Monday, September 22, 2014

Nonfiction Review: 'My Life in Middlemarch' by Rebecca Mead

My Life in MiddlemarchMy Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Author Bio: REBECCA MEAD is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding.  She lives in Brooklyn.

Random House's Book Blurb: A New Yorker writer revisits the seminal book of her youth--Middlemarch--and fashions a singular, involving story of how a passionate attachment to a great work of literature can shape our lives and help us to read our own histories.

Rebecca Mead was a young woman in an English coastal town when she first read George Eliot's Middlemarch, regarded by many as the greatest English novel. After gaining admission to Oxford, and moving to the United States to become a journalist, through several love affairs, then marriage and family, Mead read and reread Middlemarch. The novel, which Virginia Woolf famously described as "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people," offered Mead something that modern life and literature did not.

In this wise and revealing work of biography, reporting, and memoir, Rebecca Mead leads us into the life that the book made for her, as well as the many lives the novel has led since it was written. Employing a structure that deftly mirrors that of the novel, My Life in Middlemarch takes the themes of Eliot's masterpiece--the complexity of love, the meaning of marriage, the foundations of morality, and the drama of aspiration and failure--and brings them into our world. Offering both a fascinating reading of Eliot's biography and an exploration of the way aspects of Mead's life uncannily echo that of Eliot herself, My Life in Middlemarch is for every ardent lover of literature who cares about why we read books, and how they read us.

My Review: Delightful - I enjoyed reading this more than I actually enjoyed reading Middlemarch. (Read my review of Middlemarch here.)

Mead has skillfully combined a memoir of her own life experience through the lens of George Eliot's novel, instructive incidents in Eliot's life as they relate to the novel, and opinions from the leading scholars of Eliot's work. It doesn't hurt that Mead is herself a talented writer. Taken together, these various elements add an extra dimension to my recent reading of the classic, increasing my appreciation for the lengthy work of fiction.

Here are some quotes from this book that I found particularly interesting and insightful:

“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.”

“What's your favorite book?' is a question that is usually only asked by children and banking identity-verification services--and favorite isn't, anyway, the right word to describe the relationship a reader has with a particularly cherished book. Most serious readers can point to one book that has a place in their life like the one that Middlemarch has in mine.”

“Some very eminent critics writing in the decades immediately after the novel's publication felt that Eliot failed to maintain sufficient critical distance in her depiction of Ladislaw--that she fell in love with her own creation in a way that shows a lack of artistic control and is even unseemly, like a hoary movie director whose lens lingers too long on the young flesh of a favored actress. Lord David Cecil calls Ladislaw 'a schoolgirl's dream, and a vulgar one at that,' while Leslie Stephen complained 'Ladislaw is almost obtrusively a favorite with his creator,' and depreciated him as 'an amiable Bohemian.”

“Eliot was scornful of idle women readers who imagined themselves the heroines of French novels, and of self-regarding folk who saw themselves in the most admirable character in a novel, and she hoped for more nuanced engagement from her own readers. Even so, all readers make books over in their own image, and according to their own experience.”

“In the Life of George Eliot, John Walter Cross gave an intriguing account of Eliot's creative method. 'She told me that, in all her best writing, there was a "not herself" which took possession of her, and that she felt her own personality to be merely the instrument through which this spirit, as it were, was acting,' Cross wrote.”

I think some time I would like to read George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda. It sounds good.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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