With The World Before Her, Weisgall joins writers like Tracy Chevalier, Harriett Chessman, and Susan Vreeland in resuscitating long-dead artists and their artworks, invariably viewed through the eyes of female protagonists. Surely there is a name for this genre. Beach reading for the intellectual set? Smarter than chick lit, lacking the stigma of romance novels, these poor artistic women are raised from the dead only to become fictionalized figures. In Weisgall’s case, these figures are set in Venice, an utterly reliable backdrop: gorgeous, decaying, art-filled, and romantically lit.
The novel is split between two couples: Mary Ann Cross, formerly Marian Lewes, aka George Eliot, mourning her beloved companion, the recently deceased George Lewes. After 25 years of unmarried bliss with George, Marian has finally succumbed to respectability, marrying the young Johnnie Cross, formerly her solicitor. It is 1880; the couple are honeymooning in Venice. A century hence, Caroline Spingold and her husband, Malcolm, are also in Venice, though theirs is not quite a honeymoon. Malcolm is a financial investor 20 years Caroline’s senior; Caroline a sculptress. Malcolm has whisked Caroline to Venice—against her wishes—in an effort to repair their crumbling marriage.
Weisgall takes pains to show the inequities of each union. Both Johnnie Cross and Malcolm Spingold are controlling, domineering men. In Johnnie’s case, he has taken on far more than he bargained for in the brilliant and talented Marian. Malcolm, on the other hand, has managed over a decade to repress Caroline via verbal belittling and financial dependency. The book moves between these unhappy marriages, with the evocation of Marian being the most successful part of the novel. Eliot’s body of work, along with countless biographies, diaries, and letters, lend a strong sense of the real woman, making for a compelling character. The scenes involving Caroline and Malcolm are more contrived. Though Weisgall explains at length why Caroline married such a shallow, money-driven man, her explanation—a daddy complex—doesn’t quite fly. Why would a modern-day, talented, attractive artist with a growing reputation marry an older, unpleasant man who cares nothing for art and treats her badly to boot? It’s no surprise when Caroline works herself free, complete with fairytale ending.
Poor Marian Evans Lewes, trapped in a world of Victorian mores, has less room to maneuver. Devastated by George Lewes’ death, she longs for a quieter life and the societal acceptance of marriage. She is shocked to find Johnnie pushy, manipulative, and prone to physical and emotional frailty due to what we know is repressed homosexuality. His cold refusal to so much as touch her breaks her heart.
At times Weisgall’s parallels between the women veer into the unrealistic or downright annoying, as in the case of a small sculpture admired by Marian and, a century later, Caroline. Both women long for dead lovers with curly hair; both are tenuously involved with Venetian Jews. For all this, though, Weisgall is an excellent writer whose grasp of history, literature, and the art of Venice is admirable. Her rendering of Venice is luminous, limpid, lovely (all those alliteratives are irresistible), and the prose carries the reader smoothly through the novel.
Sadly, only one of the women will stride into a happier future. And though it may be easy to mock modern Caroline Spingold’s decisions, I write this as Hillary Clinton concedes. Perhaps we haven’t come as far as we’d like to think.