Rebecca Mead plonks herself down in a comfortable seat and places her things on the table in front of her. Among them is a paperback copy of George Eliot's Middlemarch, festooned with the fluttery tops of yellow and orange Post-it notes that mark certain passages of the 900-page classic English novel. Immediately, she flips through it, her hands stopping at certain points, flattening out the pages as she leans in to read. In a detailed discussion of characters, plot and theme, she explains the significance of each passage she selects and why she loves it so. In the dim light of a quiet hotel space in downtown Toronto, where she travelled on a recent book tour, it is like being with a priest bent over a Bible.
"This is not my original copy," explains The New Yorker staff writer and author of the new biblio-memoir My Life in Middlemarch. "But it's the one I use when I'm reading it again." She hugs it against her chest and then holds it at arm's length, looking at its dog-eared, tattered cover. "I think I actually ate that corner there, I love it so much," she says with a laugh. Mead has a pious quality to her, a seriousness in manner and meekness in appearance, dressed as she is in plain, unremarkable clothes, her brown hair clipped back off her face.
The 47-year-old writer grew up in Weymouth, a small coastal town in England. She was bookish and frustrated by the smallness of the community. At 17, she was given her first copy of Middlemarch and remembers reading it on her narrow childhood bed, propped up on pillows, world-weary as only adolescents can be, hoping for her life to begin. She admired Mary Ann Evans, the great Victorian novelist who took the pen name George Eliot. She, too, was from a small, provincial town. Even now, Mead says, "she intimidates me. I would be dumbstruck if I ever met her. She was such a powerful intellect." And she identified with Miss Dorothea Brooke, the unconventional heroine of Middlemarch who longed for a more fulfilling existence.
"I still have my original copy of Middlemarch," Mead says. "It's all in pieces and missing certain parts. But you keep it the way you keep a beloved stuffed animal that has lost its eyes and things."
Several times in her life, she returned to it – as a student and then again after moving to New York to become a journalist (her first book, One Perfect Day, was a comic exposé of the wedding industry), through romances good and bad, and, in her late-30s, into marriage and family. As Mead writes, "The book was reading me, as I was reading it."
Eliot's novel, which tells intersecting and parallel stories about residents in an English town, starts in an unconventional way. Unlike the novels of Jane Austen, who died two years before Eliot was born, Middlemarch doesn't end with a marriage but rather begins with one – a spectacularly unwise one – and goes on to examine themes about the satisfaction of personal ambition versus duty to others, the quality of a good marriage or a bad one, the importance of compassion and morality, and perhaps more than anything, the ordinary yet profound truths in what she called the "home epic."
There were observations about relationships that resonated with Mead, such as when Dorothea realizes that her middle-aged husband is not as smart as she had once thought: "Now when she looked steadily at her husband's failure, still more at his possible consciousness of failure, she seemed to be looking along the one track where duty became tenderness." Mead reads this line from Middlemarch in a soft voice, a note of reverence in it for the quality of the writing; the subtle understanding of a character's inner shifts.
"I think of Jane Austen as a gateway drug to George Eliot," Mead says, laughing lightly. "She is more accessible, and you can watch the movie instead of reading the book." Eliot is more nuanced. A movie adaptation of Middlemarch has never been made, although Hollywood director Sam Mendes was once contemplating it, Mead says. "This is a book not to tell you how to live your life but help you understand how you have lived your life. And maybe that's the most that any of us can hope for – to have some kind of retrospective comprehension and maybe even compassion toward our own younger selves, and our own mistakes, and the people around us."
The biblio-memoir idea started as a literary investigation into a quote often attributed to Eliot: "It's never too late to be what you might have been." The quote didn't ring true to Mead as something Eliot would have said. "And Middlemarch is all about how it does become too late to do all sorts of things," she says ruefully. In her literary sleuthing, she never found the quote in Eliot's writing. "The trail went dead," she says. But an idea was born: "I thought it would be interesting to look at something I appreciated and to understand … why it still spoke to me."
My Life in Middlemarch deftly weaves together an exploration of Eliot's life (she was a fascinating, highly regarded journalist, novelist and poet who defied conventions in many ways, including living with her married lover) and Mead's own story as well as a recounting of the novel's plot, characters and themes. Mead's aim was "not just a book about George Eliot and not just a book about me, but a book about the experience of reading."
During the writing period, she shut off the Internet and closed her study door for five hours a day. In five months, the first draft of the book was complete. "It was a weirdly intense and amazing experience," she says.
Through her examination of the hold Middlemarch has over her, Mead – who has three children, including two step-children – reconciled her own feelings about ambition and the idea that it can, indeed, be too late to be the person you thought you might be. When she started the research, she was in her early 40s, in that uncomfortable place of new middle-age, realizing that doors of opportunity were closing.
But now, she is more hopeful about the happiness and satisfaction that lie ahead. Middlemarch attaches more beauty and romance to the accomplishment of enduring love rather than to the follies of young love, even though that's what preoccupies many. "Whether we are married or have kids or not, most of what we do is humble and small, and yet it has a kind of incredible grandeur," Mead says, offering a quote that Eliot herself might have spoken.