- - Thursday, October 27, 2016



By Dinitia Smith

Other Press, $28.95, 415 pages

It is tempting to believe that historical novels, when they are good — and Dinitia Smith’s new novel, “The Honeymoon,” is very good — are entirely factual. They are not, of course, even when the facts are accurate, for who can know what historical characters believed, thought, or felt. “The Honeymoon” is centered on the extraordinary marriage of George Eliot at age 60 to John Walter Cross, 20 years her junior.

Miss Smith explains in an essay at the end of the novel that as she began writing about this marriage, she “was drawn deeper into [Eliot‘s] life, and … became fascinated by her evolution as a woman and as an intellectual … She was a woman of contradictions: a proper Victorian lady, shy and reserved, and yet … a passionate and sensual person.”

The novel begins with the couple’s honeymoon journey to Venice and their sojourn at the Hotel Europa. Interspersed with the account of the honeymoon, are chapters recounting the life of Mary Ann Evans (“Marian”).

Marian was born in Warwickshire in 1819, the third child of a land agent for the large Arbury Estate. She had a beautiful older sister and a “sturdy and strong, rosy-cheeked” brother. Marian knew she was plain “with dark sallow skin and the big Evans nose.” She did, however, have an attractive, slender figure and a brilliant mind.

Her father feared she would never marry and thus saw to it that she was educated. She become fluent in foreign languages and knowledgeable in mathematics, philosophy, physics and chemistry. She loved language: “Words playing off one another, defining or evasive, their meaning sometimes clear, sometimes to be felt rather than discerned only through intellect. Words alone were abstractions, but when they were joined and linked, they could thrill and take possession of the soul. Words were the weapons and playthings of the mind.”

Marian was prone to scandal, beginning with her rejection of Anglican religious teachings: “God existed, not in the myths of long ago, or in the doctrines of the church, but in everything around us. God was part of nature — He was nature.”

She had many lovers; the first being Charles Bray, a wealthy, free-thinking ribbon manufacturer, who with his wife, Cora, became lifelong friends. John Chapman, who owned the magazine Westminster Review, for which she wrote and became the secret editor, was another.

George Henry Lewes, writer, critic and philosopher, was Marian’s great love, and she his. “He was a little man with a big head, his wiry black hair stuck out all around a pockmarked face, and his bushy eyebrows nearly met across his forehead.” Lewes was married and unable to get a divorce. He and Marian lived together as husband and wife — another scandal — for a quarter of a century.

Lewes encouraged Marian to write. She decided to use a male pseudonym because “if the critics know it’s a woman it’ll never be taken seriously.” She chose “George” for Lewes, and “Eliot” because it’s “a nice, simple name, easy to say.”

Marian was in her late 30s when she first published “Stories from a Clerical Life.” The novel, “Adam Bede,” followed with instant success. In toto, she published seven novels, all with great success, thanks in part to their realism and psychological insight, bringing celebrity and wealth.

Lewes’ death in 1878 devastated her. She turned to John Walter Cross whom she had known and liked for many years. When Cross asked her to marry him, she first thought the idea absurd, but seduced by his “good looks, his dark red curly hair, his elegant beard, his tall, strong, athletic body, his good cheer, his youthful health and radiance,” she accepted.

It was a strange marriage and a troubled honeymoon. “It had taken place, her first legal marriage, and a church wedding at that. Still, when the first opportunity at a legal union presented itself to her, she’d seized it and reversed her principles … And now, at 60 years old, George Eliot was, at last, like other women.”

Cross had never been involved with a woman, and the marriage was never consummated. In a mad fit during the honeymoon, he tried to commit suicide by jumping into the Grand Canal. Yet he took loving care of Marian for the remaining eight months of their marriage until she died of a long-standing kidney ailment.

Miss Smith has imagined a rich background of conversations and emotions, from the acute loneliness and insecurity of Marian’s early life, her friendship with the free-thinking Brays, to her joy in learning, writing and editing, as well as her pleasure in sexual encounters. It was Marian’s brilliance which captured friends and leading intellectuals of the day. Her talent in growing “a story from seed, its gradual flowering into something larger, … the weaving and binding together of sentences, trusting the images that came to her, [a]nd then, that wonderful day, arriving at the point where the words became a melody, took on life, filled the page, became, finally, a symphony” made her immortal.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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