Is George Eliot the most elegant writer of the nineteenth century?
Many of you have doubtless read Middlemarch, her superb novel about provincial life. Some of you may have been introduced to Eliot in high school by Silas Marner, her sentimental novel about a miser redeemed by a child. Not the best introduction!
Over the years, Eliot’s books have delighted me, perhaps because I started with the best. I read Middlemarch in an independent reading class in high school, and, then as now, identified with Dorothea Brooke, the bright, fiery, naive young heroine who marries a homely middle-aged scholar, Mr. Casaubon, because she mistakes him for an intellectual. When I reread Middlemarch in 2010 and again in 2015 (I posted about it here), I channeled my inner good girl as I pored over the story of Dorothea with bated breath and the crazed hope that Dorothea would not marry Mr. Casaubon. (Do you ever hope a novel will have changed, too? But then what would the story be?)
Much as I love Middlemarch, it is not my favorite Eliot, though it is a very great book. No, I much prefer Daniel Deronda, her last novel, a strange hybrid book which is partly an inversion of the myth of Diana and Actaeon, partly the story of a man’s search for identity and his study of Judaism.
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.
The fraught relationship of Gwendolen and Grandcourt is an inverted reinterpretation of the myth of the struggle of Diana and Actaeon. In Ovid’s version in Book III of the Metamorphoses, Diana, goddess of virginity, archery, and the hunt, is omnipotent, while Actaeon, the hunter, is stripped of power for seeing the goddess naked in the bath . She furiously throws water at him and he metamorphoses into a stag, who then is horribly killed by his own hounds.
Gwendolen’s arrows are less accurate than Diana’s. Grandcourt first sees her at the archery competition; he admires her beauty and wants to crush her power. Gwendolen refuses his proposal of marriage after she is approached by his mistress, who has children, but changes her mind when her mother loses her money. Although she marries to support her mother and sisters, she had another option: her uncle had arranged for her to be a governess to a bishop’s family. And so Gwendolen, too, has committed an immoral act.
Grandcourt restricts her social contacts and isolates her, forbidding her to develop a friendship with Daniel Deronda and ordering her not to invite her mother for a visit. Gwendolen/Diana is slowly reduced from huntress to hunted.
Of what use was the rebellion within her? She could say nothing that would not hurt her worse than submission. Turning slowing and covering herself again, she went to her dressing-room. As she reached out the diamonds it occurred to her that her unwillingness to wear them might have already raised a suspicion in Grandcourt that she had some knowledge about them which he had not given her. She fancied that his eyes showed a delight in torturing her. How could she be defiant? She had nothing to say that would touch him—nothing but what would give him a more painful grasp on her consciousness.
Grandcourt has many dogs. They dote on him, but he is indifferent, sometimes cruel. Gwendolen observes,
“He delights in making the dogs and horses quail: that is half his pleasure in calling them his,” she said to herself, as she opened the jewel-case with a shivering sensation.
“It will come to be so with me; and I shall quail. What else is there for me? I will not say to the world, ‘Pity me.'”
Finally, Grandcourt manages to isolate her completely on a sailing trip off the coast of Italy. She is more trapped, more confined, than she has ever been on land.
But water conquers Grandcourt, as it conquers Actaeon.There is an accident, and Grandcourt falls into the sea. There is one moment, Gwendolen later relates to Daniel, when delayed throwing him the rope, paralyzed, though whether or not this would have made any difference we do not know. (Daniel says it would not.) Guiltily, she jumped into the sea after Grandcourt. She is rescued; Grandcourt drowns.
Water killed him, but was his drowning her fault? She believes it is. If indeed she killed him, as she fears, the motive was her freedom, not his money: she already knew the money would go to Grandcourt’s mistress and son if she did not produce an heir.
Diana, too, uses water to kill Actaeon. Here is a literal translation of Diana’s reactions (Metamorphoses III.188-190)
Though she wished she had her arrows at hand,
she took the water which she had and threw it in his virile face,
sprinkling his hair with avenging waters…
… ut vellet promptas habuisse sagittas,
quas habuit sic hausit aquas vultumque virilem
perfudit spargensque comas ultricibus undis…
Eliot’s novel is in many ways a feminist realist retelling of the myth of Diana and Actaeon. Water can be treacherous; water can be death or rebirth. G
wendolen’s doppelganger, Mirah, the talented Jewish singer, also wrestles with water: she is saved by Daniel from suicide by drowning. Which heroine do we prefer? The sinful, shattered woman who withholds the rope, or the sinful, shattered woman who tries to obliterate herself because of poverty and solitude? Curiously, Mirah , who as had a much harder life, is portrayed as almost too pure and goody-goody to be true. Gwendolen is entirely human. A brilliant, fascinating novel.