The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot by Rebecca Mead

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Reviewed by Lory Widmer Hess

No two readers can really read the same book. The nuances generated by our particular set of experiences, associations, and interests color our reading, making it indelibly our own. As I grow older, I’m increasingly fascinated by the ways in which books also change when read at different points in one’s life, and interested in the reading journeys of others.

In The Road to Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead takes us on a deeply personal, yet wide-ranging tour of one of her life’s touchstones,  Middlemarch by George Eliot. In the process we learn about Eliot’s own life and times, gaining insight into the origins of the book’s characters and themes, and into how a great book can transform and teach us.

Mead does not erase herself from the book, unlike literary critics or biographers who try to achieve “objectivity” (impossible, yet expected) in their works. She tells us what aspects of the book had significance for her and how those changed through her life; she takes us along with her as she visits Eliot-related sites and people, giving us not only facts but her emotional response to the experience of trying to connect with the past. Yet she does not turn the book into a narcissistic exercise, a “this book is really all about me” kind of narrative. The focus remains firmly on Middlemarch, throwing more light upon this great novel so that in turn it can illuminate our own lives even more.

An experienced journalist, Mead is skilled at linking her thoughts and observations and creating connections between ideas. She organizes the book by naming her eight chapters after the eight parts of Eliot’s original novel, which bear titles like “Old and Young,” “Waiting for Death,” “Two Temptations.” She expertly crafts each piece to touch on relevant themes — how the unmarriageable Eliot found love and fulfillment with George Lewes; her relationship with her three stepsons; a somewhat creepy epistolary pursuit by a persistent fan — interspersed with Mead’s own experiences with love, family, and literary endeavor. It all flows easily and readably, concealing the craft that went into consolidating so many elements into a seamless whole.

Serious scholars may scoff at this approach, which mixes memoir, biography, and literary criticism in a “jack-of-all-trades” sort of way, and for truly in-depth exploration, one might want to go to a specialist. But for me it was a perfect combination, one that highlighted all the questions that I want to ask of other readers. What did this book mean to you, and why? How did that change over time? How does your reading affect your life, and vice versa? At the same time, it introduced just the right amount of knowledge about an author and her works, making the discussion meaningful and informative in a wider sense.

I would love to read more books like this, and if like me you have a taste for such literary adventures, you’ll find The Road to Middlemarch a wonderful place to start.

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Lory Widmer Hess blogs about her reading journey at The Emerald City Book Review.

Rebecca Mead, The Road to Middlemarch (Granta Books: London, 2014). 978-1847085160, 304 pages, paperback.

The US edition is titled My Life in Middlemarch (New York: Broadway Books, 2015). 978-0307984777, 320 pages, paperback.

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