Rebecca Mead explores how George Eliot’s masterwork has shaped her life

“My Life in Middlemarch” by Rebecca Mead (Crown, 304 pages, $25)

The secret to reading literature well is knowing when you are ready for a book and when a book is ready for you. This revelation may come only after years of experience in approaching the same book at different times of your life. What you respond to at age 17 will be different at 37 and even more so at 57.

Rebecca Mead has learned this lesson well, delving repeatedly into her favorite novel – and what some have hailed as the greatest English novel – “Middlemarch” by George Eliot, the pen name for Mary Ann Evans.

From “Middlemarch,” Mead says she has drawn inspiration for her own creativity as a writer for the New Yorker magazine, and gained insight into hard-earned truths about love and marriage.

She first read the 900-page Penguin Classics edition of the novel – subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life” – as a 17-year-old growing up in southwest England. In it, she discovered the overriding theme of “a young woman’s desire for a substantial, rewarding, meaningful life.”

It is a theme, she says, “with which Eliot had long been preoccupied. … And it’s a theme that has made many young women, myself included, feel that ‘Middlemarch’ is speaking directly to us.”

Now, in what she calls her middle life (roughly 45), Mead discovers more mature motifs in the novel, and offers a finer critical assessment of Eliot’s consummate work. The question “What, in the end, is a young woman to do with herself?” no longer rings as urgently as it did.

Mead’s more seasoned perspective – which involves literally following in many of Eliot’s footsteps (for instance, marrying in her 30s a man with three children) – only adds to the enrichment of her book, which flows as part biography, part criticism, part memoir and part travelogue.

“I have grown up with George Eliot,” she writes. “I think ‘Middlemarch’ has disciplined my character. I know it has become part of my own experience and my own endurance. ‘Middlemarch’ inspired me when I was young, and chafing to leave home; and now, in middle life, it suggests to me what else home might mean, beyond a place to grow up and grow out of.”

Although “My Life in Middlemarch” resonates as a passionate paean to Eliot and her masterwork, it also provides Mead a pathway to reminisce about the ways the novel has shaped her life. She clearly adores the author and her book, and has written a lucid, engaging love letter to her Muse:

“ ‘Middlemarch’ itself might be seen as capturing the poetry of girlhood, the poetry of love and marriage, the poetry of maternity, or motherhood, and the poetry of duty.”

As might be expected, Mead’s personal asides prove less compelling than her tale about the creation and reception of “Middlemarch” in late 19th-century England – but, fortunately, they can be easily overlooked.

For what many readers learn through repeated encounters with a classic work of fiction is that literature does not necessarily improve your life: Aesthetic enrichment means something quite different from spiritual advancement.

Still, the main strength of “My Life in Middlemarch” comes from Mead’s fascinating look at Eliot’s life and letters during the creation of “Middlemarch” in 1871-72, and into the years that followed, leading to her death in 1880.

Mead makes several pilgrimages to the Midlands of England to sleuth the trail of literary greatness, adding spice and memorable detail to her personal quest.

We learn, for example, that Eliot was beset by toothache, headache and a bewildering self-doubt, yet managed to lead a remarkably fulfilling life as the “wife” of George Henry Lewes – who remained estranged from his still legal wife and her children by another man. Under Lewes’ consistent encouragement and affirmation, Eliot devoted herself to writing monumental novels of psychological acumen and sweeping social commentary, exploring the moral aspirations of her fellow Victorians, and eliciting what she called “sympathy”:

“The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies.” Mead explains that this means “the experience of entering fully, through an exercise of imaginative power, into the experience of another.”

What Eliot tried to do in particular with “Middlemarch,” she said, was to “gladden and chasten human hearts.” Like Jane Austen before her, she viewed this mission primarily through the prism of marriage, the central element of her multilayered plot.

In it, Dorothea Brooke, the 19-year-old protagonist, makes a miserable union with Edward Casaubon, an older, self-absorbed pseudo-scholar wasting his energies on finding “The Key to All Mythologies.” He fails, of course, and dies unfulfilled, leaving Dorothea at a loss with what to do with the rest of her life.

Perhaps the most difficult part of “Middlemarch” to understand is why she would make such a terrible match to begin with. Besotted of Casaubon’s learning, she follows her head rather than her heart. Romanticism here lies usurped by intellectualism, and as was the custom of the day, Dorothea sought to better herself through her husband, to share in his academic achievements, even though they were as dry as “crunching bones in a cave.”

In the end, she finds true love with Will Ladislaw, the handsome, poetic nephew of Casaubon, whom he maliciously writes out of his will. But the journey to marital fulfillment turns out to be a soul-searching one for Dorothea, with self-knowledge as her enduring prize.

This, Mead takes to be a pre-eminent emphasis of great fiction: “Eliot was absolutely convinced of her duty to instruct and enlighten.”

You may not feel the need for didacticism in art quite so strongly, but Mead offers a learned introduction to the novel, and will spark admiration for Eliot, who defied social conventions while writing authoritatively on the gamut of human emotions.

Indeed, “My Life in Middlemarch” has the rare opportunity of sending readers to two very different sources to continue their discoveries: “Middlemarch” itself, naturally, and a fuller biography of Eliot’s arresting life.

Both avenues will show how the 19th century still speaks directly to us. Just as Dorothea Brooke did to Rebecca Mead so many years ago.