‘My Life in Middlemarch’ by Rebecca Mead

March 24, 2016 at 6:16 am 4 comments

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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. 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…. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree. This kind of book becomes part of our experience.

— Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch (16)

One of my favorite authors, Anne Fadiman, edited a collection of essays some years ago called Rereadings where she asked various authors to revisit a book from their past and write down their impressions. The first time I read Rereadings, I hated it, plain and simple, and felt the essays “ruined” perfectly good stories with their intrusive dissections of literature. I shook my adolescent fist at literary criticism, grumbled about the book, and shelved it.

Inevitably given the title, I ended up rereading Rereadings over the years and, every time I did, I found the essays more thought-provoking (and significantly less ruinous) than I had in my previous reading of the book. How could that be? I started giving other books second chances and lavished long-held favorites with new attention. The very idea of rereading became a fascination for me — books don’t change, in theory, but somehow every time you read them, they’re different.

mylifeinmiddlemarch

And, crucially as far as Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch is concerned, you are different.

As I continue to read and think and reflect, I realize [George Eliot] has given me something else: a profound experience with a book, over time, that amounts to one of the frictions of my life. I have grown up with George Eliot. I think Middlemarch disciplined my character. I know it has become part of my own experience and my own endurance. (266)

Not to beat around the bush, I must now note that Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch is terrific. It’s a memoir of the best possible kind. It’s a biography researched and presented with vigor, sympathy (in the most Eliotian sense*), and clarity. And it’s the most warmhearted form of literary criticism I’ve ever encountered. No sterile dissections here; no, instead we’re treated to a wonderful entwining of life, books, theory, relationships, and, of course, Middlemarch itself.

Indeed, Mead’s most impressive feat may be making me want to immediately dive back in and reread Middlemarch even though I just finished it a couple months ago! Her experience with the book — her deep scholarly and personal explorations of the book — invite readers to re-experience Middlemarch right away, this time taking Mead’s words along for the ride.

Further, Mead’s allowance that each reader has his or her own My Life in Middlemarch waiting inside is a pleasant idea and one that makes me wish there were more like-minded books of lit crit, biography, and/or memoir just like this one for other novels.

“What’s your favorite book?” is a question that is usually only asked by children and banking identity-verification services — and favorite isn’t, anyway, the right word to describe the relationship a reader has with a particularly cherished book. Most serious readers can point to one book that has a place in their life like the one that Middlemarch has in mine. I chose Middlemarch — or Middlemarch chose me — and I cannot imagine my life without it. My husband, the most avid reader I know, would choose In Search of Lost Time as his most treasured work. One friend insists on the primacy of David Copperfield, while another goes back to The Portrait of a Lady, and I know them better for knowing that about them. (213)

Mine would almost certainly be Little Women and, after reading My Life in Middlemarch, I realized I know very little about the book’s history, Louisa May Alcott’s biography, or even reactions to the book (contemporary or modern). The depth of what Mead offers in My Life in Middlemarch and the deftness of her weaving together so many different parts of what made Middlemarch Middlemarch becomes inspirational: I now very much want to tackle similarly supportive secondary reading material related to Little Women.

My Life in Middlemarch fine-tuned my appreciation for Middlemarch itself and gave me ample food for thought in both the narrow sense related to George Eliot and the broader sense of how rereading changes us. My Life in Middlemarch, as far as I’m concerned, is an indispensable companion to George Eliot’s masterpiece and one which I already look forward to revisiting in years to come.

* Mead describes the Victorian use of “sympathy” as very different from our own: “When Eliot and her peers used the word, they meant by it the experience of feeling with another person: of entering fully, through an exercise of imaginative power, into the experience of another.” (158)

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Entry filed under: Biography, Memoir/Autobiography. Tags: , , , , , , , .

On ‘Middlemarch’ and grown-ups ‘Middlemarch’ Stray Observations

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sheryl  |  March 24, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    Ha! My English teacher in junior year of high school threw out that sympathy question to us while discussing Hamlet. He meant it in the Victorian sense, and it was towards the end of the discussion. And all of a sudden I was thinking about the play in a completely different way. Perhaps that was when the light bulb went off for me in terms of the act of looking at literature in a critical way.

    I too very much enjoyed My Life in Middlemarch — scholars may disagree — but a very human method of reminding us ever so subletly about how our own personal life views can change our perception of literature.

    It will be interesting to me what both you and Kate think of Middlemarch in another 10 years. From my perspective, I think you both might be missing something about Dorothea’s own journey to understand herself in Middlemarch.

    Reply
    • 2. Corey  |  March 28, 2016 at 10:53 am

      Sounds like a good English teacher! Also, it sounds like I should re-read Hamlet, the language of which I was obsessed with in high school, but which I’ve never really thought about super-critically. Ripe for a re-read!

      In terms of Dorothea, I can see that she is exploring herself and trying to figure out what she wants, but it seems to me that society is limiting the ways she thinks about these questions, since mostly her choices are all in relation to men.

      When she thinks she wants a thoughtful, religious life, she slots in Causubon. When she thinks she wants to change the lives of workers, she goes to Sir James. When she thinks she wants to help with local health, she works with Dr. Lydgate. And, then, in the end, she chooses none of these things and becomes a devoted wife to Ladislaw. Was her journey truly personal or was it a flipping through of the local man-Rolodex to see what might fit her best? And can she really be blamed if that’s the case?

      Eliot actually sums it up perfectly (of course she does!) at the end when she writes, “Many who knew [Dorothea], thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known…as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done…”

      I suppose another way of looking at this is that she does undergo a personal journey, through her experiences, and that Ladislaw is a culmination of her search: she found the intellectualism and closed-off nature of Causubon unsatisfying, so she sought more of a partnership in her next marriage. She liked the idea of helping those less fortunate than her, but didn’t want hover above like a lady-patroness, so she gave up her fortune to work in the trenches, as it were, with Ladislaw. (“Dorothea could have liked nothing better, since wrongs existed, than that her husband should be in the thick of a struggle against them, and that she should give him wifely help.”)

      Either way, though, her story is bounded by the men in her life and the choices available to her are largely defined by what men are around at any given time.

      That said, and forgive the above novella of a comment, I do look forward to re-reading the book and paying more attention to her inner monologues to see her journey of self-understanding better!

      Reply
  • […] must have trimmed some, even in a 5-hour-long miniseries! And, after reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, I’m even more excited to pick the book up a few years down the road and see how Middlemarch […]

    Reply
  • […] I think I’m going to go with Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. I read it right after finishing the actual Middlemarch and it scratched all my George Eliot […]

    Reply

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