My Life In Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Blogging For Books/Broadway Books in exchange for an honest review.]
I must admit that I enjoyed reading this book a lot more than I enjoyed reading Middlemarch when, about a decade ago, one of my former classmates compared me to Nicholas Bulstrode, the prim and sanctimonious hypocrite who serves as the novel’s true villain. As my interest in the novel was to untangle a mystery, I suppose it would not be fair to blame a lengthy and richly complicated novel merely because the characterization was an unpleasant one. This book, which has a chapter for every book in Middlemarch (there are 8 in all), takes about 300 pages of carefully researched and documented text unraveling three interrelated mysteries. One is a textual analysis of Middlemarch and its commentaries and reviews, one is the life of George Eliot and how it influenced and informed her writing, and the third is a memoir of the author herself and the way in which Middlemarch has shaped her own life, as well as the way in which growing up has led to different readings of the same text.
All of these levels are woven together skillfully and form a rich textual tapestry. The best books (like the novels of Jane Austen, referred to often here) are those with enough depth and complexity that they reward deep reading. As readers invariably personalize the texts they read to feel closer to them, a text that offers enough richness of characterization is able to be deeply resonant with others. Many of us can relate to feeling past our prime, caught in unhappy marriages or a longing for a better life than a provincial small town life of our childhood. Others can relate to being older scholars in heady and passionate courtships with earnest and adoring young women, or struggling to deal with debt and honor and reputation, and seeking what is best for others even when it hurts us to do it.
Despite being nearly 300 pages of text, along with bibliographic material, the book feels short (unlike Middlemarch itself) largely because its interlocking aims and complex structure reward reading and provide a great deal of interest without overstaying its welcome. A reader of this book not only gets to know the life of Rebecca Mead and George Eliot (and her friends and family) and the characters of Middlemarch better, but also leaves with a greater sense of the importance of reading good literature and the melancholy nature of life and love. Furthermore, the book makes Eliot a likeable figure despite occasionally waspish wit and an unsettling and unconventional life. Often great thinking and great writing come from intense suffering, and just as the witty but timid Eliot was only able to start writing great fiction once finding happiness in love, so too many people require fortunate circumstance for the full blossoming of our greatest gifts. We may not all have a life in Middlemarch, but whatever fiction inspires us does so because it possesses depth and richly rewards our study and loyalty and repeated reading.