MY LIFE IN MIDDLEMARCH. By Rebecca Mead. Crown Publishers. 293 pages. $25.
When she was 17, Rebecca Mead met the book that helped her chart a getaway plan from the coastal seaside town in the Southwest of England, where she grew up, to Oxford and beyond. That book was George Eliot's 1872 novel, "Middlemarch." Mead writes of her young self, "Oxford was my immediate goal, but anywhere would do."
Fast forward 30 years. In a moment of mid-life stocktaking, Mead, now a staff writer for "The New Yorker," takes on the project that led to this book: she'll go back to "Middlemarch," the tutor of her youth, and a book that has kept pace with all the changes in her subsequent life, and apply a reporter's fact-finding skills to it.
Feeling a bit adrift in her 40s, she notes that a book, far from being an escape valve, "can be where one finds oneself."
"My Life in Middlemarch" is a hybrid work, part book-and-author study for a popular audience, part autobiographical exploration, with Eliot's great novel as touchstone. Its success is lopsided, like its mission.
Mead is best when she's doing what she trained herself to do: investigate and report. She's a smart, sensible reader who sincerely loves "Middlemarch"; her book is a good entry point for the uninitiated and a friendly reminder for the lapsed connoisseur. "My Life in Middlemarch" follows Eliot's own organizational plan, chapter by chapter. Beginning with Eliot's Book One, "Miss Brooke," Mead is able to focus on the source of the classic novel's initial appeal to her.
Miss Brooke is Dorothea, a 19-year-old searching to dedicate her life to a worthy activity. Dreaming of what it would be like to marry Pascal, she marries Edward Casaubon, a far inferior specimen, and dedicates herself to his flimsy life's work, "The Key to All Mythologies." It's a bold move on Eliot's part, and a spectacular subversion of the marriage plot, to begin her novel with a wedding.
Mead reads "Middlemarch" as a response to the question, "What in the end is a young woman to do with herself?" The question was on Mead's mind when she discovered "Middlemarch" and on the mind of Eliot in the years before she found her vocation.
Mead's portrait of Eliot relies mostly on existing biographies, although she has done some archival research. Still, she has an excellent nose for detail.
Here's one: as a schoolgirl, Eliot was asked to write an essay on God. Instead, she drew a large, watchful eye. Another: the 26-year-old Henry James went to visit Eliot and famously described her looks as "deliciously hideous" in a letter to his father. But within moments, he writes, she has won him over: "Yes, behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking." Throughout, Eliot emerges as brilliant, of course, but also fresh and kind. Her creation Dorothea Brooke does not win the "epic life" that she dreams of, but Eliot did.
Mead is particularly eloquent when she takes up Dorothea's failure to reach epic heights. A novel that began in the false hope of a mismatched marriage moves on to offer notions of sympathy that include even the pompous groom, Edward Casaubon. His soul, after all, flutters in the swamp, "thinking of its wings and never flying," as Eliot says. Mead considers Eliot "the great artist of disappointment."
Yet, as she also points out, for every iteration of thwarted desire, and every moral limitation, Eliot dramatizes compensations: the enhanced imagination, fellow feeling, and ordinary kind acts that were keys to her philosophy.
Mead's own imagination finds its complement in "Middlemarch," clearly, but her book's confessional aspect is its least successful. Some of the overlaps and coincidences that keep her coming back to "Middlemarch" are fairly pedestrian: a shared provincial background, mid-life love, three stepsons (George Eliot also had three stepsons). Mead may be too modest to expose herself, or she may not have found the language to make herself interesting, but her reticence isn't a fatal error.
"My Life in Middlemarch" puts Eliot and her novel front and center, where they belong, and has interesting things to say about the saturation of book and reader.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.