Smith Explores the Life of George Eliot in Honeymoon

An exclusive Authorlink interview

By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris

October 2016


The Honeymoon
by Dinitia Smith

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What makes a writer effective? What equips them to address the important issues of their day? What makes their work of lasting value?

These are questions writer Dinitia Smith has dealt with in her reporting and her fiction. Smith spent eleven years as a cultural correspondent at the New York Times covering literature and the arts, which left her with “a profound need to tell stories.” She channeled her interest in all things literary into her fourth novel, The Honeymoon, a fictional account of the life of writer George Eliot.

“George Eliot is a literary heroine of mine.”

“George Eliot is a literary heroine of mine. I read a number of biographies that offer accounts of her strange late in life marriage to a much younger man. I wanted to know what she was thinking when she married him, what he wanted and what was really happening,” said Smith.

Her novel, The Honeymoon, unravels some of these mysteries as the story shows Eliot’s development from “an uneducated country girl to a well-educated intellectual”, her romantic attachments and the pain she suffered upon the loss of the love of her life, George Henry Lewes.  

Despite the temptation to write the story in prose that would mirror Eliot’s own Victorian style, Smith uses direct, contemporary prose to explore the happenings and social mores of a time long gone.

Her attraction to Eliot was a natural one. “I grew up in England and came to America when I was thirteen. I was an awkward girl with an intellectual bent. I couldn’t help but identify with Eliot,” said Smith.

The story begins with Eliot on a honeymoon in Venice with her new husband John Walter Cross, who is twenty years her junior, when Cross begins to behave erratically, drinking, disappearing, and avoiding physical contact with his wife. Eliot is left to unravel the mystery of his behavior and contemplate how to live what would turn out to be the final years of her life.

“My challenge was to give shape to a life and keep the reader wanting more.”

“My challenge was to give shape to a life and keep the reader wanting more. I use Eliot’s growing awareness that something is wrong on her honeymoon as a matrix to go back to her childhood and explore her need for love and approval from men,” said Smith.

The book is told in five parts, some of which reflect elements of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a book that Eliot and Cross read together.

Smith’s great challenge was maintaining an allegiance to “the truth” while having limited knowledge of what was going through Eliot’s mind. Her exhaustive research included travel to Italy and Coventry, reading biographies, and examining artifacts including 19th century train schedules, carriages, floor plans of houses, and details of Victorian dress.

Her husband, historian David Nasaw, helped Smith access digital archives. These archives included transcriptions of notes written by Eliot’s hand.

“What I found was just amazing.”

“What I found was just amazing,” said Smith.  

While the research was fun, finding the right structure for the book was more of a challenge. She said the novel found its form when she combined details from Eliot’s past with the dramatic tension of her experience with Cross. Judith Gurewich at Other Press urged Smith to define what Eliot was going through intellectually as well as emotionally.

“Another question is ‘Is Johnnie gay?’ I’m not sure he’d define himself as homosexual. I hadn’t really confronted what she would have thought of this. Judith urged me to confront this, which allowed me to show how much Eliot did not want to know the truth,” said Smith.

In the novel, Eliot uncovers a history of mental illness, a subject that was as taboo as sexuality in the time period. The story shows how Eliot comes to peace with her life with Cross, a life without sexual union and under the pressure of another bout of illness.

The story ends with Eliot dying with Cross by her side, the two having forged their own kind of love.

Smith is now contemplating a novel set in Jerusalem during the First Intifada.

About the Author

Dinitia Smith is the author of four novels, including The Illusionist, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her stories have appeared in numerous publications and she has won a number of awards for her writing, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ingram Merrill Foundation. Until recently, Smith was a cultural correspondent for the New York Times specializing in literature and the arts. She has taught at Columbia University, New York University, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and elsewhere. She lives in New York. 

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.

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