My Life in Middlemarch

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Overview

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, ...

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Overview

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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

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.

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.
From the Publisher
New York Times Bestseller

New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice

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.” Vogue.com

"[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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307984760
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/28/2014
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 75,727
  • Product dimensions: 5.95 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

REBECCA MEAD is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding.  She lives in Brooklyn.
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Interviews & Essays

Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Rebecca Mead

The Brooklyn café in which Rebecca Mead and I have arranged to meet is adorably French, but the early-December weather outside its expansive front window, with its stately park view, reminds me of England. Chilly, damp, and gray, it's the perfect day to curl up with a deliciously absorbing book.

Mead's own My Life in Middlemarch, which springs from an essay she wrote for The New Yorker, where she is a staff writer, or the book it celebrates, George Eliot's Middlemarch, would both fit the bill.

A book about a book? It may sound strange — Mead says it "seemed a bizarre thing" even to her — but in her deft hands, the unusual concept has yielded unusually compelling results. Mead employs the tools of memoir, biographical research, literary theory, and shoe-leather reporting to enthusiastically dig into her long-term relationship with Eliot's masterpiece, which she first picked up as a seventeen-year-old student dreaming of life beyond her childhood home in an English seaside resort town.

The novel that Virginia Woolf once famously called "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people" — and biographical details she'd gleaned about the writer behind it — seemed to the teenage Mead to hold all the promise of adulthood and its worldly intellectual pursuits. Later readings - - while a student at Oxford, establishing a career in New York, falling in love, marrying, becoming a parent — revealed different, not to say deeper meanings: a character or relationship seen in a new light, a theme or passage imbued with fresh resonance, a life lesson emerging for the first time.

Ultimately, My Life in Middlemarch is not a book about a book so much as a book about our long-term relationships with our most treasured books — as Mead writes, "the way a book can insert itself into a reader's own history, into a reader's own life story, until it's hard to know what one would be without it."

Shivering over a cappuccino on that December morning but exuding warmth, Mead talked with me about the ways she has discovered her life in Middlemarch. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. —Amy Reiter

The Barnes & Noble Review: How much of your motivation in writing this book is to share your love for Middlemarch and George Eliot's writing with those who, despite what passes for a good education in this country, have never read it?

Rebecca Mead: It wasn't a motivation. The book wasn't written out of a pedagogical impulse. I'm so thrilled that people are reading Middlemarch — I think it's the most amazing book ever — but that wasn't at all why I wrote my book. I wrote it for me. I wanted to go back to Middlemarch and think about why I loved it as much as I did and spend more time with it. I wanted to be in it in a different way — not just to reread it again but to investigate it. But it's fantastic to see how younger readers than me? are responding to it.

BNR: It's good to know that readers who pick up Middlemarch for the first time well past their teens haven't completely missed out, though they won't be able to track their responses to it at different stages quite they way you have.

RM: I have a friend who teaches at Princeton, and he tells his students that they won't get Middlemarch necessarily now, but they should reread it when they're forty and come back and tell him what they think. He's been teaching long enough that some of them have come back and said, "Yes, now I get it."

BNR: But one of the points you make is not that you didn't get Middlemarch when you were younger, but rather that you got it in a different way than you do now, as you approach middle age.

RM: I think my response at seventeen was completely valid. But there was a lot about it I didn't understand — and knew I didn't understand. It seemed to point the way to a greater understanding.

Reading the book felt like an incredibly grown-up thing to have accomplished. I mean, I'd read long books before — Crime and Punishment or whatever everyone else reads when they're sixteen — but I don't think I'd read one quite that long. There was a sense of having summited a peak of English literature. It felt like a distinguished thing to have done.

BNR: You wrote that you loved Middlemarch and "loved being the kind of person who loved it." The book and your love for it has been part of your identity ever since. Do you feel like this stage of your life is the perfect moment to appreciate Middlemarch?

RM: I don't know. It could be sixty. I'm not there yet. But George Eliot was fifty-two when she wrote it. I'm not fifty- two yet, but the book has that kind of accrued wisdom of age, looking back on the errors of youth, but with such compassion and understanding, as opposed to the criticism one might have with one's younger self when you're just a little bit further away. So it's an incredibly mature book. You don't have to be forty-five to appreciate it, but you feel that you are in the presence of an incredibly wise, kind, but not sappy person, somebody whose vision is absolutely astute and who's capable of making completely realistic assessments of everybody she's writing about, but is doing it with such compassion. I don't think I was conscious of the compassion when I was younger.

The first time you read it, you're reading it for story. But as an older reader, as much as I read it for story, I read it for authorial attitude.

BNR: When you go back to it, do you read it all the way through, or do you dip in and out?

RM: It's probably been between two and three years since I've read it all the way through. But the next time I read it, I will go back to the beginning and read it to the end. I don't have, like, the greatest hits: The scene where Casaubon learns he's going to die, that's one of my favorites! [Laughs]

BNR: Specific pages dog-eared from your teenage years?

RM: Actually, I have the copy I had when I was a kid. It's falling apart from age, but I've saved it. A few years ago, when my husband and I moved into our house, we sorted through all our books and threw out duplicates. I had this copy in my hand and decided not to throw it away, because it was so much part of my youth. It's like my torn-up old teddy bear that I've passed on to my son with warnings that he must never harm it.

BNR: Your love for Middlemarch is very personal. How did you feel about sharing it with the world? As a reporter, you're not always compelled to do that when you write.

RM: Right. I'd written a book about the wedding industry, in a spirit of comic inquiry and horror. I was interested in the business and why weddings were the way they were, but it wasn't done out of personal motivations. I wasn't planning my wedding or anything like that. It just seemed like a good story worth reporting. But it involved spending a lot of time in a world I didn't much like, and that wasn't a particularly wonderful experience. I thought after that, if I ever write another book, I'm going to write it about something I love. This seemed a bizarre thing, in a way — to write a book about a book, especially about the greatest book there is. But I knew I wanted to approach this somehow.

BNR: You started with an article in The New Yorker.

RM: I told my editor I wanted to write a piece about George Eliot, but it took me maybe another two years to get round to. I was reading her books and diaries, trying to figure out what I wanted to write. I decided to approach it like a reporter, so I went to England to write about the George Eliot Fellowship, which is this literary society based around her work.

I was still trying to figure out what the piece might be and happened to be having lunch with [New Yorker editor] David Remnick, and he said, "What have you been doing?" I said, "Well, I just went to this literary society of George Eliot people." He knew I loved Middlemarch, so he said, "You have to write a personal piece about George Eliot and Middlemarch and your love for it." So I wrote a draft and gave it to my editor, Daniel Zalewski, who's brilliant, and he said, "This is great, but you need to make it more personal. You only get one chance to do this, and you have to do it properly."

I had begun the piece with a scene from George Eliot's youth, but instead I began it by talking about my own youth. It's a big leap to take, because you're sitting there thinking, Nobody's gonna care. Nobody's gonna be interested. This is embarrassing. Who do I think I am? You have to just push through that. And maybe nobody's going to be interested, but my editors told me to do it, so I've got permission, right?

BNR: What surprised you most about the response?

RM: I was surprised that other people could find their own experience in mine, even if mine was very different. Most of my readers didn't grow up in a coastal town in England, but you can grow up in a provincial place, or anywhere, and feel, as I felt, that there is a world beyond that you want to get out in, and you don't know what it is, and you have aspirations, but you don't know what they are, and you want to be in love, but you don't know what that means. All those things are very common. Although I had told my story, it made sense to other people.

The book is personal, but it's not profoundly confessional. You don't know every secret of my life. I want to give enough that a reader can identify me without giving so much that a reader won't see herself or himself in me.

Also I'm English, so I can't possibly give up that much.

BNR: But interestingly, in your book, you suggest that reading in search of our own reflections is a naïve approach.

RM: I think most of us read at quite a simple level. We might have more sophisticated things and critical things to say, but we read something because it engages us, because we love it. Most people read for pleasure, to exist in a different world for a little while, to relax. That's why I read. So I wanted to represent that.

BNR: And celebrate it.

RM: People talk about books as a guilty pleasure, as if there should be guilt about pleasure in reading. Or is it that a book that's not in the "guilty pleasure" section of the bookstore, but is instead in the "literature" section, could not be a pleasure? There's almost nothing more pleasurable than reading Middlemarch. It's just so smart, so funny, so intelligent. That's all the pleasure you need.

BNR: George Eliot wrote to edify. As you note, she hoped that exposing her readers to different perspectives would improve them and, incrementally, the world. Do you think about your reader's moral betterment?

RM: No, I don't think I wanted to do that like a project: set about the moral improvement of my readers. That would be such a nineteenth-century thing to do. But I do think George Eliot's belief that by incremental change the world becomes a better place is probably true. It's perhaps the only thing you can believe in a world where you've given up on the idea of a supernatural god. I would say that, since she's been alive, the incrementalism of it has prevailed more than the improvement. If we are improving incrementally, it's taken us a really long time, and probably will continue to. But I love the closing moments of Middlemarch. And I do think that by treating another person with compassion, compassion is spread and hopefully we encourage others to do likewise. It's not a very efficient way of changing the world, but it might not be less efficient than any other.

I feel inspired by George Eliot, by her life and what she believed and what she did, and I wanted to convey that sense of admiration and inspiration. So I hope other people will be moved by her message, insomuch as there is a message, as much as I am. Whether we'll all start being better people I don't know. Maybe we'll be better readers.

BNR: What was the process of writing the book like?

RM: It was glorious. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit it because writers always talk about how much pain and suffering there is in writing and how hard the work is, and if you confess to having pleasure, maybe you're not doing it right or working hard enough. But I loved, loved, loved writing this book.

It was a different writing experience from others I'd had. I've always liked writing. Some people just love the reporting and the writing is torture. I'm not one of those people. But it was an intense emotional experience. There are parts I made myself cry while writing. I've never done that before. I've made myself laugh, or I've made myself think, Well, that's a very good sentence. I'm pleased with that, but I've never had this feeling of Oh my God, I'm writing something that's really important to me.

While I was writing the book, my father was dying. He died, in fact, when I was exactly halfway through. He'd been ill for years, and I knew he was declining. I didn't think he would live long enough to see it published. Part of the underlying, unconscious motivation, I'm sure, to writing the book was to be able to go back to England and visit frequently. I did go back a lot.

The book in some ways is all about my parents, and the end is about looking at my parents' lives. I was very conscious that I was writing it in the midst of this change, where one generation was leaving. I was sending my parents chapters as I was writing them. My father read the first four chapters. I wanted him to read it. I wanted to honor him.

BNR: Is George Eliot a feminist icon?

RM: It's funny. She was not. In the first wave of feminist criticism in the '70s and '80s, she was not celebrated, partly because of this reputation she has of being moralistic. Her work wasn't seen as boundary breaking and she doesn't lend herself to dconstruction and the academic trends prevalent then. Also I think early feminists thought she didn't go far enough. Yes, she lived out of wedlock with George Henry Lewes, but she would have liked to have married him, if she could have. She wasn't anti-marriage.

She didn't always want to put her name to feminist causes. She disliked arguments for women's education because she thought that everybody needed education. She didn't like being called upon to be a spokeswoman for women. So that didn't endear her to that kind of feminist that was looking for transgressiveness and that sort of literary model.

BNR: Yet so many of her decisions seemed brave and modern.

RM: Her family wasn't poor, but they were modest, provincial. She was largely self-educated. Just the ambition to do that and to reject an early proposal of marriage, knowing she was probably not going to get hundreds of others. She was obviously an extraordinary person, but sometimes even extraordinary people don't get to flourish, and she made sure she did. I love her ambition for that. But she went through a lot of sadness in part because of it.

When she was in her early thirties, writing criticism and living on her own in London, she enjoyed the freedom, but [her writing] has this prickliness, as if she's defending against anybody criticizing or hurting her by making snarky comments in letters to her friends or writing these incredibly smart but devastating critical pieces about people. I loved discovering that George Eliot, because the wise, generous George Eliot of later grew out of this spiky, defensive, not very happy young woman. She seems so familiar. We all either know people like that or were people like that, minus the overarching genius.

BNR: You spend time in the book addressing her looks. And I found myself needing to search for her portraits online, too. Why is how she looked so important to us? Of course, it shouldn't be?

RM: No, of course, it's not important, but I wanted to address it because the way in which it is important is that everyone who met her commented on it.

BNR: You quote Henry James as calling her "magnificently ugly," "deliciously hideous," and a "great horse- faced bluestocking."

RM: Yeah, but he was not the only one. Everybody had to comment on it.

There was an incredibly useful book a guy called K. K. Collins sent to me out of the blue after I wrote the piece for The New Yorker. He did some incredible research work of finding accounts of meeting her. I went through this book gathering references to the way she looked. What's interesting is that they're conflicting.

Some people say she was tall and some say she was small. Some people say she was massive. I think she had kind of a heavy face but a tiny body. One of her dresses was preserved in a museum in Nuneaton, and she's little. But people remarked on the weight of her head. So I think the fact that everyone commented on the way she looked made it worthy of further comment and investigation.

Also I would love to see her. I go to parties and look around to see who might look a little bit like her. I've seen a few women and I think, oh, maybe that's what she looked like. I realize it's sort of bizarre to go to parties and look around to see who looks like George Eliot, but that's what I do.

There's only this one photograph of her. I went to look at portraits of George Eliot to try to come face to face with her as best I could and to try to conjure her in some almost supernatural way. And I feel defensive on her behalf.

BNR: Well, when someone is called a horse-faced bluestocking!

RM: I know! I mean, I've got a little horse-faced bluestocking in me, too! I don't look like Rosamond, either. Big nose, she had a big nose. And so I just wanted to reclaim that subject.

All her biographers, with more or less sophistication, write about the way she looks. One of her early biographies says, "What a tragedy it must be to look in the mirror and see — " They all thought it was worthy of comment, so I couldn't not have written about it. And I love the descriptions of her in which people talk about the way that she seemed initially ugly or plain and then this beauty would steal forth, because we've all met people like that, too.

BNR: You talk about the sketch of her in which you noted, with relief, that she looks like someone who would be good to talk to. What do you imagine it would be like to meet her?

RM: People who knew her describe her as a great listener. She would recognize in people things that they hadn't seen about themselves and give it back to them. Alexander Main [a George Eliot fan who published her quotes in book form], whom I write about in the book, said, "I'd like to see you, if I could not be seen." I feel a little like that. I'd like to see her, if I could not be seen. It would be amazing to watch and hear her listening. Of course, there are things I'd want to ask her.

BNR: Such as??

RM: If I were to get to ask George Eliot one question, I think it would be, "Do you mind that I wrote this book?"

BNR: Where do you hope you leave George Eliot's reputation with this book?

RM: I hope it will make more people want to read her books and inform more people about her life. But this is very much my version of Middlemarch and somebody else might have a very different read of it. It's an attempt to say what the book meant to me.

I hope that people will be able to read my book without having read Middlemarch. I hope that my book will appeal to people who just care about reading.

I feel like, although George Eliot is widely recognized as being great, especially in America, she's not as widely read as she should be. I don't expect to propel her to Jane Austenian levels. I very much don't want to have "Ladislaw and Zombies" or something. But I feel like she deserves more. She deserves to be embraced and not to be built up as a monument you can't touch or approach. I hope people aren't scared of Middlemarch now. It's a funny, accessible, smart book. It's not a scary book.

January 27, 2014

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Reading Group Guide

1. Explore the parallels between George Eliot’s life and Rebecca Mead’s. In their relationships and in their careers as writers, do they share a common approach to the human experience? Did the social constraints of Eliot’s gender put her at a disadvantage compared to contemporary writers, or did the constraints enhance her imaginative powers? 

2. Discuss your own experience with Middlemarch, whether you’ve been a lifelong devotee or have only glimpsed it through Mead’s lens. Which storylines and relationships resonate the most with you? Which characters are the most intriguing to you? 

3. What motivates Mead to retrace Eliot’s life? How does her research reshape her view of Eliot’s imaginary communities? 

4. Browse the memoir’s chapter titles (which mirror the titles of the eight books in Middlemarch) as well as the epigraphs. What makes these lines equally appropriate for Mead’s modern world? Which epigraph could make an apt motto for your life?

5. What came to mind when you read Virginia Woolf’s characterization of Middlemarch as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”? Are happy endings and the marriage plot the stuff of childish fantasy? How does Eliot rank against Jane Austen, the Brontës, and Woolf as English women writers who contributed to your growth?

6. How do the various locales featured in My Life in Middlemarch—from New Haven and New York to Coventry, Oxford, and London—reflect the inner worlds described in their corresponding scenes? For Eliot and Mead, where is home? 

7. As you read Mead’s exploration of Dorothea Brooke Casaubon, who wrestles with the yearnings of youth and must eventually confront the passionless marriage that marks her adulthood, how did these scenes compare to your own transformation, during and well beyond adolescence? Which books helped you find your way?

8. What freedoms and limitations did Eliot experience because of her unconventional relationship with George Henry Lewes? In your opinion, how did he and his sons (biological or not) affect Eliot’s approach to writing about male characters? From the duped scientist Tertius Lydgate to the feckless Fred Vincy, what broad observations can we make about the men who populate Middlemarch

9. What does Mead’s memoir help us understand about motherhood in its many forms (including Eliot’s experience as a quasi-stepmother)? Is Eliot’s portrayal of motherhood in Middlemarch realistic or overly pessimistic? 

10. Mead describes her pilgrimages to the archives that hold Eliot’s journals, manuscripts, and other documents, including Yale’s Beinecke Library, the New York Public Library, and the British Library. In addition to fact-gathering, what does Mead gain by spending time with pages that were touched by Eliot’s own hand? Does the digital age spell the end of that experience?  

11. Mead raises the question of Eliot’s spirituality after she left the church. If her characters are a guide to us, how does Eliot seem to have approached the role of fate versus free will in shaping our destinies?

12. The eight books of Middlemarch were released by Blackwood as a series. How does reading those elaborate plots compare to watching a wildly popular television series? What special benefits does the written word provide? 

13. After her dashed hopes with Herbert Spencer and the impossibility of marrying Lewes, was Eliot’s marriage to John Walter Cross a sort of victory?

14. Consider Middlemarch’s renowned closing line, which appears in the first paragraph of “Finale.” Which unhistoric acts, hidden lives, and unvisited tombs did you think of as you read those words?

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2014

    I am not terribly encouraged by this book so far. The author wri

    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. 

    5 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2014

    highly recommended

    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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2014

    Silly

    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

    0 out of 18 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2014

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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