My Life in Middlemarch

Here’s what author Rebecca Mead said about a subject dear to our hearts, "Reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself."  This book is both a biography and travelogue of what many consider the world’s best novel—Middlemarch.  It also is a personal memoir by Mead. 

In the first chapter Mead recalls how many times she has read the novel and how much it has changed for her over time. What drew her as a child to it was how full of adult life the book was. She also loved the intelligence of the characters, particularly the heroine, Miss Dorothea Brooke.

Along the way we learn about the novel itself, how it was first published as a serial in eight parts with the subtitle “A Provincial Life.” It bore a male author’s name--George Eliot but even Charles Dickens, a contemporary of Eliot’s knew immediately that it was written by a woman. He said, “I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman, since the world began. “ Dickens also loved Eliot’s writing.  He said of her first novel, “Adam Bede has taken its place among the actual experiences and endurances of my life.”

We learn that one reason Eliot wrote such strong and kind male characters was because of her close relationship with her father, a fair and honest man. After her father died, Eliot kept his eyeglasses for the rest of her life—a close reminder of the man she loved so much.

For a book about another book, this volume is remarkably tactile. Mead describes having ordered a rare book at the New York Public Library and when it came being suddenly conscious of the scent of an English hearth. Mead grew up in London, so recognized that scent well. It could have been from one of the later owners of Eliot’s notebook or even from the hearth in Eliot’s study where she wrote.

Also, interesting are the authorial connections between Eliot and other writers of her day. For a long time she had a correspondence with Harriet Beecher Stowe, whom she felt it was necessary to inform that the Dorothea Brooke-Casaubon marriage from Middlemarch was not based on her own.  And speaking of marriages, after her first husband died, and in the last year of her own life, Eliot married a much younger man.

If you are interested in author biographies, or the power of literature, try this book. What brought Mead back again and again to this novel was its theme, what Mead described as “a young woman’s desire for a substantial meaningful life.” This memoir about Middlemarch shines a light upon that journey.  

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