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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Review: 'My Life in Middlemarch'

My Life in Middlemarch
By Rebecca Mead
Memoir/literary criticism
January 2014
ISBN: 978-0-307-98476-0

Some books are too full, too layered and so rewarding that they cannot be reduced to a blurb. That's true of George Eliot's Middlemarch, which will enrich a reader in different ways through a lifetime of re-reads. It's also true of Rebecca Mead's look at Middlemarch, its author and the ways they have affected her life in My Life in Middlemarch.

Middlemarch is one of those novels that can capture a reader and never let go. The ups and downs of the fate suffered by the first main character we meet, Dorothea Brooke, so determined to do the right thing and so blind as to the downfall of her own impulse, the way the novel doesn't focus only on Dorothea but takes up the stories of other residents of the bucolic town, the way things don't necessarily turn out the way a reader would suspect but rarely ring false -- Middlemarch is a huge, sprawling, heartfelt and wise book.

Mead, a writer for The New Yorker, encountered the novel while young and fell under its spell. For anyone else who has done the same, her deep love for the book will set off an echo of memory for any sympathetic reader to the first time those pages were opened. The feeling of being where I was when first I read Middlemarch has been hard to shake off for days, and it's because Mead took me there with her own memory. That is powerful writing.

Mead does a wonderful job of reporting on her own reactions to the novel at different stages of her life, noting the ways in which what has happened to her have changed the way in which the book resonates for her. This is a wonderful sort of memoir because it shows that how a person changes can affect other aspects of life, such as the way in which one regards a revered part of one's life (and, yes, devotion to a book can indeed be that strong).

There is more to the novel than the ways in which a reader reacts to it, and there is much more to Mead's book. She also weaves in parts of Eliot's life and philosophy to specifc parts of the novel. And Mead is a discerning literary critic in comparing Eliot's goals with how they can be seen in her writing. She even makes cogent connections between Virgina Woolf and Eliot, which matters because Woolf's review of Middlemarch is the one that is still most often-quoted -- as the book being "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people".

Mead also puts Eliot squarely in the novelist's own time and shows how she was regarded during her lifetime and afterward. The way in which Mead brings this back to herself and her life to conclude My Life in Middlemarch is so satisfying that it's hard to decide which to do first -- read Middlemarch again or read My Life in Middlemarch again.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission


  1. I have never read Middlemarch, but have Mead's book on my shelf. I was hoping to read the two together, but i don't know when i will ever find the time!

  2. While I adore Middlemarch, I wouldn't hesitate to read Mead's book before reading the Eliot classic.