Luminescent Threads and The Road to Middlemarch

Second paragraph of third article (a letter to Octavia Butler from Karen Lord) in Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler, eds Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal:

I did not have the strength to read more, and so I know more about your books through synopses, reviews and commentaries than through the direct experience of reading. I can see similarities to my own work: the concerns about balance of power, the boundaries of self, the joys and demands of community, and the bliss and burden of empathy. However, it is not your work that inspires me so much as the fact of your success as an author, and the vision and determination that paved the way to that success.

Second paragraph of third chapter of The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot, by Rebecca Mead:

"Thornie came home. Dreadfully shocked to see him so worn," Lewes wrote in his diary the evening that Thornton arrived. "A dreadful day—Thornie rolling on the floor in agony," he wrote the following day. Thornton, usually a muscular young man of 180 pounds, had lost more than 50 pounds and was "piteously wasted," as George Eliot wrote to Blackwood. Dr. James Paget, the foremost surgeon of the day who included Queen Victoria among his patients, prescribed morphine. A prone couch was set up in the drawing room near the piano, and whenever the sedatives wore off Thornton listened to Eliot playing, and was able to speak a little about his life in Natal, where he had purchased a tract of land and had built a farm. "In the evening he got excited talking about his African experiences and singing Zulu songs," Lewes wrote in his diary on May 11. "Made anxious about him."

My reading schedules happened to throw both of these books at me simultaneously, in one of those happy coincidences that forces you to compare and contrast. Luminescent Threads, in a similar format to Letters to Tiptree and sharing an editor, brings together short pieces by almost fifty writers about the effect that Butler's writing had on them, including several who have attended the Clarion writers' workshop thanks to the scholarship established in Butler's name. Most of the pieces were written in the immediate aftermath of the Trump victory and inauguration, and many of the writers were still reeling in shock and invoking Butler, who foresaw the sort of regime that Trump would like to lead, as an inspiration in dark times.

I have to say that I was less satisfied with Luminescent Threads than I was with Letters to Tiptree. I felt that there was less internal organisation – it might have been more interesting to group the scholarly essays separately from the more personal letters. I also really missed Butler's own voice – Letters to Tiptree included a number of letters from Tiptree, whereas here we hear from Butler only in one short interview at the end. I salute the commitment of the editors and contributors, but the structure didn't quite work for me. Still, you may want to get it here. It’s up for the Hugo for Best Related Work.

The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot is similarly a long tribute to a favorite author, but with only one contributor, Rebecca Mead, now a staff writer with the New Yorker, who tracks her heroine's career across England and looks at the parallels of Eliot's life and works with her own life. Rebecca Mead is the same age as me, and we are both the same age as George Eliot was when Middlemarch was published (51). I don't go all the way with Mead in her enthusiasm; the only other Eliot novels I have read are Silas Marner, which I thought was OK, and The Mill on the Floss, which I hated.

But I do agree that Middlemarch is one of the greatest novels in the English language; it made a profound impression on me when I read it almost thirty years ago, and I still remember almost all of it. Mead teases out Eliot's portrayal of emotional complexity in the various relationships, obviously Dorothea in particular but also Lydgate/Rosamund and Fred/Mary, and explores where they were drawn from; I was fascinated to learn that Francis Pattison, later Lady Dilke, was the model for Dorothea. As I often say, it's not really my fandom, but I very much appreciated Mead's attention to historical and geographical detail, and shared her excitement in tracking down the very rooms in which Middlemarch was written, almost 150 years ago now. It's about time I read Middlemarch again. (But first, I'm going to try and revisit Proust in the second half of this year.) Meanwhile you can get Mead's book here.

The Road to Middlemarch made its way to the top of my pile of unread non-fiction books. Next on that list is The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England, by Ian Mortimer.