A hidden life: Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch

indexThere are plenty of things I never wonder about that I’m nonetheless thrilled to learn about when I learn them. That’s why I love reading magazines as much as I do. Did I ever wonder about how Jami Attenberg’s excellent novel The Middlesteins reached the bestseller list and therefore my attention in 2012?

Nope.

Was I thrilled to learn, via Rebecca Mead’s profile of the chick-lit author Jennifer Weiner, that Weiner’s effusive praise of The Middlesteins to her 80,000 (now 90,000) Twitter followers played a large role in the novel’s success?

You bet.

The beauty of Rebecca Mead’s recent bibliomemoir My Life in Middlemarch is that it will answer the questions you did not know you had, imbuing you with the sense that you are now an insider to an important life story.

The idea of the insider is important here because Mead’s book is for and about a certain type of woman (yes, woman). When Mead is writing about Eliot’s early life, and about her own early life, and about the character Dorothea she is writing about the type of girl who knows they want something ‘more,’ but doesn’t quite know what it is or how to get it.

She found an outlet for her hungry ambition by reshaping herself into an intellectual. She turned her yearning into learning.

Mead writes of Eliot’s self-education through voracious reading, of her own journey from the English countryside to Oxford and I suspect that for the type of reader who would choose to read this particular book the journey from yearning to learning is familiar. The familiarity of feeling continues throughout Mead’s book. We progress through the narrative of Middlemarch, through the story of Eliot’s life, and through Mead’s own history finding parallels all the way and the reader can’t help but continue to relate.

Our paths eventually diverge when we get to the end of the Middlemarch story, the end of Eliot’s story, but are left along with Mead to consider our middle age.

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. – Middlemarch

We the reader go down one path with Dorothea in this instance, and Eliot goes down quite another. We march past middle age towards our unvisited tombs while Eliot is the only one of us who emerges as the hero of more than just her ordinary life. Mead has a good book here; full of melancholy wanderings through her own life and Eliot’s and well balanced between facts culled from extensive archival research and narrative drawn from her own experience or imagined about Eliot’s.

 

Kind thanks to Crown Publishing’s Blogging for Books program for the review copy of My Life in Middlemarch.

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