At the beginning of “My Life in Middlemarch,’’ Rebecca Mead observes that there “are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.” In this blend of biography, memoir, and literary analysis, Mead explores how the broad themes of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch’’ — the quest for meaning, the nature of love, the power of home, and how to square great ambition with the realities of being a woman — resonate in her own life and remain relevant for modern readers.
A staff writer for The New Yorker and author of “One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding,’’ Mead shows her reportorial skills, painstakingly unearthing the details of George Eliot’s life — her early childhood struggles, intense work ethic, rejection of religion, and artistic self-doubt, much of which was mitigated by Eliot’s nontraditional relationship with George Lewes, depicted here as an enviable “writerly companionability” of two equal partners living together in “open defiance” of marriage law. Eliot (born Mary Evans), long celebrated as a feminist literary icon, emerges from these pages as a hard-working writer, willing to make personal sacrifices to be loved and loving, committed to the “delineation of human passion” in her work, and an artist (like Mead) who transformed “a natural history of yearning” into intellectual skill and ability.
The landscape of the book is vast, taking readers on a journey of discovery about Eliot’s life and the genesis of “Middlemarch,’’ the changing legacy of the book (early 20th-century critics dismissed it as overly earnest), and Mead’s shifting relationship with the text throughout the trajectory of her life; from a young girl in a rural English town who, like Dorothea in “Middlemarch,’’ “is trying to work out who she is, and where she is going” to a happily married woman with a busy family life and a solid professional identity.
Among all these twined threads Mead’s personal story often feels shapeless and meandering. While the portrait of Eliot is richly drawn and incredibly moving, scenes from Mead’s own life can feel cursory. The title of the book suggests that it will offer dual portraits of two young artists as ambitious young women and reveal how “a book can insert itself into a reader’s own history, into a reader’s own life story, until it’s hard to know what one would be without it.” The sections about the creation of “Middlemarch’’ and Eliot’s life are so finely wrought that the memoir sections read like a series of missed opportunities. Readers may feel that in this ambitious and thoughtful book, there’s simply too much to do.
The most powerful sections center around Eliot’s relationship with Lewes (the assumed model for the lovable Ladislaw in “Middlemarch’’) and the way in which the personal freedom Eliot found in this union — “[h]er best work began in being beloved” — allowed her to reach the apex of her artistic power in middle age. “Middlemarch’’ “was nurtured by love that was arrived at late, and cherished all the more for its belatedness.”
Mead illustrates how the reversal of the 19th-century marriage plot for which “Middlemarch’’ is famous is inextricably linked to Eliot’s personal experience of a long lasting, committed union as a state of happiness that far outpaced the seemingly all-consuming tribulations of young love. This state of equal partnership is mirrored in Mead’s life, and it’s no wonder that this “home epic” speaks to her and has continued to appeal to generations of readers, regardless of gender.
Mead identifies Eliot as an artist who “became great because she recognized that she was small.” In a “pretherapeutic age,” Eliot was interested in plumbing the psychological depths of her characters. She believed in the spiritual power of empathy, which has become a key term in contemporary discussions about character development and the ways in which readers relate to literary texts. “This notion — that we each have our own center of gravity, but must come to discover that others weigh the world differently than we do — is one that is constantly repeated in the book. The necessity of growing out of such self-centeredness is the theme of Middlemarch.”
Through her novels Eliot worked to show that empathy is literally at the center of making any home a better place to live, and by extension, the world. It’s a concept with considerable power, hundreds of years after the publication of “Middlemarch.’’
Mead, like Eliot, learns to appreciate that her earliest sense of home has shaped her ability to create and sustain a life for her family and her own ambitions, and that this understanding of origin is another reason for the endearing relevance of “Middlemarch.’’ “Loving something of where one comes from — and having emotional access to that love — is a moral imperative for Eliot,” and this is also true for Mead, who invites readers to consider this imperative through their relationships with influential books and in their own lives. In this way, she invites empathy, an exercise of which George Eliot would be unmistakably proud.
Emily Rapp is the author, most recently, of “Still Point of the Turning World.’’ She can be reached at email@example.com.