Mod­ern-day MID­DLE­MARCH

Love let­ter to Vic­to­rian novel a mem­oir, bi­og­ra­phy, and more

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Ur­sula Fuchs

WHAT hap­pens when two won­der­ful writ­ers col­lide? A new galaxy of sorts is cre­ated — namely, Re­becca Mead’s pas­sion­ate de­scrip­tion of her re­la­tion­ship with au­thor Ge­orge Eliot’s great Vic­to­rian novel Mid­dle­march. Filled with anec­dotes, of­ten dryly hu­mor­ous, Mead’s work is learned with­out be­ing schol­arly and is de­signed for those who read for plea­sure — there’s not a foot­note in sight. That’s not to say that those with a schol­arly in­ter­est won’t find it in­ter­est­ing or well­grounded in re­search; a com­pre­hen­sive bi­b­li­og­ra­phy is in­cluded, and Mead ex­cerpts some pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished let­ters from Eliot’s step­son. She makes a strong case for the rel­e­vance of Eliot’s novel to mod­ern life — a chal­lenge, ad­mit­tedly, when to­day’s read­ers con­sider a novel of this length. Eliot’s Mid­dle­march, subti­tled A Study of Pro­vin­cial Life, was orig­i­nally pub­lished in a se­ries of eight in­stal­ments be­tween 1871 and 1872. Re­volv­ing around the in­stal­ment ti­tled Three Love Prob­lems, the Pen­guin Clas­sic hard­cover edi­tion of the book runs to 880 pages. My Life in Mid­dle­march uses Eliot’s eight ti­tles as a frame­work, and is bro­ken up into chap­ters off the same name. The re­sult is a so­phis­ti­cated in­ter­play be­tween the au­thor’s own mem­oir, Eliot’s bi­og­ra­phy, ac­counts of Mead’s pil­grim­age to Eliot’s for­mer haunts and an in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the novel it­self. Like Al­berto Manguel’s A Read­ing Di­ary: A Year of Favourite Books, it’s im­pos­si­ble to pi­geon­hole. English-born and Ox­ford­e­d­u­cated, Mead is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her 2007 ex­am­i­na­tion of the wed­ding in­dus­try, One Per­fect Day: The Sell­ing of the Amer­i­can Wed­ding, grew out of an ar­ti­cle she wrote for the magazine, as did My Life in Mid­dle­march. Both books are en­gag­ing and read­able — she cre­ates a bridge span­ning more than 140 years, for ex­am­ple, as she de­scribes the no­tice­able scent of old ashes while hold­ing Eliot’s leather-bound note­book. With a kind of wink, Mead writes that Mid­dle­march was so pop­u­lar in its time that an arch­bishop hidh the new­est in­stal­ment un­der his hat so he could read while speeches were be­ing held.h Where One Per­fect Day was a jour­nal­is­tic en­quiry, Mead’s sec­ond work is per­sonal. One of her main points is that the novel acts like a graft onto a branch, grow­ing with the reader and chang­ing with ev­ery reread­ing. Mead iden­ti­fies strongly with Eliot (also known as Mary Ann Evans) as well as with her char­ac­ters — first with Dorothea’s search for pur­pose, later with Dr. Ly­dgate’s am­bi­tion and, in mid­dle age, with his dis­ap­point­ments. Mead also shares Eliot’s joy in her new role of lov­ing step­mother, find­ing in it the source for the novel’s boy­ish and ir­re­spon­si­ble Fred Vincy. Un­der­ly­ing all is Mead’s abil­ity to show­case Eliot’s in­tel­lect and hu­man­ity. Any­one in­ter­ested in Ge­orge Eliot will find this is an ab­sorb­ing book (though it should be said that any­one who dis­likes spoil­ers will prob­a­bly want to read Mid­dle­march first). Re­becca Mead has done both new and re­turn­ing read­ers a ser­vice by creat­ing an open­ing for Mid­dle­march in their lives. Ur­sula Fuchs is a Win­nipeg nurse and plans on read­ing Mid­dle­march

again some­day.

EL­IZ­A­BETH PROCHNIK PHOTO

Mead’s work is learned with­out be­ing schol­arly.

My Life in Mid­dle­march

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