My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Having recently read Middlemarch for the first time and having loved the experience, I was intrigued by this title. I remembered having read a couple of positive reviews of the book when it first came out over a year ago and I decided that now was the time for me to read it, while Middlemarch is still fresh in my mind.
Rebecca Mead, a writer for The New Yorker, first read the book when she was seventeen. She has reread it numerous times in the decades since then and feels a strong connection with it. She sees connections between the text and her own life and between George Eliot's life and hers. This book is an exploration of all those connections. It is part biography of Eliot, part autobiography, part literary criticism and memoir of how the book came to be written. Some critics described it as a bibliomemoir and that seems apt.
I actually felt the title proved to be a bit misleading. The book was more about Eliot's life and times and the writing of the book than it was about the author's life. We learned some basic facts of her life and, indeed, she spent a considerable chunk of the book in detailing her research, her visits to museums and libraries to review original texts, her visits to the places where Eliot lived and wrote, but, in the end, I did not feel that the life of Rebecca was revealed to us by these descriptions.
We learn a great deal about the unconventional life that Eliot and her life partner, George Henry Lewes, lived. In Victorian England, divorce was virtually unheard of and unobtainable and Lewes was married to another woman with whom he had a family. But at some point, they grew apart, she took up with another man, and they started having children together. Lewes magnanimously allowed her to continue to use his name and gave his name to her children by the other man so that they would not be stigmatized by illegitimacy. Eliot had never married and when she met Lewes in her middle age, she could not legally marry him since he was already married. So, they simply lived together to the consternation of many of her friends and family, some of whom cut off all contact with her because of the scandal.
Eliot and Lewes, both described as physically unattractive people, had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances which seems to have included every famous Victorian you've ever heard of. They never had children of their own, but Eliot assisted in the upbringing of his three young sons from his marriage and she was apparently quite close to them. After Lewes died at age 61 and Eliot decided to marry, the eldest and only surviving Lewes son gave her away at her wedding.
The most interesting parts of the book for me were the parallels which Mead was able to draw between Eliot's life and the lives of her Middlemarch characters, especially her heroines Dorothea Brooke and Mary Garth. Surely, many of the characteristics which she gave to her book people were taken from her experiences, her own personality or what she observed in her family and friends. That could no doubt be said of most if not all fiction writers, but a truly inspired writer like Eliot is able to make those connections seamlessly.
It was a pleasure to spend time in this book and to experience the characters and events of the wonderful Middlemarch through the eyes and understanding of someone, who, unlike me, first met the book as a teenager and has returned to it many times over the years. I feel it has deepened my understanding of the classic and has made me want to read it again. While I'll never be the constant Middlemarch reader that Rebecca Mead is, maybe I will reread it again some day. I think I would appreciate it even more the second time around.
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