New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead first read George Eliot's “Middlemarch” at age 17, when she was an ambitious schoolgirl studying for entrance exams to Oxford. She recalls identifying “completely” with the novel's earnest heroine Dorothea Brooke and Dorothea's yearning for a “more significant existence.”
Over the years Mead returned to Eliot's masterpiece for more inspiration and guidance, rereading the 850-page novel at roughly five-year intervals. “This book, which had been published serially in eight volumes almost a hundred years before I was born, wasn't distant or dusty, but arresting in the acuteness of its psychological penetration,” she writes. “Through it, George Eliot spoke with an authority and a generosity that was wise and essential and profound. I couldn't believe how good it was. And I couldn't believe how relevant and urgent it felt.”
In 2011, Mead wrote about this love of hers for The New Yorker, and now that essay has grown into a book, “My Life in Middlemarch.” It's partly a memoir — Mead describes her early life growing up in provincial England (like Eliot), aspiring to “metropolitan pre-eminence” (like Eliot) and eventually becoming a successful journalist and writer (like Eliot).
It's also a minibiography of the great Victorian writer, who was born Mary Ann Evans but adopted a male pen name to distinguish her work from what she called “silly novels by lady novelists.” Mead is particularly interested in Eliot's scandalous relationship with the married critic George Henry Lewes, with whom she lived for more than 20 years, helping to raise his three sons. Again, Mead sees a parallel to her own life for she, too, set up house with a man with three sons, although unlike Eliot and Lewes, they married and had a child together.
“My Life in Middlemarch” has a third major theme as well — the enduring power of literature. “Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it's a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book,” Mead writes. “But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself.”
Anyone who agrees with that sentiment is likely to enjoy this engaging book.