot, but her books (much as I love them) focus on young love stories which fascinate so many of us. I find those young love stories resonate with me less and less as I grow older.

    I would definitely be interested in reading about the unsung benefits of enduring love. Thanks for the recommendation.