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My Life in Middlemarch

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Rebecca Mead was a young woman in an English coastal town when she first read George Eliot's Middlemarch, regarded by many as the greatest English novel. After gaining admission to Oxford, and moving to the United States to become a journalist, through several love affairs, then marriage and family, Mead read and reread Middlemarch. The novel, which Virginia Woolf famously described as "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people," offered Mead something that modern life and literature did not.

In this wise and revealing work of biography, reporting, and memoir, Rebecca Mead leads us into the life that the book made for her, as well as the many lives the novel has led since it was written. Employing a structure that deftly mirrors that of the novel, My Life in Middlemarch takes the themes of Eliot's masterpiece--the complexity of love, the meaning of marriage, the foundations of morality, and the drama of aspiration and failure--and brings them into our world. Offering both a fascinating reading of Eliot's biography and an exploration of the way aspects of Mead's life uncannily echo that of Eliot herself.

293 pages, Hardcover

First published January 28, 2014

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About the author

Rebecca Mead

9 books212 followers
Rebecca Mead was born in England, and educated at Oxford and New York University. She is a staff writer at the New Yorker, and lives in Brooklyn.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 805 reviews
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68k followers
August 5, 2020
Turning Yearning Into Learning

Aspiration is easy to confuse with a desire to move on in life. Aspiration implies a change into something else; this is antithetical to becoming more of oneself, to mature in other words. Aspiration becomes a virtue only when the idea of personal authenticity has been abandoned. At that point we enter into the delusion that we can shape ourselves into anything we choose - or more accurately what those around us, society, have chosen as worthwhile.

George Eliot never let aspiration replace her desire to become more of what she was. In this she has become an icon of women’s liberation in all the best senses of that term. What is perhaps less obvious is that she is also an inspiring figure for men for exactly the same reason. Aspiration is the culturally generated male disease par excellence. George Eliot’s resistance to that disease is clinically available for male inoculation in My Life in Middlemarch.

Mead’s triangulation of her own life with that of Eliot and the character development in her novels is as remarkably affective as it is effective. Mead shows how to read fiction - as simultaneously an exploration of the author’s life and an articulation of one’s own. Eliot is not among the great writers in the English language because she describes her own experience and general social conditions so thoroughly but because she writes things which are immediately recognizable as the truth of one’s own circumstances.

For me that truth is the extent to which social expectations determine what we think are personal decisions. We are confronted, however, by a set of ready made options from which to choose - doctor, lawyer, Indian chief according to the children’s rhyme. The choices are already rigged. This is Eliot’s profound insight. As Mead summarizes not just Eliot’s youth but her entire life: “She knew she wanted something. She knew she wanted to do something. She didn’t know what it was. She just knew she wanted, and wanted, and wanted.”

The wanting never stopped. It never turned into a position, a role, a self-image, actually a self-imposed idol. As Mead says of Eliot, “She turned her yearning into learning.” That yearning never degraded into a fixed aspiration, an ambition which would conform with acceptable norms. This takes the courage of a Ulysses to maintain. Most men don’t have such courage; they don’t even know they need it. Hence the importance of George Eliot to those with mixed chromosomes.
Profile Image for Laura.
3,694 reviews95 followers
March 13, 2014
Do the people who write the book descriptions actually read the book before writing, or do they go by a proposal? Here's why: this book's description ("A New Yorker writer revisits the seminal book of her youth--Middlemarch-- and fashions a singular, involving story of how a passionate attachment to a great work of literature can shape our lives and help us to read our own histories.") doesn't match the contents.

Don't get me wrong, this is an engaging book that gives readers great insight into Middlemarch and George Eliot, but... the shaping of Rebecca Mead's life? her passionate attachment? That's only about 10% of the book. Another 10% is her reading documents, looking at artifacts and visiting Eliot-related places. The bulk of the book is a biography of Eliot and consideration of the themes and threads of Middlemarch, perfect for people encountering the book for the first time or re-reading it in a book group. It's just not the book I thought I'd be reading, the book the description promised. Hence the lower rating - had I gone in knowing that this was going to be less about Mead's reaction to the book, how reading/rereading at different ages brought out new insights and how (perhaps) others have reacted to it and more about who may have been the inspirations for the characters, it would have gotten a much higher rating.

ARC provided by publisher.

ETA: The British title, The Road to Middlemarch, makes so much more sense!
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,554 reviews2,534 followers
December 14, 2014
I loved this learned, all-encompassing tribute to a cherished work of literature. Call it an homage, call it a “bibliomemoir”; whatever the label, I call this kind of book absolutely delightful. (I feature this one in a BookTrib article about journeying into favorite books.)

At age 19, I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch as a study abroad student at the University of Reading, England. At the time I was far too busy taking field trips to Stonehenge and Jane Austen’s Bath, exploring nearby Oxford, going to West End shows, getting dirt-cheap student tickets to Love Actually and other cinematic gems of 2003-4, and spending time with my English boyfriend and our motley group of geeky Anglo-American friends to fully appreciate an 800-page treasure of Victorian literature.

My roommate, who had already read the novel, gave me one piece of advice: just keep reading. Don’t stop to think too deeply about it, she said; just plow through or you’ll never read the whole thing in time. So that’s what I did. Somehow I managed to set aside the necessary hours, glancing occasionally out the university library windows at depressingly early winter sunsets, or curling into one of the massive, body-swallowing couches in the lounge of the “American house,” where we study abroad gals had the best of both worlds.

Now I retain only the vaguest of impressions of Middlemarch. I have clearer memories of Daniel Deronda, which I would read on my master’s course in Victorian Literature two years later. But I certainly never had the life-changing experience with Eliot that Rebecca Mead had as an English teenager in rural Dorset.

What is it about Middlemarch that so captivated Mead that she felt the need to turn her initial New Yorker article into a full-length book chronicling her journey with the novel? She wasn’t to know how much of an impact Eliot would have on her when she first picked up the battered paperback. But for some reason it grabbed her; it felt like a weighty adult’s book, something brainy to fit her image. In her teenage circle, “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.” She wanted to be an academic, or a writer, and Middlemarch showed she was serious.

Eliot set Middlemarch (published in 1871-72) in the recent past, and the tone is very much one of gentle, nostalgic regret for the follies of youth and the loss of one’s younger self. She characterized her novel as a “home epic,” full of adventures of the mind and the emotions but remaining physically in the same humble place on earth. Mead herself traded provincial English life for a more cosmopolitan existence in New York City, but still she can see the merits of cherishing where one comes from: “Middlemarch inspired me when I was young, and chafing to leave home, and now, in middle life, it suggests to me what else home might mean, beyond a place to grow up and grow out of.”

In chapters with titles echoing the section headings of Middlemarch, Mead tracks her journey into the book, weaving in archival research at libraries in Britain and America, details of Eliot’s unconventional life with her common-law husband, George Henry Lewes, discussion of the novel’s major plot themes, and visits to Eliot’s various homes in London and the Midlands (one is now a hotel; another is the Coventry Bangladesh Center). “Visiting the former homes of famous writers tends to be a compromised and often unsatisfying endeavor,” but Mead manages to find comforting traces of the author once known as Mary Ann Evans over the course of her travels. Eliot even holidayed with Lewes near Weymouth, where Mead grew up; they stayed near a mill stream that inspired Eliot’s writing of The Mill on the Floss.

Along the way Mead discovers that, in several peculiar respects, her life story mirrors that of her literary idol. Like Eliot, she found midlife love with a man named George and welcomed three stepsons; like Eliot, she left London to embrace a new place – though for Mead that meant crossing the Atlantic. Still, Pamela Erens, in her review for the Los Angeles Review of Books, complains that there is too little of “my life” in the book despite the title: “Mead gives us many details and scenes that effectively reveal George Eliot to us – but not herself.” Tell-all memoir this is not. Mead’s personal touch is very subtle; she prefers to let her material speak for itself, only occasionally inserting herself as observer, traveler, and, especially, as reader.

I knew a fair bit about Eliot and her Victorian milieu to start with, but still I garnered many a great piece of trivia. For instance, Eliot had a Scottish admirer (or do I mean stalker?) named Alexander Main who flattered her sense of moral purpose by making collections of her wise and witty sayings, even though many argued that reducing Eliot’s works to aphorisms sucked all the life out of them. I also learned that the Casaubons may have been based on friends of Eliot and Lewes: the Pattisons, the Rector of Lincoln College and his wife. Though I’d known it once, I was reminded that Eliot married again, within a couple years of Lewes’s death, this time to John Walter Cross, 20 years her junior. It gets better than that, though: on their honeymoon in Venice, he jumped out a window into the canal. (Go figure that one out!) My absolute favorite tidbit, though, delivered in the notes with no additional commentary, is that Eliot’s portable writing desk was stolen from Nuneaton Museum in 2012. Therein a mystery surely lies.

If I had to express a few niggles, they would be that Mead occasionally relies too heavily on plot summary (which I imagine would put potential readers off Middlemarch rather than intrigue them into trying it), the finale chapter is unnecessary, and there are a few too many vague sound bites along the lines of “The book was reading me, as I was reading it.” (What exactly is that supposed to mean?!) Only once or twice did I wonder if I would be better off reading a straightforward biography of Eliot. But that, of course, would bear none of the hybrid charms of Mead’s understated homage.

Likewise, it seems rather churlish of Joyce Carol Oates to point out (in her New York Times review) that “There is something self-limiting if not solipsistic about focusing so narrowly on a single novel through the course of one’s life, as if there were not countless other, perhaps more unsettling, more original, more turbulent, more astonishing, more aesthetically exciting and more intellectually challenging novels — James Joyce’s Ulysses, to name one; Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, to name another.” Fair enough, but those books are not where Mead’s passion lies. There is a definite element of serendipity in any relationship with a beloved book.

Mead believes that “a book can insert itself into a reader’s own history, into a reader’s own life story, until it’s hard to know what one would be without it.” Her husband’s prized book is Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, while she has friends who would single out A Portrait of the Lady or David Copperfield as their book of a lifetime (if I was pressed to choose the one book that’s meant the most to me over the years, it would probably be David Copperfield, too).

Yet, as Mead admitted in a recent interview with Kirkus, “I don’t really know who I’d be if I’d chosen David Copperfield.” Indeed, that would be a whole other book.
Profile Image for Glenn Sumi.
404 reviews1,520 followers
July 11, 2020

I’ve only read George Eliot’s Middlemarch once, back in university. It was required reading for an English course, and I remember loving its quiet, perceptive look at various lives intersecting around an English town in the mid 19th century.

Today, some *mumble mumble* years later, the novel’s characters – idealistic Dorothea Brooke, pedantic Casaubon, sensible and funny Mary Garth, the Vincy siblings, the talented and ambitious Dr. Lydgate – continue to stay with me, as do its complex treatment of themes like happiness, marriage (or relationships), endurance and faith. Whenever I’m at a bookstore and reread the poignant final lines, I still tear up a little bit.

And when the topic of favourite novels comes up, I usually mention it, even though I’ve never gone back and reread it fully. So what a treat to revisit it in Rebecca Mead’s absorbing, inspired My Life In Middlemarch.

It’s hard to sum up what Mead’s doing here. In some ways, it’s a memoir of a lifetime of reading and rereading the book, examining how Eliot’s themes and characters have affected her at different stages of her own life. (Note the title, which suggests she sees her own life in the masterpiece.)

The book’s also a biography, offering up fascinating details about Eliot’s personal life, how the novel came to be, how certain passages and characters have been interpreted and reinterpreted in the 140 years since its publication.

I found these sections intriguing, particularly ones about Eliot’s fulfilling relationship with writer George Lewes (the two never married – scandalous at the time), which came after a painful non-courtship with a man named Herbert Spencer. One of her letters to Spencer is, as Mead writes, “deeply upsetting… a deliberate plumbing of the depths of self-abnegation.” Alas, even one of the greatest writers in the English language had to deal with a “He’s just not that into you” situation.

Mead sheds a lot of light on whether or not Casaubon and Brooke were modeled after an Oxford rector and his younger wife, and there’s an amusing section late in the book about one Scotsman’s successful attempt to create a compendium of quotes from Eliot’s work. It's also fascinating to see how Eliot's reputation changed after her death, and to explore the full meaning of Virginia Woolf's famous statement that the book was "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people."

Mead, educated at Oxford and now a staff writer for The New Yorker, digs up archives in libraries and universities, travels to key places in the book and Eliot’s life (she herself grew up in England not far from many of them) and interviews descendents of some of the people Eliot knew. The research, as far as I can tell, is impeccable, the findings written in clear and lively prose.

In fact, what’s most gratifying is that Mead is such a good writer, her perceptions deep and profound.

It all amounts to a unique, engrossing book about life and literature, worthy of the master herself.
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,535 reviews1,793 followers
October 14, 2019
Imagine your favourite food (or drink), now imagine a book written about it. From the first this has to be a Platonic exercise in love with the shadows on the cave wall.

Very much a your mileage may vary kind of book, but I liked it fine, I would say for me it was a comfortable three star kind of book, completely satisfying, but equally not great or outstanding in any way, if I was a school teacher grading this I might give it an A, maybe even an A+ . I wonder sometimes if my responses to books simply reflect my underlaying mood, and a graph of the positivity versus the negativity of my reviews would neatly illustrate the tidal ebb and flow of my mood and so perhaps this book cunningly caught me at a good moment and a few days earlier or later I would have seized it in my teeth and worried it with my claws.

I think this is a good example of the expanded magazine article variety of book. The author attempts to follow in George Eliot's footsteps her first home though was at the time of going to press a pub, a second one a community centre, one of her London homes was destroyed to make way for a railway line and so on and weaves her herself as reader into the story of Eliot's life - but with a heavy focus on Middlemarch.

The book is probably pitched at a reader like me who has read Middlemarch once but long enough ago that I don't remember the Bulstrode and Raffles subplot, but who thinks that Eliot is a serious enough author to be worth reading about, I think if you read Middlemarch as often as the author claims to - once every five years, then you might find the plot synopses irritating padding, also if you have read a biography of George Eliot then there won't much I imagine new here for you, but for me who has not yet then the details of her life with her not-husband George Henry Lewes or how despite her elevated sympathetic prose in her novels, she was on occasion in life snappy and sharp, writing in one letter about a train journey and being annoyed by a Belgian family and their baboonlike children (nice to learn that the nature of travel travel has not changed much).

There is a little bit on Eliot's critical reception, a star in her own life time, seen as far too earnest by the succeeding generation, a growing rehabilitation from Virginia the big bad Woolf to F.R. Levis who cemented her into the canon of English Literature. Some discussion of possible inspirations for the figures of Causaubon and Dorothea, but which point back I felt to Eliot herself, with I guess the key difference that while Dorothea looks out to the world for personal transformation, Eliot looked in to herself, learnt French and German from books, translated David Friedrich Strauss' 'Life of Jesus', which led her into journalism and onwards to becoming a literary titan.

Mead writes nicely about Middlemarch in her life as the provincial seeing herself in Dorothea and later inspired by Eliot herself, wanting as a teenager to be the kind of person who love Middlemarch and who lives and grows with it, it is not quite a love poem to a book that has shaped her, but it is pretty close in places.

More Middlemarch here
Profile Image for Melanie.
Author 6 books1,195 followers
July 30, 2021
"No wonder it’s so easy for Mead and all the rest of us to see ourselves in this book. Eliot had perfect psychological pitch; I am not sure any other writer has ever captured with such precision what it is like to be a member of our species. When it comes to committing private consciousness to the page, Woolf reigns supreme; but Eliot wrote us down as we actually live, inward and outward at once, selves in a society. Her perceptiveness is a huge part of the pleasure of Middlemarch, but for Eliot, it’s as much means as end. ­Perception is a necessary component of sympathy; if you don’t see, you don’t care. And Eliot is exceptionally committed to compassion—to bestowing it on her characters, but also to coaxing it from her readers. " Kathryn Schulz in Vulture

Rebecca Mead's own perceptiveness in this exquisite hybrid of a book (part literary criticism, part biography, part autobiography, part reportage) is something to behold. I read this wonderful work partly alongside Eliot's masterpiece and then decided to finish the novel first so that I wouldn't risk getting a much-dreaded spoiler.

It heightened my own experience and understanding of the novel by showing me how it had had such a profound impact on someone's life, through and through. Rebecca Mead celebrates the power of books in our every day lives with a passion and commitment that is nothing short of dazzling. Her writing is fluid, engaged, deeply observing and penetrating.

A truly delightful read which leaves you with one burning question: is there a book that occupies a similar place in our own life?
Author 4 books581 followers
April 9, 2014

Okay. So.

This book is a biography of a book. Specifically, it’s the biography of one woman and how she and a life-changing novel matured together.

For the record, I was not one of those kids who was reading James Joyce and Herman Melville when she was nine. I was reading novels with deathless titles like The Cat Ate My Gymsuit.

But I did manage to fit in some of the good stuff now and then when I hit my teens and twenties, so I do know the pleasure of rereading a classic decades later and thinking fondly, “I am such an idiot.”

There are books that it’s no use reading before a certain stage, because you have nowhere to put what they have to offer. This isn’t an insult to the young, because it’s not necessarily about youth. I know plenty of people in their teens and early twenties who have a better understanding of some great books than I do; and I know others who may be in their forties chronologically, but they don’t have a clue about certain books because they just don’t have the right set of mental shelves for them.

I was young and clueless when I first read Middlemarch. I only grasped two things: there’s a reason more people have heard of Jane Austen than of George Eliot, and I could relate more directly to Dorothea Brooke than I’ve ever been able to empathize with any of Austen’s heroines. This contradiction baffled me. It’s also the reason I’ve read Middlemarch several times even though it’s almost 800 pages long.

Okay, I also reread it because after my first time through, someone gave me a gorgeous hardcover copy and I’m a sucker for a pretty face. Fine. I’m shallow. Sue me.

But at least I’m not irredeemably shallow. That second time through, I managed to notice more than just the story. I caught killer lines like “Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand.” I didn’t know what that meant, exactly, but I knew there was something going on there.

Because of the range of characters and the multiple storylines, Middlemarch is a book that is different not just for different readers, but for the same reader at different ages. Or, as Rebecca Mead puts it in this loving memoir, “There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.”

My Life is a story of how a great novel changed Rebecca Mead’s life, and how it grew as she did. If you’ve ever had a similar relationship with a book, you’ll enjoy this book even if you haven’t read Middlemarch -- though you’ll probably want to long before you finish.

You’ll also enjoy Mead's book if you’ve always been curious about George Eliot’s life but don’t necessarily want to commit to a whole biography. (I admit to living in that camp, though I feel myself being coaxed out of it now.)

The reason you might be curious about George Eliot is because it’s hard not to be curious about a woman whose novels are known for their strong moral messages, and who left her Christian faith behind early in life and had the nerve to live with a man in the mid-nineteenth century. Yes, that kind of “live with.” Starting in 1854. Yes, that 1854. Victorian England. The man, George Lewes, was married but living apart from his wife, who was happily bearing children by another man. Divorce was nearly impossible back then, so when George Eliot and George Lewes fell in love, they decided to shack up. And you thought the Victorians were boring.

Eliot remained in this monogamous relationship for 24 years, until Lewes’ death. Eliot was inconsolable until she decided maybe she wasn’t inconsolable after all, which just happened to be around the time a man 20 years her junior proposed to her. She accepted. She was sixty at the time. (And you thought the Victorians were boring.)

This book has plenty of wonderful biographical details like that. Also some sad ones, like the fact that her younger twin brothers died on the same day only a week and a half after their birth. These are woven around details from Mead’s life, though she goes easy on the personal outpourings. She knows she can’t compete with her subject matter, and doesn’t try – though her writing holds up well even next to Eliot’s.

I would write more about this lovely book, but I can’t afford to. I can hear the library snarling at me even from a mile away to return its property. So I’ll close with my favorite quote from Middlemarch. It isn’t very profound, but it’s a description of a character I relate to even more than Dorothea Brooke: Mary Garth, who feels “a strong current of gratitude toward those who, instead of telling her that she ought to be contented, did something to make her so.”

Think of that the next time you’re tempted to urge someone to cheer up. And then try to give them a reason to be cheerful. A copy of My Life in Middlemarch would be a good start.
Profile Image for Anmiryam.
770 reviews132 followers
December 9, 2014
Rebecca Mead's literary exploration of 'Middlemarch" is not the self-focused memoir that the title might lead you to expect. Instead, within these pages she entwines literary analysis, research into the life of the unconventional genius who wrote this most empathetic of 19th century british novels, and her musings on the mutability of her own encounters with 'Middlemarch' as she returns to it at different points in her own life. This is literary criticism for non-academic readers done well. It simultaneously provides an introduction to the text under consideration, explores the interaction between Eliot's life and work, and creates a personal engagement with a book that has the capacity make us stronger and wiser human beings, even as it entertains.

Any serious reader who knows the power of favorite books to be fresh even when read and re-read numerous times will find Mead's engagement with 'Middlemarch' strikes a chord. Even if you've never read 'Middlemarch' it is worth reading this beautifully written book. If nothing else it will defuse the anxiety many people feel when trying to get past the police lines that surround so-called "Seminal Works" and trigger thoughtful consideration of your own fictional touchstones.

I received my ARC from a Goodreads First Reads giveaway and it was a treat I thoroughly relished.
Profile Image for Diane Challenor.
350 reviews66 followers
December 20, 2015
Lovely, lovely, lovely. This book was my reward to myself when I attained my personal challenge of reading Middlemarch, which is part of my "List of Betterment Project". I'm pleased to report I "successfully" read Middlemarch, and it's a story that remains with me weeks after I turned the final page. Now, having read both Middlemarch and Rebecca Mead's book "The Road to Middlemarch" I feel like I've joined a literary club of Middlemarch fans. It's been a really interesting journey. Aren't books wonderful!
Profile Image for Nancy Brandwein.
30 reviews
October 17, 2015
I was deeply disappointed in this book. I reread Middlemarch mainly in anticipation of the pleasure I would get from reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. What I expected, given the title and pre-publicity blurbs, was a real look into Rebecca Mead’s life through the lens of Middlemarch—how the characters and book spoke to her at various stages of her life and how, in turn, her life—or her perception of that life—
changed as a result. Instead, what I got was a thin biography of George Eliot, as viewed through correspondence, visits to George Eliot’s and her partner George Lewes’ former stomping grounds, and objects once handled by the great author. Often Mead retraces Eliot’s steps, but the writing is most awkward at those moments, “I imagine they would have talked about “X” or she would have crossed the street and seen Y.” I found that the constant suppositions about Eliot’s thoughts, motives or even what she saw from a particular point on a walk were more grating than illuminating.

Mead says that we are united by the books that affect us, and so I expected to feel a kinship with Mead and for her to open up her life to me at each of the three points at which she read and reread Middlemarch. Alas, the most intimate things I learned about Rebecca Mead—the name of her husband and the names of her stepchlildren and son-- were in her acknowledgements page. The reticence grew more and more irritating to me. For instance, I found it annoying that Mead, who is renowned as a New York magazine writer and literary critic, coyly refused to refer to New York by name when she mentioned her years of fact checking and later writing for “a weekly magazine.” And yet, when she does offer more than a glimpse into her life, she awkwardly tries to create parallels between Eliot’s life and her own (not between Middlemarch and her own) as when she writes in an extended chapter on George Eliot’s role as stepmother to Lewes’ children. Her meditations on Eliot as coming late to motherhood are illuminating in themselves, but I don’t think of Middlemarch as being a book in which Eliot emphasized what it means to be a parent or a stepparent, for that matter. Mead herself notes this; in the one spot where she talks more openly about her relationship with a man who had a young daughter, she says, Middlemarch “had nothing to tell me” about falling in love with someone who came with a prior emotional commitment that superseded their own. Mead provides sketches of key points in her life, a love affair gone wrong, her time at Oxford, her early career hopes, her later more fulfilling love with an older man who is now her husband. However, her treatment of her own life is so superficial compared to her in-depth discussion of Eliot’s life.

And yet…I wouldn’t say that the book is a total disappointment. Mead has done her research thoroughly, and I was interested in her take on Eliot’s early disappointment in love with Herbert Spenser and her correspondence with a fawning Scottish admirer, Alexander Main, who published a book of Eliot’s maxims. I was also very interested in Mead’s interpretation of Eliot’s philosophy of “meliorism,” her morality, and how what interested Eliot most was a sympathetic viewpoint of her fellow humans. Mead gives wonderful synopses and analyses of portions of Middlemarch as well. Still, I felt like someone who had been promised a full, satisfying dinner who has been given a small plate with some artfully arranged tidbits. The best thing about it: the prospect of reading it made me go back to Middlemarch, which I had read thirty years before. Now, that was a more than satisfying meal.
Profile Image for Ellie.
1,458 reviews369 followers
October 21, 2013
I was thrilled to win My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead from Goodreads First Reads program. I love Middlemarch by George Eliot, the Middlemarch Mead's book refers to and have read it several times over the course of 30 years. I was interested in reading what another person's engagement with the book was like.

I was delighted with the experience. I came to feel a kinship with Read (who writes for The New Yorker). Mead's prose is a pleasure to read: lucid, balanced, often vivid. And her tone is friendly without being effusive, an easy presence to be with. Her focus was primarily on the Eliot's text, then on Eliot's life and only then on the connections between Eliot's text and her own life. I never felt her life eclipsed that of Eliot's or Eliot's work. Mead's connects her personal experience as a young girl living in a small English town, studying to escape her life through university with Eliot-another young girl dreaming 150 years ago of escaping the narrow confines of her life in a provincial English town. Mead uses Middlemarch (and Eliot) as a touchstone for her own experiences, a text that continues to deepen and resonate with her over the years, helping her in understanding and creating meaning in her own life through the prism of Eliot's text.

Mead's book is the type I need to read with highlighter in hand. A few of my favorite quotes include:"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." and of "all that might be gained from opening one's heart wider," "We are called to express our generosity and sympathy in ways we might not have chosen for ourselves." and, a beautiful meditation on the final lines of Eliot's masterpiece.

I was sorry to finish this book. I enjoyed spending time in Mead's company and sharing the joys of Middlemarch with her. Although I think this book can be enjoyed even without having read Middlemarch-as a discussion of how a book can be a guide and interpreter of our own life-but it certainly doesn't hurt to know and love Middlemarch and if you haven't already read it, this book may inspire you to (it certainly inspired me to go back for yet another reading). Or it may lead you to reflect on a book in your own life that has been an ongoing presence in your life. At any rate, I would strongly recommend this intelligent yet somehow friendly book to anyone who loves literature.

Profile Image for Lizzie.
688 reviews94 followers
February 26, 2014
So… George Eliot is my person. I love her. She gets me. Her books are really good. The way most Goodreads people seem to feel about Virginia Woolf, is how I feel about George Eliot. I like her so much that I even like the things that, when you read enough tellings of them, are annoying or dumb or snotty or flawed. I like them all. This is going to skew everything I ever read about her and her novels, so there is my disclaimer.

I've looked forward to reading this book for a long time, you guys!

This book goes straight for me: George Eliot is important to Rebecca Mead, too, and she is reflecting on that personal significance by discussing the themes and history of her favorite Eliot novel. This is 100% something I would love to do, too! I have tons to say about what role my favorite Eliot book has had in my life, how connected I feel to the events of Eliot's personal life while she wrote it, and how I foresee its significance maturing as my life moves along. Very likely most of us could do this, with some book or other. Rebecca Mead just comes very close to mine.

(FWIW, "my" book is The Mill on the Flossmy horrible inadequate review — and I think about it all the time. When I see a copy, I play the "open to a random page" game and then stop before I claw my face right off, it's so emotional to me. A little codependent tradition we've got.)

Personally, I like Middlemarch fine, though its general adulation occasionally makes me wonder if it's maybe the only Eliot that those people ever read. I haven't read everything yet either, so what do I know, but I like at least two others better. But hey, that's okay. It teaches me what I like in books. It teaches me what "Literature" likes in books. And most validly of all, Rebecca Mead is here telling me what she likes in books.

Her telling, here, isn't actually supremely specific to Middlemarch. A reader could conclude many of these things with many other books. But you know what? Doesn't matter. For her, this is the book, the one through which she can filter everything in her world. Isn't that awesome? It is awesome. I love that.

However: after finishing, I'm not surprised by the reviewers who think Mead's book is a little bit mislabeled. While it does everything it says it will in the description, it should really be noted how emphasized Eliot's biography is as a subject, and how much space it's given here. Most chapters, rather than being structured around Middlemarch or Mead's personal thoughts, are actually structured around a telling of Eliot's life that is enhanced by those other things. This surprised me, because biography is well-covered ground, and a big responsibility to deliver to new readers. And then in writing a personal book, as Mead is, glossing over the bits of Eliot's life that she's less interested in analyzing is not a very balanced approach. I did a healthy amount of biographical reading for a thesis only last year, so I've still got a decent grasp on the main narrative of Eliot's life. If it were up to me, I would make some different choices than Mead does of what to include and what to say about it, pertaining to parts of her novels. But again, I can't fault her for not writing "my" book, because she's writing hers.

Clearly, Mead definitely knows more than me, and I was reading several things for the first time, or that were told here in a way I finally took note of. She particularly spends a lot of time on Eliot's partner Lewes's sons, including some revealing letters by Thornie Lewes that haven't been published before. They're not completely on-topic, but it's a fun section in a face-palmy way. (RIYL Victorian racism, and comparisons of shooting "bushmen" to hunting "chimps and gorillas." Kids those days!) I also really enjoyed the chapter about Eliot's Oxford friends (Mark Pattison and Emily Strong), by whom it was/is widely conjectured that Middlemarch's Dorothea and Casaubon were inspired. Whether or not this theory is true or makes good sense, Mead writes a really entertaining analysis of their true story and I loved learning about them.

The thing I loved most, though, and the most original thing that Mead does in the book (and unsurprisingly, something I would LOVE to do!), is to go and make pilgrimage to as many of Eliot's landmarks as she can. All of her homes, all of the areas that influenced her writing during the Middlemarch period, Mead hops around and stares them all down. This is the perfect connective tool for this book: it fits a telling of both Eliot's life story as well as Mead's own, and has the built-in perspective of centuries. How do places and things — books, artifacts — reach us over time? Do they lose or gain value? Can they do both?

I love visiting historic sites for this reason (especially old homes), so I was extremely excited to see what Mead would find. Eliot's childhood home is a pub (the house still stands), her young adult home is a graffitied Bangladeshi community center (the house still stands), but the home she shared with Lewes for fifteen years ("The Priory") is a train track. And Mead goes to see it. I would go to see it, too! I might, if I go to London. It's worth it to me, the place. The place has value. When Mead goes to them, she speaks to people there, she looks inside, she asks to see the special rooms. It's worth it to her, too.

She also takes some wonderful research opportunities, like reviewing Eliot's notebooks and Middlemarch's original manuscript at their special library collections. And because this is Mead's book, about her own experience as a lover of this great novel, she gets to tell us how that feels, in addition to what's in them. How does the notebook smell, for heaven's sake? (LIKE A FIREPLACE!) This type of legit research experience, together with the everyday experiences of museum visits and the more personal visits she goes out of her way to do (she visits Lewes's living descendants! SHE HOLDS ELIOT'S PEN!), combine into a very trustworthy and relatable narrative experience.

More of Mead's own memoir would have enhanced this book for me. She mentions her life events a lot, but hangs on to a good amount of her journalism-trained reserve, and so does not go very deep. Probably the only thing I like more than a person talking about their favorite book is a person speaking deeply about their lives, so if there were a little more of both of those in this book I can't imagine how incredibly much more I would love it, too.

Partly, I feel that I myself am seeking a leader, someone who can write to me about life and George Eliot and how to read and connect. I'm so grateful that this book exists in order to take a step and go there.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,396 followers
July 24, 2015
Rebecca Mead manages to sort George Eliot’s personal life from her fiction, enlightening us on both:
"[Eliot’s] most straightforwardly autobiographical character is Maggie Tulliver, and as a grown woman Eliot discussed with a friend the ways in which The Mill on the Floss was inspired by her own history. Everything in the novel was softened, she said; her own experience was worse."
This nonfiction is a hybrid of criticism and biography, but I argue it may be best viewed as a series of connected essays. It can’t be strictly chronological but at the end of each chapter Mead leaves us with a large conclusion and insight that would stand alone but only leaves us wishing to know more.

Mead was able to lay out with ravishing clarity the twists and turns of a long-ago life, pair it coherently with the novels that were the result of that life, while at the same time making us interested in the life and work of Mead herself. Many of us have a favorite novel, but perhaps not so many of us revisit it at different stages in our life to see how our perceptions have changed and what it means for our understanding, and for our judgment. One of the loveliest true things Mead shares with us is how her distaste for the "sad, proud, dessicated" Middlemarch character of Casaubon waxed and waned through the decades she revisited the book:
"He is a frail creature tortured by his own insufficiencies…Once Eliot was asked whom she had in mind as the original Casaubon; in response, she silently tapped her own breast. As I read Middlemarch in middle age, [Casaubon’s] failures and fears no longer seem so remote or theoretical to me as they once did, when I was in my Dorothea youth."
Mead begins by telling us she wanted to understand why some people considered it the greatest novel in the English language, but she was also simply captured by its relevance and urgency though written nearly one hundred years before her birth. She wanted to see how Eliot’s life shaped her fiction, and how that fiction might have shaped Mead herself, it being a lens though which she looked at life time and again. What a large task for even an experienced biographer! But Mead was a journalist, and this may have been her salvation: "how to ask questions, how to use my eyes, how to investigate a subject, how to look at something familiar from an unfamiliar angle." Even so, what Mead has done is nearly mystical in its containment and inclusion.

When describing Eliot’s beginning consciousness of an artistic life, Mead tells us Eliot
"greatly admired the novelist George Sand: 'I shall never think of going to her writings as a moral code or text book,' [Eliot] wrote to a friend…'I cannot read six pages of hers without feeling that it is given to her to delineate human passion and its results…that one might live a century with nothing but one’s own dull faculties and not know so much as those six pages will suggest.'"
Yet in the very next paragraph Mead admits she’d never read George Sand. I haven’t either, though I have tried in youth and again lately as an adult…I just couldn’t manage it. The experience reminds me that all of us find our inspiration in such disparate and (can I say?) unlikely places. We are all working within our own limited spheres and with "dull faculties" but it turns out finding inspiration has as much to do with the inspired as it has to do with the object of that inspiration.

Much has always been made of Eliot’s looks and yet she managed to make a life so full of love she wondered if she had enough in her. In middle age (when she was thirty-two), she was pursued by George Henry Lewes, a man married in law only, and moved in with him, adopting his name to fit in better with society. She was brave in spite of social constraints, and had enough fierce intelligence to know that her life was her own to live. "One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy," Eliot wrote to a friend. Her long liaison with George Henry Lewes ended only when he died twenty-four years later. Such boldness and intellectual courage Eliot displayed in her unconventional life.

Eliot, born in 1819, died in 1880, only eight years after finishing the fourth book of Middlemarch. It had been published in eight five-shilling installments from December 1871 to December 1872 and was received with great acclaim among the general populace. The critics were, well, critical. Lewes died in November 1878, and seventeen months later Eliot married John Walter Cross, a man younger by twenty years. Both Lewes and she had known Cross since 1869 and had addressed him as "nephew." She had her reasons, she told a friend, and once again proved her independence of thought and great social courage.

Now for my admission: I have never read Middlemarch, though I think I might try now. I especially liked the final sentence of that novel, which Mead tells us was not always as it appears in the books. It went through drafts until finally Eliot thought she said what she’d intended. Below, it reads to me like a sad but painfully true kind of epitaph:
"But the effect of her 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 in half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

I listened to the Blackstone Audio of this, very well read by Kate Reading. I filled in parts I remembered with the hardcover, published by Crown.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
Author 1 book145 followers
July 14, 2016
How can I do justice in a review of a book so good about a book so good? My Life in Middlemarch captures the spirit of Middlemarch and when finishing it, gave me a similar sigh of contentment.

Rebecca Mead has successfully accomplished what many Middlemarch fans might wish to do. She has immersed herself in the story and its meaning, explored George Eliot’s letters, homes, traveled streets and even the views the author gazed at out of her windows in order to better understand this masterpiece and its impact on us. Best of all, she takes us along this journey with her, and studying the life and work of this masterful writer with such a sensitive scholar is definitely time well spent.

This is not a book about Mead and her life. It is a book about the power of Middlemarch, about the life behind its creation. Mead delicately includes impacts on her own life, primarily the widening of her perspective over years of reading and re-reading this work, and she does so in a way that allows us room for our own similar reflections.

It seems Rebecca Mead has assimilated what George Eliot tried to contribute with her fiction. Speaking of Eliot, she says:
“Her credo might be expressed this way: If I really care for you—if I try to think myself into your position and orientation—then the world is bettered by my effort at understanding and comprehension. If you respond to my effort by trying to extend the same sympathy and understanding to others in turn, then the betterment of the world has been minutely but significantly extended.”

Betterment of the world indeed.
Profile Image for Craig.
66 reviews19 followers
May 3, 2021
This is a pleasant but strange book, and there is something of a “neither fish nor fowl” problem here. My Life in Middlemarch promises to be a new kind of thing: a book that uses a novel as a kind of lens through which to view one’s own readerly life, but that also works the other way around, too, showing how a person’s life informs the experience of reading a treasured book. How can someone who treasures books resist? This is an exciting enough prospect for someone who has read and loved Middlemarch in particular, but it also floats the tantalizing possibility of what amounts to a new and potentially illuminating kind of reading.

But in the end this book is really just an amalgam of two quite familiar forms of writing that seem, at least in this case, to subtract something from one another. Mead’s book is much more a kind of idiosyncratic, highly selective general biography of George Eliot and, in a very limited way, an analysis of Middlemarch than it is the sort of fusion of writerly work and readerly life that the book’s marketing and framing promises. Mead’s own appearances in these pages are so scattered, so underdeveloped, and so jarring that they often seem merely irritating. One feels as if she needs to find room for a fuller expression of this stuff or just to find somewhere else to put it. It’s a strange feeling to want either far more or far less of the same thing from a book, but it seems like a sign of something fundamental and structural that’s amiss.

So much, then, for illuminating the life: what about illuminating the novel? With the autobiographical insertions removed instead of centred and amplified, what would be left in the way of Eliot criticism? I teach undergraduate literature students for a living, and a lot of Mead’s work here, sad to say, reminds me of what some of the most disinterested, just-here-for-the-English-credit students will often write when tasked with literary analysis. A surprising amount of this book is an elaborate and admittedly erudite and sophisticated version of the same sort of plot summary punctuated with lengthy quotations left to speak for themselves. To be fair it is occasionally far more thoughtful and insightful than this, but much of the time its criticism is just the acknowledgement of patterns and correspondences: this thing in the life of Eliot is like that thing in Middlemarch and, now and then, like this other thing in mine. Mead writes that this “approach to fiction—where do I see myself in here?—is not how a scholar reads, and it can be limiting in its solipsism. It’s hardly an enlarging experience to read a novel as if it were a mirror of oneself.” But that’s often as far as Mead's reading of Middlemarch goes, and the result does seem, well, unenlarging.

The book seems elliptical and underdeveloped, given to somewhat lazy collage via the magazine trick of shifting abruptly with section-break-denoting blank lines, and to a sometimes maddening darting and weaving from biographical detail to character sketch to journalistic anecdote about picking up coffee on the way to the library to biographical detail to character sketch to broad philosophical observation about life and so on. Neither fish nor fowl, neither memoir nor literary criticism: what this book is—and if this appeals to you, you’ll probably nonetheless enjoy it and mostly forgive it for the above—is a 300-page New Yorker think piece. Not the worst thing, of course, and Mead is a past master at it. But not what it says on the tin.

All that said, one thing I’m grateful for here is Mead’s brief closing discussion of the famous final sentence of Middlemarch. Here's that glorious sentence as it appeared in the novel:

But the effect of her 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.

And here it is, apparently, in the original draft in the British Library manuscript:

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive; for the growing life of the world is after all chiefly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is owing to many of those who sleep in unvisited tombs, having lived a hidden life nobly.

Mead describes this perfectly, I think, as a disorienting and “only partly successful first stab at sublimity,” and goes on to a wonderfully astute close reading of how the “music of the line was altered entirely, and so was its import.”
Profile Image for Melora.
575 reviews141 followers
February 7, 2017
Really lovely. An exploration of George Eliot's life, her great novel, Middlemarch, and how this novel has been a powerful influence in the author of this book's, Rebecca Mead's, life.

Mead, a journalist, has read Middlemarch many times since she first studied it as a teenager, but, in her forties, she embarks on the project of this books to examine...

"What if I tried to discern the ways in which George Eliot's life shaped her fiction, and how her fiction shaped her? I wasn't so naive as to think that novels could be biographically decoded, but novels are places in which authors explore their own subjectivity, and I wanted to think about what George Eliot might have sought, and what she might have discovered, in writing Middlemarch.
And 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 thought about where I was, and wondered where I might go next"

Unlike Mead, I've only read Middlemarch once, not many years ago, in my late forties. It is an amazing book. If you haven't read it, you really should. So I can't compare my teenaged, young adult, and middle aged responses to it, as Mead does. Still, I think most readers have A Book, or maybe a few Books, that they've loved forever and whose characters and stories are interwoven with their own lives. The way our favorite books become part of us, and the way our experiences and growing maturity affect each new reading, so that, like a beloved friend or family member, "our" book may change subtly over the years, is an engaging topic, and Mead does a fine job, including enough biographical information to support her points but avoiding the sort of dull navel-gazing that this genre is sometimes prone to. The parallels between events and characters in Middlemarch and those in Eliot's life are very interesting, and I'm now eager to reread that book, as well as to read Scenes of Clerical Life and Adam Bede .
Profile Image for Michael Meeuwis.
315 reviews1 follower
March 2, 2014
I have to admit I was rather savagely disappointed in this. Although the author acknowledges the book's sustained and lasting contributions to her life, the language she uses to describe, well, everything--and particularly the effects of the book on her--seems at once impersonal and flat, bordering often on banal. ("She turned her yearning into learning," the book says at one point of Eliot's late-youth language learning, in what I'd put good money on is the dumbest sentence about Eliot you'll read this year.) Over and over again, the author asserts deep connections between her life and that described in the book; yet she describes her own life in such vague terms, and the book in such basic ones, that it's hard to feel that there's anything particularly interesting going on in either. Along with this, the author is quite willing to overlook authorities--Gordon Haight, the most egregious--when it suits her speculations, but then cling to them when needed. While showing how Middlemarch relates to her (rather dull) descriptions of her own life, the author seems utterly uninterested in the range of responses it might create in a variety of author readers. Middlemarch might be the best novel yet written about being an ambitious provincial girl. It's rather more than that, as well; and the novel's central notion of sympathy for others, although addressed here, feels lost in this narrative's lukewarm solipsism.

I would hate to think that this would be anyone's introduction to Eliot--although, indeed, I really can't imagine who this book is for. Anyone who has read Middlemarch will not need the long summaries of the book's plot. Anyone who hasn't read Middlemarch is going to find it awfully dull and general, at least as described here. I suppose the ideal reader is someone who has never read Eliot, but wants to read something slighter and more homiletic than the book itself. And, as we might expect, there is much to make even the reader who knows nothing about Middlemarch, but believes vaguely in the power of books, feel good about themselves. I cringed at the parts where the author mocks a Coventry bookstore for--well, having a George Eliot section, but not a big enough one, and with only a handwritten sign. Rather more troubling still is the author's repeated statement that she found it weird that people in the Midlands were eating South Asian food. Not be be astoundingly obvious, but something like 1/3 of Middlemarch is about a character who moved to the city from a different social world; no pakoras, alas, but it takes a real failure of sympathy to miss this sort of connection. The cultural inheritance that the book describes is not actually limited to those whose families spent the last couple of generations in England--not that it doesn't belong to them, too, simultaneously.

There is a fascinating book to be written about the life opportunities that Middlemarch has opened readers' eyes to. In so many ways, this is not that book.
Profile Image for George Ilsley.
Author 12 books217 followers
February 16, 2022
This work of creative non-fiction is a hybrid of sorts: part memoir, and part exploration of a writer and her work (in particular, the novel Middlemarch). I suppose that one does not have to be a fan of George Eliot to appreciate this book — but then, who isn't?

Mead is poetic at times regarding her own childhood, and there are echoes to the lost landscapes that Eliot also evokes. This memoir is about those things which are lost, but also the discovery of things, the things that are found, and how these categories can change over time. What is to be found in a novel changes as we change, and grows as we grow. I anticipate that if I live to be 237, I might by then almost be able to fully appreciate George Eliot.

There is a typo late in the text. Mead refers to the love story of Fred and Mary being extracted and published by Oxford in 1853. This date has to be wrong, since Middlemarch itself was not published until the 1870's. I wonder at the correct date of the extracted story line -- 1893? 1953?
Profile Image for Jaylia3.
752 reviews129 followers
March 12, 2018
You don’t have to have read Middlemarch to enjoy this book lengthy reflection on and study of it, but My Life in Middlemarch may make you want to get your hands on a copy of George Eliot's classic novel. Layered and deeply considered, My Life in Middlemarch is a fairly brief (278 pages of text) and accessible book fully worthy of its insightfully rich subject. The writing manages to transition gracefully between the book’s three roles: memoir of the author’s experiences reading Middlemarch, brief biography of that novel’s boundary breaking Victorian era author George Eliot--pen name of Mary Anne Evans--and literary discussion of Middlemarch and its impact.

Rebecca Mead first read Middlemarch as a teenager, strongly identifying at that time with the intellectual and spiritual yearnings of Dorothea, an earnest young woman whose unfortunate marriage to a much older pedant begins the novel. Mead has continued to reread the book every few years into later adulthood, and though Middlemarch remains a favorite, her appreciation of it continues to evolve. It’s a book Mead feels helped shape her, each reading offering new perspectives on love, marriage, ambition, and personal growth as she moved through her own life.

Reading My Life in Middlemarch was like having a conversation with a well informed, thoughtful friend--though my side of the discussion was obviously in my head. I greatly enjoyed all three aspects of the book--memoir, biography and literary consideration--and it’s deepened and enriched the already significant pleasure I am having as I read Middlemarch for the first time.
Profile Image for Cynthia.
633 reviews43 followers
April 5, 2014
I found “My Life in Middlemarch“ to be an unusual blend of memoir and literature. Eliot’s “Middlemarch” is fondly remembered by Mead with a focus on how it impacted her at different times in her life as she reread it over the years. When she was a young girl aspiring to an elite English education coming from a working class background it represented hope for the future, a different way of being, and unknown adult world. As an unmarried woman searching for love it provided various ways of finding and creating a permanent home and family and then as a mature woman, married for years and with children of her own, it gave comfort that her struggles and joys were common to many of the women and men Eliot created. Mead also looks at Marian Evans’s (George Eliot’s) own unusual life, a life that in many ways was not representative of other Victorians yet through all the anti conventions Eliot was a consummate traditionalist as evidenced in both her books and her way of living. She became a wife to the estranged but still married George Lewes and mother to his children without the formal title of either. The richness of those experiences informed her writing.

For those stay away from memoirs because they can become too self indulgent you should know that Mead does not do this. Her exploration, while being personal, stays firmly on Eliot’s literature. There’s also a nice cultural blend in that Mead grew up in England but has lived most of her adult life in the U.S.

An advance readers copy was provided by the publisher.
Profile Image for Alex.
1,418 reviews4,327 followers
January 2, 2015
Well-written biography of George Eliot combined with analysis of Middlemarch. I'm not a huge fan of biographies, so those parts were cool but not ravishingly cool for me. Earlier this year I read What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved and I was super into that book's detailed examination of how Austen uses weather and shit; I guess I was hoping for that sort of deep dive into the mechanics of how Middlemarch is so great, and I didn't quite get that. Which isn't the book's fault; it does what it does quite well. Maybe a little more debating issues that are mostly of interest to George Eliot scholars - details from her life. Like, there was this stalker / fan who edited a collection of quotes from her books. Just how creepy was he?

Decent read, anyway, if you want to learn more about Eliot or about Middlemarch, which is the best book ever written.
Profile Image for Holly.
367 reviews68 followers
November 25, 2015
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.
My Life in Middlemarch is a rather niche book; I think the only people who think that they must read this book are (1) people who have read Middlemarch, and (2) people for whom Middlemarch has had a significant impact. Lucky for me, I fall snugly into these parameters.

First things first: this book of literary criticism and biographical study suffers from a huge branding failure. Rebecca Mead's life "uncannily echoes" that of Eliot's! proclaim the blurbs. This is why the book was made for her. Reading this, you are prepared to be delighted by one writer's love and connection to a novel that may just well match your own passion. Instead, My Life in Middlemarch is a well-written—though at times, tedious—study of George Eliot's motivations in writing Middlemarch. Though Mead often references the circumstances of her own life as her understanding of the novel evolves throughout her maturity, it is rarely in the context of drawing direct parallels to Eliot's own circumstances.

This isn't Mead's fault. Although I am often frustrated with shamelessly misleading blurbs, authors themselves have little to do with the marketing side of things. Mead's central thesis is not that the circumstances of her life mirror Eliot's. Rather, the focus is mostly on Eliot herself—her dramas, her places, all of the events in her life that informed her writing, and then the author's application of Middlemarch to facets of her own life.

The book is at its best when Mead is directly confronting the text of Middlemarch; though not necessarily profound, Mead is usually spot-on in her character analyses, particularly those of Dorothea/Causaubon and Fred/Mary. Critical texts often suffer from a certain conceit by the author that their personal circumstances are just as intriguing to the reader, and My Life in Middlemarch is no exception. Mead's insistence on the role of domestic bliss in Middlemarch is sketchy at best, though I can certainly see how it may be self-evident to Mead herself, as the member of what seems to be a blissfully domestic unit.

While I admire Mead's love and protectiveness of Middlemarch, and the meticulous research and work that went into the book, I think the book would have been fantastic had Mead limited her scope to Eliot's motivations, rather than awkwardly inserting her own. It's essentially just one writer's love letter to an extraordinary novel. And while I admire her ability to so beautifully write and get said love letter published, it isn't necessarily something that I can feel with in the exact same way that she does. I have my own love letter to Middlemarch, but I don't think it needs to be published. As Dorothea says to her sister Celia in the final chapters of Middlemarch: "No dear, you would have to feel it with me, else you would never know."
Profile Image for Plateresca.
327 reviews69 followers
August 3, 2017
I must confess: when I first read about this book (a recommendation here on Goodreads), my reaction was, 'Who does the author think she is?' But the need to talk to somebody about 'Middlemarch' was so great that I was looking for any talks on it on YouTube, and found Rebecca's, and realized she is actually a clever and understanding researcher, not somebody trying to make money on a famous novel. I enjoyed 'My life in Middlemarch' so greatly I kind of feel sorry I've finished reading it and cannot read it for the first time anymore :) Thank you, Rebecca, for being the perfect person to discuss 'Middlemarch' with.
Profile Image for superawesomekt.
1,342 reviews39 followers
December 13, 2022
My mother mentioned this book to me after she finished reading Middlemarch last year. (Apparently in a fit of youthful, but misguided enthusiasm I had gifted a copy of George Eliot's masterpiece to her. But last year it fit nicely into one of her library reading challenge slots, so perhaps it was meant to be after all.)

I immediately ordered it, but I will confess that I had expected it to be more about the author Rebecca Mead than about George Eliot. I am fond of the memoir genre, so I was mildly disappointed when I realized that this would instead be a biography of sorts. (I do like biographies, but they have a different vibe, amiright?) I slogged through for a bit, but then set it down for several months. It was the summer of 2020, after all, and comfort reading was calling me.

In December I picked it up a second time, knowing the book for what it was; and I was thoroughly enchanted. Expectations matter!

I can't claim a fraction of the knowledge and appreciation for Eliot and her novel that Mead possesses, but I can relate to Middlemarch as a literary touchstone in one's life. My introduction is very memorable:

The summer before my senior year of high school each student in my English lit class was required to pick an author to study from the Western canon. We were to pick 3 books from that author's oeuvre and read them all before the Fall term began. (We could not pick books we had already read, so the easy choice of Jane Austen was out.) I wanted to read a female author, but how to choose from a selection of authors I wasn't familiar with? Ah, but George Eliot, that one rang a bell...

(The summer I was 16 I had been at a church summer camp and seen a middle-aged camp counselor reading Middlemarch. When I had asked her about it, she stintingly informed me it was "a grown-up book.")

So naturally that conversation set my course: I would read George Eliot. The books: Adam Bede, Silas Marner, and Middlemarch. Obviously, I read the shorter books first. I loved Silas Marner, did not much care for Adam Bede, and finally came to Middlemarch.

I won't laud that book here, as I have already reviewed it, but after that first experience I have returned to Middlemarch again and again. The only books that rank higher in my literary lexicon are holy writ and A Child's Christmas in Wales. Anna Karenina and Les Miserables would be worthy contemporaries, but I didn't read them until my mid-20s.

So, for those who admire George Eliot and specifically Middlemarch, this book is a delightful read. It meanders through her history and thoughtfully muses on Middlemarch's relevance for and influence on the individual, all with clear-eyed admiration.

And now with one last contented sigh, I need to go read Middlemarch again--but of course not for the last time.
Profile Image for Michael.
836 reviews613 followers
December 29, 2014
Rebecca Mead grew up in a coastal town in England and often dreamed of escaping to somewhere more exciting. She gained admission to Oxford and later become a journalist in the United States. When she was young Middlemarch was a favourite of hers and now as she re-reads this classic she is sharing her story along with it. My Life in Middlemarch is told partly as a bookish memoir, but also explores the life of George Eliot and her novel Middlemarch.

This book started off really well; in the prelude the reader gets to discover a bit about the life of Rebecca Mead. Beginning like a bookish memoir this insight into the author gave a fascinating look into her relationships with books, especially with Middlemarch. However as I progressed with My Life in Middlemarch, the memoir elements became fragmented and I found myself yearning to return to this style. I love bookish memoirs, I have been reading so many of them lately and this had the potential to be great but it had two other strands to weave into this book.

My Life in Middlemarch also looks at the life of George Eliot, which allows some perspective about this author. Though I had already done some extensive research. I know that the life of Eliot played a big part in understanding Middlemarch so my autodidactic nature kicked in and I learned a bit about her. I was reading Middlemarch with a reading guide as well, so I had the added advantage of gaining some insight as I read. Apart from access to George Eliot’s journals, I didn’t gain much information; it was a very broad strokes look at her life and I would have gained that information from Wikipedia. I would have been better off reading a biography or her journals instead.

Finally we come to the literary criticism within this book and yet again I felt a little disappointed. I would have liked to know what Rebecca Mead got from the book but instead she just referenced others people’s criticisms on the novel. Having smarter people’s insight into Middlemarch is useful but I would enjoy a personal opinion mixed in with all the references. It reminds me on how I write a research paper for university; I pack it with quotes and references that say what I want it to say but don’t offer much in the way of personal opinion

Combine these three parts and you have an accessible look at Rebecca Mead and her life with Middlemarch but it felt like a huge generalisation. There are some interesting elements worth exploring in this book and I feel like it could have done so much more. We have three interwoven strands within the book but nothing of substance from any of them. This would be an enjoyable book for someone that has not read Middlemarch but for me, I had just finished the classic and I picked this book up because I was not ready to move on.

This review originally appeared on my blog; http://literary-exploration.com/2014/...
133 reviews3 followers
November 17, 2013
I received this book via a Goodreads giveaway. The blurb for this suggested it could be either wonderful or terrible: "A New Yorker writer revisits the seminar book of her youth--Middlemarch--and fashions a singular, involving story of how a passionate attachment to a great work of literature can shape our lives and help us to read our own histories." This had the potential to go off the rails as a self-dramatizing memoir with occasional references to George Eliot, and I'm grateful it didn't. Author Rebecca Mead is circumspect enough that after having read this, I didn't feel like I knew her well at all. This is a readable but serious minded discussion of Middlemarch with added context from the life of George Eliot (far more than of Ms. Mead) and reportorial visits to sites involved.

I read Middlemarch in college years ago, and wondered if this book would prompt me to return to the original. But it reminded me how baffling I found Dorothea's marriage to Casaubon, something I found a major stumbling block to sympathy.

Ms. Mead writes that "most serious readers can point to one book that has a place in their life like the one Middlemarch has in mine." I had to give this some thought. I've certainly respected people for whom this is the case, but no one book comes to mind for me. Perhaps I'm not a serious reader after all these years?
Profile Image for Patricia.
604 reviews16 followers
March 3, 2018
The useful and enticing bibliography at the end of the book shows thorough research. The book is also a very personal essay that interweaves Mead's own life with Eliot's and with Eliot's characters. Mead talks thoughtfully about coming back to a favorite book with a reading reshaped by experience and about how reading informs how she thinks about her life. It was also great fun trailing around with Mead to Eliot's homes and haunts and to rare book rooms.
A favorite passage: "She shows me that remembrance of a childhood landscape is not mere nostalgia for what is lost and beyond my reach. It does not consist of longing to be back there, in the present; or of longing to be a child once more; or of wishing the world would not change. Rather it is an opportunity to be in touch again with the intensity and imagination of beginnings. It is a discovery, later in life, of what remains with me."
Profile Image for James Murphy.
982 reviews155 followers
August 3, 2020
When I first read Middlemarch many years ago, I was inspired to read a biography of George Eliot. I was curious to know where such a fine novel came from. But I never satisfied that itch. When I reread the novel recently I was aware of My Life in Middlemarch high on a shelf in the basement and knew I'd read it soon. It's supplied the biographical details of Eliot's life I wanted as well as information about how and why the novel was written. Much more, really, because it's also a combination of Mead's memoir of her personal experience with the novel along with a vast trove of literary criticism about it. It's everything Middlemarch, furnishing deep understanding of the novel and its characters, including ideas about where those characters were drawn from Eliot's own life and what events from her life inspired the themes. As you'd expect, Mead found many ways Eliot's novel and life touched her own and affected her growing insight into the text. Mead writes, "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." Those realizations unveiled in the pages of her book make it all that much richer. In fact, as she notes, the universal humanity displayed by the characters has the ability to touch us all in some way. And that's just one of the reasons why this, the story of her lifelong fascination with Eliot and Middlemarch, makes a fine accompaniment to a reading of it.
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