I recently re-read My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, and was struck by the following passage about young Mary Ann Evans, an editor and critic for The Westminster Review in the years before she transformed herself into the writer George Eliot.
" [H]er critical judgement could be instringent, even snarky, and she enjoyed the professional attention she got through exercising it. If one is accustomed to think of George Eliot as she ended up -- the novelist famous for the generosity of her comprehension -- it's shocking, and not a little thrilling, to read her early essays and discover how slashing she could be. I wouldn't exchange the large, sympathetic capacities she later uncovered for these lesser dagger blows, but there's something very satisfying about knowing she once had it in her to land them. It's oddly reassuring to know that before she grew good, George Eliot could be bad -- to realize that she, also, had a frustrated ferocity that it gratified her to unleash, at least until she found her way to a different kind of writing, one that allowed her to lay down her arms, and to flourish without combativeness or cruelty.
"Beyond the pages of the periodicals, too, she could be acid and spiky, defensive in anticipation of attack. 'Treating people ill is an infallible sign of special love with me,' she wrote to a friend. New acquaintances were not sure what to make of her. 'I don't know whether you will like Miss Evans," Bessie Raynor Parkes, who became Eliot's good friend, wrote to Barbara Bodichon, who became an even better one. 'At least I know you will like her for her large unprejudiced mind, her complete superiority to most women. But whether you or I should ever love her, as a friend, I don't know at all. There is yet no high moral purpose in the impression she makes, and it is that alone which commands love. I think she will alter. Large angels take a long time unfolding their wings, but when they do, they soar out of sight. Miss Evans either has no wings, or, which I think is the case, they are coming, budding."
Boy, did Bessie get that right.
I love the passage not only for the glimpse we get of women's friendships (always a subject close to my heart), but also for the insight into how Eliot changed and deepened over the years . . . not unlike writers I know today. It takes time to grow into into the person, and thus the artist, you are going to be. It takes time to find your true voice.
I highly recommend My Life in Middlemarch, which is a skillful blend of literary history and memoir. As Mead explained in an interview:
"The book began with a piece that I wrote for The New Yorker, an essay about George Eliot, specifically investigating the source of a quotation which is often attributed to her: 'It's never too late to be what you might have been.' I believed, and I still do believe, that she didn't say that. It doesn't appear to be in any of her books, and I haven't been able to find an original source for it anywhere.
"When I was 42 or so, thinking about doing this, I felt very strongly that it was too late for certain things to happen. I mean, one does, at that age. You know, it's too late to have kids, or it's too late to marry the person that you didn't marry earlier in your life… you realize that there are things that you haven't done that are going to remain undone. So it was in that mood, that mood of reflection, that I wanted to go back to Middlemarch and to think about the ways it had influenced me and shaped my understanding of myself and my own life....
"I don't think Middlemarch tells you how to live your life; thank god it doesn't! It's not a set of instructions, it's not a self-help book, and it would be bizarre to try to read it and follow its 'rules' or something. But I do think that our own life experience obviously informs how we read, and it means that our readings of different novels through different times become richer and change, and that's the measure of a great work of literature -- that you can go back to it time and again, time and again, and it will tell you something new, not just about what's in it but what's in you."
Words: The passage by Rebecca Meade is from My Life in Middlemarch (Crown Publishers, 2014). The quote is from an interview with Ron Hogan (BuzzFeed, November, 2014). All rights reserved by the author and artists. Pictures: The etching of George Eliot is from a chalk drawing by Frederic William Burton, 1864 (National Portrait Gallery, London). The Middlemarch book art is by Stephen Doyle. The angel paintings are old ones of mine (oil paint on paper). All rights reserved by the author and artists. Related post: The Art of Creating a Life: Barbara Bodichon.