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Rebecca Mead pays tribute to 'Middlemarch'

Rebecca Mead, author of

Rebecca Mead, author of "My Life of Middlemarch" (Crown, January 2014). Credit: Elisabeth C. Prochnik

MY LIFE IN MIDDLEMARCH, by Rebecca Mead. Crown, 304 pp., $25.

George Eliot's classic novel "Middlemarch" centers on Dorothea Brooke, a young woman longing to escape from her provincial English town, with its prejudices and small-mindedness. She yearns for a larger canvas and a world of ideas. Reading "Middlemarch" as a teenager in the United Kingdom, Rebecca Mead saw a kindred spirit in Dorothea. She, too, wanted to escape: "I had intellectual and professional ambitions, just like Eliot's characters," she says. The book felt "relevant and urgent."

It was a book to which she returned, rereading it as an Oxford undergraduate; again, in the midst of a fraught love affair; as an aspiring writer; and now, in middle age, as an accomplished journalist, wife and mother. Books, Mead writes, give us "a way to shape ourselves -- to form our thoughts and to signal to each other who we were and who we wanted to be." For her latest rereading, she wanted to investigate "what George Eliot might have sought, and what she might have discovered, in writing 'Middlemarch.' "

The result is a deft interweaving of memoir and biography. Readers new to "Middlemarch" will find an ample overview of plot and characters as Mead explores Eliot's major themes: the unpredictability of love, the trajectory from self-centeredness to empathy, the desire for both intimacy and independence. What, Eliot asks -- as Mead asks, too -- does it mean to live a good life?

Like Dorothea, Mead fell in love with an older man, a scholar, whom she imagined could deliver her into an intellectually stimulating world. Like Eliot, she found enduring love later in her life: Mead was 35 when she married a man with three children, the same age as Eliot when she moved in with George Henry Lewes, the father of three sons. Eliot and Lewes enjoyed "writerly companionability"; Mead and her husband, a writer, are one another's first, and most trusted, readers.

But beyond biographical parallels, Mead feels connected to Eliot because of shared sensibilities: the idea, for example, "that we each have our own center of gravity, but must come to discover that others weigh the world differently than we do"; the importance of one's childhood landscape in evoking "the intensity and imagination of beginnings"; the gift of sharing one's home, memories and books. In this nuanced look at "Middlemarch," Mead offers a fresh and vibrant portrait of Eliot, an entrancing memoir and a passionate homage to the riches of rereading.

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