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Originally published Sunday, February 16, 2014 at 3:00 AM

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‘My Life in Middlemarch’: looking through a novel’s lens

Rebecca Mead’s “My Life in Middlemarch” is a reflection and personal memoir of how one book, George Eliot’s masterwork “Middlemarch,” has shaped the author’s life through the years.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘My Life in Middlemarch’

by Rebecca Mead

Crown, 304 pp., $25

Rebecca Mead’s literary memoir “My Life in Middlemarch,” examines the classic novel about a provincial English city in the early 1800s, as if gazing into a two-way mirror.

The book contemplates the life and art of George Eliot (the pen name of 19th-century author Mary Anne Evans), but also explores how Eliot’s masterwork “Middlemarch” reflects Mead’s own maturation over 30 years.

It helps of course, to have read “Middlemarch” before savoring Mead’s homage to Eliot’s magnum opus. But in any case, this book offers something graceful and illuminating: a consideration of the lasting impact a great work of fiction can have on a receptive reader.

Mead first read “Middlemarch” as a schoolgirl in rural southwest England, at a time when books “gave us a way to shape ourselves — to form our thoughts and to signal to each other who we were and who we wanted to be.”

With its epic yet intimate chronicle of intersecting ambitions, failures, triumphs and destinies of a diverse group of residents in a single community, the hefty and absorbing novel “opened up to me further every time I went back to it; and by my early forties it had come to have yet another resonance,” Mead notes.

“My Life in Middlemarch” charts Mead’s quest to draw closer to Eliot and her time. In British and American libraries and private collections, she tracked down Eliot’s letters, diaries, notes, the few contemporary portraits of her (she was considered quite plain), the original manuscript of “Middlemarch.” The latter was Eliot’s sixth full-length fiction (it came after “Silas Marner” and “Mill on the Floss”), and a century later Virginia Woolf touted it as “one of the few English novels for grown-up people.”

Mead also delves into how Eliot, as a “respectable,” mature woman of high repute, dared live with a married man — fellow writer George Henry Lewes. (Divorce at the time was rare, and difficult.)

Their “sinful” but happy union of two equals is of particular interest to Mead. Like Eliot, she too found her soul mate in her 30s and became a devoted stepmother to a brood of young boys.

Mead views Eliot’s lasting union with Lewes as a catalyst for creative achievement, and she insightfully traces marriage (fulfilling or damaging) as a major theme in “Middlemarch.”

She also is perceptive about how one’s reading of a beloved book shifts, at different stages of life. As a youth, she identified with the “Middlemarch” character Dorothea, an impassioned, naive upper-class girl of 19, who longs for “a substantial, rewarding, meaningful life,” but disastrously weds the frigidly pedantic middle-aged scholar, Casaubon.

Later Mead came to empathize more with the failed, unyielding Casaubon, and with Lydgate, a gifted but weak-willed Middlemarch physician, who allows his humanitarian ambitions to be thwarted by his shallow, materialistic wife.

“My Life in Middlemarch” (which began as a New Yorker essay) also deftly evokes the heady literary milieu of Eliot, who earned her living with a pen when few women could do so, alongside Charles Dickens and others. Mead writes admiringly, even affectionately of Eliot, her genius and intellectual zest, her compassion. But her portrait also includes the novelist’s sense of moral superiority and other shortcomings.

“My Life in Middlemarch” transcends standard biography or homage, however, by beautifully capturing the near-mystical bond that can develop, across centuries, between reader and writer.

Misha Berson is the theater critic for The Seattle Times.

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