The Larger View

The Genius of Middlemarch

“Most serious readers,” Rebecca Mead writes, “can point to one book that has a place in their life like the one that Middlemarch has in mine.” George Eliot’s most loved novel is more than an old favorite for Mead; it is a moral and emotional touchstone that reveals new riches with each rereading and at every stage of her life.

I take Mead’s word for it that there are other books with the same powers of enchantment. That Middlemarch is specially captivating I can attest from personal experience. “The acuteness of its psychological penetration and the snap of its sentences” dazzled Mead, a staff writer for the New Yorker, when she read it for the first time as a teenager. I picked up Middlemarch at the same age and was likewise spellbound, beginning with its famous prologue about the young St. Teresa of Ávila and her search for “some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self.” Eliot’s broad perspective, her erudition and wit, her lifelike characters, and her serious attention to moral questions convinced me that her work was, as Mead says, “wise and essential and profound.”

That description unfortunately makes the novel sound like a tedious sermon, but My Life in Middlemarch captures the pleasure of Eliot’s fiction as well as...

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About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.