Gwendolen, Diana Souhami, Quercus, 2014.
Have you ever wondered what happened to Gwendolen Harleth after Daniel and Mirah sailed away to Palestine to help found the Jewish homeland? No? Well, that is the sort of thing I am wont to ponder and when I heard that Diana Souhami had written a book which addressed that very pressing question, I was rather agog to read it. Despite my dislike of spin-offs, I thought that maybe, considering that I had enjoyed Souhami’s non-fiction writing, Gwendolen might make for interesting reading.
Gwendolene Harleth is, of course, one of the main characters in George Eliot’s last novel, Daniel Deronda. It is, as one would expect from Eliot’s pen, a large and sprawling novel containing Big Philosophical and Moral Ideas. In a nutshell, it tells the story of Daniel Deronda, a young man brought up in privilege to be the quintessential Victorian English gentleman. He then finds out that his mother is Jewish, wholeheartedly embraces his new identity, and becomes involved in the movement to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. There is another strand to the plot, however: a young woman named Gwendolen Harleth, who is thoroughly spoiled and conceited, finds herself in the position of having to marry in order to save her family from penury. Unfortunately she is also extremely naive and decides to accept a marriage proposal from a wealthy man whom she thinks she will be able to control. Ha! Think again, Gwendolen. Her husband is one of the nastiest men in English literature and Gwendolen learns the truth of the adage, ‘marry in haste; repent as leisure.’ Gwendolen and Daniel seem to be a perfect match in many ways and their paths cross throughout the novel. However, as we know, the course of true love never did run smooth, and Eliot is unrelenting when it comes to Gwendolen and Daniel’s relationship. Her main objective in writing the book was to make her readers aware of their ignorance about the Jewish faith and to question their prejudice against Jewish people. She also wanted to give her ideas about ‘the woman question’ another canter in the public arena, and she covers much of the same ground in this regard as she did in earlier novels.
Daniel is a most upstanding, proper and worthy young man, and Gwendolen, infuriating Gwendolen, is a product of her lackadaisical upbringing and a victim of the rampant misogyny that prevailed in Victorian England. Eliot’s trademark irony and sly humour give the narrative plenty of zing, but she also manipulates the reader and constantly makes you rear back in horror at Gwendolen’s wilful selfishness at one moment, and then feel dreadfully sorry for poor Gwen only a couple of pages later. Eliot gives us an in-depth psychological portrait of a self-obsessed young woman who is considered by other people as a chattel to be traded and controlled, but who tries to outrun the tsunami of her fate.
And so it began: Life-changing decisions made by sudden inclinations, vanity and rash daring. Had Grandcourt vanished at that point I would have forgotten him within a week. I did not stop to consider what it truly meant to know another person, or myself. I knew nothing of the world beyond the drawing rooms of Pennicote and the bewildering nowhere places of my childhood travels: nothing of the war in America, the struggles of the suffragists, the suffering of the workhouse, the customs and mores of other societies. And nothing whatsoever of the motivations of men, or of qualities that might matter, beyond chandeliers, paddocks and diamonds, when choosing a husband.
I was interested to see what Souhami would do with Daniel Deronda, and in some ways I did find the novel satisfying: she has stuck pretty much to Eliot’s narrative in the first part of the book and does not throw in anything that would frighten the horses – she even includes appropriate quotes from the original, which is a nice touch. However, in the second part of the book, I am afraid things start to fall apart somewhat. Souhami introduces a slew of new characters, most of them real people who lived at the time the book was written, and lo and behold, we even get to meet Mrs Lewes who is, oddly enough, writing a book about a young man and a young woman whose stories are uncannily similar to those of Daniel and Gwendolen. I found that idea kind of clever, especially as Souhami’s Gwendolen shares Mrs Lewes’ views on women’s rights and suffrage.
As if reading my thoughts she beckoned me over. In anticipation of meeting her I had rehearsed a small speech. I told her I had read several parts of Middlemarch, and found Mr Casaubon perfectly awful, though not as horrible as my husband had been, and that I feared Will Ladislaw was not much better. She seemed immoderately hurt by my remarks and looked across to Mr Lewes, who again held my arm, took me to one side and whispered that criticism plunged Polly into despair and we must try to shield her from it.
The narrative is presented in the form of one of those therapeutic letters-you-never-mean-to-send, in which Gwendolen addresses Daniel and pours out her heart. My main problem with this is that Souhami’s Gwendolen does not have much of a heart and is too busy telling him how beautiful she is and how everyone admires her beauty and how she kissed her image in the mirror and did she mention that everyone (including her) thinks she is SO beautiful? All the repetitions about her supposed beauty became a bit tedious, I can tell you. Souhami’s Gwendolen comes across as vacuous and completely self-involved, a two-dimensional spoilt princess, really. Whereas Eliot’s Gwendolen is written with wit and irony, the Gwendolen we get in this book is wooden and decidedly dull. Souhami’s Daniel is also a cardboard cut-out of Eliot’s Daniel, only popping up now and then to pontificate about something lofty or to give Gwen another moralistic lecture. If I had not read Daniel Deronda I would have been left wondering what on earth Gwendolen saw in him, because Souhami presents him as such an insipid prig.
Anyway, Gwendolen was an ok read, but not exactly stellar. After finishing the novel, I had a hankering to reacquaint myself with the original, so now I am re-reading Daniel Deronda, which is 700+ pages of smallish crammed-together print in my newish OWC edition, and my eyes are not happy. I may have to investigate other editions and see if there is one with a better typeface.