Middlemarch is one of those books whose fans reread it once every few years, and no wonder. It's not only an absorbing story, or rather a big set of interconnected stories (all set in the same English town about 1830), in which you can lose yourself; it's also that rare thing, a literary classic that probably will make you a better person, simply because of what it does to you when you read it.
Through the famously wise, articulate narrator, and through the viewpoints of George Eliot's characters — heiress Dorothea Brooke, wondering whom to love and how to do good in the world; Edward Casaubon, the fatally ambitious would-be scholar; aspiring physician Tertius Lydgate, drawn to the vain beauty Rosamond Vincy; sensible farm girl Mary Garth; and many more — we readers learn (as Rebecca Mead says) "to understand the unfolding of events from the perspectives of multiple characters," how to imagine what other people think and feel, and how to do right by them.
My Life in Middlemarch is no Middlemarch, but it does what New Yorker writer Mead set out to do: It offers reasons to open the Victorian novel for first-timers, and grist for fans. Mead weaves together, ably and quickly, her tips for new readers, her takes on its characters, and her quiet adventures in literary tourism, visiting Eliot's hometown, her dwellings in London, her stepson's descendents and so on.
Mead also lays out her own life and career, which took her from the English port of Weymouth (close to the spot where Eliot finished her novel) to Oxford University, to New York, to disappointment in love with an older man, then to a happier life as spouse, mother and stepmom.
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That life in some ways mirrors Eliot's own. Born Mary Ann Evans in 1819, in the agricultural center of Nuneaton, the Victorian author grew up boundlessly curious though strictly religious, a poor fit for the provincial, traditional England whose landscape she nonetheless loved.
"Determined to be joyless" in adolescence, Evans endears herself to Mead (as she has to many others) through her later "diligent effort to become an educated person," which also meant a loss of faith. She escaped to London, to translating, editing and writing essays ("her critical judgment could be astringent, even snarky"), then to fiction and verse, with the great novel (her next to last) appearing in 1871-72.
In the metropolis, she fell first for an unsuitable older man, the self-important polymath Herbert Spencer, and then a very suitable one, George Henry Lewes. Married in all but name, Eliot and Lewes stayed together happily for more than 20 years, making their partnership a paragon for unions of ambitious writers, especially those past the first fires of youth.
Mead finds tender instruction not just in the author's life but in the people around her. Lewes' impulsive middle son, Thornton ("Thornie"), pursued a hair- raising military career in British South Africa, then came home to convalesce, drawing out what Eliot called her otherwise "unused stock of motherly tenderness." Thornie gave Eliot a type for the late-blooming hero Will Ladislaw and a new way to think about family.
Mead also sketches the self-important, crotchety Spencer; the wholly admirable Lewes; the sad, lonely Oxford don Mark Pattison; and his unhappy younger wife, Emily — these last two resemble Casaubon and Dorothea. In each case Mead's take, modeled on Eliot's, becomes a model for our own: Reading her, we might indeed (to quote Eliot) "begin to see things again in the larger, quieter masses, and ... believe that we too can be seen and judged in the wholeness of our character."
In a spate of informal books about famous authors, from A Jane Austen Education to Julie and Julia, 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. The Victorian figure "spoke with an authority and a generosity that was wise and essential and profound," to Mead and to other Victorians, who could revere her with guileless sincerity; some of them even bought a book called Wise, Witty and Tender Sayings, in Prose and Verse, Selected From the Works of George Eliot, though Eliot's wisest sentences often advise us to look at the whole, complex picture, not to trust anyone's sayings, taken alone.
That is one of the ironies in the career that Mead describes, its work distinguished — from our point of view — by its lack of irony, by its studious, sometimes amused, and useful attention to other people, including those we used to be. At first, Mead saw herself in Dorothea, a young intellectual hoping "to make life beautiful — I mean everybody's life." Now in her 40s, Mead rereads the same great novel and sees in its overlooked characters — especially that very intelligent homebody Mary Garth — analogues for her parents: understated, loyal, unillusioned, aware of the lives they could not have led.
Middlemarch, as Mead proves, can help you view such lives, along with your own, in the clearest and the most magnanimous light.