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.

Tom Tulliver’s Latin: Can Maggie Save the Day?

“George Eliot is the greatest novelist of the nineteenth century, and Middlemarch THE greatest novel of the 19th century.” So said an intense but lazy English professor given to sweeping generalizations and assignments to write a “journal” instead of essays. Yes, yes–I had read all of Eliot’s novels–but I could not agree with her about Middlemarch. Much as I love Eliot’s strong-willed heroine Dorothea Brooke and pity her disastrous marriage to the dim-witted scholar, Mr. Casaubon, I am uninterested in the other characters–I’m sorry, but Middlemarch is a dull town!

No, I much prefer The Mill on the Floss, a double bildungsroman that follows the fortunes of siblings Tom and Maggie Tulliver. Of the two, Maggie is the more appealing, a quick-witted girl who adores her very average older brother, enjoys boys’ games, reads widely, and has, according to her mother, deplorable “brown” skin and tangled hair. When she is scolded for lack of femininity, Maggie retires to the attic and punishes her “fetish,” a wooden doll, by driving nails into its head. Tom, of course, is allowed to be unruly, and his antics, however muddy, are tacitly approved as masculine.

But perhaps Tom suffers even more than Maggie, due to–yes–the study of Latin! He is sent away to be educated privately by a curate, who imparts only two subjects, Latin and geometry. Poor Tom! The more mistakes he makes, the more Latin lines he is given.

When Maggie visits Tom for a few weeks, her curiosity helps him with Latin. Not that she has a chance to learn it, mind you, because Mr. Stelling informs the siblings, much to Maggie’s humiliation, that women only have a “superficial” intelligence. Still, she asks so many questions that Tom makes an important discovery.

…she had asked Mr Stelling so many questions about the Roman empire, and whether there really ever was a man who said, in Latin, “I would not buy it for a farthing or a rotten nut,” or whether that had only been turned into Latin, that Tom had actually come to a dim understanding of the fact that there had once been people upon the earth who were so fortunate as to know Latin without learning it through the medium of the Eton Grammar.

I would probably love the Eton Grammar: I learned Latin out of a similar book! But Eliot preaches against a classical education that befuddles or fails to inspire average students like Tom, or perhaps I should say students who do not care for languages. Maggie would have benefited from Tom’s education, and Tom from something more practical. Eliot’s attitudes were certainly progressive: she was a linguist herself (and a Latinist), but opposed the idea that a classical education was appropriate for every student.

Tom is not the only confused Latin student. Years ago, an English teacher informed me that one of my best students had referred to the Aeneid as a play.

“Close enough,” I said cheerfully.

The student was an excellent translator and could sight-read–and that was good enough for me! I had told them it was an epic, but there is much dialogue, so I understood her confusion (they were not reading epics in English class). I did mention the word “epic” several times in the next few weeks, hoping that the students would absorb it.

Do You Keep a Book Journal? & Revisiting “Daniel Deronda”

My five book journals.

On a social media break a few weeks ago, I started musing about book journals.

I kept a journal in a notebook, but I also enjoyed a Goodreads account.  Goodreads is fun but, well, there’s too much data.  Did my “friends”  (whom I don’t know at all!) really want to know the percentage of an e-book I’d read, or that I’d voted in the Goodreads Choice Awards?   Plus I had a TBR list of at least 300 books.  I get carried away.

I’m not a Luddite…  but I decided I prefer paper.  (At least for a while.)

I do love a pretty notebook!

I started my first book journal in 1995 or 1996.  I  read fiftysome books.  It seemed a great number, but meaningless out of context.  So many ephemeral books…  but some great ones, like Wright Morris’s Plains Song.

And then there was a hiatus until the 21st century.

Fast forward to book journal fidelity.  My journal takes the simplest form:  I record the title, author, and the date finished.  I have used a Paperblanks journal, a Moleskine, a Miquelrius, a Nava Notes, and something offbrand from Walmart.

I enjoy looking  at the journals.  In the first decade of the 21st century, I read Trollope and middlebrow novels by Pamela Hansford Johnson, Dodie Smith,  Hugh Walpole, and Rose Macaulay.  Many of these “forgotten” writers are back in print now.

But when I asked a friend, Didn’t she find it strange I had finished 174 books?, she said, “What’s strange is that you keep track.”

Keeping the book journal may have been the most normal thing that year.  The feat of reading 174 books reflected a high boredom index. Very high.  I love to read, but I’d felt exhausted all year.  Turned out I had a health problem.  Wouldn’t you know?

Still, it is satisfying to look back at that long, long list. Two of my favorites were Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife 49’ and Joyce Dennys’s Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front, 1939-1942. The former is a fascinating diary written by Nella Last for the Mass Observation Archive in England;  the latter a charming novel in the form of the heroine Henrietta’s letters to a friend during the war.  (It’s a bit like Diary of a Provincial Lady, only epistolary.)

My reading has changed in the last few years. I’ve become a damned scholar. All right, I’m joking.  I’m an enthusiast.  But I do read more classics.  Read enough long books and you don’t have the embarrassment of reading 174 books.  This year I’m down to 138.  That’s a LOT of books, but not ridiculous.

How do you feel about electronic data vs. notebooks?

REVISITING GEORGE ELIOT’S DANIEL DERONDA.  In December I reread Daniel Deronda, George Eliot’s last novel.  In this strange novel, Eliot inverts the myth of Diana and Actaeon, and describes a man’s search for identity and his study of Judaism.

At my blog Mirabile Dictu, I wrote last year:

The heroine of Daniel Deronda, Gwendolen Harleth, is a spoiled, haughty young woman who marries the wrong man. Gwendolen is over-confident, beautiful, witty, snobbish, and rather lazy, and very much reminds me of Austen’s Emma. Gwendolen is accomplished, but she could be more accomplished if she practiced or studied.  She wins a golden star at an archery contest, but the golden arrow goes to someone else. She is a pleasing singer but hasn’t practiced enough to be proficient. She is a Diana, a chaste huntress, who rides to hounds wildly, and at first seems as cruel and powerful as Diana.  When her male escort falls from his inadequate mount and strains his shoulder, she appallingly thinks it funny and has no sympathy. She does not want to marry, and dreams of doing something great. But her mother loses her money, and Gwendolyn must give up her dreams. She marries the wealthy Grandcourt beause she thinks she will be able to control him–but it is the sadistic Grandcourt who controls her.

You can read the rest of the post here.