George Eliot’s Middlemarch is a crowning achievement among Victorian novels—a canon with its fair share of weighty masterworks. Admired by generations of writers, including Virginia Woolf, who called it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” it holds primacy of place on many readers’ “to be read” lists, though many probably never get to the somewhat daunting task. Not so Rebecca Mead, a staff writer for The New Yorker, who first read the novel when she was 17 and has re-read it many times since. “Most serious readers can point to one book that has a place in their life like the one Middlemarch has in mine,” she writes in My Life in Middlemarch. “I chose Middlemarch—or Middlemarch chose me—and I cannot imagine life without it.”
An enveloping book that combines biography, literary criticism and memoir, My Life in Middlemarch is a singular expression of Mead’s passion for this seminal work. Augmenting a very close reading of the text with deep research into the life of George Eliot, aka Mary Anne Evans, she explores how her own meaningful relationship with the book has changed and deepened. Eliot, Mead writes, has given her “a profound experience with a book, over time, that amounts to one of the frictions of my life. I have grown up with George Eliot. I think Middlemarch has disciplined my character. I know it has become part of my own experience and my own endurance. Middlemarch inspired me when I was a young, and chafing to leave home, and now, in middle life, it suggests to me what else home might mean, beyond a place to grow up and grow out of.”
Mead brings decades of experience as a journalist to the table, and the result is a book about a long-dead writer that reads with the immediacy of a contemporary profile.
The eight chapters of My Life in Middlemarch parallel the eight books of the novel, and in each Mead examines a bit of her own experience through the lives of Eliot’s astutely wrought characters, as well as Eliot’s own. Mead was a girl in provincial England dreaming of something more when she first discovered Middlemarch, and it has continued to maintain its hold on her as she has progressed through life: struggling to build a career as a writer, becoming stepmother to a tribe of boys (as did Eliot), bearing witness to her parents’ enduring marriage—these signposts in life’s journey give shape to Mead’s narrative. A Brit living in New York, Mead travels home and visits places integral to Eliot’s life and work. She pores over the novelist’s correspondence and journals, as well as other contemporary accounts, to paint an intimate portrait of the beloved writer. She seeks the real-life inspirations for Dorothea, Lydgate, Ladislaw, Mary and the novel’s other central characters to better understand the source of Eliot’s genius and creativity—and identify the wellspring of the novelist’s uncanny and ageless perceptions about love, marriage, religious belief, morality and life’s purpose.
Though an impressive work of scholarship, the book is never dry. Mead brings decades of experience as a journalist to the table, and the result is a book about a long-dead writer that reads with the immediacy of a contemporary profile. The autobiographical portions of the book are restrained—this, thankfully, is not an overindulgent act of emotional evisceration like so many memoirs. Mead’s life has been interesting but not chaotic, and the same could be said about Eliot’s and those of the characters she created. This three-pronged convergence gives My Life in Middlemarch its power: No ordinary experience is ordinary when examined with the deftness that Eliot—and one could say Mead, too—brings to the task. An exacting and endearing tribute to a great writer and a great book, it will make you move Middlemarch to the top of that “to be read”—or re-read—list.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE
Read our Q&A with Rebecca Mead for My Life in Middlemarch.