JOHNNIE CROSS by Terence de Vere White

JOHNNIE CROSS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Johnnie Cross was the virginal, 40-ish bachelor who married the 60-ish George Eliot just before she died--and this little literary-curiosity item is a fey, archly leering treatment of that unlikely marriage's bedroom problems. It's 1923, and young writer/narrator Colin happens to meet ""George Eliot's widow,"" old Johnnie Cross, at his London club. Dotty, garrulous Johnnie seems to want to tell Colin the real, unknown story of his brief 1880 marriage to the famous George Eliot. But he's reluctant too, fearful that some snide type (like Lytton Strachey) will misuse this secret material. Slowly, then, in dribs and drabs, Johnnie Tells almost All: how he married George with no intention whatsoever of conjugal relations (""She was taking my mother's place""); how George soon made it clear that she expected a fully operational husband, being herself ""a highly-strung, passionate woman""; and how, on their Venice honeymoon, he faked all sorts of illnesses to cover up his non-interest in sex--especially when his repulsive wife boldly took the seductive initiative. White (My Name is Norval) tries to extract some literary-mystery tension and wry amusement from the familiar, Aspern-Papers-ish premise here--with much ado about Johnnie's secret cache of letters. And there are passages of Johnnie himself lost in private reminiscence, recalling George Eliot's ""sapphist"" admirers, his disastrous encounter with an Italian whore, and other stray bits. But, despite the air of cultivated British irony, this remains a small clinical anecdote--dullishly half-dramatized (quotation marks within quotation marks), rather tasteless, and better encountered in the context of an Eliot biography. (See Phyllis Rose's recent Parallel Lives for a charming rendition of the Eliot/Lewes ""marriage,"" with Cross appearing in a brief epilogue.)

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1983
Publisher: St. Martin's