May 26, 1857
“My dear Brother
You will be surprized, I dare say, but I hope not sorry, to learn that I have changed my name, and have someone to take care of me in the world. The event is not at all a sudden one, though it may appear sudden in its announcement to you. My husband has been known to me for several years, and I am well acquainted with his mind and character… Your affectionate Sister, Marian Lewes … ”
One late afternoon in June of 1880, a rather famous woman sat in a railroad carriage traveling towards Venice with her new husband, a handsome young man twenty years her junior. The journey from Padua had taken just over an hour, across the flat plain, through vineyards and olive groves, and now the train was approaching the iron bridge that led across the lagoon to the city. As the woman glimpsed the shimmering waters ahead, and in the distance, the misty domes and campaniles of the celestial place, the light in the sky over it just beginning to turn pink, she discovered she was unable to give herself over to the surge of excitement she’d experienced sixteen years earlier – to the day – when she caught sight of the place with her “first” husband, George Lewes, by her side.
The woman’s face was partly hidden by a lace mantilla, as had been her custom for several years, white, not black now, (she was no longer in mourning), and she wore a grey silk moiré dress that she’d bought for her trousseau. The mantilla served to prevent her from being recognized by people, and set upon by tourists who begged for autographs. Though not completely hiding her face, it distracted from it, from her large nose and broad jaw, and she welcomed this because she believed that she was homely. She was sixty years old and her auburn hair was speckled with grey and hung in thick, heavy curves on either side of her face. Her skin was lined. Her grey-blue eyes were heavy and watchful. But her figure was still lovely, slender, almost serpentine – she’d never borne a child.
Now, as she watched her new young husband, it was as if he were drifting away from her, going further and further into his own world, and she didn’t know why.
He was staring out the window of the compartment, his brow furrowed in the light. He was a tall, athletic looking man with dark red curly hair that peeked out from under the brim of his straw hat, vivid blue eyes that shone in the heat, and a small, neat beard. As always, he was wearing an elegantly-cut suit, white linen, which had somehow preserved its freshness from the journey – Johnnie loved good clothes.
Yet he was still his same kind self, the way he had always been, tending to her every need. Ever since April, when she’d accepted his proposal, he’d been frantically rushing around, arranging the wedding and securing the new house, anxious to attend to her every comfort – that she have her shawl with her in case it was cool at night, and the best room in the hotel, that she not get tired, or have to stand waiting too long for their trains. He hadn’t been sleeping, he’d hardly been eating. There were shadows under his eyes, his cheeks had hollowed out. “Darling,” she would say, “slow down. You’ll make yourself ill.”
And he’d try to calm himself, like a child forced to sit still for a moment, but then he was up again, springing into action.
Perhaps Venice would make him better, restore him to his old self, and the romance of the city, its sensuality and foreignness and hidden ways, the strangeness of it, would free him and bring him back to her.
The train had reached the bridge. A cinder from the track flew in through the open window and caught her in the eye. “Oh dear,” she cried, and tried to get it out. Johnnie, awakened from his reverie, jumped up. “Here, let me,” he said, and bent over her and gently managed to ease it out with his pocket handkerchief. “There you go,” he said, and then he sat down again, and resumed looking out the window.
After a few minutes, they had crossed the bridge. The train pulled into the Santa Lucia station and they disembarked.
When they emerged out onto the fondamenta, they were met by a scene of chaos, crowds of tourists and piles of baggage, porters and boatmen yelling and bustling about.
“You stay here, Marian,” Johnnie said. “I’ll go and find the boat. ”
She waited under her parasol. The air was filled with an anxious cacophony of French, Italian, English, German as the tourists searched for the boatmen from the hotels who were supposed to meet them. A gypsy girl was sitting on the pavement with an infant, begging, holding it out to the tourists and whining, “Il bambino ha fame. Il bambino ha fame …” wearing a look of exaggerated suffering on her face.
At last, Johnnie came towards her. He’d found their boat, and he led her across the fondamenta to where it was tied. The gondolier was standing on the shore waiting. When he saw them coming, he threw his cigarette into the canal with a decisive gesture, and began loading their luggage.
“This is Corradini,” Johnnie said. “Madame Cross.” The man was older, she noticed, in his fifties, weathered and thin and muscular, with close-cropped grey hair, very pale blue eyes – probably Dalmatian, a lot of the gondoliers were, or a remnant of the Crusaders that you saw sometimes in Venetians. He had a browned, seamed face and he wore a gold ring in one ear. The gondolier nodded at her cursorily, then extended a rough hand to help her into the boat. No bowing or scraping, no kissing of the hand, no false effusion. As she passed close to him to get into the boat, she smelled an unwashed odor, old tobacco and sweat, and something else, cologne meant to cover it.
He’d probably done this job for many years. The gondoliers held the tourists captive. They were their first contact with the city. Only the gondoliers knew how to navigate its labyrinthine ways.
All around them now, on the canal, the boats, full of people who’d gotten off the train from Padua, were crowded together and banging up against one another. The gondoliers were trying to separate them. “Premi! Premi!” they cried. “Stali! Stali!”
At last, the gondolas were untangled and they spread out across the water. The journey to the hotels was underway.
It was suddenly quiet, as if everyone was too exhausted and stunned by the sights, and too busy absorbing the strangeness of the place, to speak. In the boat, Johnnie sat perpendicular to her, his long legs drawn up awkwardly in the small space, silent, absorbed in looking out across at the shore.
To their right was San Simeone Piccolo– Ruskin called it a huge “gasometer,” with its great, dark dome, like a Greek temple oddly attached to a plain redbrick building. They passed silently among the columned palaces with their Moorish arches and red and white striped mooring poles, their facades of marble and Istrian stone; their inlay of jasper and alabaster and porphyry, faded by sun and water; their foundations darkened and stained green with algae from the flux and retreat of the tides over the centuries. As always, she was surprised at their small scale, given the expectation of what Venice would be.
The gondolier stood erect in the stern, feathering the water with his oar, moving from one side to the other, swerving his hips. His skin looked as if it had been oiled. His striped shirt and black trousers fit tightly to his body, but there was a softness around his waist that betrayed his age.
Ahead of them, loomed the hump-backed Rialto, its archways and shops packed with tourists. They passed under it, and, in the confined space the smell of putrid effluence rose up and engulfed them. She could see brownish things bobbing in the water. She held her handkerchief to her nose to block the smell.
As they emerged again into the pink light, she breathed in the salty, brackish air with relief. When the real heat came, the smell would be insufferable. Well, she thought, along with everything glorious and holy, there had to exist its opposite: decay and death. For there to be light, there must be darkness, mystery.
The canal curved southwest, then bent again eastward. She glimpsed on the shore the white marble Hôtel de la Ville where once she and George had stayed. As they passed it, she glanced back, but said nothing to Johnnie.
At last, they came to the sign for the Hotel Europa. It was in the old Palazzo Giustinian, an umber-colored brick building with white gothic arches and balconies overlooking the canal. Just beyond it was the Piazza San Marco.
“There!” Johnnie told the gondolier. They stopped, and a grizzled old ganser reached down from the riva with his pole and pulled them over to the steps.
The gondolier threw up his rope and the man tied it. Johnnie gripped her tightly under the arms and raised her up from her seat. She was dizzy from standing up too quickly, and tired from the journey. Johnnie held onto her a moment, then leapt to the shore, reached down and lifted her up onto ground. “We’ve made it!” he cried.
He handed the gondolier a coin. But the man didn’t move. He stood there with his palm open, looking down ostentatiously at the coin, then up at Johnnie again. Flustered, Johnnie dug down again into his pocket and offered him more coins. At this, the gondolier clamped his hand shut , and got back into his boat.
“Greedy swine!” Johnnie muttered, clenching his teeth, as they made their way to the portego.
Inside the hotel, they climbed the stairs into an immense, marble-columned lobby with a high, coffered ceiling, gilded and blue, and glass chandeliers and potted palms. At one end, was a reception desk with a sign, Telegrafo. There were other tourists scattered about on chairs and settees and they stared at them as they entered.
Johnnie led her to a settee and went to register. Was she imagining it, or did he welcome this bodily distance from her, being away from her for these few minutes?
After a brief period, he came back across the lobby followed by a man in a black morning coat. “This is Monsieur Marseille, the manager. He wanted to meet you. Madame Cross,” Johnnie said.
“Madame … George Eliot!” said the manager, hesitating a moment as if puzzled by the man’s name for a woman. He bowed. He was wearing a wig of flat, black hair, and he had a handlebar moustache, waxed and pointed at the tips.
“Of course, you know we have had many famous writers staying with us,” he said. “Chateaubriand, Mr. Ruskin. Many famous people, Mr. Turner, and Wagner, also Verdi. You are in excellent company.”
“How did you know who I was? she asked.
“The English lady over there.” He indicated a woman sitting across the lobby on one of the settees, watching them. “She inform us of who you were. She say she recognize you. She tell us we have a great English authoress in our midst – ”
Johnnie interrupted, “Mrs. Cross doesn’t want to be bothered. She’s on a private holiday. We’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone else she’s here.”
“Of course, Monsieur.”
This had happened many times. George used to sign their hotel registers with false names to prevent them from being bothered. But people knew her, even though, after she became famous, she almost always refused to be painted or photographed. Still, when they went to the Pop Concerts at St. James’ Hall, people sketched her. George would glare, but it didn’t stop them. None other than Princess Louise once drew her likeness on the back of her program at a benefit concert for the Music School of the Blind. Truthfully, there were times when she didn’t mind the attention. Sometimes the fame, being recognized, was like a match being struck, a temporary light, a moment of pleasure, forgetting all her doubts, the lack of confidence, the headaches and kidney pains. But now she dreaded it. At this very moment in London she imagined there was a new scandal unfolding.
As people read the wedding announcement in The Times, they were laughing and twittering over their morning coffee about the besotted old woman marrying the handsome man, young enough to be her son.
To alleviate the manager’s chagrin, she asked politely, “You are French?”
“My grandfather, Monsieur Arnold Marseille, bought this palazzo in 1817. This year, we install private baths. Very grand, very convenient.”
A footman was hovering behind him. “The footman will show you to your room. We have here today six English families. There is the table d’hôte at five o’clock. Perhaps you and your son would care to join us?”
Her chest plunged. Johnnie’s face reddened.
“Please!” Johnnie cried. “The Signora is my wife!”
“Oh!” the manager said. “Vous devez me pardonner!” But his mortification only magnified the insult. He was mirroring back to them the truth. She did look like Johnnie’s mother.
As they ascended the stairs to the piano nobile and their rooms, she said, “We knew this would happen sooner or later. Imagine what they’re saying in London.”
“We don’t mind what they’re saying,” he said firmly, his jaw set, gripping her arm.
They came to the landing, and the footman threw open the gleaming mahogany doors to their appartement. It was hung with chandeliers, and gilded mirrors and oil paintings, and furnished with silk fauteuils. There were great, mullioned windows which looked out directly over the canal and crimson velvet drapes fastened with braided silk ties and tassels.
On either side of the sala, was a bedroom. Johnnie went to the door of each one and peaked inside. He pointed to the one on the right. “This is the best room, ” he told the footman. “The lady’s trunk goes in there. The other trunks’s mine. In there, please,” he said, indicating the second bedroom across the way.
It was their usual ritual.
While the footman put their luggage away, Johnnie stepped out onto the balcony. She followed him. To their left was the landing of St. Marco, the black gondolas parked in front of it swaying in the water. To their right was the view down the Grand Canal.
He began enumerating the sights, as if learning them himself. “There’s the Dogana,” he said, indicating the Customs House across the canal, its gold weathervane, the figure of the goddess Fortuna, moving faintly in the late afternoon sun. “The Salute,” he said, sweeping his arm across to the imposing dome behind it. “And San Giorgio,” he said, across the Bacino, the little island on their left.
He stopped and looked down at the canal, suddenly silent.
She touched his shoulder. “Please,” she said, “don’t mind the stupid manager. I’m perfectly all right. You shouldn’t feel sad for me. We expected this. We knew it would happen. I’m so happy to be here. Everything’s going to be all right now, you’ll see.”
He continued staring down into the water as if he hadn’t heard her.
“Johnnie, did you hear me?”
He nodded, still not looking at her.
“Please, Johnnie, smile for me,” she begged. “Let me see you smile?”
He looked around at her and forced his mouth into a thin smile.
“Shouldn’t I be the one who’s angry ?” she asked. “Not you. It’s not your fault is it? It’s I who looks old!”
He didn’t respond. He seemed to be looking right through her. She reached up and touched his red curls – she was allowed to do that wasn’t she? He was so tall. She loved the moments when she could touch him with impunity. His hair was so soft and silky, like a boy’s.
Behind them there was a knock on the door. “Chi è?” he called out, irritably.
“Sono la cameriera,” a woman’s voice said.
“Entra!” he commanded. He sighed. “They’re always bothering you.”
A maid entered. She was a girl of about sixteen, in a black dress, white cap, collar and pinafore. She had a mass of dark blonde curls tied behind her neck, and green, heavy-lidded eyes, a prominent aquiline nose. A Northern face.
“I unpack for Madame?” she said, in English.
“Yes, please. Thank you,” Marian said. “That one.” She pointed to her bedroom.
On the balcony, Johnnie said, “You can smell it from here. That smell of putrefaction underneath everything. ”
“You forget about it,” she said. “You get used to it When the wind shifts, we won’t notice it at all. And when the tide comes in, the water’s really clear.”
The sky was darkening, burnished with gold. “Look at the light,” she exclaimed. “The sun’s going down. This is the glory of the place.”
He put his arm around her waist and drew her to him, a protective gesture, warm and kind. She was acutely conscious of his touch. She looked up at his face. It was the familiar posture of a woman looking up at the man she loves, she thought, her life’s companion, his face in profile, the face she possesses as her own, but the face of someone separate, unknowable. All men were mysterious to her, except George. She and George had been like one person. Johnnie’s was a handsomer face than George’s of course, an ideal of masculine beauty. Before she and George had come together, she’d heard people call him “the ugliest man in London” – not true! But Johnnie’s face was troubled. His forehead was drawn in a frown.
By now George would have been animated with excitement. “Look, Polly!” he’d cry, calling her by her girlhood nickname. Always full of enthusiasm, rousing her from tiredness and worry and depression. “Can’t wait till morning!” he’d say. And he’d awaken her into his own joy. He was irresistible. When he pulled her close to him, her body melded completely into his. No distance between them, the line of his wiry thigh against hers, he, who relished her body continually, her slenderness, always, with each new day and night as if he’d never known it before and it was a constant surprise to him, whatever it was he saw in it, distorted by blind love.
Now, behind them in the hotel room, there were sudden, soft bursts of light. The chambermaid was lighting the oil lamps, leaving the edges of the room in shadow.
“Let’s have supper brought up,” he said. “Someone else might recognize you and that would be a bother.”
“Yes,” she said. “Do let’s. I can’t bear to see anyone else tonight.”