Today I look at two recent books that directly mix memoir and criticism, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (2014) and William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter (2011). Maybe I should omit the subtitle so as not to prejudice readers of Wuthering Expectations, who are mostly thinking “yuck.” Not the target audience.
I have not read the entirety of either book, but have rather spot-checked them. I do have them at hand, so you cannot just say “Well, the part you did not read is completely different.” I can check.
Deresiewicz’s book is organized with a chapter per Austen novel, while Mead has a chapter per Middlemarch chapter. Mead loved her book from childhood and finds that the meaning of the novel deepens as life goes on, while Deresiewicz despised Austen until he had a graduate school epiphany, after which he became an Austen scholar and began learning various lessons from Austen.
Love, I saw, is a verb, not just a noun – an effort, not just another precious feeling. (158)
Sorry, I did it again, as if I am trying to sabotage the book. Let me get this out of the way. Deresiewicz is writing a graduate school memoir, which in and of itself is a mistake. Graduate students are the worst (the link is to a 30 Rock clip). Then the structure of linking the events of his life to a particular novel, followed by a series of character-improving lessons, is bizarrely constricting, even if true – no, especially if true. Deresiewicz presents himself as one strange bird.
If I just ignore the memoir, though, it turns out that his writing about the Austen novels is excellent. His plot summaries are outstanding, his character portraits swift and vivid. They are clear, efficient, and expert at deploying details and quotations from the text with enough elegance that I at first did not notice how many little slivers of the book he was really using. The above “love” passage is preceded by a one-page run through the importance of the words “exertion,” “duty,” and especially “useful” in Mansfield Park (157-8). If I had written that page as a blog post, I would have been pleased.
He does this first-rate close reading, and then writes about how he began to hang out with some wealthy Brooklynites, which made him appreciate Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and learn that rich people can be jerks. I don’t get it.
Deresiewicz’s book is memoir plus close reading (with some biography) – Deresiewicz constantly links himself to Austen characters. Rebecca Mead’s book is really a short Eliot biography with her autobiography and some criticism folded in, so she more often makes connections with Eliot herself. In the old days, if a New Yorker writer wanted to write an Eliot book, all of the memoir would have been compressed into the foreword or afterword.
This is Ruth Bernard Yeazell, Chace Family Professor of English at Yale, reviewing Mead’s book in the April 24, 2014 New York Review of Books:
What is nonetheless a bit disheartening about My Life in Middlemarch is the apparent assumption that literary criticism and even biography will be most appealing to contemporary readers when packaged as memoir. In George Eliot’s novel, few words carry a more consistently ironic charge than “Providence” or “providential”… Though Mead is scarcely under such a delusion, there is still a whiff of the providential about some of the connections she traces between her own history and Eliot’s. (59)
Or, less politely, the memoiristic passages should have been cut, some of the connections are inventions, and the fault is likely that of an agent or publisher (true for Deresiewicz, too, I’ll bet). The review is otherwise pretty glowing, although it is mostly about how deeply interesting Eliot is. And really, at this point, Eliot vs. Mead is not a contest, right?
I think I will just point towards Rohan Maitzen’s recent review for more, including lots of useful quotations that show Mead’s skill and some of her better and worse attempts to justify the exercise.
Neither of these books is a bad book, and I can imagine plenty of readers getting a lot out of them. But I can also imagine the shadow books where the authors got out of the way, with all of the autobiography moved to the end, for example, so the artificial demand for connections is relaxed. Those books seem like they would be better.
Next I want to look at Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (2010), which does much of what I am complaining about here, but I think with more success. That will have to wait until Monday.