This Week in My Classes (March 22, 2010)

This week I have the pleasure, if also the challenge, of starting up work on two tremendously interesting and intelligent novels. In British Literature Since 1800, we are turning to Ian McEwan’s Atonement; in my graduate seminar, it’s time for Daniel Deronda. Reading the first instalments over the past few days, I’m reminded how thrilling it is to know you are in the hands of a skilled writer, someone with not just ideas, but the craft to support them formally. As often happens through this kind of serendipitous juxtapotion, I’m also struck by the unexpected connections between them. In particular, both deal with female protagonists bent on shaping the world to their will–though the more literal willfulness of Gwendolen Harleth, eager to fulfill a destiny worthy of a heroic narrative, becomes, in Atonement, the more characteristically modern preoccupation with the writing process, with Briony desiring control over the story itself.

It’s Gwendolen who is most on my mind tonight, with the seminar meeting tomorrow morning. After reading four other novels by George Eliot in fairly quick succession, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the characters are all close kin to each other–cousins, perhaps. We have been fretting, in our recent class discussions, about the emphasis Eliot places on submission and resignation. “Grant me at least a new servitude!” Jane Eyre cries, but we know, as she does, that her rebellious spirit can never be content with submission. Dinah, Maggie, Romola, and Dorothea, however, have in common a tendency to subordination; when they resist, they are likely to be chastened, as Maggie is (fatally) for even drifting away towards the gratification of her individual desires, as Romola is by Savonarola’s chiding voice calling her back to “her place,” or as Dorothea is by the gradual realization that the same ardent sympathy that elevates her above the common run of men or women inhibits her from claiming too much for herself. Egotism must be beaten back, is the incessant lesson–though Dorothea, at least, is able to seize happiness for herself. Egotists are the villains: Hetty, whose child pays the ultimate price for her inability to look away from the mirror to the window; Tito, whose hatred of anything unpleasant leads him step by compromised step away from the ties to the past that would steady his conscience; and Rosomand, flower of Miss Lemon’s Academy whose steadfast self-love crushes her ardent husband (who will eventually call her his “basil plant”–because basil, he says, flourishes on a dead man’s brains).

But in Daniel Deronda, we lead off with Gwendolen, whose governing principle is to do as she likes, whose sense of entitlement overpowers many of those around her so that, for instance, her mother cannot bear to deny her the horse she considers her right even when money is tight. Gwendolen aspires to mastery, though (unlike Rosamond) not through marriage, which she views, due to her mother’s sad experience, as a “dreary” option:

her thoughts never dwelt on marriage as the fulfilment of her ambition; the dramas in which she imagined herself a heroine were not wrought up to that close. . . . Her observation of matrimony ha dinclined her to think it rather a dreary state, in which a woman could not do what she liked, had more children than were desirable, was consequently dull, and became irrevocably immersed in humdrum.

Yet she is well aware that “marriage was social promotion,” and when the eligible bachelor Mr. Mallinger Grandcourt moves into the neighbourhood, she (and everyone else) can hardly avoid the expectation that a match will soon follow. There’s a nice wry allusion to Pride and Prejudice in the set-up:

Some readers of this history will doubtless regard it as incredible that people should construct matrimonial prospects on the mere report that a bachelor of good fortune and possibilities was coming within reach…

The evil twist that Eliot puts on this familiar story–in addition to making Gwendolen as sassy, but not nearly as honorable or upright as Lizzie Bennet–is in making Grandcourt every bit as determined on mastery as Gwendolen (“ah,” exclaims the narrator as their courtship reaches a climax, “piteous equality in the need to dominate!”). Against Gwendolen’s fierce ambition to rule at least herself, if not all those around her, is pitted the truly chilling will to power of a cold-blooded man (he is described as a “lizard”) whose interest in her increases as (even, because) she resists the lure of his wealth. Even before she has any particular reason, she is wary of commitment, uneasy at the prospect of “subjection to a possible self, a self not to be absolutely predicted.” This is the wariness we wish Dorothea had shown, especially in retrospect when we, and she, experience the soul-numbing effects of the actual self to whom she has, indeed, chosen subjection! And so Gwendolen’s resistance, though it seems to those around her, including Grandcourt, mere “coquettishness,” feels like more, like resistance, perhaps, to the inevitability of the marriage plot. Perhaps here, at last, is someone, however faulty, who is equipped to make a different life for herself. Faced with facts about Grandcourt’s past that make accepting his offer uncomfortable, maybe even immoral, she turns her back on him and heads off to Europe.

But we already know, because Eliot manipulates the chronology of the novel, that she is turned back by the collapse of the family fortunes. And so the long process of chastening begins. Reality will not accommodate her fantasies of control; life does not bend itself to her imperious will. Back in her modest home, soon to relocate to even shabbier quarters, Gwendolen faces humiliation: life as a governess, provided, of course, that she proves satisfactory at the interview (“The idea of presenting herself before Mrs Mompert in the first instance, to be approved or disapproved, came as pressure on an already painful bruise”). She is unable to keep her hopes up despite the model of Jane Eyre:

Some beautiful girls who, like her, had read romances where even plain governesses are centres of attraction and are sought in marriage, might have solaced themselves a little by transporting such plans into their own future . . . [but] her heart was too much oppressed . . .

But she is young, and beautiful, and accustomed to praise for her music, and so it occurs to her to try for a career on the stage:

The inmost fold of her questioning now, was whether she need take a husband at all–whether she could not achieve substantiality for herself and know gratified ambition without bondage.

That’s it! That’s what we have been wanting for these women; that’s what many feminist critics have blamed Eliot for not providing. After all, she achieved her own substantiality; she gratified her ambition! But no, the slapping down continues. The musical genius Herr Klesmer, called in to consult, refuses Gwendolen the easy satisfaction of praise, instead breaking down her shallow, superficial vanity. She has no talent, no discipline, no vocation. Being, as he says, a “beautiful and charming young lady” is not, after all, a qualification for success in the arduous life of an artist. Nothing seems to be left, after all, but resignation: “Things cannot be altered, and who cares?” she says to her mother; “It makes no difference to any one else what we do.”

When Mr Grandcourt re-enters, then, it seems to her  like a great chance to regain control: “she had the white reins in her hands again,” she feels. What follows is one of the most disturbing proposal scenes I know from this period. It only looks conventional: “any one seeing them as a picture would have concluded that they were in some stage of love-making suspense,” but it’s a game of a different kind, thinly disgused as “love-making.” Even the narrator seems uncomfortable at the end: “Was there ever before such a way of accepting the bliss-giving ‘Yes’?” And it’s a relief, not just for Gwendolen, but for all of us, that “she [has] no alarm lest he meant to kiss her.” She still hopes to rule, looking out the window at Grandcourt’s fine horses, for instance, and seeing them as “the symbols of command and luxury.” “Everything is to be as I like,” she reports triumphantly to her mother–but we can hardly believe that, knowing what we know. It’s the beginning of a marriage that will be truly a contest of wills, unlike the two disastrous examples in Middlemarch of a greater person (weak through the capacity for sympathy) being morally compelled into submission to a lesser one (stronger through unreflective egotism). Gwendolen and Grandcourt are like gladiators entering the ring.

And we can root for her, though with reservations, because she is not, in fact, monstrous quite as Tito or Rosamond is monstrous. Her wilfullness has a childish quality to it, a certain artifice or even pretense:

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 her satin shoes.

Ouch! There’s a sting in that last bit reminiscent of Eliot’s barbed analyses of Rosamond. But Rosamond doesn’t get any bits like this:

Solitude in any wide scene impressed her with an undefined feeling of immeasurable existence aloof from her, in the midst of which she was helplessly incapable of asserting herself. The little astronomy taught her at school used sometimes to set her imagination at work in a way that made her tremble; but always when some one joined her she recovered her indifference to the vastness in which she seemed an exile; she found again her usual world in which her will was of some avail. . . .

It seems likely that, in accepting Grandcourt, she is heading into a different kind of vastness, one in which her will may be of little avail. That experience will no doubt be morally salutary–but then, it seems, we’re back in familiar territory, giving up hope of dominating or even deciding our own lot, facing the uncaring blankness of existence with our only hope of grace being submission to our inevitable failure to do just as we like.

I’ll have to leave Briony for another time!

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