Thanks to one prominent fan, an 800-page, 140-year-old British novel may soon experience a sales spike. New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead first read Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life as an intellectually ambitious 17-year-old. While studying at Oxford, building a successful journalistic career and starting a family, Middlemarch offered pleasures and profundities that spoke to each stage of life. My Life in Middlemarch, Mead’s heartfelt testimony to the evolution of her appreciation, will undoubtedly inspire new readers to pick up the primogenitor.
“Because George Eliot is so fiercely intelligent, I think her work has a reputation for being sort of demanding in a way that doesn’t recognize how very funny she is, what a great story she’s telling and how completely involving it is,” says Mead. “Middlemarch is unbelievably good, and that’s why I’m excited for [those who have yet to read it].”
It is not necessary to have read Middlemarch to enjoy My Life in Middlemarch. Above all, the latter is a reader’s book, one that celebrates the transformative power of literature on the willing soul. “There’s something about it that’s like a love affair: You fall in love with [a book] and then you see different aspects of it and, hopefully, you don’t grow apart,” says Mead.
A generalized desire to write about Eliot (née Mary Anne Evans) led Mead to reread her seminal work four years ago. She then started on the rest of Eliot’s books and finished with her journals and letters. “It was a way of immersing myself in her, but also I was procrastinating. So to kickstart this project, I decided to approach it like I would a story at The New Yorker,” says Mead, who journeyed to England to visit Eliot’s childhood home and meet with members of the George Eliot fellowship. “That was a way to try and approach this through the tools that I knew I had.”
She didn’t anticipate autobiographical results. “Most of the time what I’m doing is trying to understand other people’s motives and emotions,” says Mead, who nevertheless, under the encouragement of her editor, wrote an essayistic account of the experience, “Middlemarch and Me: What George Eliot Teaches Us.” “The response I got from that piece was so tremendous—it was really moving—and I saw that I could reach people in that way, which helped me get over the fear,” she says.
Thus My Life in Middlemarch became an amalgam: part memoir, part cultural criticism, part literary biography, part love letter. Mead carefully curates biographical details and selected passages to illustrate the deep empathy that arises from direct identification. Those common traits shared by the author and Eliot—their Britishness, their three stepsons—“were the ones that fascinated me, that took me into her life. It’s all based in biographical fact but...[other readers] might be interested in different aspects of her than I am,” says Mead. “What I came up with is my version of what was going on—wanting to find out what [Eliot’s] motivations would have been, to try to think myself into her world and into her thoughts and her imagination in some way.”
“A book may not tell us exactly how to live our own lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book,” she writes.
And on Eliot: “She wanted to know how people worked—not to expose them or embarrass them, but to move them toward a greater self-understanding, and to achieve with them a greater intimacy, however fleeting.” Through her thoughtful work, Mead’s aim can be seen as the same—and fans will be thankful for 30 years of inspiration attributable to Middlemarch.
“I don’t really know who I’d be if I’d chosen David Copperfield,” says Mead.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.