author of The Honeymoon
Other Press: The Honeymoon is a fictionalized biography of George Eliot. What role has George Eliot played in your life? Why did you choose to write a novel about her life instead of a biography?
Dinitia Smith: George Eliot is a female novelist who went before me, who became the most famous writer of her time. I looked to her to understand my own life, her effort to succeed in a man’s world. In the novel I describe how she was snatched out of school to care for her ailing mother and at a time when a high-level education was not easily available to women, and taught herself Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, French and Italian! Then she became the editor of the prominent literary journal The Westminster Review, but it couldn’t be known that she was a woman. Investors—and male readers—wouldn’t have stood for it. Despite all this, she triumphed, and, despite her fame and fortune, she was kind and generous to a fault. I looked to her too, to understand what it means to cope with aging, and to lose one’s beloved life-partner, and finally, to find redemption.
Why did I write a novel rather than a biography? Because, despite the many letters and archives Eliot left behind, she was a woman of her time, and consequently, she rarely confided her intimate feelings on paper, for instance about what must have been her anger at the obstacles she faced as a woman in the male world of 19th-century England. We know little about her feelings for the men in her life, men who were crucial for her development as a woman and as an intellectual. She fell in love with George Henry Lewes, a married man, and we know almost nothing about her inner struggles as she took the momentous decision to live with him out of wedlock, or what she went through when her young husband, Johnnie Cross, tried to commit suicide on their honeymoon. I wanted to understand her, so, without violating the known truth, I went back to her writings, including her poetry, searching for clues to what she was thinking, and I tried to imagine her inner life in a literary way.
OP: Your understanding of George Eliot’s life and environment is remarkable, and so clearly rendered. You make her human. What kind of research into her life and work did you do before you started writing your novel?
DS: I did an extraordinary amount of research—and it was great fun. I read her letters, the great biographies of her, her journals and essays—and of course, the novels. But I also searched the archives for her personal reminiscences. I studied the floor plans of her houses, read travel diaries, studied 19th-century railway timetables, old photographs, the flora and fauna that she would have encountered on her estate, and European resort life in the 19th century. I was fortunate to find in the Princeton University Library archives notes she made for a new novel she was probably working on at the time that she died.
OP: George Eliot is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in the English language. In the course of writing your novel, did you learn anything from her about the craft of writing, and about being a woman author? Were you nervous about writing a novel about such a well-known and beloved author?
DS: Of course I was nervous! But she inspired me. She had no self-confidence, and yet found within herself a kind of stubborn strength in the face of defeat. I think readers will be surprised to find how hard it was for her to write. As for her writing style, which was exquisite, I didn’t want to imitate it, so I tried to write in what I hope is a clean, clear style that is respectful of her own.
OP: One of the most surprising things in your novel is the depiction of George Eliot and her relationship to other women and the burgeoning feminist movement in 1800s England. Could you tell us a little more about Eliot’s thoughts on women and their place in society?
DS: Her relationship to the feminist movement is just fascinating. Her best friend was the charismatic 19th-century feminist Barbara Bodichon. Eliot supported Bodichon to some extent. She gave money towards the founding of Girton College, Cambridge, the UK’s first residential college for women offering an education at the degree level. She signed the petition to Parliament asking for married women’s property rights. But she held back. She was innately conservative, partly, perhaps, due to her upbringing and the influence of her father, who was conservative. She’d seen the violence surrounding the Reform Act of 1832, which granted a broader franchise to workingmen. At the same time, she was afraid that education for women would devalue their roles as nurturers of children and keepers of the house. This may have stemmed from her relationship with her own mother, who was sickly and irritable, and who seemed to have little time for George Eliot as a little girl. Eliot spent her life looking for love, and that quest may be partly an effort to fulfill the void she felt in relation to her own mother’s affection. Don’t forget too that she was living in a scandalous relationship with George Henry Lewes, who couldn’t get a divorce from his wife, and I think she was afraid of public scrutiny and calling attention to it.
OP: George and Johnnie both occupy such large places in Marian’s (George Eliot’s) life. What kind of influence, if any, did they each have on her work?
DS: George Lewes was the single most important influence on her writing. I believe that without him, she would never have become the writer she did. He held her hand, he nurtured her, urged her on through the most agonizing self-doubt. He read her work and made suggestions. He praised her prose style, and sometimes urged her to make her writing more dramatic. At times, Eliot, a fanatical researcher, became bogged down in it, and George warned her that a novel was not an encyclopedia!
I doubt that Johnnie Cross had much influence on Eliot’s writing. By the time they were married, she had published her last book, Impressions of Theophrastus Such. More importantly, Johnnie certainly lacked George Lewes’s extraordinary intellect.
OP: The Honeymoon is your fourth novel. Have you picked up any writing quirks to help you in your work, like a routine or a special writing place?
DS: I do have a schedule, which I’ve had in place for some time. When I was working at the New York Times, I would get up very early, at 5:30 a.m., or 6 a.m., and write for about two hours, then go to the paper, which at that time was not on the same 24-hour news cycle as it is now, and the workday tended to begin late, at 10 a.m. Needless to say, this was difficult. After I left the paper, I developed a routine of writing in the morning in my study, and trying to do some exercise and attend to household chores in the afternoons. I do need quiet and seclusion to write. At the beginning of a novel, I find it hard to write for more than two or three hours at a time. As the novel gets going, I find I can work for a longer time.
OP: Anyone who reads The Honeymoon will be itching to start in on (or revisit) George Eliot’s oeuvre once they’re done. Do you have any suggestions about which of her works they should begin with?
DS: Middlemarch, of course, is one of the greatest novels in the English language. I find it the most “modern” of Eliot’s novels, so relevant in Dorothea’s effort to find herself as a woman, to lead a useful and moral life. But, for a long time, I preferred Daniel Deronda to Middlemarch, perhaps because of the depth of Eliot’s learning about Judaism, and the fascinating unrequited love of Gwendolen Harleth for Daniel. Now Middlemarch is back on top! Eliot is brilliant, I think, at portraying bad marriages, and cold men. In Middlemarch, there is Casaubon, the prototype of a cold, self-absorbed intellectual who is unable to complete his “great work.” In Deronda, there is the horrible, cold and immoral Henleigh Grandcourt, whom Gwendolen marries in an effort to support her impoverished family. Daniel cannot return Gwendolen’s love because he’s fallen in love with the sweet and beautiful Jewish girl, Mirah, and has discovered he’s Jewish too.