My Life in Middlemarch

  • Rebecca Mead
  • Crown
  • 304 pp.

A thoughtful, tenderly erudite love song to George Eliot and her acclaimed novel.

When asked her opinion of George Eliot’s newly published Middlemarch in 1873, Emily Dickinson famously replied, “What do I think of glory?” Half a century later Virginia Woolf called Middlemarch “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” In 2007 A.S. Byatt called Middlemarch “arguably the greatest English novel ever.”

In My Life in Middlemarch, New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead agrees — and goes further, demonstrating how a passionate attachment to a great book helps us understand our own lives. Although this genre-bridging study of the novel, its author and their lifelong impact on Mead will appeal particularly to Eliot and Middlemarch enthusiasts (including this reviewer), the work may well persuade other readers to join their ranks.

For a clear, elegant précis of My Life in Middlemarch, read Mead’s 2011 New Yorker essay, “Middlemarch and Me: What George Eliot Teaches Us.” For the in-depth meditation on the novel, the author, and the power and pleasure of reading a great book again and again at all stages of life, read Mead’s book cover to cover.

Like Middlemarch, the book examines the complexities of love and marriage, of ambition and disappointment, of youthful idealism and mature sufferance. Unlike Middlemarch, however, it is around 300 pages (Middlemarch is more than twice as long); also unlike Eliot’s masterpiece, its stream-of-consciousness structure allows Mead to roam freely and intuitively among the genres of memoir, biography, literary history and analysis. When we close My Life in Middlemarch we know a bit about Mead and a great deal about the life and work of Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans), her admirers and her intimate circle.

Mead has taken seriously E.M. Forster’s famous dictum, “Only connect.” My Life in Middlemarch convincingly links the novel’s panoramic plot, fully drawn characters, and profoundly sympathetic themes on the one hand with events and people in the lives of Eliot and Mead herself on the other. Mead connects Eliot’s early passionate theological inquiries and brief attraction to the philosopher Herbert Spencer to the fictional Dorothea Brooke’s youthful idealism and disastrous first marriage to the icy, much older scholar Edward Casaubon.

Mead also acknowledges parallels between the Eliot/Dorothea narratives and her own eager escape to Oxford from the provincial town of her English childhood, as well as her early romance with a senior American academic. Similarly, in her own fulfilling mid-life marriage, Mead sees shadows of Eliot’s long, loving, mid-life quasi-marriage to George Henry Lewes and the mature Dorothea-Ladislaw love story that blooms late in the novel. Mead also notes similarities between her love for her three stepsons and Eliot’s maternal devotion to Lewes’s three grown sons.

Mead apparently has read and reread everything in and about Middlemarch and by and about Eliot. As a result, Mead seems to channel the wise, sympathetic, middle-aged Victorian voice that intones sentences such as this, beloved of Eliot-Middlemarch enthusiasts: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

Readers unfamiliar with Middlemarch, seekers of great-books-style plot summaries and Wikipedia-style literary biographies might be disappointed by My Life in Middlemarch. So might be readers eager for yet another tell-all mid-life celebrity memoir. However, this contemplative, restrained work of biography, reporting, literary criticism and memoir will delight those of us who favor old-school reportage buoyed by old-fashioned research methods: careful primary- and secondary-source reading, persistent archival study, pursuit of unlikely tangents, closely observed site visits and attentive face-to-face interviews.

Mead’s thoughtful, tenderly erudite love song to a book and author will please those of us who delight in reassurances that great works of fiction, well-read, help us understand our own lives. Probably best appreciated after at least a first reading of Eliot’s classic, My Life in Middlemarch will inspire many of us to read Middlemarch again. And again. And again. It will, I hope, introduce more readers to this novel, this glory, one of the few English novels for grownups, arguably the greatest English novel ever.

Rhoda Trooboff,a longtime literature and writing teacher at National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., is a publisher of children’s books at Tenley Circle Press, Ltd.

 

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