Rebecca's Reviews > My Life in Middlemarch

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
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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.
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Reading Progress

August 15, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
August 15, 2013 – Shelved
January 29, 2014 – Started Reading
January 29, 2014 – Shelved as: writers-and-writing
January 29, 2014 – Shelved as: victorian-studies
January 29, 2014 – Shelved as: memoirs
January 29, 2014 – Shelved as: bibliophiles-delight
January 29, 2014 – Shelved as: read-via-netgalley
February 4, 2014 – Shelved as: anglophiles-delight
February 4, 2014 – Shelved as: reviewed-booktrib
February 4, 2014 – Finished Reading
December 14, 2014 – Shelved as: bibliomemoirs

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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Jan-Maat 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.”

An attractive idea!

Cheryl Great review, Rebecca! I have this on my list to read soon. I wasn't sure how I would feel about it at first, because like Joyce Carol Oates, I thought the one-book thing to be limiting. Then I read samples of this book and saw the passion you speak of. So I'm hoping I learn something from Mead when I start this. Glad you liked it.

And that desk, whatever happened to it?

Cheryl Great review Rebecca. I enjoyed the New Yorker article and am looking forward to the full version. I liked your insertion of your own mini "bibliomemoir". The next logical step would be a crowd-sourced bibliomemoir.

Rebecca Thanks, Cheryls! My own life in Middlemarch is not very extensive or interesting, but I'm glad you enjoyed hearing it all the same.

As to that desk - when I read the note in Mead's bibliography I assumed we were talking about a big piece of furniture, and wondered how such a thing could ever go missing from a museum. But in fact it was a small cloth-covered lap desk, about 10" x 12". This is the news item I found about its disappearance:

According to the Paris Review, there have been no developments in the case in the past year or more (!

message 5: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Jan-Maat wrote: "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.”
An attractive idea!"

Rebecca wrote: "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".

Indeed - I'd like to BE Tristram Shandy

message 6: by Heather (new) - added it

Heather Fineisen Most excellent review and live the whole bibliomemoir idea! Reading this now.

message 7: by Ian (new)

Ian Laird Learned, lively, literate, laudable review - Middlemarch is high in my affections and you have done great justice to it and Mead's relationship with it (and Eliot). And Geoff Dyer did a whole book on one Tarkovsky film (Stalker) called Zona. If the book or film is good enough...thanks for this.

Rebecca Thanks so much, Ian!

message 9: by Brit (new) - added it

Brit Cheung brilliant review and I love the book.

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