I had a deeply and perhaps irrationally ambivalent response to Debora Weisgall’s The World Before Her. I think that on its own terms, it’s quite a good novel. It’s atmospheric, interesting, and thought-provoking, especially about the pressure marriage puts on identity: like so many characters in Middlemarch, Weisgall’s protagonists are struggling in relationships with partners who don’t want them to be themselves — and of whom they too had what turns out to be imperfect knowledge and thus wrong expectations. How much do you owe such a partner? How far should you bend, contort, or submit in order to make the marriage a “success”? How do you balance duty to yourself against duty to others, or to promises, or to principles you revere in theory even as, in practice, they exact a price you can hardly bear to pay? These are central questions of Middlemarch.
The comparison to Middlemarch is not just apt but crucial, because one of Weisgall’s protagonists is George Eliot herself: the novel opens in Venice during her honeymoon with John Cross. I should really say that one of her characters is “Marian Evans,” or “Mrs. John Cross,” because Weisgall focuses on the inner life and personal feelings of the woman, not on the mind, ideas, or literary accomplishments of the writer. Not that this bifurcation is absolute, or even intelligible, of course: Marian Evans was George Eliot, and Weisgall actually does a good job weaving in references to her writing life as well as allusions to her novels. By setting the novel at the end of Eliot’s career, though, she has put that writing life in the background. The novel moves often, through flashbacks, out of 1880 into memories of Eliot’s earlier life, but these are primarily personal episodes, from her “Holy War” to her failed romance with Herbert Spencer and then her liaison with George Henry Lewes.
The World Before Her makes the relationship with Lewes the central feature of Eliot’s life, and this is where my ambivalence came in. Weisgall effectively summons up both the risks and the joys of their elopement: the fulfillment, both intellectual and sexual, that it brought Marian, the anxiety of their return to England, the struggle of their early isolation, the loving support that prompted and then protected her as she became a novelist. Against this is juxtaposed her marriage to Johnnie, who shows her reverential tenderness but suffers again and again by comparison to George’s bright, beloved presence. Marian’s mourning suffuses the novel as well as her second marriage, and Weisgall emphasizes the internal conflict for Marian as she struggles to reconcile her desires (again, both intellectual and sexual) with the reality of the man she’s now with. Johnnie, in his turn, is only too aware that in ways he can only partially comprehend, he is a disappointment to the woman he idealizes — and yet he can do no more than apologize for his failures. He isn’t interested in the fossils or the art, and he isn’t interested in her, either. On Weisgall’s telling, his jump into the canal is his attempt to free her: “Marian, I did this for you.” He married her to bring her comfort and peace, only to find her full of “dangerous energy”:
He had imagined her ardor would be spiritual, quiet, a concentrated stillness, but instead she had displayed a physical eagerness and appetite that troubled him and left him confused and even frightened. She was, as she said, indefatigable.
Weisgall gives us a Johnnie who is not (just) unresponsive to his wife’s ardor but more generally lacking in sexual drive. The physical incompatibility, however, is not played up pruriently but is part of a more complete mismatch between them: her “eagerness” is for art, knowledge, music, debate — for a life of the mind complemented by love of the body. She and George achieved this ideal, but with kind, pragmatic,conventional, boyish Johnnie she realizes she will have to dissemble in order to be the woman he thought he married. Though Weisgall does not overtly play this card, it’s tempting to see Marian’s death so soon after their return to the life and house Johnnie prepares for her (“she felt imposed upon; an edifice was being constructed around her”) as her own jump towards a desired liberation, but of course, as she says peevishly to Johnnie, “My life — any life — is not a plot.”
The telling of these stories is smart and often affecting; though (and does this really need saying?) Weisgall does not write with the historical or philosophical richness of her subject, there’s art in the construction and grace in the style of The World Before. The counterpoint of Eliot’s story with the contemporary one is also thought-provoking (though you’ll notice I’m not engaged enough in the other plot to discuss it in any detail). So what is there to be ambivalent about, I hear you asking?
Well, here it is, and I’m sure you’ll tell me if you think I’m being unreasonable: I didn’t like the Marian Evans I met here. The problem may be that I wanted George Eliot instead: this woman — grief-stricken, irascible, compromising — may be true to the letters and journals, true, as far as we can infer, to the biography — but she isn’t true to the novels. She has no wit, no spark. She reminded me of the Virginia Woolf of The Hours: so melancholic you wonder how such a woman could have written with such verve, such iridiscent irony. Presumably these qualities too are sacrificed to Weisgall’s decision to focus on this final stage of Eliot’s life: she was in mourning, she was aging and tiring, she was struggling with a new role — that of “married woman.” But there are other decisions here too, including the emphasis on personal feelings, on the motif that Marian is “not fitted to stand alone” (reinforced here by Marian’s own manifest emotional neediness), and on the artistically enabling power of love: “she had had great good luck in love. It had permitted her to look outward — and see her stories.”
Maybe what I’m reacting negatively to, in other words, is simply the difference between Marian Evans and the voice she created in her novels. As a matter of principle, of course, I always insist on the gap between author and speaker, but in her case the narrative persona has such presence and personality it confuses this theoretical rule. It has always been the novels that I love: though I have read a number of biographies, I have never been as interested in the minutiae of Eliot’s actual life as I have been in her writing; I have never been drawn to any kind of biographical project (an impediment as I try to imagine my own version of a “cross-over” book); it’s her intellectual fearlessness and, again, her novels that inspire me — I’ve never been “fannish” about her (though it was moving to stand outside her house on Cheyne Walk). Maybe what I don’t like is that this novel imagined a way into her head, while the head I’ve aspired to get inside has always been her narrator’s. I think, though, that I also don’t like the emphasis on her weakness rather than her strength, or on the costs of her ambitions rather than their triumphant realization. Though The World Before Her is nowhere near as belittling as Brenda Maddox’s horrifying biography, it isn’t as different as I would wish, especially in its preoccupation with Marian’s (lack of) beauty. That said, I appreciated Weisgall’s (fictional) encounters between Marian and Whistler, who is struck by her combination of ugliness and grace when he sees her from a distance in Venice. The sketch he makes of her becomes a symbol of her paradoxical character. Johnny finds it improperly “intimate,” and, finding it among Marian’s papers after her death, crumples it up and burns it. The unifying thread in the novel — not just in the Eliot parts but in the modern story too — is the difference between an artist’s eye and everyone else’s. I only wish Weisgall had written a novel that made the most of George Eliot as an artist, rather than showing her to us as a woman barely able to go on, and certainly unable to write — even if that is the truth of her final days.