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review 2018-09-10 19:52
My Life In Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
My Life in Middlemarch - Rebecca Mead

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.






Journalist Rebecca Mead uses My Life in Middlemarch not only as a platform to revisit George Eliot's classic novel, one that proved to be one of the pivotal reading experiences of Mead's teens and twenties, but also as a way to get better acquainted with the famous author herself. Because Mead provides a respectable amount of thoroughly researched material, though this work initially presents itself as a memoir inspired by a great writer, the biographical portions on Eliot are nothing to scoff at. 


A book may not tell us exactly how to live our lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book. Now when I read the novel in the light of Eliot's life, and in the light of my own, I see her experience of unexpected family woven deep into the fabric of the novel  -- not as part of the book's obvious pattern, but as part of its tensile strength..."The secret of our emotions never lies in the bare object, but in its subtle relation to our own past," Eliot wrote in Adam Bede. The bare object of a book -- of a story -- might also have a subtle relation to our own past. Identification with character is one way in which most ordinary readers do engage with a book, even if it is not where a reader's engagement ends. It is where part of the pleasure, and the urgency, of reading lies. It is one of the ways that a novel speaks to a reader, and becomes integrated into the reader's own imaginative life. Even the most sophisticated readers read novels in the light of their own experience, and in such recognition, sympathy may begin.



Born Mary Ann Evans (though she preferred going by "Marian" in her youth), George Eliot grew up in the rural region of southwest England. A whip-smart girl, she was already working her way through the works of Sir Walter Scott by the age of seven! Letters she penned during her teen years show a kind of forced maturity. Her opinions are markedly prudish, pious and judgmental. Surprisingly, she claimed to find dancing and novel reading silly frivolities. But Mead has a theory: she points out that at about the same age Eliot was when she wrote these bold opinions, Mead herself would also strongly preach on topics she actually knew little about -- sex, feminism, politics. Mead suspects that at this point in her life, Eliot was likely just a teen working through the standard growing up period of trying to figure out who you are exactly. Part of that means maybe sometimes making claims you might not necessarily whole-heartedly believe in, simply for the sake of trying the idea on for size. 



Mead might be onto something, as she goes to show that later on in life Eliot swapped out her religious fervor for an equally intense passion for pseudosciences such as phrenology. Around this point in the book Mead also throws in an interesting bit of relevant trivia: turns out the very term "agnostic" was coined in 1869 by a friend of Eliot's! Eliot goes on to settle into what we'd now likely view as a common law marriage with George Henry Lewes. They weren't officially married (by church standards) but cohabited and behaved as an established married couple would, and many a neighbor gave the two a heavy dose of side-eye for it. Eliot & Lewes were both described as being quite ugly by the times' standards (even Eliot's friend, Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev claimed she "made him understand that it was possible to fall in love with a woman who was not pretty"), but haters be damned, they had the ultimate swoon-worthy bookish beginning to their romance when they met in a bookshop!


Henry James on Eliot (in a letter to his father): "She is magnificently ugly -- deliciously hideous. She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth, and a chin and jaw bone qui n'en finissent pas (never-ending)...Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a few very minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you may end as I ended, falling in love with her. Yes, behold me literally falling in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking."


Mead's words on Lewes: Lewes, who was two years Eliot's senior, was "the ugliest man in London" according to one member of his literary circle. He was slight in stature, with a receding jaw, protruding teeth that were concealed by a bushy mustache, and dark, intense, intelligent eyes. Jane Carlyle unkindly called him "The Ape," though her husband gave testimony that Lewes was "ingenious, brilliant, entertaining, highly gifted and accomplished." He was quick and clever. The novelist Eliza Lynn Linton, who was not fond of Lewes and thought him coarse and vulgar, nonetheless said that wherever he went there was "a patch of intellectual sunshine in the room." Lewes' bohemian manners and radical precepts were partly inspired by (Percy Bysse) Shelley, of whom as a young man he had described himself as a worshipper, and whose biography he had tried to write when he was just twenty, a project that foundered because he could not get the approval of Mary Shelley, the poet's widow.



Image result for George Henry Lewes

Lewes & Eliot



Eliot hoped to find friendly support in her older, married half-sister Fanny Houghton, but Fanny -- having been displaced from her home as a child by their father when he took up with Eliot's mother -- ended up severing communication with Eliot altogether. 


Also incorporated in this work are some extra booknerdish gems where  Mead shares details on Eliot's literary friendships or at least run-ins with other greats of the era. Not only is there a discussion on Eliot's friendship (mostly through correspondence) with Harriet Beecher Stowe, but Mead also ties in connections to the works of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. here and there throughout the whole book. 


She (Eliot) was sometimes satirical, as in her secondhand report of Dickens' house on Tavistock Square: "Splendid library, of course, with soft carpet, couches, etc. such as become a sympathizer of the suffering classes," she wrote. "How can we sufficiently pity the needy unless we know fully the blessings of plenty?"


So yeah, not quite a full biography of Eliot, not entirely a traditional memoir for Mead, but somewhere in between. I will say it seemed to be closer to an Eliot bio than memoir, thought the title and synopsis would suggest something different. Mead DOES have her own personal connections in here, just maybe not as much as you might expect. Some reviews suggest this was a disappointment to a percentage of readers, but I myself wasn't hung up on that so much. Mead at least keeps things consistently interesting, which, for this book at least, was good enough for me.




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review 2017-10-20 00:00
The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot
The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot - Rebecca Mead Excellent, scholarly insight into the life of George Eliot and Middlemarch
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text 2015-07-28 16:00
Top Ten Tuesday: July 28
My Life in Middlemarch - Rebecca Mead
Doctor Who: A History - Alan Kistler
Uprooted - Naomi Novik
Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery - Kurtis J. Wiebe,Tess Fowler
Lumberjanes Volume 1 - Noelle Stevenson,Grace Ellis
His Majesty's Dragon - Naomi Novik
Searching for Jane Austen - Emily Auerbach
Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel - Priya Parmar
Blue Is the Warmest Color - Julie Maroh
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar - Cheryl Strayed

I’ve gotten my dates mixed up, and posted today’s Top Ten Tuesday topic back in June. So I’ve swapped the dates, and have decided to do the one that would have fallen on June 30th today. Top Ten Books I’ve Read So Far in 2015:


 My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. A meditation on the power a single book can have throughout our lives, and how it changes with each new encounter.


Doctor Who: A History by Alan Kistler. The title pretty much says it all, but it is important to note that this isn’t fan history with commentary, but an objective one that tries to cover just the facts and chronology of the show/phenomenon.


Uprooted by Naomi Novik. One of the best fantasy stories I’ve read in a long time, focusing on Eastern European mythology and the power of friendship over romance or heroism.


Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery. by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch. As someone who used to play a lot of D&D, this comic couldn’t be more perfect. I love the female cast at its heart, and the very adult humor.


Lumberjanes Volume 1 by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Brooke A. Allen. Like Rat Queens, Lumberjanes is a comic about female friendship. Unlike Rat Queens, it is appropriate for pretty much all ages. It centers around a group of friends at a very unusual summer camp and their adventures as they get caught up in a plot straight out of Greek mythology.


His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik. Fantasy alternate history, set in the Napoleonic wars, only with dragons.


Searching for Jane Austen by Emily Aurbach. This is an extremely well-researched and structured analysis of why we need to take Jane Austen back from the biographers and bowlderizers that have made her “safe,” and recognize her as the biting satirist and social commentator she was.


Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar. A fictionalized account of the (possibly) fraught relationship between painter Vanessa Bell and her more famous sister, Virginia Woolf. This book broke my heart a little.


Blue is the Warmest Color by Julie Maroh. One of the most beautiful love stories I have read in a very, very long time. I know the movie is most famous for the long sex scene, but this story is not some voyeuristic soft-core lesbian story.


Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. I want Cheryl Strayed to be my best friend. Her “advice” is more meditations on life than Dear Abby-style responses.


(Original Top Ten Tuesday concept from The Broke and the Bookish)

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review 2015-07-17 21:28
Review: My Life in Middlemarch
My Life in Middlemarch - Rebecca Mead

While I’ve read probably close to a dozen books that can be classified as bibliomemoir, this is the first I’ve encountered that focuses on a single book as opposed to a selection or progression of many. Rebecca Mead has both physical and emotional ties to Middlemarch, having grown up in the same sort of provincial English town that lies at the heart of George Eliot’s work. Like Eliot and her creation Dorothea Brooke, in her youth Mead was full of restless ambition and saw in Dorothea a mirror of herself. While this initial fellow feeling created a strong attachment to Middlemarch, Mead explores the way each fresh reading created new sensations, as age, experience, and circumstance brought different needs to the text and her own life.


Mead balances her examination of Eliot’s life and work with her own experience adroitly, mostly by placing the majority of her focus on Eliot. Mead is insightful and has a way of capturing Eliot’s defining work in a way that makes me want to read it again to see what she sees. Middlemarch, and Eliot’s work in general, was not a formative reading experience for me; that is reserved (cliché though it may be) for Jane Austen. But since I have experienced something similar in revisiting a great work at different times in my life, I appreciate Mead’s superior skill in conveying what is usually a fairly complicated tangle of literary and personal development, and especially admire her ability to show us aspects of her life without turning it into the sole focus.


While determining whether or not to pick up My Life in Middlemarch, I went back and read a few reviews from major literary outlets. I was excited to see Joyce Carol Oates wrote the review for The New York Times, and I thought much of what she had to say was intriguing enough that I ended up checking the book out from my library. However, having now read the book myself, I’m not so keen on Oates’ analysis. I don’t typically like to write a review that refutes another, but her words kept coming back to me as I began setting down my own impressions of Mead’s book. There is something ironic, maybe even a little bit meta about Oates writing about Mead writing about Eliot, especially as Oates focuses on Mead’s ability to forgo overshadowing the novel with her own experience, while in turn passing her own judgments on Mead and Eliot that carry a whiff of snobbery. I’m sure this adds yet another weird meta-layer; here I am, writing about Oates writing about Mead writing about Eliot. It’s enough to give you a headache, but I can’t seem to resist.


I respect Oates as an author and as a critic. I agree with many of Oates’ observations, like how “[t]here is no irony or postmodernist posturing in Mead’s forthright, unequivocal and unwavering endorsement of George Eliot as both a great novelist and a role model for bright, ambitious, provincially born girls like herself…” Perhaps it is this lack of irony in Mead’s work that prompted Oates to supply her own, as just a few paragraphs later we find her remarking on Mead’s choice of Middlemarch in tones that have more than a little “posturing” of superiority. She observes:


There is something self-limiting if not solipsistic about focusing so narrowly on a single novel through the course of one’s life, as if there were not countless other, perhaps more unsettling, more original, more turbulent, more astonishing, more aesthetically exciting and more intellectually challenging novels — James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” to name one; Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” to name another.


This is where I began to lose patience. Perhaps there are “better” books, “more original” writers than Eliot that Mead could have chosen, but this isn’t a work concerned with pure literary criticism, or of taking the usual tactics of bibliomemoir and doing a multi-title reading history of the author. It is true that, as Oates observes, Mead does not supply any “surprises…that have not been uncovered by Eliot biographers,” but she isn’t writing Eliot’s biography. Perhaps Oates would have done well to take another look at the title of the book itself: MY LIFE in Middlemarch. Not “Eliot’s Life in Middlemarch,” or “George Eliot and Middlemarch,” or “Middlemarch is the Best Book Ever and Here’s Why.” This is a book that seeks to explore the personal, often inexplicable connection Mead has experienced with Eliot’s (perhaps greatest) work. The most frustrating part of this is that Oates closes her review on this sour note, suggesting that the book is passably good, but would have been better if Mead had somehow managed to forge a lifelong emotional connection with a better book. Then again, maybe it is also ironic, for me personally, that Oates compares Eliot to Austen (my most influential writer), both being in her words “genteel” and “oblivious to the physical…lives of women.” It would seem she would judge my reading experience in the same light as she does Mead’s, though I will never be able to articulate it half so well, and deep down maybe I feel it as a personal insult of my own reading choices.


This, I think, brings us finally to the point. My Life in Middlemarch seeks to do something difficult, something that involves putting into words an elemental attachment to a work of literature produced over a century and a half ago. She gives us something unequivocally a matter of personal taste and experience. How do we explain those works that have spoken to us most powerfully? Should we apologize when those works don’t meet a certain literary standard? Or be embarrassed if the thing we love somehow falls short of others’ expectations of merit? Mead does a beautiful job of taking something rooted in emotion and shaping it into a narrative that is enlightening (about Eliot, but also about reading, and living) and quietly touching; Mead’s enthusiasm never founders, but neither does it gush. Perhaps it is the lack of histrionics that make it seem easy to dismiss as not “surprising” enough for certain readers, but it is Mead’s measured study of two lives, hers and Eliot’s, combined with a deep and abiding appreciation for Eliot’s work, that gives it resonance. Every reader has a book in which they’ve lived a life and felt an almost sublime connection, and sometimes that book really is merely a “mundane, grand domestic adventure.” But it is our adventure.


Cross-posted on Goodreads: My Life in Middlemarch

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text 2015-07-17 16:00
Fabulous Finds Friday: July 14, 2015 LIBRARY EDITION
Dad is Fat - Jim Gaffigan
A Sport and a Pastime - James Salter,Reynolds Price
Bonjour Tristesse - Diane Johnson,Irene Ash,Fran├žoise Sagan
Jane Austen's England - Roy Adkins,Lesley Adkins
A Broom of One's Own: Essays on Housecleaning and the Writing - Nancy Peacock
My Life in Middlemarch - Rebecca Mead
Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction - Dinty W. Moore

Dad is Fat. All the promos for Jim Gaffigan's new show reminded me that I've been meaning to read this.


A Sport and a Pastime. Good for a sultry summer read.


Bonjour Tristesse. Another melodramatic, affair-filled summer read.


Jane Austen's England. I'm going to keep checking this out until I finally get to read it.


A Broom of One's Own. This one sort of caught my eye, as I worked as a house cleaner in college.


My Life in Middlemarch. I love a well-written look at the power of books in our lives, and this one is very well done. I also love Middlemarch but haven't found the time to revisit it.


Crafting the Personal Essay. I really want to spruce up my writing. I didn't have a lot of luck with an ARC from this same writer (the format was so bad, it was practically unreadable), but I thought I would give it a chance.

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