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My Life in Middlemarch


Okay. So.

This book is a biography of a book. Specifically, it’s the biography of one woman and how she and a life-changing novel matured together.

For the record, I was not one of those kids who was reading James Joyce and Herman Melville when she was nine. I was reading novels with deathless titles like The Cat Ate My Gymsuit.

But I did manage to fit in some of the good stuff now and then when I hit my teens and twenties, so I do know the pleasure of rereading a classic decades later and thinking fondly, “I am such an idiot.”

There are books that it’s no use reading before a certain stage, because you have nowhere to put what they have to offer. This isn’t an insult to the young, because it’s not necessarily about youth. I know plenty of people in their teens and early twenties who have a better understanding of some great books than I do; and I know others who may be in their forties chronologically, but they don’t have a clue about certain books because they just don’t have the right set of mental shelves for them.

I was young and clueless when I first read Middlemarch. I only grasped two things: there’s a reason more people have heard of Jane Austen than of George Eliot, and I could relate more directly to Dorothea Brooke than I’ve ever been able to empathize with any of Austen’s heroines. This contradiction baffled me. It’s also the reason I’ve read Middlemarch several times even though it’s almost 800 pages long.

Okay, I also reread it because after my first time through, someone gave me a gorgeous hardcover copy and I’m a sucker for a pretty face. Fine. I’m shallow. Sue me.

But at least I’m not irredeemably shallow. That second time through, I managed to notice more than just the story. I caught killer lines like “Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand.” I didn’t know what that meant, exactly, but I knew there was something going on there.

Because of the range of characters and the multiple storylines, Middlemarch is a book that is different not just for different readers, but for the same reader at different ages. Or, as Rebecca Mead puts it in this loving memoir, “There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.”

My Life is a story of how a great novel changed Rebecca Mead’s life, and how it grew as she did. If you’ve ever had a similar relationship with a book, you’ll enjoy this book even if you haven’t read Middlemarch -- though you’ll probably want to long before you finish.

You’ll also enjoy Mead's book if you’ve always been curious about George Eliot’s life but don’t necessarily want to commit to a whole biography. (I admit to living in that camp, though I feel myself being coaxed out of it now.)

The reason you might be curious about George Eliot is because it’s hard not to be curious about a woman whose novels are known for their strong moral messages, and who left her Christian faith behind early in life and had the nerve to live with a man in the mid-nineteenth century. Yes, that kind of “live with.” Starting in 1854. Yes, that 1854. Victorian England. The man, George Lewes, was married but living apart from his wife, who was happily bearing children by another man. Divorce was nearly impossible back then, so when George Eliot and George Lewes fell in love, they decided to shack up. And you thought the Victorians were boring.

Eliot remained in this monogamous relationship for 24 years, until Lewes’ death. Eliot was inconsolable until she decided maybe she wasn’t inconsolable after all, which just happened to be around the time a man 20 years her junior proposed to her. She accepted. She was sixty at the time. (And you thought the Victorians were boring.)

This book has plenty of wonderful biographical details like that. Also some sad ones, like the fact that her younger twin brothers died on the same day only a week and a half after their birth. These are woven around details from Mead’s life, though she goes easy on the personal outpourings. She knows she can’t compete with her subject matter, and doesn’t try – though her writing holds up well even next to Eliot’s.

I would write more about this lovely book, but I can’t afford to. I can hear the library snarling at me even from a mile away to return its property. So I’ll close with my favorite quote from Middlemarch. It isn’t very profound, but it’s a description of a character I relate to even more than Dorothea Brooke: Mary Garth, who feels “a strong current of gratitude toward those who, instead of telling her that she ought to be contented, did something to make her so.”

Think of that the next time you’re tempted to urge someone to cheer up. And then try to give them a reason to be cheerful. A copy of My Life in Middlemarch would be a good start.