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.
New York Times Bestseller
New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice
Featured on the Entertainment Weekly "Must" List
"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 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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"'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
"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
“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
"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
"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
"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.
About the Book
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
About 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.
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?