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4.6 out of 5 stars
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on 21 October 2014
This is a book that does three things: firstly, it takes you on a guided tour of places associated with George Eliot, and tells you all about her life, and her struggle to escape the limiting parameters she had grown up with. Secondly, it is a considered appreciation of the novel and guides you in your understanding of why this book is rated so highly. Thirdly, the narrative also acts as a kind of autobiography, telling you about the development of Rebecca Mead as a writer and as a woman.

So we have not one but two good writers to enjoy when we take up this book. Eliot is quoted liberally from her letters and novels, and Mead takes the role of a knowledgeable guide to her life and works who is also prepared to open up to the reader and share her personal experiences, some of which are similar to Eliot's.

I have to quote from the book to give you a feeling for how it works, and for me it works beautifully and is a delight to read, but I have had to cut it a lot:

"One morning in late spring I caught the train from London to Nuneaton. I'd only been to the Midlands once before, when I was eighteen, on a week-long school trip spent on a barge that wended its way through the area's network of canals.... The journey takes about an hour on the fast train, which further flattens the fields and pastures and turns the canals into leaden streaks alongside its tracks.
The Midlands are lacking in drama, topographically speaking, and George Eliot is the great advocate of the loveliness to be found in their modest plainness. In chapter 12 of Middlemarch, she paints a picture of the land in which she grew up that is as attentive to each facet and flaw of its subject as the portraits by Dutch masters she admired. "Little details gave each field a particular physiognomy, dear to the eyes that have looked on them from childhood," she writes. "The pool in the corner where the grasses were dank and the trees leaned whisperingly; the great oak shadowing a bare place in mid-pasture; the high bank where the ash-trees grew..."
"The countryside I saw through the train window wasn't at all like the coastal English landscape of my youth,... , but the note of nostalgia in Eliot's description resonated with me. It was more than twenty years since I'd lived in England, and returning always induced a melancholy in me... These days when I took the train from London to my hometown I was always struck by the understated beauty of the countryside. I'd failed to appreciate it when I was immersed in it...
"I first moved to New York to do a graduate degree in journalism, expecting to return to England after a year... Much of the time I felt like I was wasting time. But I also got a part-time job at a magazine where I did research for writers and answered the phones and even wrote a few short pieces, learning skills and gaining experience that only a real deadline and a real pay cheque could provide....
"My train arrived in Nuneaton, a market town ten miles north of Coventry. There's a bronze statue of George Eliot in the centre of town, where she sits on a low wall, awash in long skirts, thick hair resting on her shoulders, eyes cast down, a book at her side. Not far away, past slightly dilapidated chain stores, there's a pub named for her, the George Eliot hotel...
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Rebecca Mead first read George Eliot's 'Middlemarch' - the novel famously described by Virginia Woolf as one of the few English novels written for grown-up people - when she was seventeen years old, and having derived so much pleasure from the book has returned to it on many occasions during the past thirty years. At that first reading, the novel's heroine, nineteen-year-old Dorothea Brooke, spoke volumes to the then seventeen-year-old Mead, who tells us that 'Middlemarch's' theme of a young woman's desire for a rewarding, meaningful life resonated with her and made it seem as if George Eliot was speaking directly to her. On subsequent re-readings Mead has found herself re-evaluating and discovering something new with each of these re-readings. She writes: "Every time I go back to the novel, I feel that - while I might live a century without knowing as much as a handful of its pages suggest - I may hope to be enlarged by each revisiting."

For the purposes of this book, Mead, a British-born staff writer for the New Yorker, took time out to rediscover George Eliot, visiting the author's homes, reading and re-reading her novels and correspondence, and studying Eliot's handwritten journal - and, as she does so, Mead reflects on her own life and on how certain aspects of her life identify with George Eliot's life and the lives of some of her characters. Mead tells us that in writing this book, she hoped to discern the ways in which George Eliot's life shaped her fiction, and how fiction shaped George Eliot; Mead also wondered what would happen if she stopped to consider how 'Middlemarch' had shaped her understanding of her own life. Part memoir, part literary biography, part literary criticism, Rebecca Mead's 'The Road to Middlemarch' makes for interesting, enjoyable and thought-provoking reading and also serves as a reminder of the enduring power of literary fiction. Recommended.
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on 30 March 2014
I really enjoyed this book. The author has masterfully dealt with her own memoir as well as that of George Eliot and the characters in Middlemarch. One has to have read the Middlemarch to fully appreciate this book. Her insight into the characters is informed by extensive research. She has read biographies,letters and critics to name a few. I would recommend this book to any reader of Middlemarch seeking to understand George Eliot and her characters.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 27 December 2014
Rebecca Mead goes in search of George Eliot whom she has admired since she first read Middlemarch as a teenager. She visits all the places that have a connection with George Eliot, some of which survive some of which don't, she finds all the artefacts associated with her (manuscripts, notebooks, letters to and from) in museums that she can locate; and she ponders on Middlemarch and its critics (what does it mean to say it is for 'grown up' people, a phrase that is used normally by and for children?) and on its implications for her own life - which she also reflects on - and those of others (for example, what is it like for a young, or older, woman to be beautiful or not beautiful); and where Middlemarch doesn't help, George Eliot's own life (what is it like to inherit teenage stepchildren when you start a relationship in your mid-30s, as the author did and as did George Eliot).

The various themes blend together well - and I think for me there were some interesting take-aways, but mainly to do with the life of George Eliot (of which I think this book probably gives us the highlights) - rather than great additional wisdom (over and above what you'd pick up from reading Middlemarch itself) on how to live...
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I listened to the audio book version of George Eliot's Middlemarch last year and enjoyed it having never read or listened to any of the author's other work. As I enjoy books about books I thought this would be an interesting book to read before I tackled the book itself in print. I was not disappointed. This is part autobiography, describing how the author had been influenced by Middlemarch throughout her life and how her opinions of it have changed as she changed.

The book is also about George Eliot's life and about her other books as well as about Middlemarch. You could almost call it a Middlemarch miscellany. I found it interesting reading and I'm sure it will motivate me to read the book itself which is a little daunting in its size and density. The author shows that Eliot was far from humourless and there are many amusing descriptions and authorial interjections in Middlemarch which will at least make the reader smile.

I thought the biographical details of Eliot's life and her very unconventional relationship with George Lewis were as interesting as the insights into Middlemarch itself. There are notes on the text as the author quotes from and refers to many critics and biographers throughout the text. I think this is a book which is better read after you have some knowledge of Middlemarch itself rather than as an introduction to the book. For Eliot fans it is a must read book.
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on 6 January 2015
This is a tremendous book - the sort of book you wish you'd thought of writing! Mead read Middlemarch as a girl growing up in Dorset & closely identified with Dorothea's yearning for a larger life, a life where one could be of use & make a difference. Happily Mead has had the opportunities that a 19th century bookish girl would not have had. Educated at Oxford, now a staff member on the New Yorker, Mead assesses the way George Eliot's wisdom & humour & in particular Middlemarch has spoken to her all her life. The parallels between Mead's life & this book are remarkable - & funny at times. Rebecca Mead is a great friend to the George Eliot Fellowship and we really recommend this fresh & modern approach to a great author - but - you don't have to have read Middlemarch to read it!
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on 27 November 2014
Fascinating, illuminating; I taught 'Middlemarch' to adult students for years but this told me several things I didn't know. I was especially interested in George Eliot's relationship with her stepsons, who undoubtedly gave her some ideas for the character of Fred Vincy, a person so unlike herself. But I think that Will Ladislaw was suggested by Millais, a young and charming artist with a foreign surname who falls in love with his benefactor's wife. The parallels between 'Middlemarch' and the Ruskin/Effie/Millais story are extraordinary.
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on 13 March 2014
I couldn't agree more with The Sunday Times - this is a wonderful blend of memoir, literary biography and a lively re-reading of one of my favourite classics. A book that not only brings Middlemarch to life in a new way but shows how books can shape, mould and speak to our lives.
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on 21 May 2014
Thoughtful, interesting and well paced. The personal journey through George Elliot's history and the descriptions of her other writing and relationships is easy to absorb - I ended up feeling as though I had learned quite a lot through osmosis rather than study. I enjoyed the author's writing style and did search out some of her articles as a result of reading this book.
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on 28 June 2015
Wonderful book. Rebecca mead has cleverly woven periods of her own life into a very well researched and very well written book about George Eliot and what was happening in her life during the time that she was writing Middlemarch. I Urge anyone interested in George Eliot to read this book.j
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