Last year I read Middlemarch, a novel by George Eliot. It was my second attempt at reading this book, my first successful. The first time I tried to tackle Middlemarch, about three years ago, I quit at about 700 of 1000 pages in. Maybe it was the Dickensian digressions into nineteenth century British politics; maybe it was the glacially incremental forward motion of the three major love stories, two of which are unhappy; maybe it was the umpteenth passage employing that old chestnut, the quadruple negative—whatever it was, I didn’t like it, probably because I didn’t get it, which is not a way I’m used to feeling around books.
I didn’t even try to get it. It didn’t help that my first attempt at Middlemarch came at a time in my life when I was drinking a lot—too much—and words like “Rector” and “Whig” really don’t go well with a hangover. Drinking is a diet for the mind, and I was burning brain cells at a high rate. I think part of the reason I was trying to read Middlemarch then was because I wanted to inject some semblance of intellectual activity back into my life—wanted to return to some former, less weary version of myself who went to the library, not the bar, every weekend.
So some of success my second time around with the book had to do with the fact that I no longer regularly drink hard liquor, and that I had already struggled through two-thirds of the narrative (though that didn’t stop me from heading over to Shmoop at the end of nearly every chapter to read a bullet-pointed synopsis of exactly what just happened and why it mattered). But why had I been compelled to pick it up again in the first place?
I am the kind of person who feels obligated to read the classics (this is a syndrome known as FEMGu: Former English Major Guilt). I’ve read that Middlemarch is considered by many authors to be maybe the best novel ever—perfect in its sprawling imperfections, real and uneven in the manner of its human life, rather than the form of its literary forebears. And yet still undeniably a novel, with its strong narrative voice, its heartbreaking dialogue, its somewhat Gothic plot twists and coincidences, its call-and-response with those literary forebears.
You don’t, however, see me scrambling to read Ulysses. My interest in Middlemarch mostly has to do with the fact that it’s one of the only regularly cited “best ever” novels written by a woman. The lives of authors fascinate me nearly as much as their works do—particularly the lives of nineteenth century female authors, who did the very thing I dream of doing, in a world that gave them one thousand more reasons not to. I wonder what it would be like to write in a drawing room, with a dip pen, in a corset and a petticoat, at the expense of one’s “work,” that is, sewing and needlepoint. I wonder how gender affects what we choose to write, how the push and pull of the normative life expected of a woman might influence her creative decisions—what to write, when to write, how to write, if to write. I wonder how different technologies—ball point, typewriters, computers, electricity—change the act of writing. I wonder about the nineteenth century world in general: about its innocence, its scientific discovery, its vast societal changes, its unawareness of its hurtling along toward its extinction. I wonder how texts written by the sheltered, second-class gender of that world could manage to last and speak to women in this one. How could one write something like that, is what I want to know.
Around the same time I gave up on Middlemarch, I gave up on a novel I had been writing for six or seven years. My novel was terrible. The worst. The final resting place of bad metaphor: “her focus as un-pin-downable and far off as a turkey vulture circling in a high blue sky”; “her exuberant youth seemed to waft everywhere around her like a perfume.” When I began the novel, I was determined not to write about myself. I consciously rejected that cardinal rule of authorship: write what you know. I fancied myself a disrupter of conventional wisdom who would upend a long tradition of navel-gazing debut novels produced by the American MFA farm system. I imagined chuckling with Terri Gross.
I ended up writing hundreds of pages about things I don’t know anything about (old age, being a mother, being a widow, growing up in the south) and it showed. Thus I spent seven years of my life teaching myself, the hard way, something that everyone already knew and had tried to tell me. Good writing always rings with truth, and, at least for the novice, the way to get fiction to ring with truth is to mine your own experience and emotions. No one is interested in reading the ham-fisted byproduct of your principled stand against perceived narcissism, and no one beyond your friends and family will ever know that your novel is loosely or even very autobiographical—until you get famous, which won’t ever happen unless your novel rings with truth.
Now, for better, more intelligent, or more practiced authors than I, writing beyond the circle of your firsthand experience is absolutely possible. Middlemarch is the ne plus ultra of multiple perspectives. Eliot’s pen convincingly inhabits the minds of both genders; teenagers, new mothers, bachelors, the elderly and the dying; multiple industries, including medicine, politics, religion, law, art, railroads, surveying, and horseracing; and every class, from the wealthiest frock-coated landowner down to coarse Mrs. Dollop, proprietor of the Tankard pub in Slaughter Lane.
Eliot, I have come to find out, was a huge champion of empathy. She believed in the power of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. She believed that engaging in this act on the individual level would subtly improve the entire world, and that this was one of the most important functions of fiction: to give us the opportunity to adopt new ways of seeing. And she certainly had the intellectual capabilities to go there in her own writing (although some of her portraits are distinctly less empathetic than others; the homely humble governess is dealt a much better hand than the beautiful blonde coquette, which is fine by me). You know who else talked a lot about the importance of empathy to fiction, and fiction to empathy? David Foster Wallace, whose novels work to sprawl and encompass multitudes in exactly the same way that Eliot’s do. Infinite Jest may in fact be the Middlemarch of the twentieth century.
Giving up on my own novel was incredibly liberating. I decided to give up on it after reading a pull quote in a woman’s magazine, in an article about small business owners. The proud proprietor of a wreath-making company described how she had failed in an earlier career. The pull quote read, “If you try hard at something for a long time, and it still doesn’t work, it may be time to let that go.” That was all it took. That was all I needed to hear. I was raised in an era of quitters never win, and I needed permission to give up. Quitters may not win that game, but sometimes they get to move on to something way more fulfilling.
I was also raised in the era of the individual trophy, of you can do anything if you put your mind to it, and it was a strange thing indeed to realize my own limitations. To accept that I may not in fact be intelligent enough to write the kind of fiction I want to write, or that at the very least I am at the base camp of my skill level, with decades of hard work ahead of me. It feels so good, in the end, to be humbled. I think this too is why I went back to Middlemarch: I found myself suddenly much more tolerant of studying at the feet of a master.
And when I finally finished reading it, I understood at last what Virginia Woolf famously said about Middlemarch: it is a novel for “grown-up people.” Not only because reading it takes patience and a willingness to explore foreign perspectives. Above all, reading Middlemarch requires a familiarity with failure. At its core it’s a book about longing, the adjusting of expectations, the downsizing of dreams. All of its main characters are keening and pining and reaching for something more—an aspiration, a calling, a “purpose-driven life,” in the modern parlance—and almost all of them fail or fall short.
And so it turns out, books can also have empathy for us.