Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008
Hardback 273 pages
A stunning novel about two women and two marriages -- George Eliot at the end of her life, and another woman a century later.
The year is 1880 and the setting is Venice. Marian Evans -- whose novels under the pen name George Eliot have placed her among the famed Englishwomen of her time -- has come to this enchanted city on her honeymoon. Newly married to John Cross, twenty years her junior, she hopes to put her guilt to rest. Marian lived, unmarried, with George Henry Lewes for twenty-five years, until his death. She took a tremendous risk and paid a high price for that illicit union, but she also achieved happiness and created art. Now she wants to love again. In this new marriage, in this romantic place, can this writer give herself the happy ending that she provided for Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke?
The parallel story of a sculptor named Caroline Spingold brings us to Venice one hundred years later, in 1980. Caroline’s powerful, wealthy older husband has brought her to the city against her will, to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary. Having spent a perfect childhood summer in Venice with her parents, before her father left her mother, Caroline had vowed never to return.
In alternating chapters linked by the themes of art, love, and marriage, The World Before Her tells of these two women -- and their surprising similarities. In a city where the canals reflect memory as much as light, they both confront desire, and each assesses what she has and who she is. At the heart of this sumptuously and evocatively written novel lies the eternal dilemma of how to find love and sustain it, without losing one’s self.
The book starts with Marion Evans and then each chapter alternates thereafter. I thought that would be confusing but the length of the chapters is perfect. Just enough information about the woman and her particular situation before pausing for the other woman's installment.
Although these women are separated by 100 years, they are experiencing the same situation. Their marriages have 20 year age differences, and both have learned things about their spouses that causes them to reflect on their lives and choices. A great deal of introspection and reflection on their joyous pasts, both of which include a previous gloriously happy trip to Venice. Not so this time around.
In Marion's story, we learn tidbits of her life with George Lewes, which include hanging out with Clara Schumann and Liszt. We also get a glimpse of her marriage to George, and the consequences of that union. With respect to Caroline, we witness her growing up in both her thought process and actions. She learns to see the world as it really is, and acts accordingly. Something Marion could never really do given the constraints of Victorian England.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The writing was lovely and the chapters were done perfectly. The descriptions of Venice and its beautiful treasures of art were excellent and transported me to both 1880 and 1980.
I could smell the canals.
I must admit I did not know who Marion Evans was, and my feelings went out to her. Caroline too, but more so for Marion because she was trapped in her situation. Middlemarch was already on my tbr, but I will be moving that up. All in all an excellent book, which completely surprised me.
97/100 I really liked it.
Challenges Met: Victorian Challenge 2009, Library Challenge 2009
EDT: Cross-posted at the Victorian Challenge 2009 Blog