Daniel Deronda, Dorothea, George Eliot, Gwendolen Harleth, Jane Austen, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, Romola Garai
If Elizabeth Bennet is classic literature’s most delightful heroine, Gwendolen Harleth might claim to be its most compelling, and not only because she may – or may not – be guilty of murder.
‘Some readers of this history will doubtless regard it as incredible that people should construct matrimonial prospects on the mere report that a bachelor of good fortune and possibilities was coming within reach …’ here is the sentence in chapter five of Daniel Deronda in which George Eliot nods to the famous opening of Pride and Prejudice.
George Eliot’s admiration for Jane Austen was profound and dated back to her first falling in love with the philosopher and literary critic George Henry Lewes; his 1852 essay The Lady Novelists in the Westminster Review praised Austen’s novels as ‘like an actual experience of life’. For him, and for George Eliot too, Jane Austen was ‘the most truthful, charming, humorous, pure-minded, quick-witted and unexaggerated of writers’.
But the rewritten sentence in Daniel Deronda is heavy with irony and extends to some ten lines of philosophical observation about human nature. George Eliot never did anything by halves and this may be part of the reason why Gwendolen Harleth, and the 800 page novel she dominates, is not as well known as such a richly complex creation deserves.
For Grandcourt, the ‘handsome lizard’ whom Gwendolen marries to escape becoming a governess, is no Mr Bingley. Early in the novel we see him baiting one of his dogs; we know from that chilling moment how he will treat Gwendolen when he has her in his power.
Unlike Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice who marries Mr Collins with her eyes open, being both sensible and realistic about her prospects and with the strength of character to live within them, Gwendolen is a spoiled child who makes the fatal mistake of thinking she can marry Grandcourt and go on doing just what she likes.
Jane Austen doesn’t condemn Charlotte Lucas for doing what was common among women of her time, and George Eliot makes the reader feel that Gwendolen has no real choice but to rescue herself and her family from degrading poverty. But Charlotte isn’t taking what belongs to someone else. Gwendolen’s real crime is in knowingly betraying another woman and breaking a promise. Punishment for this lack of loyalty to her own sex will come on her wedding night.
Although we already know what Gwendolen is capable of when something gets in her way, whether she could have actually saved Grandcourt from drowning is left uncertain. Murderous thoughts in women towards the men who are controlling or abusing them was something that interested George Eliot, and crops up several times; even the noble-minded Dorothea in Middlemarch comes close to violence when Casaubon repulses her after he’s learnt that his illness is serious. And Gwendolen has none of the religious ardour and passionate desire for the welfare of others which ultimately governs Dorothea.
George Eliot sets her characters against a vast panoramic view of humanity and world progress, in contrast to Jane Austen’s much-quoted choice of ‘three or four families in a country village’. It is perhaps because of the extraordinary magnetism of Gwendolen Harleth as a heroine for our time that Andrew Davies in his 2002 BBC television series of Daniel Deronda concentrated on her story, rather than the other theme of the novel which paints the vast sweep of the Jewish faith and seeds of Zionism. George Eliot purists might regret the decision, but the production was certainly perfect in its faultless casting and acting: Hugh Bonneville, Hugh Dancy, Jodhi May, Edward Fox, Greta Scacchi, David Bamber, Celia Imrie, Amanda Root – and above all Romola Garai with her riveting performance as Gwendolen, this most fascinating and ambiguous of heroines.
Maggie Davies said:
Why don’t I remember reading this novel, some thirty years ago? How did I miss the televised version?
This will definitely be something to add to my Christmas list. Thanks for an enlightening post that whets the appetite, Tanya…
Thanks for this, Tanya. Like Maggie, it entices me to ask for it for Christmas. I’ve not read it, I admit, having only seen the TV version. My main memory of it is Hugh Bonneville being nasty. He did it rather well, as I recall.
Tanya van Hasselt said:
The Andrew Davies television series only lightly sketched in the major theme of the book, the position of Jews in Europe in her own time, which was always of absorbing interest to George Eliot. This aspect provoked criticism when the novel was first published in 1876 and ever since: F R Leavis even recommended cutting out the Jewish part completely and renaming the novel Gwendolen Harleth. But that would be turning it into a less visionary and ‘smaller’ kind of novel, and not what George Eliot was about. On screen it’s a different story: Andrew Davies’ Daniel Deronda can be justified in its selection of what works on television together with its addition of romantic sugar – and watching it may encourage us to pick up the book or listen to the wonderful Juliet Stevenson reading it on audio.
Confession time. Today I went into the excellent Hall’s bookshop we are so fortunate to have in Tunbridge Wells to look for a second-hand preferably hardback copy of ‘Daniel Deronda’, inspired by this posting. And indeed they have one. When I say “one’, I mean they have one set of its three volumes, each of 400+ pages. Ah, I said to myself, thinking of how high my existing ‘To Be Read Next’ pile is.
I, er, postponed my purchase. Sorry, George. Sorry, Tanya.
Tanya van Hasselt said:
Ed, you could always listen to Juliet Stevenson’s superb reading of Daniel Deronda on audiobook …