Rediscovering Middlemarch in Middle Age

A new book in brief
Crown

“There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.” George Eliot could have written that. Instead, Rebecca Mead did. She first read Middlemarch nearly three decades ago, when she was an “anxiously ambitious girl from a backwater town” in southwest England. As she proceeded on to Oxford and then to New York and The New Yorker, marriage, and motherhood, she kept rereading it. Along the way, she learned what she has discovered Eliot learning, too: it takes a kind of mature ease to write seriously—yet without sanctimony—about the quest to see beyond the blinkered self.

Folding memoir into a blend of literary biography, journalism, and criticism, Mead keeps ego and epigrammatic moralism under admirable control. She’s wry about her own early, total identification with Dorothea Brooke, Middlemarch’s heroine, so full of earnest striving. She’s also wise about the painfully pretentious letters written by the teenage Mary Ann Evans (Eliot’s real name).

Mead’s middle-aged rediscovery of Middlemarch—and her insights into Eliot’s rich middle age—is not to be missed. Her portrait of Eliot’s love for George Henry Lewes (“the ugliest man in London,” someone in his literary circle called him) couldn’t be more astute. She’ll even make you empathize with Dorothea’s ill-chosen husband, the “sad, proud, dessicated” Mr. Casaubon. When you put down Mead’s book, you’re likely to be lured back to Eliot’s. You’ll be surprised by how much you, and the novel, have grown.

Presented by

Ann Hulbert is the literary editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees coverage of books and culture.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In