Not What I Thought: My Life in Middlemarch

I have kind of a bad habit of skimming some of the things I read online. It starts when I’m reading about the news of the world – I can only read so much about all the terrible things that happen in the world on a daily basis. But then I make my rounds of Bookriot and Bookish.com and The Huffington Post book section. Often on these sites there will be articles called “Books We’re Talking About” and this is when I read the headline, click on an article and read the first 2 paragraphs and skim the rest.

I think this is where I first heard about Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch.

I mention this because I think it’s important to understand that what I thought I was going to read and what I ended up reading were two very different things. I thought I was reading a fictional story about a woman whose life somehow is affected by/mirrors George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I started reading and thought I was going to read a memoir about a woman whose life was affected by/mirrored George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

My Life in Middlemarch is neither of these things.


Instead it is more of a briefly outlined biography of George Eliot and how her life experiences formed her writing of Middlemarch. It is a critical discussion of Eliot’s best known (and arguably her greatest) work. I found myself wishing that this book had been around when I was reading Middlemarch in university; this book would have been excellent bibliography material.

Don’t get me wrong – this book was well written, thoroughly researched and shone original light on George Eliot’s life. But it wasn’t what I thought I was going to be reading and it was so not the right kind of reading for the holiday season.

That said, it is exquisitely written. In the first pages, Mead writes the most perfect description of books and reading:

“Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself.”

I liked the passage so much, I took a picture of the full text and tweeted it.

Even reading the introduction I thought I was getting this memoir of her life and how much she had been affected by Middlemarch, how she returned to this book time again to find pieces of herself she didn’t know were there. Early in the book, there are tastes of this but then it drops off altogether, in favour of biographical details of Eliot herself and how her life formed her work.

I’m just glad I didn’t re-read Middlemarch in preparation for this. I want to re-read it now but as a reaction to this book. If I had re-read Middlemarch only to read a nearly 300 page critical essay of it, I think I’d be kind of put out.


Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley Is No North and South

I’m working my way through Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley right now. It’s been a week; I’m starting to get antsy.

Reading Shirley is reminding me of forcing my way through Daniel Deronda. That story doesn’t have a happy ending. I mean the story of me reading the book – taking three weeks to slog through those 700 pages has long been blamed for only managing to read 64 out of a planned 65 books that year. The actual story…I can’t remember the ending.

The funny thing about Daniel Deronda is that every time I go back and read a summary I’m like that book sounds awesome! Why didn’t I like it? But despite my love for Middlemarch (by the same author), Daniel Deronda just didn’t work for me.

And I fear that the same thing is happening with Shirley. Is Charlotte Bronte a one hit wonder? You may recall that I didn’t have a lot of love to give for Villette. With Shirley, I swear I run in and out of consciousness; I read without realizing it and that is no way to read.

It should be good. It reminds me a lot of North and South which I loved so much. But there’s no Mr. Thornton to love. Robert Moore is kind of a dick and he can’t make up his mind between lovely, sweet, thoughtful Caroline Helstone and temperamental, generous, wealthy Shirley Keeldar. I have no idea how this is going to go down – Caroline probably dies of consumption.

It took 200 pages to even meet Shirley you guys. Two hundred pages of leg work to meet the title character. Not even a whisper of her before that. It’s all Caroline. Which would be fine except that the people in Caroline’s life spend an awful lot of time talking about how feeble women and Caroline are.

The dialogue between the women is strong, I’ll give it that. I just read a delightful scene where Caroline is visiting Robert Moore’s sister who is being visited by Mrs. Yorke, the town matron. Mrs. Yorke sermonizes at Caroline about this, that and the other, being a general pain in the ass, and Caroline, soft-spoken, shy Caroline, totally gives it back to her. I’m enjoying the discussions on the place of women in society, seeing how far we have come and yet, how much is sadly similar.

But I’m still waiting for the magic. I’m still waiting to be swept up in dramatic Yorkshire.

I hope there’s a payoff waiting for me. Have you read Shirley? Is it coming?