Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch (2014)
Why aren’t there more books like this? Rebecca Mead takes us on a deeply personal, yet wide-ranging tour of one of her life’s touchstones, Middlemarch by George Eliot. In the process we learn about Eliot’s own life and times, gaining insights into the origins of the book’s characters and themes, and into how a great book can transform and teach us.
Mead does not erase herself from the book, unlike literary critics or biographers who try to achieve “objectivity” (impossible, yet expected) in their works. She tells us what aspects of the book had significance for her and how those changed through her life; she takes us along with her as she visits Eliot-related sites and people, giving us not only facts but her emotional response to the experience of trying to connect with the past. Yet she does not turn the book into a narcissistic exercise, a “this book is really all about me” kind of narrative. The focus remains firmly on Middlemarch, throwing more light upon this great novel so that in turn it can illuminate our own lives even more.
An experienced journalist, Mead is skilled at linking her thoughts and observations and creating connections between ideas. She organizes the book by naming her eight chapters after the eight parts of Eliot’s original novel, which bear titles like “Old and Young,” “Waiting for Death,” “Two Temptations.” She expertly crafts each piece to touch on relevant themes — how the unmarriageable Eliot found love and fulfillment with George Lewes; her relationship with her three stepsons; a somewhat creepy epistolary pursuit by a persistent fan — interspersed with Mead’s own experiences with love, family, and literary endeavor. It all flows easily and readably, concealing the craft that went into making a book that plays so many roles into a seamless whole.
If you’ve read and loved Middlemarch, or even if you haven’t, you’ll find much to enjoy in this book, which celebrates and brings greater understanding to our love of reading. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.