I’m not sure if I have ever paired two more different books. The first one, which comes out on January 28th, is already one of my favorite books of 2014. Since we’re only half way through one month this new year, how can that be? Put it down to a combination of an unusually talented writer (The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead), her subject (which is inarguably one of the world’s greatest books), and my own lifelong attachment to the same book. My Life in Middlemarch is Mead’s paean to George Eliot’s magnum opus, but it’s also a memoir, a meditation and an excavation.
Mead, who first read Eliot’s novel at age 17, revisits it every five years or so. She has found many parallels between Eliot’s life and her own, which keeps the book lively — but the wonderful thing about this volume is that it doesn’t matter if you’ve read Middlemarch once, twice, or never. Mead’s search for meaning between two covers becomes meaningful in and of itself. Even if you don’t care about 19th-century literature, you’ll find yourself cheering for the author as she finds herself.
And that is why, in the spirit of good advice freely given, I’ve chosen to bookend My Life in Middlemarch with the late, great Helen Gurley Brown’s Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money Even if You’re Starting with Nothing. Published in 1982, when the formidable Cosmo magazine editor was in her 60s, Helen Gurley Brown has more in common with George Eliot than you might think.
Brown believed that any woman from any background could have anything she wanted, unlike most of the other oh-so-cautious advice books out there for women. George Eliot published under a male pseudonym due to the cultural politics of her time; Helen Gurley Brown believed that women needed to be taken on their own, self-defined terms. Naturally, Eliot’s novel will endure where Brown’s self-help withers, because Eliot concerned herself with human nature and not with commonsense advice. Likewise, I think My Life in Middlemarch will endure long after Having It All is consigned to used bookstore stacks.
But will we ever forget George Eliot or Helen Gurley Brown? Nope. Two women who forged their own paths. Now that’s advice I believe in following.