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Beauty, Aging, and the Expansion of Our Sympathies: What George Eliot Teaches Us About the Rewards of Middle Age

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“The greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies.”

At twenty-six, Henry James was a handsome young man, well-dressed, hair brushed and polished with a straight part down the middle. In 1869 he left New York in what would become a permanent relocation to England, and his first order of business was to meet the greatest writers of his adopted country. In a letter to his father, he described a meeting with George Eliot, who would begin that year to write a novel of life in an average country town she called Middlemarch:

She is magnificently ugly — deliciously hideous… She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth…

In My Life in Middlemarch (public library | IndieBound), Rebecca Mead writes that for visitors to Eliot’s home, a consideration of the writer’s famously ungainly looks was compulsory and often the basis for the most backhanded of compliments. James continued:

Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her… Yes behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking.

Youth and beauty hadn’t rewarded George Eliot with their typical pleasures, nor did she expect them to. Eliot was fifty-one years old when she began Middlemarch, having only begun to write novels under her pen-name in her early forties. “What would at first appear to be a book about youth turns out to be a book about middle age,” explained Mead at a recent talk at the New York Public Library. Yet middle age for Eliot was the most expansive period of her life, which allowed her to create the most expansive novel of her career. The year she turned thirty-eight, Eliot wrote in her diary:

Few women, I fear have had such reason as I have to think the long sad years of youth were worth living for the sake of middle age.

Painting of Mary Ann Evans in 1849 by Alexandre Louis François d'Albert Durade. Evans was living with the painter’s family in Switzerland when she turned thirty. The next year she moved to London and began to write.

In the Victorian era, middle age as a phase of life was not a thing to be celebrated — it was an age at which one simply lived, having passed the excitement and signposts of youth. It was an age in which one was lucky to be alive, let alone fortunate enough to look to a future. Mead writes:

The notion of middle age as a distinct stage of life was a relatively recent concept; its onset was earlier that would be reckoned today, and much more of middle life would fall within it.

She goes on to note that an American writer in 1828 placed middle age as existing somewhere between 26 and 60. Middle age for Mary Ann Evans, who adopted the pseudonym George Eliot in her late thirties and began writing fiction nearing forty, therefore becomes life itself — not a decline or a thing to be borne wearily. It’s a time in which our actions and our memory are in balance, and each informs the other. In The Mill on the Floss, Eliot writes:

The middle aged, who have lived through their strongest emotions, but are yet in the time when memory is still half passionate and not merely contemplative, should surely be a sort of natural priesthood whom life has disciplined and consecrated to be the refuge and rescue of early stumblers and victims of self-despair.

It took a peculiar life to recognize this new phase, a life that George Eliot was not reluctant to embrace. The uses of age would not be dictated to her, even in youth. At twenty-five, Mary Ann Evans, as she was still known, considered herself merely at the beginning of what would be an expansive emotional life:

One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy. I am just beginning to make some progress in the science.

For the entirety of her twenties, a segment of the Victorian biographical timeline in which much of her life plot should have been enacted and resolved, Evans took care of her father. He died in 1849, the year she turned thirty. Evans left her childhood home, traveled to Switzerland, and decided that she would move to London to become a journalist. Happiness, she suspected, would only grow with age.

And so it did. A successful and well-known magazine writer at thirty-eight, Evans met critic George Henry Lewes, a married man with three children who had been separated from an unfaithful wife for years. They lived together for twenty-four years until his death, and their mutual love and support was considered by those around them as a true modern marriage built on a union of character and intellect. From him she took the pen name of George, and began to write her first novels as she approached forty.

Photograph of Mary Ann Evans in 1858. Well-known as a journalist, she had yet to publish under her pen name. She turned thirty-eight this year. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

In her beautiful and compassionate exploration of the creation of Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead, in her early forties, found herself in a similar position as Eliot, realizing that she had a capacity to find joy in a life in which you could “no longer see the endless possibilities of the person you might become.”

This is where Eliot began to build her novel. In the closing off of infinite space, one’s sympathies are enlarged for those around. This, Mead explains, is the essence of Middlemarch — a book which begins where many novels of the time ended, with marriage. But it is the drama that spins out after the milestones of youth that fascinate Eliot:

We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves.

Expanded sympathy is the essence of middle age and the center of Middlemarch, argues Mead — a novel about “the necessity of growing out of self-centeredness.” Middlemarch could only have been written by an author whose sympathies were expansive, who allowed herself to feel deeply even what was painful. For much of her youth, George Eliot threw herself into loving men who did not love her back (“I suppose no woman ever before wrote a letter such as this—but I am not ashamed of it.”), but she also recognized early on when a young man who offered her marriage was not worthy of her respect and “would involve too great a sacrifice of her mind and pursuits.”

Drawing of George Eliot in 1864 by Frederick Burton. She turned forty-four this year and had just published Romola.

A novel allows us to experience deeply the lives of others, to grow out of self-centeredness as Mead says, and enlarge our sympathy. Perhaps Eliot’s plainness allowed her to transcend youth’s narcissism sooner than others, but it feels ungenerous to diagnose sympathetic genius from a face. (“No major American novelist has led a more privileged life than Edith Wharton,” Jonathan Franzen wrote in in The New Yorker, enumerating her luxurious existence. “Edith Newbold Jones did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn’t pretty.”) Eliot’s sympathies were instead the product of a life well-considered and fully lived. She wrote in an essay in 1856:

The greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies… Art is the nearest thing to life, it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.

In an age when we grasp so tightly and so tragically at the idea of the beauty and pleasures of youth, George Eliot and Rebecca Mead have both extended it far beyond its natural boundaries to find a richer source of creative inspiration and pleasure in middle age.

Portrait of George Eliot by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project.

In Middlemarch, Eliot takes the necessary dramas of life — a marriage, a birth, an inheritance, a debt, a death — and uses them as a mere beginning, leading the reader along a path where a turn in sympathy, a changed mind, is far more powerful than a birth or death. When thinking about our own life, we strive to carve out its plot — a beginning, middle, and end; a conflict, a change, a resolution. In My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead found herself in the years between 26 and 60 living unmoored by the typical signposts of an adult life, returning to Middlemarch again and again to find herself among characters whose lives expand and contract, changing each day, each hour, unconsciously as breath itself. Mead reminds us that Eliot’s characters exist stubbornly in-between, their lives are the “home epic,” conjured by an inspired middle-aged mind. Unlike in her youth, Mead no longer sought instruction from her reading, but instead now saw her own expanded sympathies reflected there:

A book many not tell us exactly how to live our own lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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