Rebecca Mead on writing My Life in Middlemarch
I first read Middlemarch, which many critics consider the greatest novel in the English language, when I was seventeen. The novel tells the interweaving stories of several residents of a provincial town in the Midlands; but to describe it this way is a bit like describing Everest as a really tall, ice-covered mountain. In its psychological acuity and generosity of spirit, in the deftness of its humor and immensity of its intelligence, Middlemarch offers everything we go to books for. It’s awesome, in every sense of the word.
I’ve gone back to it every five years or so since, and every time I see something new. When I was an anxious, aspiring teenager, it seemed to be all about the anxieties and aspirations of youth. In my twenties, stumbling through misbegotten love affairs, it seemed to be about the meaning of love and marriage. In my thirties, establishing my career as a writer, the novel seemed to offer cautionary insight into how one might or might not achieve one’s ambitions. By the time I was forty, conscious of the doors of youth closing behind me, the book seemed to offer a melancholy insight into the resignations of middle age.
So revisiting Middlemarch by writing a book about it was also way of reckoning with the life I had lived so far: of looking at the choices I had made, the paths I had taken, and considering the alternative lives I had left unlived. For it, I read the diaries and letters of George Eliot, the book’s author, who was born Mary Ann Evans in 1819; I visited the places she had lived, and I read about the lives of people who had been close to her. Having started out as the humble daughter of a provincial land agent, Eliot transformed herself into one of the dominant intellectual forces of her era—first as an editor and critic for the most important London periodicals, and only later as a novelist. “One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy,” she wrote to a friend when she was just twenty-four. She did find happiness: in love found late, and in a vocation discovered in maturity. “I feel very full of thankfulness for all the creatures I have got to love, all the beautiful and great things that are given to me to know, and I feel, too, much younger and more hopeful, as if a great deal of life and work were still before me,” Eliot wrote in 1861, when she was forty-one. Her greatest work was still before her: Middlemarch was ten years in the future.
I hope that I have written a book that can be read by people who haven’t read Middlemarch—though I also hope that my book will make those readers want to discover George Eliot’s masterpiece for themselves. I wanted to write a book that would speak to any passionate reader. Often, reading is thought of as escapism: we talk of “getting lost” in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and as I wrote My Life in Middlemarch I found that the novel spoke to me differently than it had during any of my earlier readings. Going back to Middlemarch gave me the chance to look at where I was in my life, and to ask myself how I had got there—and to think, with a renewed sense of hopefulness, about where I might go next.