Friday, February 7, 2014

A Crime Worse Than Being Blonde

The teetering, Tower of Pisa of books on my night table has a new addition.  And it’s landed right on top:

Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch.  It has launched (with a terrific review in the New York Times) at the very same time as my first-ever-Middlemarch-reread-with-the-daughter, and how amazing is that? 

Every decade or so I pull out my old college copy of Middlemarch and hunker down with Dorothea and Dr. Lydgate and the rest of the crew just to check in and see what’s changed.  Because it does.  Not on the page:  in my heart.  My head.  My imagination.  It’s a fairly miraculous thing about this book, the way various characters present themselves depending on one’s age and stage.

What’s been really fun this month is to take the Middlemarch journey with my 20-year old daughter.  She’s in that stage of life and education where you read with a pencil, annotating madly, every sentence potential fodder for a paper.  It took me years to recover from that stage, and I’m happy to report that today I not only read without underlining, but if I get bored I skim.  Yup.  I even skip whole paragraphs.

Not only do I read for fun, but I rent the movie afterwards.  That was the reward we gave ourselves this month, after wading through all that authorial voice:  we watched the BBC Middlemarch with Juliet Aubrey (a perfect Dorothea!) and Rufus Sewell (who knew Will Ladislaw was hot?)

Here were this decade’s surprises:

1. Unlike her mother, who, at 20, wholly identified with the idealistic, yearning Dorothea, my daughter found Dorothea to be completely naïve and a bit too superior for her own good. Example: her not-so-subtle put-downs of sister Celia.   (We both agreed it really wasn’t all that unreasonable to want to wear their mother’s jewels.) Instead, the Daughter took the emotional leap straight to the honest, practical Mary Garth.  I did note, however, that as we watched the BBC miniseries, the Daughter was very pleased that the character of Fred Vincy was cute.  It wouldn’t have worked at all to marry Mary off to some pug … or worse, the boring Farebrother.

2. Will Ladislaw and Fred Vincy are … my son and his friends.  Young men full of energy and ideas and absolutely no clear direction and no experience.  Destined to make mistakes and learn from them.  Hopefully, these will be mistakes from which they will recover.  Thirty years ago, I evaluated them as potential partners for my heroines:  now I feel like their mother.

3. Rosamund, the Blonde.  One could argue that the whole of Middlemarch is George Eliot’s attempt to overcome some post-traumatic-stress from an encounter with a blonde.  Why else the hate for poor Rosamund?  Why else make all the admirable female characters brunettes?  Seriously: make a chart comparing hair color to level-of-villainy. 

I have rarely strayed from my initial reading of Rosamund, and always delighted in despising her … but the Daughter had some fresh insights.  She believes Eliot saves her freshest powder for Lydgate (even Bulstrode gets off lighter) because she marries him to Rosamund.  What greater hell?  Thanks to Rosamund he has to abandon his dreams, take a job he despises in Bath, dies young and … get this … she goes off with their four kids and remarries a wealthy older gent. 

Ultimately, in Middlemarch, being blonde is not half as bad as being self-important and sanctimonious.  Poor Lydgate.

According to all the reviews, Rebecca Mead does an excellent job in her “bibliomemoir” (a genre I was completely unaware of until now!) of tracing her own ages and stages with the characters of Middlemarch.  I can’t wait to dig in.

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