Why did I delay reading this book for so long? I finally brought it to work, where it sat on my shelf a while longer. A neglected book gets its chance, though, when I’m desperate for something to read at lunch.
My Life in Middlemarch was such a wonderful experience. It’s a beautiful, thoughtfully written exploration of George Eliot’s masterwork, Middlemarch; of George’s Eliot’s life, from self-taught country girl to celebrated London author; and of Rebecca Mead’s own longstanding relationship with the book.
Mead binds together literary history, criticism, biography, memoir, and journalism to create this unique tribute. She traces the unusual path Mary Ann Evans followed to become the author George Eliot.
We learn about Eliot’s role as step-mother to her partner George Henry Lewes’s sons and the parallel circumstance in Mead’s life. As Mead visits spots connected to Eliot’s life–childhood home, church, writer’s retreats–she shares nostalgia for her own English childhood. She reveals possible role models for Dorothea and Casaubon, visits the rooms in Oxford where Eliot may have had tea with the couple, questions whether the couple would have recognized themselves in the novel, and finally meditates on how we all find correspondences to ourselves in a novel’s characters:
“Identification is one way in which the most ordinary readers do engage with a book, even if it is not where a reader’s engagement ends . . . It is one of the ways that a novel speaks to a reader, and becomes integrated into the reader’s imaginative life.”
My Life in Middlemarch is truly a book for book lovers.
Middlemarch was the first book Mead “never stopped reading”: first at seventeen and again in her twenties, thirties, and forties. Middlemarch isn’t “that book” for me; for better or worse, that distinction goes to Jane Eyre, the first grown-up book I ever read, probably when I was around fourteen. (Is there some combination of inevitability and chance in determining which book becomes the reader’s best beloved?) But I’ve read Middlemarch at least twice: once in my teens, hungry for more Victorian novels in the wake of Jane Eyre; and again around twenty as an English major, when I was able to appreciate the characters, structure, and messages more keenly.
Readers grow, and our relationships to books grow, too, as Mead reminds us: “A book may not tell us exactly how to live our own lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book.”
I thought I’d try to read Middlemarch one more time last summer, but couldn’t bring myself to, remembering the book’s many sorrows, chiefly Dorothea’s arid marriage and Lydgate’s blighted career. Mead also points to the book’s somber tone, right up to its famous last sentence, with its “veil of melancholy”:
“But the effect of [Dorothea’s] being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”