George Eliot's Middlemarch. Writer Rebecca Mead has long felt a special connection to Eliot's masterpiece, first encountering the novel as a high schooler preparing for college entrance exams and eager to leave her "provincial" origins behind. Returning again and again at different points in her life since, Mead recognizes that same pull, that the book was telling her something about her life that enlightened or delighted. She first described her love for Middlemarch in a New Yorker article in 2011, and last year expanded her thesis and published My Life in Middlemarch.
Obviously, I picked up Mead immediately after completing Eliot and found it much more compelling than I would have if I'd just decided to read it after decades between the two. Having the novel fresh in my head made Mead's connections clear and the biographical and historical information fascinating. In each chapter -- which she titles with the eight "books" of Middlemarch -- Mead takes the topic of the title (i.e., Miss Brooke or Three Love Problems) and brings in Eliot's background, her personal story, or an historical context that is always fascinating. Mead read biographies, commentaries, and visited many of the places that Eliot did in her lifetime. Her prose is accessible, her connections believable and not contrived, and her scholarship impeccable.
As an example, Mead likens her own romantic journey to a happy marriage in her late 30s to that of Eliot and her lover/companion, the married George Lewes. And in another, I do love Eliot's "infantine Buddha" description and equally appreciated Mead's recognition of herself as a new mother as being more Celia-like than her idol Dorothea. These just touch the surface of Mead's accomplishment, though. More profoundly, Eliot's ultimate message, that "unhistoric" lives are important, is brilliantly realized in Mead's telling of her own "hidden life."
I wholeheartedly suggest this for anyone whose recollections (and appreciation) of Middlemarch are fresh. Perhaps it might work the other way around -- read Mead, then Eliot -- but I can't endorse this approach as enthusiastically.
Kate Reading is the narrator, and she does fine work. She reads the main narration (Mead's voice) in a straightforward, undramatic way, and then creates characters when she's quoting letters or essays, and reading from the novel. She has a pleasant, somewhat musical delivery and if I thought at the beginning that she was pronouncing the text a tad too carefully, this ceased to bother me as time went on.
In the department of only-interesting-to-serious-tapeworms (audiobook listeners), Reading opts for the pronunciation of Dorothea Brooke's first husband as KAHZ-uh-bon, while Juliet Stephenson goes with Ka-SAW-bon. Now I'll have to watch the old Masterpiece Theatre version to see what it says. How would you pronounce Casaubon?
[Mead's Penguin edition of Middlemarch is the same as the one I have from college. The cover features a painting, The Stile, by Thomas Creswick, which hangs in the Tate Britain. The book cover was retrieved from a blog post from Julia Ritson.]
My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
Narrated by Kate Reading
Blackstone Audio, 2014. 9:37