I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher, Other Press.
The most upsetting aspect of this fictional biography of George Eliot was the message forced upon her by her family that she was not a beautiful person and never would be. From the time she was a five-year-old girl she was told that she was physically ugly and that no man would ever marry her. Her mother favors her other two children over her; her father dotes on her but it seems that he pays her extra attention out of a sense of pity for his ugly child. It was difficult and sad to read that from an early age the emphasis on her physical appearance greatly affected every aspect of her life. Her father provided her with the best education because no man would marry her and she would have to be able to support herself.
When the book opens, Marian Evans, which is the famous author’s real name, is on her honeymoon in Venice; she has just married a man twenty years her junior and it is evident that this is a platonic marriage which is void of any physical pleasures. Marian and her husband Johnnie seem uneasy for a variety of reasons and most of the book is a flashback to earlier times in her life. In her younger years, Marian has several affairs with married men which make her feel lonely and guilty. Her low self esteem, due to what she perceives is her “ugly” exterior, makes her vulnerable to these men when they show her any type of attention.
Marian is depicted as an intelligent, curious, and kind woman. She has learned several languages including German, Italian and Hebrew. Whenever she is at a party and around a group of people, the most famous minds among them are attracted to her because of her sharp mind and intellect. She first has an affair with a good family friend, Charles Bray, but he casts her off for a young maid. She is then seduced by the publisher John Chapman who owns the literary magazine she works for. But when his wife and his other mistress get jealous he ends the affair. After this string of empty affairs, Marian is dejected and feels that she is doomed to a life of loneliness without the love of a man.
Marian meets George Lewes through a mutual friend and their relationship is built on an appreciation for all things intellectual. They read the same books, share their writing pieces and go to the theater together. When they do become lovers George reassures her that, despite the fact that he is legally married, he has every intention of being with her for the rest of his life. They do stay together and live together as man and wife for over twenty years. Their deeply emotional and intimate relationship is the best aspect of the book; even though they never have any children together she treats George’s children as her own. It is George who encourages her to start publishing her writings and he gives her valuable feedback on her manuscripts.
When George dies Marian is absolutely lost. She begins to rely on Johnnie, a family friend, especially to sort out her finances. At this point in the book she is a very rich woman because of the success of her novels and Johnnie protects her assets and watches over her like a doting son. When Johnnie proposes marriage to Marian it is shocking because they have had no hint at any romantic feelings for one another. It is subtly suggested in the book that Johnnie is gay and he is marrying Marian to try to act like a normal, British man. He is emotionally struggling but we are never given the exact details of his inner turmoil. During their honeymoon Johnnie starts to mentally unravel and he attempts suicide by jumping into the canal.
The Honeymoon is an interesting look at the life of this prolific, female, British writer. I always knew that George Eliot lived with Lewes but were never legally married. The details in the book about their arrangement were enlightening. The book also provides an important message: beauty is much deeper than a person’s outward, physical appearance.
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