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Modern-day Middlemarch

Love letter to Victorian novel a memoir, biography, and more

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What happens when two wonderful writers collide? A new galaxy of sorts is created -- namely, Rebecca Mead's passionate description of her relationship with author George Eliot's great Victorian novel Middlemarch.

Filled with anecdotes, often dryly humorous, Mead's work is learned without being scholarly and is designed for those who read for pleasure -- there's not a footnote in sight.

That's not to say that those with a scholarly interest won't find it interesting or well-grounded in research; a comprehensive bibliography is included, and Mead excerpts some previously unpublished letters from Eliot's stepson.

She makes a strong case for the relevance of Eliot's novel to modern life -- a challenge, admittedly, when today's readers consider a novel of this length. Eliot's Middlemarch, subtitled A Study of Provincial Life, was originally published in a series of eight instalments between 1871 and 1872. Revolving around the instalment titled Three Love Problems, the Penguin Classic hardcover edition of the book runs to 880 pages.

My Life in Middlemarch uses Eliot's eight titles as a framework, and is broken up into chapters of the same names. The result is a sophisticated interplay between the author's own memoir, Eliot's biography, accounts of Mead's pilgrimage to Eliot's former haunts and an interpretation of the novel itself. Like Alberto Manguel's A Reading Diary: A Year of Favourite Books, it's impossible to pigeonhole.

English-born and Oxford-educated, Mead is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her 2007 examination of the wedding industry, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, grew out of an article she wrote for the magazine, as did My Life in Middlemarch.

Both books are engaging and readable -- she creates a bridge spanning more than 140 years, for example, as she describes the noticeable scent of old ashes while holding Eliot's leather-bound notebook. With a kind of wink, Mead writes that Middlemarch was so popular in its time that an archbishop hid the newest instalment under his hat so he could read while speeches were being held.

Where One Perfect Day was a journalistic enquiry, Mead's second work is personal. One of her main points is that the novel acts like a graft onto a branch, growing with the reader and changing with every rereading. Mead identifies strongly with Eliot (also known as Mary Ann Evans) as well as with her characters -- first with Dorothea's search for purpose, later with Dr. Lydgate's ambition and, in middle age, with his disappointments.

Mead also shares Eliot's joy in her new role of loving stepmother, finding in it the source for the novel's boyish and irresponsible Fred Vincy. Underlying all is Mead's ability to showcase Eliot's intellect and humanity.

Anyone interested in George Eliot will find this is an absorbing book (though it should be said that anyone who dislikes spoilers will probably want to read Middlemarch first). Rebecca Mead has done both new and returning readers a service by creating an opening for Middlemarch in their lives.

Ursula Fuchs is a Winnipeg nurse and plans on reading Middlemarch again someday.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2014 G8


Updated on Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 8:32 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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