Part memoir, part biography, part literary analysis, My Life in Middlemarch is the perfect book for anyone who loves George Eliot’s Middlemarch.
When she was about 12, Rebecca Mead read Eliot’s masterpiece for the first time, and she has revisited the book—as a young single professional woman, as a mid-life bride, as a mother, as a writer. Mead’s chapters follow Middlemarch’s, and in each chapter Mead explores elements of Eliot’s life that might have informed the corresponding chapter of Eliot’s book. Mead speculates about a couple who were rumored at the time to have been the model for the book’s disastrous marriage of young, open-hearted Dorothea Brook and aging, emotionally stingy Edward Casaubon. She explores Eliot’s beliefs about religion and convention to illuminate the author’s portraits of pious individuals and clerics. She examines Eliot’s long and happy “marriage” to Henry Lewes and what it taught Eliot about marriage and family. And she covers Eliot’s very brief but apparently happy late-life marriage to John Cross, her relationship with her publisher, and even an extended correspondence with someone who sounds a lot like a stalker.
Eliot strove for sympathy for people, both real and fictional—and by sympathy, she did not mean what we have come to understand it to mean; rather than pity, she meant compassion, generosity of spirit, a wise tenderness. It is perhaps for this quality most of all that readers have loved George Eliot. At her best—and Middlemarch is the best of her best—she wrote books with a moral core that were serious without being pedantic, peopled with complex but ordinary characters driven by kindness and selfishness, wisdom and naivety, honesty and hypocrisy. By examining Eliot’s life, Mead tries to understand how the author developed her great sympathy and insight.
Mead is an unapologetic fan of Middlemarch and all things related to Eliot (to the point where she sometimes explains away the author’s inevitable shortcomings). Her enthusiasm for Middlemarch makes Mead’s book a literary biography without the stale whiff of academe. More than anything, it made me what to revisit Middlemarch myself!