Sometimes I wonder if I have unreasonably high standards for books. Or maybe I am simply too ignorant of what “good” is. It seems like too many books fail to please me. Am I not discerning enough? Am I overly critical?
The World Before Her by Deborah Weisgall is one of those books that makes me doubt my competence as a reader. It tells the story of George Eliot (nee Mary Ann or Marian Evans), author of classics such as Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, and Middlemarch, after her marriage to the younger John Cross much later in life. Weisgall alternates the chapters on Eliot with chapters set 100 years later on Caroline Spingold, a young sculptor married to an older, wealthy man and appears to have an enviable life. Both narratives begin in Venice…Eliot and Cross have journeyed there for their honeymoon, and it is there that Eliot discovers the emotional, physical and intellectual limits of her marriage. Spingold and her husband have journeyed there for her husband’s business, but Spingold is left to tour Venice on her own. Her husband has no time for art or beauty and rues the fact that she seems to have become a real person. Both Eliot and Spingold have spent time in Venice previously and cannot help but compare their earlier experience with the current one. The book continues to progress their lives: Eliot and Cross journey back to England and settle into their new home; Spingold returns to New York, argues with her husband, prepares for her next show and ultimately changes her life. Eliot’s ending is sad; Spingold’s is happy.
Ultimately, I preferred the Eliot narrative. And it was horrifically sad. Why did she marry John Cross after her lover of many decades died? How could she have not realized in time that he did not see her clearly and preferred to see her as the moral George Eliot, not the flesh-and-blood, doubting, brilliant Evans? Of course, I’m looking at it through 2008 eyes. But even though Eliot longed for the normal marriage she had been denied and craved a normal life free from scandal, it seemed as though she had enough money and clout to do what she wished. But Mary Ann Evans wanted respectability. What an interesting set of contradictions she was! It was interesting how such an intellect and talent as Eliot/Evans faced crippling self-doubt. How she considered herself and was considered by others to be fairly unattractive (not simply homely but ugly) but how the regard for her face and figure changed as her intellect was acknowledged and revered. I wonder if such a change could happen these days. Has the regard for and weight given to physical appearance taken over completely or is there still enough regard for intellect that it could even overcome a less-than-pleasing countenance? I would love for my brain to make me beautiful to society’s eyes. Instead, I’ve often felt my brain warring with my physical appearance: I’m not beautiful or even pretty and somehow, my brain seems to reinforce that instead of compensate for it. But back to Eliot/Evans. ANd how interesting that despite her conventional upbringing and longing for respectability that she should be willing to throw it all away to follow her heart and live unmarried with George Lewes? And I’m glad she did. I’m glad that she had decades of happiness with him instead of trying to take cold comfort in doing the right thing and denying herself him. Good for you, Evans!
I had far less sympathy for Caroline Spingold. The parralels with Eliot/Evans’ life are many: dead true love, artist, insufficient, disappointing marriage to a man who wishes you were something else, something more malleable and controllable. It’s clear that Weisgall wants to examine the decisions the modern, emancipated woman would make when in a similar situation to Eliot’s. Caroline’s story was set in 1980, and I just felt she was foolish. She was fortunate enough to be able to do something about her situation: divorce Malcolm, her husband. Instead, she stayed married to him for 10 years, and waffled over what she should do. Yes, he did support her art–unlike Eliot, she wasn’t as great a success–but she likely could have worked around that. Or maybe she couldn’t, but her situation didn’t stir any great sympathy for her. Her story ends happily: she has renounced Malcolm and married a much more suitable man, but I didn’t like how Weisgall settled it. There was no great confrontation between her and Malcolm, no great epiphany. Just a chapter set years later alerting the reader to the fact that she has changed her life.
Maybe my lack of regard for Caroline’s character is due to the fact that everything came fairly easily to her, and she never had to work hard for anything. She is very attractive. She stumbles into a wealthy marriage. She spent a summer in Venice with her artistic parents when she was 11. Nice! I wish Weisgall had given her a bit more depth or had focused all of the book on Eliot. I don’t think that Caroline is a worthy comparison to Eliot/Evans.
And what’s up with all the appearances of Venice lately? Three of my coworkers have gone or are going to Venice this year. Venice is a major part of Eat, Pray, Love. All of a sudden, I feel that I need to hop a plane!