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 half of the novel which paints the vast sweep of the Jewish faith and 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.