The Plight of Women in  “Daniel Deronda”:   Gwendolen’s Breakdown & the Curse of Medea

Mention George Eliot and the response is inevitable:  “Oh, yes, I love Middlemarch!”   Some sound bored and patronizing , others are wildly enthusiastic, as though George Eliot were a winged goddess who perched on their shoulder and tapped them with a fan. One friend chirped ecstatically, “George Eliot is a goddess!“  But she admits that she made the same comment about Cyndi Lauper on YouTube.

George Eliot was a Victorian intellectual, and perhaps the greatest English writer of the nineteenth century. She is the most  versatile, lyrical, flexible, and fluent of writers. Put Dickens in the same room with Eliot and I suspect she would talk rings around him.  Not that Dickens would be silent, but he’d clearly rather be on the stage giving a reading of his own work than spending an evening with a homely woman writer.

What I find strange is that no one exclaims, “Oh, yes, I love Daniel Deronda!” I consider Daniel Deronda her most complex, compelling novel.  In this masterpiece, she explores the pitfalls of genteel poverty for women, the tragic discovery of one’s mediocrity, the risk of marrying for money,  the search for identity, and the prejudice against Jews.

While poring over Daniel Deronda in July, I was hypnotized by Eliot’s  graceful, sinuous prose.  She intertwines the lives of two characters who seldom meet:  a thoughtless, willful young woman and  a philosophical young man with a habit of rescuing women. 

The most fascinating character is  Gwendolen Harleth, a heartless beauty who has much in common with Jane Austen’s Emma.  Gwendolen also is “handsome, clever, and”, if not “rich,” comfortably off; like Emma, she makes many errors of judgment.  She dominates her doting widowed mother, ignores her “superfluous” half-sisters, loves riding and archery but has no interest in men or in marriage, and feels superior to almost everyone.  But like Emma, Gwendolen never works hard enough to develop her talents.  She is gifted at archery, but in a contest only comes in second; and though she loves to sing, she has been badly taught and has not worked hard enough.

Notes in the Oxford edition.

Gwendolen and Daniel, a young man who does not know his origins and was raised in an aristocratic family, meet by chance in Leubronne. Daniels spots Gwendolen, dressed in green and turning her neck like a serpent, gambling at a roulette table.  She is excited over winning money, but after  noticing Daniel she plays again and loses.  He has given her the evil eye, she says crossly.

At the hotel, she finds a letter from her mother saying they have lost all their money and that Gwendolen must return.  And now the weight of the family’s needs falls on Gwendolen. The next morning she pawns a necklace because she has no money; Deronda buys it back and returns it.  But Gwendolen is furious that she cannot take care of herself and her family.    She is angry at Daniel’s patronage, and at the fact that she will soon need to beg more from men.

And now that her all-female family is poor, she must support them.  She must be the man of the family, only she has fewer choices than men.  Her uncle recommends a governess post, which she rejects furiously. Nor does she want to marry Grandcourt, the rich, l cold man who already has a mistress, Lydia Glasher, the mother of his children.  Desperately, she wonders if she could sing on the stage:  she consults Herr Klesmer, a composer and music teacher, who tells her bluntly that she does not have the talent.

And so she marries Grandcourt for money. It is a marriage in hell: he is a sadist who wants to break her will. She protects her mother by pretending to be in love, but she is wretched because she has also betrayed her sex:  she had met his mistress, Lydia, at the archery contest, and promised that she would not marry Grandcourt. Then her family lost their money.

Many Victorian novels pivot on jewelry at some point. Grandcourt had ordered Lydia to return the diamonds he had given her. On the evening of the wedding, Gwendolen receives the package from Lydia, with a devastating letter attached. 

“These diamonds, which were once given with ardent love to Lydia Glasher, she passes on to you. You have broken your word to her, that you might possess what was hers. Perhaps you think of being happy, as she once was, and of having beautiful children such as hers, who will thrust hers aside. God is too just for that. The man you have married has a withered heart. His best young love was mine: you could not take that from me when you took the rest. It is dead: but I am the grave in which your chance of happiness is buried as well as mine. You had your warning. You have chosen to injure me and my children. He had meant to marry me. He would have married me at last, if you had not broken your word. You will have your punishment. I desire it with all my soul.

“Will you give him this letter to set him against me and ruin us more—me and my children? Shall you like to stand before your husband with these diamonds on you, and these words of mine in his thoughts and yours? Will he think you have any right to complain when he has made you miserable? You took him with your eyes open. The willing wrong you have done me will be your curse.

Gwendolen becomes hysterical but Grandcourt forces her to wear the diamonds. “Truly here were poisoned gems, and the poison had entered into the poor young creature.”

Myth is important in Daniel Deronda. Lydia is Medea to Gwendolen’s Creusa.  This observation is made by a guest of Daniel’s guardian, Sir Hugo, to Daniel. 

“It’s rather a piquant picture,” said Mr. Vandernoodt—“Grandcourt between two fiery women. For depend upon it this light-haired one has plenty of devil in her. I formed that opinion of her at Leubronn. It’s a sort of Medea and Creüsa business. Fancy the two meeting! Grandcourt is a new kind of Jason: I wonder what sort of a part he’ll make of it. It’s a dog’s part at best. I think I hear Ristori now, saying, ‘Jasone! Jasone!’ These fine women generally get hold of a stick.”

Eliot has empathy both for both women, but Gwendolen pays the highest price. The strong-willed Gwendolen, reduced to the role of Jason’s second bride, poisoned by Medea, is a powerful image.   If Gwendolen is Creusa, then Daniel Deronda is a kind of Orpheus, reluctantly guiding Gwendolen back from Hades, though failing to save her altogether.  But as Orpheus he can save Mirah, the Jewish singer he saves from suicide.  The myth-making centers around marriage and music, and both Daniel and Mirah are singers. If anyone can be happy in this novel, it is the characters who can sing and make music.

4 thoughts on “The Plight of Women in  “Daniel Deronda”:   Gwendolen’s Breakdown & the Curse of Medea”

  1. One of the strangest and best books I’ve ever read, definitely in my top five, and for me, only comparable to the great novels of Tolstoy. George Eliot sets up a petty tyrant as her heroine and forces her to become a human being. And as life is for most of us, it’s heartbreaking and exhilarating. G.E. further complicates the work with Daniel, a dark horse if there ever was one, who probably would have been far more conventionally happy with Gwendolen, but instead goes in pursuit of an ideal that seems utterly peculiar to everyone, including probably most readers. And HIS mother! What a shocker! So daring of G.E. to give us the most remote of mothers who lives for her art and not her child. I haven’t read the book in at least 25 years, and I think it’s time. It lives vividly in my mind, but the joy of reading it is not to be denied.

    BTW, I’ve never been able to re-read Middlemarch, because I want to save Dorothea, and others, from their terrible choices and/or throw the book against the wall.. I read it in my early 20s (a long time ago) and thought it was brilliantly romantic. George Eliot knows everything, including how dumb we (well, me, anyway) are when we’re young!

    1. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm about this brilliant novel! I”m sure many of us are secret readers of Eliot’s less well-known books, but Middlemarch is the only title that comes up again and again.

  2. Excellent posting. Gwendoleth is not heartless; but she is not exactly empathetic to others until she has been hit hard — she is not a model virtuous heroine; Mirah is. It is a superb novel and I agree every bit as good as Middlemarch — in some ways better; on the other hand, harder to read, more stilted at times.

    1. Gwendolen is a bit like Emma: she grows up in the course of the novel. But so painfully! I have mixed feelings about Mirah. She is sweet, and very, very kind, but the men seem to love her for her subservience. Daniel and Mordecai are more interesting than Mirah.

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