05 January 2014

My Life in Middlemarch

Summary from Goodreads:
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.

I think that we all have that one book that we return to at different times either for comfort or changing insight (I, being a nut, have two: Winnie-the-Pooh and Pride and Prejudice).  For Rebecca Mead, that book is George Eliot's Middlemarch.  Each time she returned to the book her own life experiences illuminated different parts of the novel as Eliot's characters grow and change within the story.

My Life in Middlemarch is a book that is part biography, part memoir, and part criticism.  Following the layout of Middlemarch's eight sections, Mead brings parts of Mary Ann Evan's life into focus as the brilliant, headstrong young woman transforms into George Eliot, a woman who defied all Victorian convention to become one of the most successful English writers and live openly with George Henry Lewes, a married man (I really want to know more about Lewes's wife because apparently they couldn't get divorced, but she had a long-standing affair with a different man and had children by him).  There are comparisons of Mary Ann to her female protagonist Dorothea, to her male protagonist Lygdate, to teenage Rebecca (which, for those of us who were also intelligent teenagers, we will easily identify with embarrassment about arrogant teenage writing re-read by our older selves), to mid-twenties Rebecca working, working, working and worrying about relationships, and to middle-age Rebecca as she finds happiness and family with a man who already has children of his own much as Mary Ann did with Lewes and his three sons.

Along the way Mead brings up little interesting tidbits about Mary Ann Evan's life.  She had an obsessive stalker fan, apparently, although they never met face-to-face.  In a letter, Mary Ann confided to a friend how she came to choose the nom de plume George Eliot (it's a little heart-melty moment).  She went through an insufferable, teenage moralist phase, something I think we can all identify with.  All of these experiences Mead ties in with the characters of Middlemarch.  There is also a subtle dig about literary pilgrimage.  As Mead traveled around to different locations Mary Ann lived or tracked down collections of her manuscripts and letters, the collections are dispersed and the locations almost forgotten, in some instances completely.  There is no Steventon, or Jane Austen Centre in Bath, or Haworth, or Gad's Hill for George Eliot.  She hasn't been preserved or celebrated as Austen or the Brontes or Dickens have been even though she was just as successful in her lifetime.  And that's just a little sad.

Now, I don't think you need to have read Middlemarch to read My Life in Middlemarch.  The reason I hedge just a little bit is because I have read Middlemarch (just once, for my Literature by Women group, but I took very good notes) so I was able to follow Mead's comparisons easily without worrying about having the novel spoiled.  I can't take Middlemarch out of my brain enough to tell whether this would be easy to read for someone who hadn't read the book.  I think you can, since the central premise is about how you can come back to a favorite book over and over, but if you are really that concerned about spoilage or thoroughness, go read Middlemarch (stop freaking out about how long it is, it's a really good book) and then read My Life in Middlemarch.  Totally worth it.

Note: if you are staunchly in the "Death of the Author" and/or books exist separately from authorial experience, etc, etc, etc, camp then My Life in Middlemarch is not for you.

My Life in Middlemarch will be available January 28!

Dear FTC: I picked up an ARC of this book from a publicity mailing sent to my store.

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