“I wanted to go back to being a reader.” Thus stated is one of the many intentions of Rebecca Mead at the start of her new book, My Life in Middlemarch, but it is the one that most rings true by its conclusion. Part memoir, part biography, part New Yorker “Personal History” essay stretched to nearly 300 pages, My Life in Middlemarch brings George Eliot to life and grasps—at times weakly so—for resonance between Eliot, her greatest novel, and Mead’s own experiences. I loved it.
Let me be clear, I remained unsure about the book for its first two or three chapters. (Mead organizes her text into eight sections, mirroring the eight books of Middlemarch.) Perhaps because of Mead’s many objectives—in addition to “being a reader”, Mead hopes to turn her “deep attention to something that mattered to me”; “recover the sense of intellectual and emotional immersion in books that I had known as a young reader”; “think about what George Eliot might have sought, and what she might have discovered, in writing Middlemarch”; “consider how Middlemarch has shaped my understanding of my own life”; and “become a little less melancholy, a little less resigned”—her book can seem disorienting and fractured, as though she began writing one sort of book and then at some point switched to another, before then turning her full attention to yet another. In fact, one might argue that this peripatetic writing exercise in book form is exactly what she did. Mead does manage to address each objective I quoted. In the book’s weaker sections, however, I wondered whether the book would be stronger without all of the many intentions Mead cites, as well as the sometime tenuous connections between them. And yet Mead’s fragmented focus did not stop me from wanting to immerse myself in her text; my enjoyment of reading it only grew as I read on.
Why? I spent some time reflecting on this question in the days after I finished reading My Life in Middlemarch. No doubt I am a member of the target audience for a book like this one. George Eliot is one of my favorite writers—though Middlemarch is not my favorite of her novels—and so I am perhaps predisposed to enjoy a text that features her. I am not adverse to reading literary criticism (and sometimes enjoy it), nor to books that express the “deep attention” paid to a subject that matters to the author, even if the subject is esoteric or my appreciation of it is superficial. I am also a reader who enjoys thinking about the role books play in the intellectual and emotional spheres of life, and I like hearing how others articulate this role for themselves.
A messy combination of all these reasons probably best explains why I liked this book as much as I did. Mead strains sometimes to identify connections between her life and that of Eliot’s, engaging Middlemarch as a medium between the two, but as I continued to read, I found that these tenuous cases did not bother me as much as I would have thought. Mead does not claim authority on Eliot and her work, and thus is neither privileged to nor limited by the conventions of academic scholarship. The hypotheses she suggests about inspiration for Eliot’s characters, or thoughts Eliot may have had, are interesting and entertaining, particularly in light of how Mead applies them as a lens through which to view her own life.
And Mead does possess both the professional training (New Yorker staff writer) and education (English degree from Oxford) to share some wonderful scholarly insights, too. Her portrait of George Lewes, Eliot’s long-time companion, draws on accounts from both primary sources and criticism, and illuminated Lewes for me as other descriptions have not. Mead also describes learning, while in the British Library reviewing Eliot’s manuscript of Middlemarch, that the novelist originally wrote the book’s final sentences slightly differently. She writes about this experience with the acumen of an academic, yet she also conveys the excitement and bewilderment this revelation makes her feel—as well as its impact on her understanding of the book—in the manner of a great reporter. So, too, stands her writing about reading the letters of Alexander Main. Main, a nearly fanatical Eliot acolyte, begs for caricature. Mead, however, digs deeper, revealing complexity where it is easier to see none.
I do not know how enjoyable My Life in Middlemarch would prove to someone who did not first read Middlemarch itself. I do think, however, that the best element of My Life in Middlemarch transcends Middlemarch itself. That element is Mead’s story of how a great novel has become interwoven with her own life. It is a story so well told that Mead’s book could appeal to those who may never read anything by Eliot, but who understand the significance of a book that serves as a companion or compass to one’s own existence. I could argue, since Mead is only in her mid-forties, that half of this story remains to be told. But I am glad that Mead decided to write this story now, midstream, to share with us the ways in which the lessons and insights and beauty of Middlemarch is made new with each new year and experience that Mead lives. Mead is a great reader, after all.
– Caitlin Callaghan lives and writes in San Francisco, and has published on topics as varied as American public higher education and suicide in medieval England. She holds a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies from Cornell University, and works in public affairs in the Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter at @tinycaitlin.