I read Middlemarch by George Eliot for the first time about ten years ago, as a graduate student in a Liberal Arts program. That’s a bit surprising, seeing as I was an English major as an undergraduate with a specialization in British female authors of the 18th and 19th century. Perhaps because of the length, I’d never really considered reading it on my own.
I chose this book, firstly, because of its title (I really enjoyed Middlemarch when I finally got around to reading it), and secondly, because of the cover. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover but honestly, I do and you can. I read this as an ebook, so the cover was the only thing visually attractive about the book, and I admit, I was drawn to it. I love a well-designed cover. It can tell you a lot about the book – whether it’s going to be funny, sarcastic, romantic, quirky. The cover of My Life in Middlemarch is subdued and quiet and proper and beautiful – much like the book itself. But don’t take that as a bad thing!
In this book, the author, Rebecca Mead, recounts her love of Middlemarch throughout her life, talking about the book and its author, others who have reviewed it, and even throwing in a little literary criticism for the record. She makes comparisons between herself and the characters in the book, herself and George Eliot, her life and the life of Dorothea. She doesn’t just limit herself to Middlemarch, however, and this – in my opinion – is what makes this book great, but it could possibly be off-putting to other readers. She refers to other books written by Eliot, other reviewers of Eliot’s work (such as Virginia Woolf), and even makes various “pilgrimages” to Eliot’s (neé Mary Ann Evans) house in Coventry. Here, with the references to all the English towns and places, I think it would have been nice for the author/publisher to have included a small map, and possibly even a small timeline of Eliot’s life/works. My Life in Middlemarch is a rich source of English literature in and of itself, however.
I enjoyed this book. I love to read about books and read about reading books, and there was just the right amount of literary criticism and “book talk” in it that reminded me of my happy college days as an English major reading and analyzing books from every angle. Mead does a great job of that. What perhaps was missing a bit was the memoir aspect. At times I felt like I didn’t really know the author at all, despite her pains to show me more. At other times, the connection between her life and Middlemarch felt a bit contrived, perhaps, although neither of these things affected my enjoyment of the book.
Do you need to have read Middlemarch to enjoy this book? No, I don’t think so, although I wish I had gone back and read Middlemarch before I decided to read this book. I think I would have “loved” this book had I done so, more than just “really enjoyed” it. And although I don’t think it is completely necessary to have read Middlemarch to like the writer’s style, I’m not really sure why you would read My Life in Middlemarch if you hadn’t read the original in the first place!