My Life In Middlemarch

Rebecca Mead has written a book like no other I’ve come across. My Life In Middlemarch is an irresistibly creative story about how her favorite book, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, changed her and perhaps more importantly, changed as she read and re-read it over the years.

Commenting on how books were a part of her identity, Mead writes:

Books gave us a way to shape ourselves—to form our thoughts and to signal to each other who we were and who we wanted to be. … Though I would not have been able to say so at the time, I sought to identify myself with the kind of intelligence I found in Middlemarch—with its range, its wit, its seriousness, its erudition, its deep feeling.

On her fascination with Middlemarch, looking back she writes:

I admired the little I knew of George Eliot’s life: her daunting, self-willed transformation from provincial girlhood to metropolitan preeminence, a good story to hear if one is an anxiously ambitious girl from a backwater town. I was intrigued by her adoption of a masculine pseudonym, by which she continued to be known throughout her life as a novelist, even after her identity was revealed early in her fiction-writing career. I knew that some important critics considered Middlemarch to be the greatest novel in the English language, and I wanted to be among those who understood why. I loved Middlemarch, and I loved being the kind of person who loved it. It gratified my aspirations to maturity and learnedness. To have read it, and to have appreciated it, seemed a step on the road to being one of the grown-ups for who it was written.

Commenting on the value of re-reading, Mead says:

Middlemarch was one book I have never stopped reading, despite all the distractions of a busy working life. I went back to it as a student … I read it again in my twenties … In my thirties, trying to establish myself as a serious writer, I was struck with new, poignant force by the story of Lydgate—the ambitious would-be reformer who becomes, instead, a society doctor known for a treatise on gout, “a disease which has a good deal of wealth on its side,” in Eliot’s pointed observation. The novel opened up to me further every time I went back to it and by my early forties it had come to have yet another resonance. In a far from singular crisis, I had recently become consumed by a sense of doors closing behind me, alternative lives unlived: work I might have done, places I might have moved to, men I might have married, children I might have borne. In this light, a book that had once seemed to be all about the hopes and desires of youth now seemed to cover a melancholy dissection of the resignations that attend middle age, the paths untrodden and the choices unmade.

Being a journalist for years had shaped Mead. Armed with a better sense of nuance and questions to ask, she once again took up the cause to look at something “familiar from an unfamiliar angle,” wondering what she would find.

Cloaked in this quasi-objective spirit of inquiry was another set of questions, these ones more personal, and pressing, and secret. What would happen if I stopped to consider how Middlemarch has shaped my understanding of my own life? Why did the novel still feel so urgent, after all these years? and what could it give me now, as I paused here in the middle of things and surveyed where I had come from, and then thought about where I was, and wondered where I might go next?

The book is full of interesting stories. Like the one on how Charles Dickens suspected that George Eliot was, in fact, a man. When Eliot’s first work of fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life, was published, Dickens wrote to the publisher, noting, “If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman since the world began.” A short time after Adam Bede, her first book, was published her identity was revealed. Dickens commented, “‘Adam Bede’ has taken its place among the actual experiences and endurances of my life.”

Commenting on the value of reading, Mead writes:

Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree. This kind of book becomes part of our own experience, and part of our own endurance. It might lead us back to the library in midlife, looking for something that eluded us before.

My Life In Middlemarch is part memoir, part mini-biography of the great Victorian writer George Eliot, who was born Mary Ann Evans, and part homage to great literature.