A Tale of Two Women, a Century Apart Deborah Weisgall's new novel The World Before Her interweaves the stories of famed writer George Eliot and fictional sculptress Caroline Spingold as they visit Venice, Italy, 100 years apart. Both artists struggle to balance their art with their yearning for love.

A Tale of Two Women, a Century Apart

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From NPR News, this is Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen. For centuries, Venice, Italy, has been a magnet for writers and artists. Deborah Weisgall's new novel, "The World Before Her," is set in the Venice of both the 20th and 19th centuries. In the chapters dated 1880, we read about a famous writer who is spending her honeymoon there. In those dated 1980, we read about a sculptress who was spending her 10th wedding anniversary in the city. Deborah Weisgall is in the studios of member station WGBH in Boston. First of all, welcome to the program, Deborah.

Ms. DEBORAH WEISGALL (Author, "The World Before Her"): Thank you, Liane. Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: Why did you choose Venice as a setting for both of these stories?

Ms. WEISGALL: For several reasons. First of all, my famous writer is George Eliot, whose real name was Marion Evans. She was probably the most famous woman in England at the time she got married in 1880 and went on her honeymoon. She was also 60 years old. And Venice was the place where it all began to fall apart. The other reason I chose Venice is because I love it. It's a place that condenses time, and it really hasn't changed in 100 years or 500 years.

HANSEN: So the city becomes a character, in many ways.

Ms. WEISGALL: Absolutely. It's a place where you can get lost, where you lose yourself not only physically but emotionally. It's a place where it's not too farfetched to see ghosts, which both of my characters do, and it's a place that magnifies emotions. At least, that's always been my experience of the place. If you're happy in Venice, you're happier than you've ever been in your life. If you're unhappy in Venice, with this strange, watery light that just seems to reflect parts of yourself that you weren't aware of, you're very unhappy.

HANSEN: I was, I guess, maybe not amazed but pleasantly surprised to find James Whistler in the book, the artist. He would have been in Venice at the same time that George Eliot was in Venice?

Ms. WEISGALL: Yes. I wanted the first chapter to echo a very famous mystery book called "The Woman in White," by Wilkie Collins. Because George Eliot was ugly, and the beginning of "The Woman in White" describes the hero coming in and looking at the back of this beautiful woman with a slender figure in a white dress, and she turns around and she's ugly. And it's just heartstopping. You ache for her, you think, what kind - you ask yourself these questions about both of the characters, and I wanted an artist to look at her. So I put him in there. They never did meet but I think they could have.

HANSEN: You know, I imagine you with someone who collects little stories and kind of - it's like putting them in a teakettle until they brew rather nicely, and then you end with a nice cup of tea. How long has this book been brewing?

Ms. WEISGALL: It's been brewing for a long time. I have been thinking about setting a book in Venice ever since I fell in love with my husband, even though he wasn't there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WEISGALL: And I just wanted to convey somehow - first of all, my love of George Eliot, my passion for the art that's in Venice, the art that she adored, that she writes about in her book, to try to connect it to our modern world. You know, I have a couple of characters who think that what art is, is just a byproduct of capitalism, and I try to argue against that in a very page-turning way.

HANSEN: You know, George Eliot wrote an essay called "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists."

(Soundbite of laughing)

Ms. WEISGALL: Oh, I know.

HANSEN: All right. So, I don't know, I'm putting you on the spot here. How do you think George Eliot would react to your novel?

Ms. WEISGALL: I hope she wouldn't think it was silly. I think - and the reason I say this is because the first time I read "Middlemarch," I'm reading this magnificent book about a view of the world and a philosophy of moral engagement. And I get to a point in the book and I said to myself, if she doesn't get the guy, I can't finish it. So I skip to the end to be sure she did, and I thought, you know, she understood that you have to - you have to be swept up in a book. So I tried to do that at the same time that I tried to talk about the serious issues that women face and issues of art and life. I also tried to write a rip-roaring story.

HANSEN: What's your favorite place in Venice?

Ms. WEISGALL: It has to be Santa Maria dei Miracoli. It's a tiny little church that's moored like a barge at the edge of a canal. And it's all covered with geometric patterns of marble. It looks like if God played with things, he'd want to play with this tiny little church. And I was just - I was transfixed. I thought it was just ravishing, you know, there it is sitting in the waters going by, and you could walk in and it's not imposing, it's this friendly place and it has little carvings inside of angels pulling each other's hair. It's heavenly.

HANSEN: While you are writing the book, it's almost as if you were able to visit Venice again.

Ms. WEISGALL: Right before I began to write the book, I took my daughter to Venice. We went out with a friend one morning into the lagoon in a Boston Whaler. There were several of us in the boat, and somebody said we were heading away from the city, and somebody said, turn around. And we turned around and there was this wall of white mountain rising, sharp cliffs behind the city that was the Dolomites, and it was the most magical thing.

You couldn't tell if it was a cloud, if it was a mountain, and it looked like all the altar pieces that I've been dragging my poor daughter to see. And there it was. The fog had lifted and you saw what a magical place it was. This beautiful city nestled at the bottom of these ragged, gorgeous mountains.

HANSEN: Deborah Weisgall's new novel is set in Venice. It's called "The World Before Her," published by Houghton Mifflin, and she joined us from member station WGBH in Boston. Thank you very much.

Ms. WEISGALL: Thank you, Liane.

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