George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda & the Myth of Actaeon and Diana

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.

My much-read Everyman copy, with the lettering on the title fading.

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.

Eliot writes,

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.    Gwendolen’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.

Are We Dorothea? Reading Middlemarch on a Cold, Windy Day

Middlemarch eliot 9780192817600-uk-300 I wanted to get out:  I wanted to ride my bike, but the wind gusts were 9 mph. Yesterday the gusts were 21 mph:  I  zigzagged through tree-lined neighborhoods to find shelter.  Today I dressed lightly, because it was sunny and I was optimistic.  As I rode into a fierce wind, I shivered and sweated.

I took a break at a  coffeehouse and sat on the terrace and opened my copy (actually e-book) of Middlemarch.

An e-reader and iced ta.

Middlemarch on my unphotogenic e-reader and  iced tea.

What is your favorite Eliot?  It is supposed to be Middlemarch, yes? I love it, but I prefer Daniel Deronda, whose arrogant heroine, Gwendolyn Harleth, makes so many horrendous mistakes:  she even loses a valuable necklace gambling.  Yet Middlemarch is a masterpiece, an absorbing, satiric portrait of characters in a provincial town.  And we channel our inner good girl as we read about Dorothea Brooke, the bright, fiery, naive young heroine who marries a homely middle-aged scholar, Mr. Casaubon, mistaking him for an intellectual. She wants to shine in a brighter light than the society of Middlemarch and imagines herself helping with the research and making a contribution to the world.  Mr. Casaubon, however, is unable to organize his life work, a mass of notes for a “Key to All Mythologies.” During their honeymoon, he cannot even be bothered to accompany her to art museums and churches, but toils at his useless work. His young cousin, Will Ladislaw, an artist-turned-writer whose education has been paid for by Mr. Casaubon, is in Italy, and begins to take Dorothea to galleries.  He says Casaubon’s scholarly has already been done in German, a language Mr. Casaubon does not know. Dorothea is startled. And Mr. Casaubon is jealous of Will, with reason.

Illustration of Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, publishe by the Jenson Society in 1910.

Illustration of Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, published by the Jenson Society in 1910.

E-readers are so wonderful on the road, because Middlemarch is a big book to carry  on a bike.  I was up to Chapter 50:  Mr. Casaubon has finally died, and Dorothea is infuriated by “a strange indelicate proviso” in his will stating that Dorothea will lose his money if she marries Will Ladislaw.   (Will and the will–I like the joke.)  Dorothea is humiliated–certainly she has never thought of a second marriage– but  she also believes Will should have half the money, because his mother was disinherited for marrying out of her class.

Women in Middlemarch are dependent on men.  Dorothea has her own money, but she does not have the education.  It is not Mr. Casaubon’s money that interested her, but his mind. And because of the proviso in the will, she is  exasperated to find he also expected her to continue his work  She no longer feels the obligation.

Every word Eliot writes is so vivid and brilliant, and the images are spectacular.  His useless scholarly work is “a tomb.”

…he willingly imagined her toiling under the fetters of a promise to erect a tomb with his name upon it.  (Not that Mr. Casaubon called the future volumes a tomb; he called them the Key to all Mythologies.)  But the months gained on him and left his plans belated:  he had only had time to ask for that promise by which he sought to keep his cold grasp on Dorothea’s life.

The grasp had slipped away. …now her judgment, instead of being controlled by duteous devotion, was made active by the imbittering discovery that in her past union there had lurked the hidden alienation of secrecy and suspicion.

Every word is perfect!

middlemarch modern library 31G4jQG40XL._BO1,204,203,200_There are many, many characters in Middlemarch.  I am fascinated by Lydgate, a brilliant doctor with the ambition to do scientific research. His marriage prevents him:   marriage is  a trap in Middlemarch.    I am also very fond of  Mary Garth, the smart, sharp, sometimes  bitterly sarcastic young woman who, unsuited to be a governess, prefers to work as a nurse/companion to Mr. Featherstone, a dying rich man.  Mary’s morality unwittingly spoils her friend Fred Vincy’s chance of inheriting the money: I won’t tell you how.  Characters struggle in Eliot’s fictional provinces with doing the right thing.  The right things are right, but can be costly.  It takes a gambling vicar, Mr. Farebrother, to explain why Mary was right in the long run.  (And that’s why Mary should marry Mr. Farebrother, but you know it’s not going to happen.)

Whom do you love?  Not necessarily the right person in Eliot’s world:  that’s for sure!

Any introduction to Middlemarch can give you the background you need. These are just musings.  Writing about the classics is so difficult:  it is the life work of scholars.  This is not my life work!

Eliot’s last novel, Daniel Deronda, my favorite, is even more intense.

On with Middlemarch!