Monday, March 31, 2014

Gwendolen Harleth as seen from the distaff side

{Editorial note: this post from my friend Maggie Bandur continues our back-and-forth series as we make our way through George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. Scroll back through the blog and you'll see the first three posts.}

When I saw Levi’s post about women in Victorian literature, I assumed the topic had been covered, but then I found myself mildly annoyed with the warmth and admiration with which he described Gwendolen Harleth. I mean, she’s so clearly a--well, one of those women who sigh disingenuously and say, “I don’t know what it is, but I have no women friends,” with a subtle implication that other women are mean or jealous, when it is so often she who is, at best, uninterested in anyone of her own sex. Reading back over his post, however, Levi clearly says she has a tendency towards the toxic00and my reaction perhaps reveals more about me than anything else. But still . . .

I had just finished Can You Forgive Her? before embarking on Daniel Deronda, and Trollope does describe the mental states of very different men and especially women so beautifully. (Although, when you get down to it, you could argue, Alice and Glencora are saved from their real doubts and turmoil, by steadfast, serious men who are (mostly) confident this phase will pass.) Eliot is even better. And perhaps because she is a woman, she gives us a character we don’t often see: the woman about whom all the other women say, “Why don’t any of the guys notice that she is horrible?”

And Gwendolen is a little horrible.

She shirks participating in her half-sisters’ education. “’It bores me to death, [Alice] is so slow. She has no ear for music, or language, or anything else. It would be much better for her to be ignorant, mamma: It is her rĂ´le, she would do it well.’” Her mother exhorts her to be kind to her friendly cousin:
"You know, you can’t expect her to be equal to you." "I don’t want to be equal," said Gwendolen, with a toss of her head and a smile, and the discussion ended there.
She even participates in behavior that today’s psychologists would consider sociopathic:
Though never even as a child thoughtlessly cruel, nay, delighting to rescue drowning insects and watch their recovery, there was a disagreeable silent remembrance of her having strangled her sister’s canary-bird in a final fit of exasperation at its shrill singing which had again and again jarringly interrupted her own. She had taken pains to buy a white mouse for her sister in retribution, and though inwardly excusing herself on the ground of a peculiar sensitiveness which was a mark of her general superiority, the thought of that infelonious murder had always made her wince.
White mouse aside, I wish that Isabel had left the cabinet with the creepy portrait open on purpose to ruin her vain charades. And even more damning to me:
In the ladies’ dining-room it was evident that Gwendolen was not a general favourite with her own sex; there were no beginnings of intimacy between her and other girls, and in conversation they rather noticed what she said than spoke to her in free exchange. Perhaps it was that she was not much interested in them, and when left alone in their company had a sense of empty benches. Mrs. Vulcany once remarked that Miss Harleth was too fond of the gentlemen; but we know that she was not in the least fond of them--she was only fond of their homage--and women did not give her homage.
Yes, Gwendolen is constrained by convention: the segregated dinners exist because “the amiable Lord Brackenshaw, who was something of a gourmet, mentioned Byron’s opinion that a woman should never be seen eating...” (!) But Gwendolen isn’t thwarted in her ambition to make art or enter politics, and not for a moment do I believe she really wants to be an adventuress. She wants only to make an effect. She needs admiration--and since women don’t exist to her, it is the admiration of men. This need--all that society can really offer her-does not make Gwendolen unworthy of sympathy; quite the opposite:
She rejoiced to feel herself exceptional; but her horizon was that of the genteel romance where the heroine’s soul poured out in her journal is full of vague power, originality and general rebellion, while her life moves strictly in the sphere of fashion; and if she wanders into a swamp, the pathos lies partly, so to speak, in her having on satin shoes. Here is a restraint which nature and society have provided on the pursuit of striking adventure; so that a soul burning with a sense of what the universal is not, and ready to take all existence as fuel, is nevertheless held captive by the ordinary wirework of social forms and does nothing in particular.
There is something poignant in how Gwendolen knows she wants something, but doesn’t know what. But she clearly knows she doesn’t want anyone else to have it. Still, much as Gwendolen might not like it, I was also touched by Eliot’s evocation of a vulnerability that ties her to all women:
Could there be a slenderer, more insignificant thread in human history than this consciousness of a girl, busy with her small inferences of the way in which she could make her life pleasant?...

What in the midst of that mighty drama are girls and their blind visions? They are the Yea and Nay of that good for which men are enduring and fighting. In these delicate vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affections.
It does probably help my sympathy (or schadenfreude) that things are stacking up against Gwendolen that could make her very unhappy, indeed. But I imagine she will take it with more spirit, than the very Dickens-like, beautiful, but oh-so-sad eighteen year old, who just appeared so Deronda can want to protect her. (Speaking of Dickens’s women, I reject the apocryphal stories of people running down to New York harbor to ask the arriving ships if Little Nell had died, because no one is described as asking hopefully.) I trust that there will be more to this new character--already she has been identified as a Jewess, which I’m sure was shocking at the time--but I can’t imagine her being equal to Gwendolen. And I don’t know that I want her to be.

(I have not answered Levi’s questions, but I did have some thoughts about hunting for later.)

1 comment:

  1. Mark Marowitz9:20 PM

    I am gratified that you touch on the song bird incident. Have you ever held a canary on your finger? Strangle? Nay, crushed the neck betwixt her fingers.