A New Yorker writer revisits the seminal book of her youthMiddlemarchand 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 masterpiecethe complexity of love, the meaning of marriage, the foundations of morality, and the drama of aspiration and failureand 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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About the Author
REBECCA MEAD is a staff writer for The New Yorker. She is also the author of One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding and recently contributed a foreword to the Penguin Classics Deluxe edition of Middlemarch. She lives in Brooklyn.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Miss Brooke 17
Chapter 2 Old and Young 45
Chapter 3 Waiting for Death 74
Chapter 4 Three Love Problems 111
Chapter 5 The Dead Hand 143
Chapter 6 The Widow and the Wife 174
Chapter 7 Two Temptations 212
Chapter 8 Sunset and Sunrise 245
Bibliographical Notes and Acknowledgments 279
Reading Group Guide
A captivating combination of biography, reporting, and memoir, My Life in Middlemarch traces a New Yorker writer’s passion for George Eliot’s masterwork—the eight-volume “study of provincial life” that is regarded by many as the greatest English novel. Rebecca Mead first found solace in Middlemarch when she was a young woman growing up in an English coastal town. As she gained admission to Oxford, moved to the United States to become a journalist, experienced several love affairs, and then became a wife and mother, Mead found herself reading and rereading Middlemarch. With its complex portraits of love and marriage, aspiration and failure, and the foundations of morality, the novel proved to be a lush source of self-discovery for Mead. Yearning to retrace Eliot’s life, including her years in Coventry (which probably inspired the fictional town of Middlemarch), Mead delved into Eliot’s upbringing, her unconventional relationship with George Henry Lewes, and her celebrity as one of the most popular authors of her day. The result is an homage to the joy of fiction and the gifts bestowed by our best-loved fiction writers.
A wise and revealing exploration of the ways in which literature shapes our lives, My Life in Middlemarch will delight your reading group. We hope the questions that follow will enrich your journey.
Guide written by Amy Clements
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?
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
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
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.
Really, really disappointed in this book. Read Middlemarch a while ago and thought this would be a book club experience. Not at all. Ms. Mead gives a general overview about Middlemarch and a skimpy, disjointed biography of Ms. Elliot. If I hadn't decided to try to read 100 books this year, I certainly wouldn't have finished this one.
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.
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.
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