When Rebecca Mead first read Middlemarch, aged 17, she was dreaming of leaving her English seaside town for university and ‘identified completely’ with Dorothea, George Eliot’s 19-year-old heroine who ‘yearns for a more significant existence’. Now in her forties, living in New York and a staff writer for the New Yorker, Mead realises she is the same age as Casaubon, the desiccated pedant Dorothea marries. Like him she is sometimes ‘consumed by a sense of doors closing behind me, alternative lives unlived’ and to help herself out of this crisis, she resolves to examine her feelings about Middlemarch and its author.
The result is ambitious, elegant, intense and absorbing – even if Middlemarch is not your favourite book and even if, like me, you’ve always wished Dorothea could be less earnest, and Eliot could be less ironic about it, and Casaubon could meet a violent end. Mead doesn’t come down on