In My Life in Middlemarch—a hybrid work of literary criticism, biography, and memoir—New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead returns to being a reader.
An obvious first question: must one have read Middlemarch to appreciate this book?
It’s a book that people who haven’t read Middlemarch will be able to recognize themselves in. Most people who are readers have a book that resonates with them throughout their lives. It doesn’t have to be Middlemarch… although I’m always thrilled when people get turned on to it.
This book began as an essay in the New Yorker, very different from your usual journalism.
I had written about the wedding industry, and I decided that if I was going to give years of my life to another book I wanted to write about something that I really loved. As a teenager, I was very taken with Middlemarch and inspired by [George] Eliot’s life. I spent a couple of years reading [Eliot] biographies and letters, but not figuring out what I wanted to write. Finally I realized that I had to approach this like a New Yorker story, so I got myself off to the George Eliot Fellowship in the Midlands of England without an assignment. When I came back, David Remnick said you have to write it and make it a personal piece. So the New Yorker essay was a way of finding out what the book was going to be.
How complicated was the switch to writing so personally?
I didn’t know how to go about it without arming myself with the tools of a journalist. And it is arming. But it was an incredibly interesting experience to double back and begin with my childhood, not George Eliot’s. There’s a voice in the back of your head saying nobody cares, it’s embarrassing, all those cautious thoughts, amplified all the more because I am English. [After] the New Yorker piece, I heard from so many people, saying: [the essay] reminded me of how I felt about this book, or how I felt about another book, or how I feel about approaching middle age. It was very powerful to find that I could speak to people in this way and that it would mean something to them.
Can we expect more personal writing from you in the future?
There was something wonderful and liberating about sitting at my desk every day. I’m telling a true story about a true life and telling a true story of my own life. The way they interconnect and then they connect with the novel called upon a kind of imaginative creativity that I have never used in my writing before and I loved it. My father died while I was writing this book. It wasn’t an easy time, but it was the most joyous experience of my life—other than having children—so I very much hope that I will have that experience again.