Deep Reader

Joyce Carol Oates in The New York Times:

BookRarely attempted, and still more rarely successful, is the bibliomemoir — a subspecies of literature combining criticism and biography with the intimate, confessional tone of autobiography. The most engaging bibliomemoirs establish the writer’s voice in counterpoint to the subject, with something more than adulation or explication at stake.

…By contrast, Rebecca Mead’s “My Life in Middlemarch” is a beguilingly straightforward, resolutely orthodox and unshowy account of the writer’s lifelong admiration for George Eliot and for “Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life” in particular — the Victorian novel, first published in the early 1870s, that was described by Virginia Woolf as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” There is no irony or postmodernist posturing in Mead’s forthright, unequivocal and unwavering endorsement of George Eliot as both a great novelist and a role model for bright, ambitious, provincially born girls like herself, eager to escape their intellectually impoverished hometowns — “Oxford was my immediate goal, but anywhere would do.” At the age of 17, when Mead first reads “Middlemarch,” her identification with Eliot’s 19-year-old heroine, Dorothea Brooke, is immediate and unqualified, and it will last for decades. The book’s theme, “a young woman’s desire for a substantial, rewarding, meaningful life,” was “certainly one with which Eliot had been long preoccupied. . . . And it’s a theme that has made many young women, myself included, feel that ‘Middlemarch’ is speaking directly to us. How on earth might one contain one’s intolerable, overpowering, private yearnings? Where is a woman to put her energies? How is she to express her longings? What can she do to exercise her potential and affect the lives of others? What, in the end, is a young woman to do with herself?”

More here.