Conjuring the Inner Voice: Dinitia Smith on Her Literary Heroine, George Eliot
One of the greatest challenges of fiction is to dare to step inside a great figure of the past, to relive their experiences, but also to fill in the gaps, to recreate their inner voice. Dinitia Smith sets out to do just this, and succeeds brilliantly, in her latest novel, The Honeymoon (Other, 2016). Her subject is Marian Evans, better known as George Eliot.
In the summer of 1860 George Eliot married a man twenty years her junior, exposing herself to social ridicule and personal anguish. Smith recounts the terrible events of the ‘honeymoon’ in Venice when Eliot discovered the secret weakness of the man who was now her husband. I began by asking Smith how the book had developed.
“As a novelist, I looked to George Eliot as a role model, for the journey she took to become a writer, and for the obstacles she overcame. And I looked too, at her moral life – she was a deeply moral person, unfailingly kind and generous, even as she became enormously wealthy and well-known.
“The seed for the book had been growing for several years. I’d been thinking particularly about her late-life marriage to John Cross, his attempted suicide in Venice, her apparent forgiveness of him, and then, her death only two short months after the couple returned to England. So little was known about the marriage. It took up so little space in her biographies. Why did she marry him, and he her? Was the whole thing a tragedy, I wondered? I wanted to believe that it wasn’t, that the marriage brought something to her, despite the upheaval of Cross’ illness.
“And so I began a journey of discovery, trying to understand their relationship. But as I went along, I realized I had to go back into her life, as a country girl from Warwickshire, self-educated, who managed to become the editor of a prominent magazine, The Westminster Review, all the while longing to be a novelist. And then, into her life came George Henry Lewes who loved her and encouraged her. But when he died, her life seemed to be over.”
Marian’s extraordinary zest for learning was driven by the realisation that she was plain and unlikely to marry. Her relations with men are sensitively explored, but one is still struck by the precariousness of her early life. Eliot’s letters “were most revealing in telling me about her daily life, and in some cases her opinions about art and politics. As I say in my ‘Note to the Reader’, she was extremely proper and discreet, so they were not very revealing about her private passions. For those I looked at her own writing for clues, her poetry, for instance, or the accounts of her close friends such as Edith Simcox.” Smith also draws on the diaries kept by her publisher John Chapman, who became her lover and invited her to take lodgings in his London home.
Using titles inspired by Dante’s writing (such as ‘La Vita Nuova’, ‘In a Dark Wood’), Smith highlights how Dante and Italy feature prominently in much of Eliot’s writing, not least in Romola. “But to me,” writes Smith, “Dante’s importance lay in the development of her relationship with Johnnie Cross.” By reading together, as Cross later wrote, “The divine poet took us into a new world. It was a renovation of life.”
Eliot’s need for love was a key part of her character and she was painfully deluded, not least by her brother, to whom she was so attached in childhood. By exploring her love for George Lewes, her partner of twenty-six years, and her late attachment to Johnnie Cross, Smith has found the voice of this remarkable woman. “I am absolutely confident,” Smith writes, “that Eliot would not have become a novelist without the constant support and love of George Henry Lewes. One would like to believe Eliot could have done this without a man at her side, but undoubtedly the world owes George Henry Lewes a debt, too, as well as, of course, to George Eliot herself.”
About the contributor: Lucinda Byatt translates from Italian and teaches Italian Renaissance history. She also coordinates the features for Historical Novels Review and occasionally blogs at http://textline.wordpress.com
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 76, May 2016