The Road to Middlemarch

Written by Rebecca Mead
Review by Tracey Warr

George Eliot published her novel Middlemarch some forty years after the period of time it describes (1830-1832), so it might just have qualified as an historical novel then, and is certainly a novel set in the past for readers now. Rebecca Mead’s The Road to Middlemarch is an unusual blend of biography, literary criticism and personal memoir that succeeds in being a perceptive, riveting read on Eliot herself and on her great novel. Mead draws parallels between Eliot’s personal and fictional engagements with domestic commitment in Victorian London and Mead’s own “home epic” in 21st century Brooklyn. Where many literary biographies struggle to convey the process of being a writer, Mead, who writes for The New Yorker, is insightful on Eliot’s daily life as a novelist. She draws on letters, journals, notebooks and corrected manuscripts, but also visits the places where Eliot lived. She describes how a great book such as Middlemarch can live with a reader, modulating, throughout their life. Passionate readers will concur with Mead’s eloquent assertions that “books give us a way to shape ourselves”, and “reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself”.