Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Gwendolen Harleth, spoiled child, and the place of women in Eliot's Victorian England

In Friday's Daniel Deronda post, Maggie raised the question of gender, and Eliot's presentation of women. It's a topic that's inescapable--how could the author of "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" not be constantly presenting us with reasons to think about women, their education, work, and rights, in her writing?

Unsurprisingly, Eliot's portrayals of women are among the most interesting and nuanced in Victorian literature. I've lately been admiring Trollope on that front, and his novels share a crucial characteristic with Eliot's: they are often about the women found in their pages, at least as much as they are about the men. The women aren't adjuncts to their men, or plot points or prizes for their men to fight over, but active agents in their own lives. Simply presenting them as rational, individual creatures would represent a step up from Dickens's fatuous, treacly angels, but Trollope and Eliot do more: they show us the choices women in general have, and then they help us understand how individual women approach them.

What is of particular interest on that front in the early pages of Daniel Deronda is how Eliot both succinctly describes the limitations women face and uses those limitations to help us understand the spoiled child character that she gives Gwendolen Harleth in the early going. Here, for example, is Gwendolen's answer to a question from Grandcourt, a presumed suitor, about her future plans:
"I don't know. We women can't go in search of adventures--to find out the North-West Passage or the source of the Nile, or to hunt tigers in the East. We must stay where we grow, or where the gardeners like to transplant us. We are brought up like the flowers, to look as pretty as we can, and be dull without complaining. That is my notion about the plants: they are often bored, and that is the reason why some of them have got poisonous. What do you think?" Gwendolen had run on rather nervously, lightly whipping the rhododendron bush in front of her.
Gwendolen is being flirtatious, certainly--and what better calls to mind the familiar nervous energy of flirtation than her "whipping the rhododendron bush"? But she is also being honest, and the honesty, examined closely, is chilling: women, she says, must live where they are or stay where they're taken, with essentially no choice in the matter. Their only recourse? To become toxic.

It is that refusal to deny reality that helps to explain Gwendolen early on. She knows that she is essentially a commodity, and that her job is to fetch the best price she can. Of Grandcourt, just before meeting him--and ensuring that she looks her best, so that he will feel "admiration unmixed with criticism"--she thinks, "She did not expect to admire him, but that was not necessary to her peace of mind." Elsewhere, reminded that if she intends to hunt, she must marry a man who can keep horses, she replies, "I don't know why I should do anything so horrible as to marry without that prospect, at least." Told that Grandcourt is a "delightful young man":
"Oh, yes," said Gwendolen, with a high note of careless admission, taking off her best hat and turning it round on her hand contemplatively. "I wonder what sort of behaviour a delightful young man would have?" Then, with a merry change of face, "I know he would have hunters and racers, and a London house and two country-houses,--one with battlements and another with a veranda. And I feel sure that with a little murdering he might get a title."
Her hearers are shocked, but to readers Gwendolen's wit feels clever, daring, individual, and pleasantly modern. It helps us to believe that even as she is capricious and demanding, she also is magnetic and interesting. Unlike, say, the dissolute young Sir Felix Carbury in Trollope's The Way We Live Now, Gwendolen is that rare spoiled child whose vivacity and appeal we comprehend. We see why people want to be around her, and why they're willing to put up with her less admirable qualities to do so.

Her humor is also her form of rebellion, and--along with her physical impulsiveness (whipping the rhododendrons, twirling her hat, jumping with her horse)--at the same time a reminder of the stifling limitations of her life. She is too smart and engaged for the society, and the choices, she's confronted with, and the friction generated by the difference between her human potential and her social value must be burnt off in that nervous energy. But her understanding of that disjunction also puts her at risk: she knows that she intuitively understands more than her family and friends, but she fails to realize that that understanding nonetheless has limits--limits whose effects are exacerbated by the differing social place of men and women. We see that in her first in-depth thoughts about Grandcourt:
Certainly, with all her perspicacity, and all the reading which seemed to her mamma dangerously instructive, her judgment was consciously a little at fault before Grandcourt. He was adorably quiet and free from absurdities--he would be a husband to suit with the best appearance a woman could make. But what else was he? He had been everywhere, and seen everything. That was desirable, and especially gratifying as a preamble to his supreme preference for Gwendolen Harleth. He did not appear to enjoy anything much. That was not necessary: and the less he had of certain tastes or desires, the more freedom his wife was likely to have in following hers. Gwendolen conceived that after marriage she would most probably be able to manage him thoroughly.

How was it that he caused her unusual constraint now?--that she was less daring and playful in her talk with him than with any other admirer she had known? That absence of demonstrativeness which she was glad of, acted as a charm in more senses than one and was slightly benumbing. Grandcourt after all was formidable--a handsome lizard of a hitherto unknown species, not of the lively, darting kind. But Gwendolen knew hardly anything about lizards, and ignorance gives one a large range of probabilities. This splendid specimen was probably gentle, suitable as a boudoir pet: what may not a lizard be, if you know nothing to the contrary?
It's unclear whether Gwendolen is the one thinking of Grandcourt as a lizard, or Eliot's narrator is, but the image is striking, and Gwendolen's ignorance telling. This, we are made to understand, will not go well.

{PS Questions for Maggie, to be addressed in her post later this week, if she's interested: Mr. Lush. Is he, as it seems early on, a straight Iago figure? Even if so, does he offer us a counterbalancing vision of a male being hemmed in by society and social position? Is this role as Grandcourt's consigliere all he could hope for, or do we have a sense that it's more what he's made himself suitable for? Alternative questions: How much do we as contemporary readers understand about hunting culture from reading Eliot (and even more so, Trollope)? I know that on my first encounter with the Victorians, I was entirely ignorant--now I certainly know more, but do I really understand what it would be like to be out with a hunt?}

No comments:

Post a Comment