by Alissa Simon
Rebecca Mead’s book My Life in Middlemarch weaves a well-researched narrative that involves land, people, women, love, and story-telling, among other things. Mead incorporates her own journey to underscore the way that Middlemarch changes with every decade of life. My Life in Middlemarch explains how one can continually learn lessons from a single book. In fact, it has instructed (and continues to instruct) Mead’s understanding of character, moral, intellect and empathy. She feels that Eliot’s novel cannot be minimized into quotations. Actually, quite the reverse, the book rejects summary. With each decade, the novel speaks to a different aspect of Mead’s own life. Through a variety of characters, Middlemarch underscores the complicated nature of life, reminding us that sometimes the choices we receive are out of our control. Eliot’s book, in other words, looks closely at the many large and small complications in the web of life. Mead’s book echoes this journey by incorporating personal narrative, research of Eliot’s own life, and a sense of Middlemarch itself.
Near the beginning, Mead introduces questions of motherhood which haunted Eliot who did not have any children of her own. Rather, Eliot grew to love and care for George Lewes’ children. When the youngest child died at the age of twenty-four, Eliot too feels this loss deeply. Mead writes, “A book does not tell us exactly how to live our own lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book. Now when I read the novel in light of Eliot’s life, and in the light of my own, I see her experience of unexpected family woven deep into the fabric of the novel – not as part of the book’s obvious pattern, but as part of its tensile strength. Middlemarch seems charged with the question of being a stepmother: of how one might do well by one’s stepchildren, or unwittingly fail them, and of all that might be gained from opening one’s heart wider.” (110). Mead connects with Eliot’s experience because of their shared experience as a stepmother.
More than understanding our own lives, however, Mead describes Eliot’s book as a passage through the big questions of life. In attempting to understand art and the role of the artist, Mead explores an Eliot quote: “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally. The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.” (56). Furthermore, she claims that these characters grant us a sort of self-awareness. They offer a lens through which to measure and weigh our own lives. Mead writes, “Looking back from the vantage-point of forty-five, though, twenty doesn’t look quite so far away. We are still recognizably ourselves, with many of the same confusions, even if experience has abated them, and granted us some self-awareness. We can hope, at best, that growing older has given us some degree of emotional maturity, and a greater understanding of the perspectives and the projections of others.” (162-3). Novels provide a space to ask what we might do in another’s situation and Middlemarch presents a great variety of characters of ambiguous morals. These characters address issues of poverty, wealth, religiosity and moral depravity, love and power, among many others. Since Mead herself has grown up with this novel, she highlights many of the same themes in My Life in Middlemarch.
Middlemarch gives me a deep love of virtue, but only as it relates to flawed individuals. Eliot expresses the refreshing notion that flaws do not contradict virtue. In fact, virtue is built upon our response to flaws, and Rebecca Mead not only embraces this theme, but reinforces it by scaffolding her own journey with the wonderfully researched narrative My Life in Middlemarch.