My Life in Middlemarch
Rebecca Mead pretends to be writing a riff on her own life as it echoes various Middlemarch themes, but in truth she has annotated George Eliot’s words while referencing a whole host of other well-known authors as well. The result is what I might describe as a book of marginalia, the sorts of whimsical asides one might scrawl on the pages of favorite novels, except My Life in Middlemarch is much more reasoned and more profound than mere scratchings of the pen. Reading it is like sharing sparkling conversations with two very old friends, George Eliot and Rebecca Mead, bouncing ideas off one another, searching for appropriate literary allusions, exchanging sharp intellectual repartees. While I’m not certain I learned anything brand new about George Eliot, I was constantly reminded of how much I like her novels. After reading My Life in Middlemarch, I find I quite like Rebecca Mead, too.
She organizes her book by repeating the monthly serializations of Middlemarch, focusing each of her chapters on the events and observations found in each monthly part. She also reminisces about each time she has read Middlemarch, first as a teen-ager, later as a young English major, and every few years after that. She explains how Eliot’s novel takes on new contours of meaning with each rereading, as of course is true of any literary classic. What fascinated Mead about Dorothea’s dilemma when Mead was an adolescent differs greatly from what intrigues her now that she has reached middle age. I first read Middlemarch as a starry-eyed graduate student, when a fearsome major professor, sitting behind an enormous desk, templed his fingers and said, “Middlemarch, Miss Ronald. You have time to read it before our next seminar. Romola, too. Enjoy.” Four days later I indeed had read Middlemarch. Romola, too, along with Professor Hagstrum’s seminar assignment and the assignments from my other three classes. Ah, youth!
I repeat my own personal Middlemarch anecdote because that is what Mead’s book communicates best: thinking about what one has read, when, why, and what one still remembers and loves. Mead guides the reader toward other noteworthy authors, too, reminding us of what those men and women may have said or written about George Eliot’s works, pro and con. George Sand, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and many more. At the same time, Mead reconsiders her own emotional and intellectual connections and interpretations, how her allegiances have switched from one character to another as the years have passed. Dorothea’s longing to make something of her life appealed to a young Rebecca Mead, while Mary Garth’s maturity speaks more to the happily married forty-eight-year-old, just as Marian Evans/George Eliot’s relationship with George Henry Lewes speaks to Mead as well.
In truth, a book review cannot do justice to My Life in Middlemarch. There are simply too many provocative insights and promising associations. As Mead explains, she returns to the novel and indeed to all the words George Eliot wrote because “I may hope to be enlarged by each revisiting,” to be touched anew by Eliot’s intense morality. If I have a caveat to share, it is that Mead’s memoir may best be appreciated by readers who already know and love Eliot’s works. For me, reading My Life in Middlemarch was like reopening valued pages that I once knew well and haven’t recently recalled. And I treasured that experience. On the other hand, readers unfamiliar with George Eliot will soon find themselves immersed in her fiction. And that’s a very good thing. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Rebecca Mead: One Perfect Day, The Selling of the American Wedding; How the Vote Was Won, Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868-1914; Swedes in Michigan; The Road to Middlemarch, My Life with George Eliot.