Biography & Memoir The Road to Middlemarch | Book Review Roundup | The Omnivore

Published on March 19th, 2014


The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot by Rebecca Mead

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Blurb: Rebecca Mead was a young woman when she first read Middlemarch, and she has read it many times since, interpreting and discovering it anew. In The Road to Middlemarch she writes passionately about her relationship to this remarkable, much-loved Victorian novel, and shows how we can live richer and more fulfilling lives through our profound engagement with great literary works. Published when George Eliot was fifty-one, Middlemarch has at its centre one of literature’s most compelling and ill-fated marriages, and some of the most tenderly drawn characters. Its vast canvas incorporates the lives of ordinary people and their most intimate struggles. Virginia Woolf famously described it as ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’, and Mead explores how the ambitions, dreams and attachments of its characters teach us to value the limitations of our ordinary lives. Interweaving readings of Middlemarch with an investigation of George Eliot’s unconventional, inspiring life and Mead’s reflections on her own youth, relationships and marriage, this is a sensitive work of deep reading and biography, for every lover of literature who cares about why we read books and how they read us.

(Granta 2014)

Lucy Atkins, The Sunday Times 

“Anyone who has ever fallen in love with a novel will find this book engrossing. But if, like me, you happen to be Mead’s age, and were once a passionate English Lit student at Oxford who loved Middlemarch, then this is, quite simply, heaven in book form. A degree in English or even any knowledge of Eliot or Middlemarch is not, however, necessary.”

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Sarah Churchwell, The Guardian 

“Stylish… The book began as an essay for the New Yorker, where Mead is a staff writer, and that style inflects the finished version: it is elegant, thoughtful and readable, written with clarity and a gentle sympathy that seems a reflection of Eliot’s own generous wisdom, while veering away from some of Eliot’s more astringent asides.”

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Talitha Stevenson, Financial Times 

“Captivating and lucid… The project of The Road to Middlemarch is not scholarly, nor does Mead attempt any revelations. There are three writing modes at work in it – biographer, memoirist and critic – and each one is at the service of the other in flowing interconnection. Though Mead’s research trips are part of the unfolding story of the book, it is her own reflections that give Eliot’s concerns an enchanting warmth.”

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Samantha Ellis, Literary Review 

“The result is ambitious, elegant, intense and absorbing – even if Middlemarch is not your favourite book and even if, like me, you’ve always wished Dorothea could be less earnest, and Eliot could be less ironic about it, and Casaubon could meet a violent end.”

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Joyce Carol Oates, New York Times 

“Admirable and endearing as My Life in Middlemarch is, there are virtually no surprises here that have not been uncovered by Eliot biographers. As Eliot’s worldview seems, for many readers, to confirm some approximation of their own, so too does My Life in Middlemarch confirm the general, uncontested view of this great writer. There is something self-limiting if not solipsistic about focusing so narrowly on a single novel through the course of one’s life, as if there were not countless other, perhaps more unsettling, more original, more turbulent, more astonishing, more aesthetically exciting and more intellectually challenging novels…”

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Claudia FitzHerbert, The Spectator 

“Mead, for her part, is never less than companionable when she writes about Middlemarch and only sometimes maddening when she brings herself into the story, with first-person descriptions of visits to houses where Eliot lived. These read as taster glimpses of the modern footstepping biographer at work and throw little light on the novel or its creator.”

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Rachel Cooke, The Observer 

The Road to Middlemarch is an intensely sincere book. It wears its earnestness like Sunday best, only rarely cracking a smile, and thanks to this, it feels brutal to criticise it, particularly if you’re also, as I am, a lover of Middlemarch. But I’d be lying if I said it spoke to me. Who is it for? If a writer is going to rely wholly on the scholarship of others – Mead owes a great debt to Eliot’s biographer Rosemary Ashton, and to many others – then she must bring something else to the library: a new angle, an outrageous opinion or, ideally, a surplus of style. As I read, I longed for the loopy wit and dogged honesty of Geoff Dyer, whose book on DH Lawrence is such a peculiar marvel (and I loathe DH Lawrence). The element of memoir in The Road to Middlemarch is so coy as to be pointless; its travelogues are pedantic and obvious (it’s hardly surprising that Coventry has changed, or that the Strand in London, where Eliot lived as a young woman, is now awash with pizza chains). Above all, Mead’s reverence for her favourite writer is sometimes just too much. ”

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