MIDDLEMARCH: A Study of Provincial Life, by George Eliot (the pen name for Marian Evans), was originally published in 1874 and became an instant classic of American literature. Set in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch during the years 1830-32, it explored several underlying themes that were prevalent at the time: the status of women, the nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, religion and hypocrisy, political reform, and education. Virginia Woolf remarked that MIDDLEMARCH was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”
With the release of her latest novel, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley has once again taken up the daunting task of reimagining a literary classic through new fictional characters. PRIVATE LIFE is not as much a remake of MIDDLEMARCH as it is a retelling of the same themes through different characters and experiences. This is not the first time Smiley has done this. She gave similar homage to William Shakespeare with her 1991 novel, A THOUSAND ACRES, a modern retelling of the King Lear saga that won Smiley her Pulitzer and was later made into a film in 1997 starring Jason Robards, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange.
Beginning in 1883 and continuing through until 1942, PRIVATE LIFE explores the life of Margaret Mayfield. Unmarried at 27 and considered past her prime in post-Civil War Missouri, she meets Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early and falls in love. In addition to carrying with him such a unique moniker, Andrew himself is a highly complex individual. A former naval officer, he now spends his time as a brilliant astronomer with controversial and near-atheistic opinions on creation and the universe. Educated at Columbia University and later studying in Berlin, Germany, Andrew is an intellectual of the highest caliber --- but he also has a dark side.
Margaret is no intellectual lightweight herself. She is well-read and learned as she seeks to better herself in a growing America and find her place in this changing world. She is intrigued by such works as Kate Chopin’s THE AWAKENING and is an early proponent for women’s equality. She longs for a loving relationship and family life that her sisters and friends have and feels that the partnership with Andrew can satisfy her in both familial and intellectual capacities. It is when they depart from Missouri to settle in California that she realizes her husband’s true devotion is to science and his explorations, and there is not much room for her needs as a result.
Ironically, Smiley tips her hat to A THOUSAND ACRES in the form of the Lear family, who are neighbors of the Earlys in California. Mrs. Lear has many intimate talks with Margaret and in a very telling passage states, “Why should a husband’s affairs be private from his wife?” It is this comment that gets to the heart of Margaret’s soul, as that is the very battle she is facing with a husband who continues to distance himself from her, both emotionally and physically.
As the book continues and the characters age and develop, the American landscape is also changing. While novels like Winston Groom’s FORREST GUMP gave satirical coverage to several decades in American history, PRIVATE LIFE deals with it more stoically through Margaret’s eyes. From the economic growth of a still-young country to the international involvement in both World War I and World War II, there is much historical backdrop to mark the days of her life.
It is in the latter part of the novel, with WWII preying upon the minds and souls of the entire world, where a much wiser Margaret realizes that her husband’s interests and obsessions may be turning dangerous. Drawing upon her early philosophy of women’s equality and seeking her own liberation, Margaret begins to analyze her life with Andrew and sees clearly the pitfalls that she set herself up for and questions her own existence as the passive and long-suffering wife of an emotionally abusive partner. The exploration is not an easy one, and Margaret will not come away unscathed from it.
PRIVATE LIFE reads like fine literature and is a welcome addition in an age where few novels strive to explore classic themes from works that are centuries old. This is a challenging book that occasionally moves as slowly as the passage of time, while at other moments possesses an intensity and understanding of character and relationships that will have the reader re-reading some chapters to get the full effect of the heavy emotions being described within.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on January 23, 2011