This was a serendipitous find on the shelves of the library, nestled quite close to the book of Zadie Smith essays that I was hunting. I normally don’t stray from my proscribed list, but I had extra time on my hands on Tuesday and knew I needed to stock up on books for the week. I’m very glad that my roving eye picked this up, as it counterbalanced all the terribleness in Smith’s essays by demonstrating exactly how to do literary criticism/history/personal story.
Mead does an excellent job weaving in quotes from Eliot’s letters, journals, interviews with her acquaintances, along with Mead’s own thoughtful analysis of Middlemarch. It has me anxious to re-read Eliot’s book, which has to be at least one of Mead’s intended reactions. It’s biography, criticism, history, and appreciation all rolled into one, with the perfect dose of Mead’s own tale interwoven. This is exactly how the book should have been done.
She travels to Coventry, Weymouth, London, and haunts Mary Ann Evans’ life, tracking down her manuscript and proofs, taking us on her journey into the NYPL rare books room where she sniffs discretely at Eliot’s notebook, detecting the smell of smoke from a fireplace, perhaps from the Priory (the house Eliot bought in 1863 in St. John’s Wood). She gives an unflinching report of the drastic changes wrought on the landscape since Eliot’s time. And she gives glimpses of her own life, her young son playing in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, so vastly removed from the Victorian age.
Excellent work, highly recommended for book nerds and lit geeks. For the research wonks, it’s a great example of a very elegant way of incorporating notes at the end, grouped by chapter without tedious numbering. As usual, I’m interested in pursuing more of Mead’s work. Also, on to another read of Middlemarch!
Future reading: Haight’s biography of Eliot and Ashton’s biography