Ask some readers their favorite book, and they’ll rattle off a list of five or 10 but cannot narrow their dedication to one book or author. Ask others, and they’ll respond without hesitation with their single favorite of all time. New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead is the latter kind of reader. Her author is George Eliot, and her life-changing book is Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, the 1874 novel that turned the ever-popular Austenian marriage plot narrative on its head by having heroine Dorothea Brooke’s courtship result in a fraught marriage at the novel’s very beginning, instead of a happy marriage at the very end.
Mead’s new book My Life in Middlemarch, which first began as an essay about her complete infatuation with the book in The New Yorker, covers a lot of territory and might best be called a “life in letters” book. This poorly named genre is as broad in its scope as it is in its quality, ranging from any literary biography to the umpteenth explanation of what Jane Austen taught me to Geoff Dyer’s brilliant D.H. Lawrence noncriticism Out of Sheer Rage. What these books share is a deep love of the written word and a belief that “a book can insert itself into a reader’s own history, into a reader’s own life story, until it’s hard to know what one would be without it,” Mead says. As Mead’s title suggests, she makes the case that she sees her own life path clearest in relationship to what’s between Middlemarch’s covers.
Mead’s relationship to Middlemarch is a bond as strong as a Victorian marriage, with little room for a divorce. It is, she says, “one book I had never stopped reading.” She sees her identity and life as changed as a result of her first reading and subsequent re-readings, and she sees her moments in her life anew each time she reintroduces herself to the world and characters of Middlemarch. There’s no fighting or shrugging off her identification with the book, even if the relationship is complex. Instead, the book is always there for her and, with each revisit to Eliot’s imaginary 1830s Everytown, there are new notes to discover under the surface. Her first encounter with the book at age 17, when she grew up wanting to escape a sleepy English town not unlike the novel’s, left her immediately entranced:
I couldn’t believe how good it was. And I couldn’t believe how relevant and urgent it felt. At seventeen I was old enough to have fallen in love, and I had intellectual and professional ambitions, just like Eliot’s characters. ... The questions with which George Eliot showed her characters wrestling would all be mine eventually. How is wisdom to be attained? What are the satisfactions of personal ambition, and how might they be weighed against ties and duties to others? What does a good marriage consist of, and what makes a bad one? What do the young owe to the old, and vice versa? What is the proper foundation of morality?
When a book has staked a reader through her heart as thoroughly as Middlemarch did to Mead, it’s a delight to get swept away with her into George Eliot country as she mines archives and literary landscapes and landmarks for tidbits and revelations. (My favorite? Eliot let a strange semistalker named Alexander Main publish a collection of excerpts of her work under the title Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings. He then confessed in a letter to her that he enjoyed “clipping and slashing great gashes out of writings every line of which I hold sacred, and finding a delight almost fiendish in the work of destruction.” Gulp.)
Mead’s is a superserious superfan’s quest to understand more about a book and its author but also about how a book can become so personally significant—how or why a reader might desire to find new ways to access a novel she’s already had multiple love affairs with, and whether this type of literary tourism is meaningful or just a form of navel-gazing.