Friday, March 28, 2014

My Life in Middlemarch

"We have often wished that genius would incline itself more frequently to the task of the biographer—that when some great or good personage dies....we could have a real 'Life,' setting forth briefly and vividly the man’s inward and outward struggles, aims, and achievements, so as to make clear the meaning which his experience has for his fellows....But the conditions required for the perfection of life writing—personal intimacy, a loving and poetic nature which sees the beauty and the depth of familiar things, and the artistic power which seizes characteristic points and renders them with lifelike effect—are seldom found in combination."
—George Eliot, "Carlyle’s Life of Sterling"

The conditions required for the perfection of life-writing are fully met in Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch (Crown Publishers, 2014). It's a record of the changing meanings that George Eliot's Middlemarch has held for Mead as she has reread it over the course of her life. It's also a concise and highly compelling biography of Eliot, a description of the creation and reception of her great novel, and a frank and moving account of Mead's life and experience as it has been reflected in and informed by Middlemarch.

Eliot lived a remarkable life: she was a public intellectual in an era where the home was considered to be women's proper sphere and silence her proper state. Scandalously, Eliot lived openly with a married man (the writer and editor George Henry Lewes), and took his given name as part of her pseudonym. (Blanche Williams, a biographer of George Eliot, has speculated that the second part of her pseudonym is also a tribute to Lewes: "To L—I owe it.")

As Mead writes about her lifelong relationship with Eliot's masterpiece,
"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. 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. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows....This kind of book becomes part of our own experience, and a part of our own endurance." (p. 16)
My Life in Middlemarch is essential reading for lovers of Eliot's great novel, but also for those, like Mead (and myself), for whom books have been a crucial element of their "self-fashioning." It's also essential for those looking back from the vantage point of middle age at their young adulthood and wondering at how little temporal and emotional distance seems to separate them from their 20-year-old selves. Like Middlemarch itself, My Life in Middlemarch is a book to reread and treasure for its vision of "the beauty and the depth of familiar things."

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