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November 28, 2017

Book Notes - Dinitia Smith "The Honeymoon"

The Honeymoon

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Dinitia Smith's novel The Honeymoon is a skillfully told reimagining of George Eliot's marriage to John Walter Cross.

The Washington Post wrote of the book:

"Smith's portrait of Eliot’s honeymoon with Cross ... plausibly brings to life a puzzling period of her life. With the historical record lacking or shrouded, it is the perfect example of when fictional storytelling about an eminent person is warranted."

In her own words, here is Dinitia Smith's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Honeymoon:

Music coursed through the life of George Eliot – she was, in addition to being a brilliant writer, an expert piano player. Thus, in writing The Honeymoon, my biographical novel about her, I constantly listened to the music that she played and loved for inspiration.

Für Elise, (Alfred Brendel, Beethoven Bagatelles)

Eliot was a perfectionist in all things, including in her piano playing. When she was a pupil at Miss Lathom's School in Coventry, she was asked to play the piano for visitors. She chose “Fur Elise,” but when she hit a wrong note, she ran weeping from the parlor. I used to listen to it as I tried to envision the life of this very intelligent – and ambitious – young girl.

Mozart, Kyrie in G Major Arnold Schoenberg Choir, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt

When Eliot was a young woman she had an affair with John Chapman, the publisher of the Westminster Review. She used to play Mozart's Kyrie in G Major for him which apparently threw him into raptures. Listening to it was a great help in trying to imagine their relationship.

Franz Liszt, Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses, ( Alfred Brendel, Liszt: the Two Piano Concertos)

In 1854, Eliot made the decision to live with the journalist and critic, George Henry Lewes, out-of-wedlock. The two fled to the Continent and visited Franz Liszt in Weimar. We know that he played a selection from the Harmonies for them and that it was a crucial experience for Eliot, who longed to be a novelist. Hearing Liszt play, Eliot said, was her first experience with true inspiration. During the three years or so it took me to write this novel, I listened to one piece in particular, Bénédiction dans La Solitude. We know that the night before Eliot died, she attended a concert in London with her new young husband, John Walter Cross. Though she was ill, she came home and played the entire concert for him from memory. I chose to have her play the Bénédiction that night, and I listened to it many times as I wrote. It became a kind of anthem for the novel.

Beethoven's Piano Sonatas, (Daniel Barenboim) & Mitsuko Uchida Plays Schubert, (Mitsuko Uchida)

Eliot became a loving stepmother to Lewes' sons. When one of them, Thornie, was dying an agonizing death from tuberculosis of the spine, literally screaming in pain, she played Beethoven and Schubert sonatas for him in an effort to soothe him. And of course, when I was writing those scenes I listened to them, in recordings played by Barenboim and Uchida. As I listened I envisioned a profound part of her personality, her extraordinary kindness, and her great ability to love.

The Four Seasons, Vivaldi. (The Academy of St. Martin's in the Field)

We know that Eliot and John Walter Cross went to Venice on their honeymoon where the central event of my novel occurs. And we know they attended a concert there, though we're not sure who played. I chose a concert of Vivaldi's music, because Vivaldi was a Venetian, and so many tourists in Venice go to Vivaldi concerts. I studied the score carefully while listening to it, and I chose to synchronize Johnnie's nervous breakdown with the various parts of it. Johnnie's breakdown on their honeymoon is the central event of the novel and is the spark that sets the story going.

Dinitia Smith and The Honeymoon links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

The Common review
Necessary Fiction review
New York Journal of Books review
New York Times review
New Yorker review
Washington Post review

Writers & Readers profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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