A long time ago, in another place, I read George Eliot's Middlemarch. I remember the experience since I was recovering from major surgery and had the opportunity to read the very long Middlemarch.
Rebecca Mead read Middlemarch several times and it has had a profound effect on her life. My Life in Middlemarch is a fascinating journey, as well as Mead's response to the life that influenced Middlemarch and Eliot's other novels. Mead traveled to see George Elliot's original manuscript, her diaries and letters, and the places she lived in England. The amount of reading and research Mead has done is astounding
If you haven't read Middlemarch I'm sure you'll still appreciate this unfolding of George Eliot's literary life. Mead begins by describing the characters in Middlemarch: Dorothea Brooke, Sir James Chettam, Reverend Edward Casaubon, Dr. Tertius Lydgate, Rosamond Vincy, Will Ladislaw, Fred Vincy, Mary Garth and so on. The lives of these characters intersect throughout the novel and it is Dorothy Brooke, "an ardent young gentlewoman who yearns for a more significant existence," with whom Mead, as a young woman, "identified completely." This is fascinating as the book was published serially in eight volumes a hundred years before Mead was born.
How fortunate we are that biographies these days often include a description of the researcher's own journey. My Life in Middlemarch isn't a biography though. Not quite. It's a hybrid of its own.
Rebecca Mead first read Middlemarch in an English seaside town where she grew up. She went on to do a graduate degree in journalism in the United States, all the while rereading Middlemarch.
"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," Mead writes. "They were part of our self-fashioning, no less than our clothes."
Rather than chronological, My Life in Middlemarch is divided into sections that mirror Middlemarch. My Life in Middlemarch evens begins with a Prelude, as did George Eliot's novel.
"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. Now when I read the novel in the light of Eliot's life, and in the light of my own, I see her experience of unexpected family woven deep into the fabric of the novel--not as part of the book's obvious pattern, but as part of its tensile strength, " Mead writes in reference to being a stepmother.
George Elliot's husband George Henry Lewes (actually, he was legally married to someone else) had three sons and Rebecca Mead married a man who had three sons "not very different in ages than were the Lewes boys when George Eliot met George Henry Lewes."
Middlemarch "mostly concerns itself with the problems of young love," Mead writes. "But the book was nurtured by love that was arrived at late, and cherished all the more for its belatedness." (George Eliot married John Walter Cross a year and a half after Lewes' death and her stepson, Charles Lewes, gave her away. She died just seven months later in 1880.)
Mead is grateful to her editors at The New Yorker for encouraging her to write an essay about George Eliot, which led to writing My Life in Middlemarch. Eliot's Middlemarch became part of Mead's own experience and her own endurance. It inspired her when she was "young and chafing to leave home."
"And now, in middle life", Mead writes, "it suggests to me what else home might mean, beyond a place to grow up and grow out of."
Rebecca Mead is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son. There is a video interview with the author on her website.
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