"My Life in Middlemarch" is an intimate look at George Eliot's 1874 classic novel "Middlemarch" from the perspective of a reader and fan. Author Rebecca Mead melds memoir, biography and literary criticism into a unique concoction that works surprisingly well. This book is in some ways a tribute to anyone who has read and loved "Middlemarch," but all book lovers can learn something here.
Mead's book is divided into eight chapters, named for the eight books into which "Middlemarch" was divided when it was originally published as a serialized story, along with a prelude and a finale. Following these chapter themes - with names like "Waiting for Death" and "Three Love Problems" - this book doesn't work like a typical biography.
Instead of following the chronology of Eliot (real name: Marion Evans)'s life or even Mead's life, it follows the arc of the story of "Middlemarch" with analysis on the chapter in question, insights into Eliot's background and anecdotes from Mead's life and relation to the book incorporated where appropriate.
"Middlemarch" broke the mold of novels in its time - while the prevailing sentiment ruled that novels were meant to wrap up neatly, preferably with a wedding (think of any Jane Austen novel), Eliot chose to start with a wedding as a jumping-off point and then show readers what happens after the "happy ending."
While the subtitle of her book was "A study of provincial life," the complexity of her characters makes "Middlemarch" relateable to everyone.
Mead's experience of growing up with "Middlemarch" - and reading it from cover to cover throughout various periods of her life - allows her to explore the way readers' relationships to stories can change over time. One who relates to the painfully earnest and naive Dorothea throughout childhood is able to read with an entirely new perspective as an adult, suddenly identifying with Cecelia and the way her baby has given her a new sense of purpose, or with Lydgate and his struggle to navigate ethically muddy waters in his career. Mead argues that Eliot's purpose in creating "Middlemarch" was to create sensitivity, or what was then called "sympathy," in her readers for the lives and feelings of others.
The biographical information woven throughout the book provides insight into the way Eliot's experiences helped to shape her characters, even those who seem very different from herself.
Eliot lived an extremely unconventional lifestyle; after a childhood of unquestioned devotion to religious teachings, she announced an enthusiastic conversion to atheism and later was shunned by family members for choosing a live-in partnership with a man over marriage.
When her pseudonym was revealed, she was still referred to as "George Eliot" by everyone, including friends and family, and was always known first and foremost for her work. A neighbor's description of her in the 1850s could, as Mead points out, easily be used to depict a woman writer today: "I can see her now, with her hair over her shoulders, the easy chair half sideways to the fire, her feet over the arms, and a proof in her hands," she quotes William Hale White saying.
The most poignant moments of "My Life in Middlemarch" are not Mead's personal anecdotes, which she limits to those most relevant to Eliot's work - they are her musings on the power of reading to change people and, conversely, the power of people to change a work and its meaning.
Mead is well aware that not all "Middlemarch" readers may agree with her assessments of the novel and in fact she sees this as a positive indication that readers have made "Middlemarch" their own: "All readers make books over in their own image, and according to their own experience," she says. "My 'Middlemarch' is not the same as anyone else's 'Middlemarch'; it is not even the same as my 'Middlemarch' of twenty-five years ago."
This may be true, but she manages to pull readers into "her life in Middlemarch" just as Eliot pulls us into her work after all these years, and perhaps this is because we as lovers of "Middlemarch" and of reading are of a common mind.
Mead says it best in her prelude to the book: "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" encourages readers to examine the impact books have had on our lives and, I suspect intentionally, to re-read "Middlemarch" in hopes of getting lost once more.