In her new novel, “The Honeymoon,” Dinitia Smith has taken on the most enigmatic portion of the life of Marian Evans, the woman behind the pseudonym George Eliot. After a long and happy relationship with George Lewes — never legalized because he was unable to divorce his first wife — Evans married John Cross, a man 20 years her junior. Cross had been the couple’s financial adviser and one of their closest friends; they had called him “nephew.” Then, on their honeymoon, Cross threw himself from the window of their Venice hotel into the Grand Canal. He was rescued and he recovered, but the real story of their marriage and honeymoon may never be known — which provides ideal material for the novelist.
Biographers have tended to treat Eliot’s marriage to Cross, which lasted for only seven months before she died on December 22, 1880, as a strange footnote to her life, an odd capitulation to convention after braving public censure for her 24-year liaison with Lewes. Although she had insisted on calling herself Mrs. Lewes, thumbing her nose at those who would say a piece of paper was all-important, she had to legally add Lewes to her own name in order to access their money after his death. Cross helped her with all of that and apparently fell in love and proposed. Most assume their marriage was never consummated, presumably because of the age difference.
Smith handles this deftly, showing Eliot’s conflicted eagerness for and fear of sexual contact with the handsome young man — fear because of how he might respond to her aging body. And Smith conjectures that Cross, like his friend Henry James, was not sexually attracted to women.
Others have cruelly imagined that it was Eliot’s sexual demands or a glimpse of her naked body that sent Cross into the Grand Canal. But there is nothing cruel about Smith’s portrait of Eliot, Cross, Lewes or any of the many characters who flit in and out of her long life. Smith treats them with empathy and realism, embedding into her narrative the myriad insights of the historical record, which she has carefully studied.
Although she hews closely to the details of Eliot’s life before Cross, in one respect at least she takes an imaginative leap. Many have speculated about Eliot’s sex life before Lewes, assuming she probably was not a virgin. Smith provides not one but three lovers for Eliot, which by itself is not incredulous. Smith’s portrayal of these encounters, however, leaves one in doubt of Eliot’s remarkable intelligence.
Smith is less concerned with Eliot’s prodigious intellect and spiritual searching and more interested in her relationships with men, which is understandable. Philosophy and theory, after all, hardly lend themselves to novelization. Much more suitable is what Smith describes as Eliot’s “pent-up yearning.” Eliot had a well-known need to love and be loved. The writer Constance Fenimore Woolson summed it up well: “She could not live without the adoration she craved [and which] she always had,” first from Lewes and then from Cross. Smith spends considerable space documenting Eliot’s early years, however, when she painfully lacked it.
In fact, Smith imagines that Eliot’s desperate craving led her into a series of rather humiliating relationships, in which men who admire her unusual intellect approach her sexually, with their wives lurking in the background. These abrupt scenes — talking one moment, having intercourse the next — leave the impression that Eliot had little control and no concern about getting pregnant. As an explanation for these remarkable encounters, the narrator tells us that Eliot’s desires simply overcame her and she submitted. Eliot comes off less as a desiring subject, however, and more as an object of inappropriate advances, to which she acquiesces with seemingly little will of her own. Unfortunately, Smith uses her license as a novelist to invent these scenes without utilizing her tremendous skills to invest them with the air of reality.
Smith’s portrait of Eliot’s honeymoon with Cross, on the other hand, plausibly brings to life a puzzling period of her life. With the historical record lacking or shrouded, it is the perfect example of when fictional storytelling about an eminent person is warranted. These scenes, as well as those leading up to Eliot’s marriage to Cross, are vivid and luminous. Yet when Smith tries to fill in the long life that preceded Eliot’s final months, the prose sags and reminds one too much of stale biographical exposition. Here Smith covers too much detail too quickly, making us feel as if we’re speeding past on a train. Fewer, more vivid flashbacks would have made for a more satisfying journey. When Smith slows down and lingers over the details of the scene at hand, the prose sings, and we are once again convinced that the strange story of Eliot and Cross could only be shaped by Smith’s deft hand.
Anne Boyd Rioux is a professor at the University of New Orleans and the author of “Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist.”
By Dinitia Smith
Other. 415 pp. $26.95