Book review

'My Life in Middlemarch': holding up a mirror up to literature

For British-born Rebecca Mead, the defining narrative of her life has been 'Middlemarch,' George Eliot's 1874 masterpiece.

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If, as journalist Rebecca Mead asserts, "all readers make books over in their own image, and according to their own experience," then what book is you?

For British-born Ms. Mead, the defining narrative of her life has been "Middlemarch," George Eliot's 1874 masterpiece of provincial aspirations and accommodations. Now she returns the favor, using her own life as a lens through which to re-examine the celebrated work.

By Rebecca Mead.
Crown ($25).

On the one hand, this is a preposterous conceit -- comparing one's life to a book that is frequently cited as the greatest of all English novels. On the other hand, it works. "My Life in Middlemarch" is clever, thoughtful and carefully composed. It conveys prettily, and with true feeling, a real sense of the enduring value of Eliot's novel and the deservedness of its reputation, while illustrating the usefulness of fiction in processing real-world events and emotions. It is chick lit tailored to the bluestocking book-club crowd.

Furthermore, with its easy blend of literary criticism, historical context and biographical detail delivered in under 300 pages, it is a boon to those who lack either the discipline or discretionary time to persevere through a tome so monumental that it was originally published in eight volumes.

So it's all good -- unless you are masculine or under 40. There are, of course, important men in "Middlemarch" (and many of the greatest Eliot scholars are male); they just don't figure very prominently in Mead's memoir. It being her life, the focus is naturally on a feminine experience. The noble yearnings of the would-be hero, Dr. Tertius Lydgate, and the futility of the tragicomic scholar Edward Casaubon are duly acknowledged, as are the resentments and passions of Will Ladislaw, but they are not the characters that captured Ms. Mead's imagination in her youth.

That role was filled by the naive, self-abnegating Dorothea Brooke, whose "kind of beauty ... gain[s] dignity from her plain garments." Dorothea's longing for a meaningful life perfectly reflected the adolescent angst of teenage Rebecca Mead when she first discovered "Middlemarch" while preparing for undergraduate admission to Oxford.

As Ms. Mead matured, emigrated, and advanced from fact-checker to staff writer at The New Yorker, she began to identify less with the fictional Miss Brooke and more with her creator. Nearly half of "My Life in Middlemarch" is more accurately described as "My Life as George Eliot"; devoted to oblique comparisons with the woman formerly known as Mary Ann Evans, who, propelled by a crisis of faith, fled the narrow confines of her early life and overcame the disadvantages of her appearance, intelligence and gender to create a literary persona with tremendous influence over an enormous readership.

Now in her 40s, married and mothering a toddler and three stepsons, Ms. Mead finds herself at the center of her own "home epic," surprised by the simple pleasures of a domesticity that teeters on the brink of the hackneyed happiness of the 19th-century marriage plot. She never gives any indication of suffering from the disappointments and disillusionment that plague so many characters in "Middlemarch," painting only a glowing portrait of herself living and working beside her writer husband in their Brooklyn home, surrounded by books and boys frolicking at a discreet distance.

Nevertheless, one senses that Ms. Mead is vaguely anxious; fearful that she, like Dorothea, may be swallowed up by contentment, never achieving all to which she aspires, and destined ultimately to "rest in an unvisited tomb."

She looks again to Eliot's example and the scandalous but surprisingly mundane home life she shared for more than 20 years with philosopher, critic and married man George Henry Lewes and his three sons.

There she finds encouragement in a happiness that not only did not destroy ambition but also provided essential support in the creation of "Middlemarch," which was undertaken by Eliot at the age of 51. Just as "Middlemarch" is the work of a middle-age woman about the middle class in the English Midlands of the mid-19th century, Ms. Mead's memoir also concentrates on the middle path that is anathema to the young, who tend to equate all things middling (especially moderation) with tedium.

But for women at midlife, like Ms. Mead, who have a wealth of real experience to draw upon, the "middle" at the heart of "Middlemarch" represents not mediocrity but centeredness. Viewed this way, the peripheral and superficially boring characters of Mary Garth and Fred Vincy -- who have only loved each other and the town of their birth, never longing for the other or the elsewhere -- are transformed in Ms. Mead's eyes into the winners of the lifestyle lottery.

Indeed, the entire landscape of "Middlemarch" is transformed for her, revealing a depth and wisdom she had missed in previous readings. Rereading the novel, she interprets her own life anew, circling back with increased appreciation to her parents and the scenes of the childhood from which she so eagerly fled.

Can the book that is you do that?

Sandra Levis is the former literary editor of Pittsburgh Quarterly magazine.

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