April 10, 2014 | by Diane Mehta
Rebecca Mead, Jill Lepore, and a new direction for biography.
Feminism, Paula Backscheider explains in Reflections on Biography, transformed the study of history. “The arresting power of women’s deepest feelings, their comments about their own bodies, and the stark force of their drive to work” are part of the new candor, she says. And there are new things to consider: “How do you do justice to boundary-breaking acts, such as learning to read, or, as with [George] Eliot, not marrying?”
It was thanks to feminism that the relationship between biographer and subject took on a new life—for women to tell other women’s stories, they had to find ways to reconstruct those women’s lives. Ordinary women and their domestic lives became respectable subjects. Their diaries, letters, photographs, and other records could be taken seriously as evidence. Minor details, even in non-events, nuance the undertaking.
Reading Rebecca Mead’s intimate and scholarly My Life in Middlemarch, her memoir about George Eliot’s masterpiece, got me thinking about this shift in biography. What is it that compels one woman to explore the work and personality of another, often with centuries between us—and what are we trying to say?
Mead grew up in southwestern England, in a provincial town not unlike Eliot’s Coventry or the town of Middlemarch itself. And like Middlemarch’s heroine Dorothea Brooke, she too longed to escape the “provincialism of the soul.” For Mead, Middlemarch became representative of growing into one’s intelligence and, through it, outward into the larger world of ideas.
My Life eloquently tracks between Mead’s experiences and Eliot’s. This kind of approach is on the upswing. It has become acceptable to use your experiences as a lens through which to understand another writer. What emerges most powerfully in My Life is not Middlemarch, but Mead herself—it’s her sympathetic gaze, her connection to Eliot and her masterpiece, that hooks us. Joyce Carol Oates called Mead’s book a bibliomemoir (“a subspecies of literature combining criticism and biography with the intimate, confessional tone of autobiography”) in the vein of Nicholson Baker’s U and I, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, and Phyllis Rose’s My Year of Reading Proust. However you slant it genre-wise, My Life is scented with the same close readings, scholarly elbow grease, forensic evidence collection, and leap-of-faith search for character and motivations that characterizes all serious—if formally now fluid—literary biographies.
My Life follows on the heels of Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, which reconstructs the stunted but brilliant sensibility of Ben Franklin’s sister through a miscellany of sources. Unlike the wildly prolific, well-archived, and canonized Eliot, Jane only produced a sixteen-page Book of Ages that she fashioned herself, and which recorded the births and deaths of her children. Scant letters remain. “It explains what it means to write history not from what survives but from what is lost,” Lepore says, emphasizing that she was writing not only a biography but “a meditation on silence in the archives.” Jane’s accomplishments, compared to Ben’s, were few: “He signed the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, and the Constitution. She strained to form the letters of her name.”
What’s emerging in biographies of women, as both Mead and Lepore demonstrate, is another way of looking at the facts. In her 1985 essay, “Fact and Fiction in Biography,” the critic and biographer Phyllis Rose points out that as novels increasingly embrace fact, biographies increasingly try to embrace fiction. Facts, or the lack of them, can tilt you in different directions. Eliot has been amply written about, and Jane Franklin not at all. Mead telescopes the multitude of facts available on Eliot in ways that bring clarity to Eliot’s domestic life and her attitudes—all of which, Mead shows, illuminate the intentions of Middlemarch’s characters.
Lepore does the opposite: leaning on public records, Ben’s writings, newspapers, and Jane’s surviving letters, she recreates the world Jane Franklin lived in and then puzzles together the shards of information to fill in the facts. She guesses at what Jane read through her allusions to events in the papers, to sermons, and to political events leading up to the American Revolution. Lepore also makes it clear that her technique “borrows from the conventions of fiction.” She dwells on Jane’s girlhood silence instead of treating it as an obstacle. And she takes a magnifying glass to Jane’s letters, seeing a jab in the closing salutation to Ben’s wife: “your Ladyships affectionat Sister & most obedient Humble Servant.” (Jane usually signed off with “Your loving Sister.” “Must she curtsey?” Lepore asks.) We get a sense of Jane’s capacious and frustrated intellect in her recipe for crown soap. It is four pages long. “There is a good deal of Phylosephy in the working of crown soap,” Jane tells Ben, who requested it for his autobiography. Their father was a soap boiler, and this was the secret recipe.
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It takes a certain combination of diligence and restraint for a woman to write about another woman. Perhaps she fills your imagination, and perhaps you lose your impartiality. But so what. What makes Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians a delightful example of the biographer’s art, Rose observes, is its “ulterior intentions, its deliciously wicked absence of impartiality.”
Lepore and Mead, both dogged researchers, stick to the facts, but it’s the way they stick to them that betrays their biases. Both sort through nuances in their subjects’ correspondences in an effort to correct or expose. Mead is eager to correct a literary misreading or shortsighted approach to the work, and Lepore exposes the intellectual slights and social injustices that Jane endured. Their sensibilities undergird the narratives.
Such devotion is common with women, Backscheider observes: “Women often bring an overt intensity to the writing of lives about women that seems rather rare in male biographers.” Because women need to be discovered, they depend on other women to tell their stories. The two are in it together. And because the relationship is more equal, there’s reciprocity to it. These days, the biographer is a meaningful participant in the telling of a life, a trend that has shifted dramatically in the past century. The Bloomsbury men’s group believed the writer’s voice should predominate, until the New Critics demanded an “objective history presented in neutral tones,” at which point the biographer went invisible. Feminism brought the biographer back, Backsheider says.
Mead at first appears very much a subject of her own, though the more you read, the more you realize that she herself is a trope. Like Eliot, Mead longed to escape a provincial coastal town in England and build an intelligent, book-centric life. Mead’s frankness about these longings makes you wonder: If she’d married young, rather than in her mid-thirties, would she understand Eliot’s concerns about being a single woman in her thirties in quite the same way? If Mead hadn’t been compelled to sort out her feelings about caring for another man’s children, just as Eliot had, perhaps she’d have given short shrift to Eliot’s maternal feelings, and the ways in which they played out in her life and work. Mead transforms Eliot from a canonical writer to a woman with an urgency of feelings, a whip-sharp intelligence, psychological acuity, and self-possession that deepened over time and through her relationships. As is the fashion with many women’s biographies, Mead takes Eliot out of the grand dame spotlight and shapes her into a social being.
In the epistolary relationship between Ben and Jane Franklin, Lepore’s feelings about the inequities between the siblings come bitingly across. “A correspondence really is a kind of account, and not without its price,” Lepore says tellingly. Back in the eighteenth century, the recipient paid the postage. That is, unless you were Ben Franklin, deputy postmaster general of America. Because Jane was poor, and had to cover the cost of Ben’s letters, he warns her not to write. She asks to have their letters franked (prepaid), but he refuses and offers to reimburse her. It’s all a little thoughtless—you feel outrage at the slight. “He received her letters, but the letters themselves are lost,” Lepore says witheringly, an undercurrent of emotion beneath the facts. In a letter, he lists the six letters she sent him that year, all unceremoniously discarded. His four letters to Jane, of course, survive.
Mead, meanwhile, is adept in her treatment of Eliot’s famously bad looks. Mead is protective of Eliot; she spends a lot of time reflecting on other people’s perceptions of her. “She is magnificently ugly,” said Henry James, who famously called Eliot a horse-faced bluestocking. Mead finds a more beautiful aspect: She wore black velvet (gauche for unmarried women), she held her own among first-rank politicians and authors. And Mead scrutinizes what Backscheider describes as “women’s” evidence: an oil painting, a watercolor, a photograph, a pen-and-ink drawing. No doubt these are not flattering images, but Mead drily remarks that one chalk drawing of Eliot exposes her as, well, middle-aged. She ponders that for a bit, along with the fate of all women who in their forties begin to lose their ironed looks. Then, in a masterful move, she angles back to Middlemarch’s Lydgate, the doctor for whom, like Eliot’s would-be lover Herbert Spencer, beauty was sine qua non. Lydgate, of course, chooses the wrong woman, a shallow blonde rather than the woman with ideas. With this subtle reckoning, Mead feeds us an ironic twist and a new way of seeing. After all, Henry James and others fell in love with Eliot within minutes of hearing her speak, Mead counters. She feels defensive on Eliot’s behalf, and hints at what might be construed as Eliot’s self-defense: “I feel that way especially about representations of women,” Ladislaw says to a friend, about the deficiencies in paintings, in Middlemarch, “As if a woman were a more colored superficies! You must wait for movement and tone.”
If women are tireless investigators of one another’s lives and motivations, they’re twice so when looking at other women’s romantic dealings. “Edward Mecom was either a bad man or a mad man,” Lepore decides. “Every one of Jane’s children who had children named a child after her. Not one of them named a child after their father.” Lepore is an astute observer of silence. The fact that Jane never mentioned her husband until he died, while certainly able to express plenty of emotion about her children and about the books she read, suggests the marriage was a wash. “Marrying the man she did, when she did, determined the whole course of Jane Franklin’s life. Marriage determined the whole course of every woman’s life,” Lepore says.
“Since marriage is so often the context within which a woman works out her destiny, it has always been an object of feminist scrutiny,” Phyllis Rose explains in her prologue to Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. And while marriage is a perfectly good hinge around which to elucidate a life, writing about domestic life is fraught. “To write about women it was necessary to write about compromise and failure and to acknowledge that tragedy can be enacted in a bourgeois setting,” Rose says, nodding to George Eliot’s portrait of Dorothea Brooke.
Mead is attentive to all the varieties, shades, and failings of love in Middlemarch. “We each have our own center of gravity, but must come to discover that others weigh the world differently than we do,” she writes, recognizing that the marriage between Casaubon and Dorothea is at the heart of what Middlemarch teaches us about sympathy. “Throughout Middlemarch, Eliot has shown from different angles the demands that marriage makes,” Mead says as she considers the trials of young love, the “unbridgeable distance” between Dorothea and Casaubon, and the “romance of enduring love.” Mead also battles critics who find Ladislaw undeveloped, and suggests that his role might be “to show us what it is like to be fallen in love with—the delight of discovering oneself to be the object of love.” If this is what Eliot needed him for, perhaps that’s enough.
But the most sincere love story, Mead impresses on us, is the uncommon arrangement between Lewes and Eliot. Their liaison deserves the attention, and the admiration, that Mead pays to it, given the notoriety Eliot received for flouting social convention and for not marrying. It proved she had mettle. Eliot benefited from a power dynamic that fed her creativity: Lewes encouraged her to try writing a novel and provided her with a supportive working environment. He left Eliot alone to write a death scene one evening, after which she writes, “We both cried over it, and then he came up to me and kissed me, saying ‘I think your pathos is better than your fun.’”
Just as it is clear that without Edward Mecom, Jane Franklin might have amounted to something, it’s equally clear that without George Lewes, George Eliot might never have tried her hand at fiction. What does it mean to spend years with someone? Perhaps you want to get wrapped up in someone. Could this be what women are after, when writing about other women? Certainly you have a job to do, but perhaps you also have a commitment of caring. Giving women their due in history creates a kind of historical empathy, with the expectation that someone else might give us the same time and attention one day.
“We want people to feel with us, more than to act for us,” Eliot wrote to a friend, says Mead. Eliot took her readers seriously, and Mead suggests that we take ourselves seriously, too. “I have grown up with George Eliot,” she explains. “I think Middlemarch has disciplined my character. I know it has become part of my own experience and my own endurance.” Our subjects give us something, too.
On June 2 at Housing Works Bookstore, Diane Mehta will launch a VIDA roundtable on literary biography with Jill Lepore, Rebecca Mead, Ruth Franklin, and Salamishah Tillet. Follow her @DianeMehta.