My Life in Middlemarch

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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.

Praise

"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

Reader's 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?