My Life in Middlemarch

My Life in Middlemarch

2.5 7
by Rebecca Mead

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A New Yorker writer revisits the seminal book of her youth—Middlemarch—and fashions a singular, involving story of how a passionate attachment to a great work of literature can shape our lives and help us to read our own histories.

Rebecca Mead was a young woman in an English coastal town when she first read George Eliot's

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A New Yorker writer revisits the seminal book of her youth—Middlemarch—and fashions a singular, involving story of how a passionate attachment to a great work of literature can shape our lives and help us to read our own histories.

Rebecca Mead was a young woman in an English coastal town when she first read George Eliot's Middlemarch, regarded by many as the greatest English novel. After gaining admission to Oxford, and moving to the United States to become a journalist, through several love affairs, then marriage and family, Mead read and reread Middlemarch. The novel, which Virginia Woolf famously described as "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people," offered Mead something that modern life and literature did not.

In this wise and revealing work of biography, reporting, and memoir, Rebecca Mead leads us into the life that the book made for her, as well as the many lives the novel has led since it was written. Employing a structure that deftly mirrors that of the novel, My Life in Middlemarch takes the themes of Eliot's masterpiece—the complexity of love, the meaning of marriage, the foundations of morality, and the drama of aspiration and failure—and brings them into our world. Offering both a fascinating reading of Eliot's biography and an exploration of the way aspects of Mead's life uncannily echo that of Eliot herself, My Life in Middlemarch is for every ardent lover of literature who cares about why we read books, and how they read us.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Joyce Carol Oates
…a beguilingly straightforward, resolutely orthodox and unshowy account of the writer's lifelong admiration for George Eliot and for Middlemarch…There is no irony or postmodernist posturing in Mead's forthright, unequivocal and unwavering endorsement of George Eliot as both a great novelist and a role model for bright, ambitious, provincially born girls like herself, eager to escape their intellectually impoverished hometowns…Mead's book is enhanced by firsthand reports of travels to places where Eliot lived and worked, and suffused throughout with enormous sympathy for her subject. My Life in Middlemarch is an exemplary introduction to the work of George Eliot and a helpful and informed companion guide to Middlemarch.
Publishers Weekly
★ 10/07/2013
In this deeply satisfying hybrid work of literary criticism, biography, and memoir, New Yorker staff writer Mead (One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding) brings to vivid life the profound engagement that she and all devoted readers experience with a favorite novel over a lifetime. Her love affair with Middlemarch and its author, George Eliot, began when 17-year-old Mead was growing up in southwest England. Here, she wants to “go back to being a reader,” and sets out to rediscover Eliot, visiting the places Eliot lived, studying her letters, and even holding a journal in Eliot’s own handwriting. In Mead’s rendering, Eliot proves a deeply loving partner and devoted stepmother. Mead’s considerable scholarship is accessible and revelatory to anyone who cares about what Eliot calls “the common yearning of womanhood.” Mead, who identifies strongly with aspects of Eliot’s life and that of the characters in Middlemarch, returns to the novel during various stages of her life: as a young Englishwoman finding her way in New York; in relationships with difficult men; as a stepmother and wife; and eventually as the mother of a son. As Mead writes: “There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them… books that grow with the reader as the reader grows.” Passionate readers, even those new to Middlemarch, will relish this book. Agent: Kathy Robbins, the Robbins Office. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-11-18
A New Yorker writer examines the arc of her life in the reflection of George Eliot's Middlemarch. This subgenre--examining personal history through the echoes of a singular work of art--can be riddled with land mines. When it works well--e.g., Alan Light's The Holy and the Broken (2012)--the results can be marvelous. Obviously fleshed out from her New Yorker article "Middlemarch and Me," Mead (One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, 2007) could have simply written a dense biography of Mary Ann Evans, who would go on to write some of the most enduring novels of the Victorian era under her pen name. In fact, Mead was wise not to omit herself from this story, as her feelings about the great work and its themes of women's roles, relationships and self-delusion are far more insightful than a barrage of facts would have been. Mead discovered the book at 17, a critical time when the character of Dorothea Brooke, the aspirational protagonist forced to subjugate her dreams, truly spoke to her. In some ways, it's easy to see how Mead's life has paralleled these fictional characters she so admires, even as she repeats some of the same mistakes. It's difficult not to admire the sense of wonder that she continues to find in the pages of a novel more than a century old. "It demands that we enter into the perspective of other struggling, erring humans--and recognize that we, too, will sometimes be struggling, and may sometimes be erring, even when we are at our most arrogant and confident," Mead writes. "And this is why every time I go back to the novel I feel that--while I might live a century without knowing as much as just a handful of its pages suggest--I may hope to be enlarged by each revisiting." A rare and remarkable fusion of techniques that draws two women together across time and space.

Books inhabit our lives. In the case of Rebecca Mead and George Eliot's Middlemarch, that indwelling began when Mead was just seventeen. Since then, this British born author has researched, reread, rediscovered and meditated on this 1871 novel and its pseudonymous author. Thus, My Life in Middlemarch is a fascinating hybrid; a literary history, critical probe, biography, and memoir. As such, it manages to reinvigorate a classic that all too many of us remember only as an old classroom assignment. A gentle exploration; now in trade paperback and NOOK Book. Editor's recommendation.

From the Publisher
New York Times Bestseller

New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice

A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year

A Huffington Post Best Book of the Year

A BookPage Best Book of the Year

A Chicago Reader Best Book of the Year

A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year

A Library Journal Best Book of the Year

Featured on the Entertainment Weekly "Must" List

One of The Guardian (UK) Ten Best Books of the Year-So-Far

"My Life in Middlemarch is a poignant testimony to the abiding power of fiction." —Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Times Book Review

"Clearly, this book was a pleasure for Mead to write—it's personal, intimate, yet rigorously researched—and it seems to have deepened her relationship with the novel she loves so much. Her passion proves infectious for the reader as well, and My Life in Middlemarch will surely encourage readers to discover Eliot's masterpiece for the first time — what an enviable experience — or, like Mead, to regard it as a lifelong and steadfast companion." —USA Today

"Fans of this Victorian mainstay — or, really, any book lover in a passionate long-term relationship with a novel — will find Mead's research and analysis deeply gratifying. And if you haven't ever read Middlemarch, Mead's lucid writing will send you straight to the bookstore... A-." Entertainment Weekly

"Anyone who believes that books have the power to shape lives and that 'our own lives can teach us how to read a book' will respond with fascination and delight to Mead’s evolving appreciation of the richness and relevance of Eliot’s masterwork." —Priscilla Gilman, O Magazine

"Part memoir, part biography, part literary appreciation, My Life in Middlemarch is pure pleasure." —NPR

"Mead’s middle-aged rediscovery of Middlemarch—and her insights into Eliot’s rich middle age—is not to be missed." —The Atlantic

"My Life in Middlemarch, which I loved, follows not just the different things Mead got out of Middlemarch at different times in her life, but her personal, even tactile attempts to better know Eliot."—Washington Post

“If Eliot’s work is the candle, Mead’s is the bright sconce reflecting the flame.” – Boston Globe

"It would be difficult to find a novel more likely to reward multiple rereadings than Eliot’s — or a richer, more complete or more moving demonstration of its lasting power than My Life in Middlemarch." —Laura Miller, Salon

"My Life in Middlemarch is a deeply sympathetic and intelligent account of one woman’s 'profound experience with a book', without doubt a love letter to Eliot’s masterpiece, but also an important meditation on how our life experiences shape our reading, and our reading shapes how we choose to live our lives." —The Daily Beast

"Mead’s writing will make you want to read Middlemarch if you haven’t, and re-read it if you have. Mead’s is a wonderful close reading of not just a book, but also a life, and a life in reading."—Slate

"[Mead] invites empathy, an exercise of which George Eliot would be unmistakably proud."—Emily Rapp, Boston Globe

"Mead's work stands out for its brevity (beside its voluminous source), for its calm (no violence and few sudden moves), and for its perfect match of writer and subject."San Francisco Gate

"'Generating the experience of sympathy was what her fiction was for,' Mead writes of Eliot. And that is precisely what Mead’s own book accomplishes as well. Mead not only cements Middlemarch’s status as a work of profound genius and inestimable import, but she returns the humanity to its pages." The New Republic
"Mead beautifully conveys the excitement of living in a novel, of knowing its characters as if they breathed, of revisiting them over time and seeing them differently. She conveys, too, not at all heavy-handedly, the particular relationship one develops with an author whose work one loves….There is a meticulous underlying order to the book, structured to mirror Middlemarch itself, but as in a letter, the effect is of spontaneous movement, the particular thrill of following a mind untrammeled." —Claire Messud, Bookforum

"In this nuanced look at Middlemarch, Mead offers a fresh and vibrant portrait of Eliot, an entrancing memoir and a passionate homage to the riches of rereading."—Newsday

"Mead's journey is in the service of an intellectual pilgrimage, her attempt to 'discern the ways in which George Eliot's life shaped her fiction, and how her fiction shaped her.' There are pleasures to be gleaned from this quest. For one thing, My Life in Middlemarch serves as an astute primer on the novel." –Chicago Tribune

"This is, quite simply, heaven in book form."—The Sunday Times

"This is Mead’s life inside a book, inside the fictional Midlands village Eliot created. By the end, though, this could be your life, too. As Mead writes, 'She makes Middlemarchers of us all.'" Newsweek

“Though Mead's regard for Eliot is obvious, you don't need to be a Middlemarch fan to appreciate My Life in Middlemarch. If a book has ever truly spoken to you, you'll be able to relate.”—The Week

"Gracefully executed." —Kathryn Schulz, New York

"One need not read the [lengthy] 1874 classic to appreciate this new work, which pays tribute not only to Eliot, but also to all book lovers who see novels as good friends worthy of frequent revisits." New York Post

“It is delightful that a writer as thorough and serious as Mead draws attention to so many types of joy, including the ‘larger vista, a landscape changed by books, reshaped by reading’ that might be the ultimate joy that comes from reading.  That’s what My Life in Middlemarch offers:  a landscape changed, a powerful joy.”The Rumpus

“Mead elegantly intertwines the novel’s intersections with Eliot’s biography, as well as with Mead’s own plotline: First as an intellectually curious adolescent in provincial England, yearning for life’s adventures to begin; then as an aspiring journalist in New York, dating an older man and facing disappointment, professional and personal; and finally—and most movingly—as a mother and stepparent opening her heart to an unruly brand of joy.”

"[Mead's] captivating and lucid book mixes biography, memoir and close reading to symphonic effect." Financial Times

“A combination of thorough research, elegant writing, and a willingness to admit when things remain ‘unavailable or obscure’ makes Mead a commendable guide… In My Life in Middlemarch she is committed to telling the full truth of what she uncovers, resisting the temptation to downplay context and complexity to suit her own purposes. The result is highly rewarding—a reflection on the novel that contains compelling depths of its own… Her thoughtful tribute to the power of Middlemarch will send any reader back to Eliot’s work with eyes newly opened to its treasures.” – Commonweal

"There is lots more to quote in this eminently quotable book, especially Mead’s many insightful reflections on the various characters besides Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. 'The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies,' she quotes Eliot. My Life in Middlemarch is Mead’s exploration of this benefit as well as an ambitious agenda for a memoir. I feel pleasurably enriched to have read it." Arts Fuse

"My Life in Middlemarch has a third major theme as well — the enduring power of literature. '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,' Mead writes. '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.' Anyone who agrees with that sentiment is likely to enjoy this engaging book." —Associated Press

"If there is a perfect book to start the year with it has to be Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch." The Edge

"Ambitious, elegant, intense and absorbing—even if Middlemarch is not your favorite book."Literary Review

"Mead's long experience of profile-writing shows in the effortless ease of her prose."The Evening Standard

"Rebecca Mead’s new book is thought-provoking, wonderfully insightful and satisfying. It speaks to any reader who may reflect upon the subliminal touch a remarkable book may have had on one’s own life."The Frederiscksburg Freelance-Star

“Mead is both learned and astute; on the page she comes off as an inquiring mind, on par with Eliot and her beloved heroine, Dorothea Brooke: sensitive, cunning, and winningly relatable… My Life in Middlemarch achieves what good criticism strives to accomplish: it compels the reader to seek out the original text and experience it for herself… Mead reminds us why one is a book person in the first place.” – Harvard Review Online

"In this deeply satisfying hybrid work of literary criticism, biography, and memoir, New Yorker staff writer Mead brings to vivid life the profound engagement that she and all devoted readers experience with a favorite novel over a lifetime....Passionate readers, even those new to Middlemarch, will relish this book." Publishers Weekly (starred)

"A rare and remarkable fusion of techniques that draws two women together across time and space." Kirkus Reviews (starred)

"Mead demonstrates through her own story how literature can change and transform lives. For this reason, even the reader who has never heard of George Eliot will find Mead's crisp, exacting prose absorbing and thought-provoking." Library Journal (starred)

"[Mead] performs an exhilarating, often surprising close reading of the novel, which Eliot began writing at age 51 in 1870. And she takes a fresh look at Eliot’s daringly unconventional life, visiting the writer’s homes and casting light not only on the author’s off-the-charts intellect but also her valor in forthrightly addressing complex moral issues, cutting sense of humor, 'large, perceptive generosity,' and the deep love she shared with critic and writer George Henry Lewes and his sons. Mead injects just enough of her own life story to take measure of the profound resonance of Eliot’s progressive, humanistic viewpoint, recognition of the heroism of ordinary lives, and crucial central theme, 'a young woman’s desire for a substantial, rewarding, meaningful life.'" Booklist (starred)

"In the wonderful and thoughtful My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead revisits her love of George Eliot's novel to consider what makes it great—and the ways life and art inform and imitate each other. The result is a lively, wide-ranging appreciation of one of the greatest novels in the English language, through the lens of Mead's observations on its shifting resonance throughout her own life."Shelf Awareness

"Rebecca Mead has written a singular and inventive tale about her favorite book, and how it has changed — and changed her — over many years of reading and re-reading. Anyone who has ever loved the characters in a novel as dearly as we love our own families will recognize the passion, the devotion, the intimacy and the joy of returning again and again to a revered classic. Both a memoir and a biography, both an homage and a homecoming, My Life in Middlemarch is a perfectly composed offering of literary love and self-observation. I adored it, and it will forever live on my bookshelf next to my own precious paperbacks of George Eliot." —Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and The Signature of All Things

"Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch is a wise, humane, and delightful study of what some regard as the best novel in English. Mead has discovered an original and highly personal way to make herself an inhabitant both of the book and of George Eliot's imaginary city. Though I have read and taught the book these many years I find myself desiring to go back to it after reading Rebecca Mead's work." Harold Bloom

"Not quite biography, not quite memoir, not quite literary criticism, My Life in Middlemarch is a wonderfully intelligent exploration of a great novel and its great author.  I loved Mead's empathy, her insight and her restraint and I devoured her deliciously readable pages." Margot Livesey, author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy

"Rebecca Mead’s marvelous book tells us everything we need to know about the greatest of all English novels.  She gives us Middlemarch’s characters–their marriages, their world–and she gives us George Eliot herself, a woman whose self-doubt led her into wisdom. But that’s just the start. Mead reads with passion and care, and she allows the novel to irradiate her own life–to tell her, with each successive rereading, just who she is and how she’s changed. Indeed she suggests that Middlemarch is the book that made her grow up, and in showing us the difference it’s made to her she shows how it can make a difference in your own life too." —Michael Gorra, author of Portrait of a Novel

"My Life in Middlemarch is both unclassifiable and irresistible: a smart, absorbing glimpse into two lives—George Eliot’s and Rebecca Mead’s—as well as a lively meditation on Middlemarch. Intelligent, insightful, and generous in her judgments, Mead is a delightful guide—winsome and engaging." Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

Library Journal
★ 12/01/2013
Part literary criticism, part biography, and part memoir, this extremely creative book charts the many ways in which George Eliot's Middlemarch has shaped the life of Mead (One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding), who came across the novel for the first time when she was a teenager studying for her university entrance examinations during the 1980s. Like Eliot's Dorothea, Mead yearned to escape her provincial surroundings in the southwest of England for the more sophisticated, intellectually satisfying life of the city. The first in her family to attend college, Mead went on to Oxford, studied journalism, and eventually became a staff writer for The New Yorker. Throughout these experiences, Middlemarch remained a constant fixture in her life. Mead returned to the novel again and again, realizing new insights and nuances as she grew and matured. Through this literary journey, she discovers that provincialism is not only a matter of geography but also a state of mind. More memoirist than literary critic, Mead demonstrates through her own story how literature can change and transform lives. For this reason, even the reader who has never heard of George Eliot will find Mead's crisp, exacting prose absorbing and thought-provoking. VERDICT Essential for any literature collection.—Meagan Lacy, Indiana Univ.-Purdue Univ. Indianapolis Libs.

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My Life in Middlemarch 2.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
lindianajones More than 1 year ago
As a child, I was constantly reading, even at the breakfast table. In high school, I took as many English electives as I could. So it certainly did not seem odd when I decided to be an English major in college. The thing no one tells you is that an English major has to take many literature courses. When I saw that I would have to take something like 12 of them, I got a headache. I immediately went down to the Cursor’s Office and changed my major to Secondary Education in English. But still, there they were 8 of them. I loved to read, it is true, but not old stuffy things written before I was born. Again down to the Cursor’s Office I went where I invented my own major: Secondary Education in English/Communications. That cut the literature courses down to four. That was manageable. As I got older, I began to feel like I missed something. Those old dry classics were not that dry after all. I began to pick them up here and there. I found I truly enjoyed many of them. And one I love is George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”. Rebecca Mead loves it too. Her book is such a wonderful companion piece to the beloved classic. She not only goes deep into George Eliot’s life but she also shares with her reader how “Middlemarch” guided her through her life. True, reading about someone else reading a classic might get a bit old at times. But Rebecca Mead keeps it fresh with her wonderful grasp of the English language and her own passion for the subject. I strongly suggest that if you are going to read “Middlemarch”, you should read “My Life in Middlemarch” along side it. You will learn a great deal of George Eliot and her life. And it will help you to picture how she felt and where she was while she wrote.  DISCLAIMER:  I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books for this review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am not terribly encouraged by this book so far. The author writes at something of an ambling clip and makes references to details or people as if we are already familiar with them. If I had the chance to peruse it beforehand I wouldn't have purchased it. 
MemeMoyer More than 1 year ago
After reading Middlemarch for the first time--unable to put it down--I was excited to read Rebecca Mead's memoir/biography of George Eliot and was disappointed. Although the biographical details about Eliot's life were of interest, Mead's own life story was lacking in sufficient interior and emotional content to sustain an entire book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Reading this wonderful examination of Middlemarch characters, the life of George Eliot , and the life of the author is a delightful introduction to one of the great novels. Anyone who loves Middlemarch will love this book.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The greatest book after the bible is little women by l m alcott followed by little men and jo's boys you name it its in them mom