Tuesday, March 4, 2014

"My Life in Middlemarch," by Rebecca Mead

Not to sound like a fangirl, because this is a serious feeling about a serious book, but…I love, love, love this book! In “My Life in Middlemarch” (Crown, 2014), Rebecca Mead writes about her lifelong connection to, guidance by, and love of the incomparable George Eliot novel. Many have called “Middlemarch” the greatest novel in English, and Virginia Woolf famously stated that it was “one of the few English books written for grown-up people.” Mead’s book is a blend of biography (of Eliot); analysis of “Middlemarch,” its settings and characters and themes; and description of the ways in which the novel has spoken to her and even intersected with events of her life over the years. Mead writes on the critical role that great novels can play in readers’ lives, as “Middlemarch” has played in hers. She states that reading is “an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that comprehend us as much as we understand them…There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows….This kind of book becomes part of our own experience….” (p. 16). This quotation illustrates Mead’s belief, which I share, that different readings of a great novel at different stages of one’s life provide different experiences, different understandings. Just for one small example: of course Mead identifies with Dorothea Brooke, but she also focuses on how, on later readings of "Middlemarch" in later life, she realizes the strength and importance of Mary’s and Fred’s romance and marriage. She even shows some sympathy for Mr. Casaubon. And speaking of marriage, Mead believes that this novel is one of the most brilliantly insightful ones on the topic of marriage and its inner workings. When researching this book (and it was intensive research), Mead, an American writer originally from England herself, travels to places Eliot lived and wrote, and reads documents in various archives in England and in the U.S. She is in awe as she looks at and touches Eliot’s original manuscripts, in Eliot’s own handwriting, as well as letters to, from, and about the great novelist. Mead is a thoughtful, engaging writer, and I found her book highly informative, original, and compelling. I too love and admire “Middlemarch,” I have read it several times over the years, and I have written about it here and elsewhere. But Mead showed me new aspects of Eliot’s, and the novel’s, greatness and humanity.

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