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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"Daniel Deronda" - Further Thoughts

I want to post some further thoughts on “Daniel Deronda,” but in fairness want to note that some of what follows reveals some of the plot so the reader is warned!

At the end of his introduction to the Oxford World Classic edition, Graham Handley writes about Grandcourt’s final effort to humiliate Gwendolyn. Gwendolyn married Grandcourt for financial reasons, knowing full well that Grandcourt had fathered children by a Mrs. Dasher, who he had refused to marry. In his will, made after his marriage, Grandcourt declares that if Gwendolyn does not “provide” him with a male heir that the bulk of his estate goes to his son by Mrs. Dasher. Gwendolyn receives only the use of the undesirable house where the Dasher family is exiled and 2000 pounds per year. Gwendolyn’s family and other supporters are greatly disturbed by this poor treatment.

Gwendolyn herself knew of the provision for the Dashers, but was probably not aware of what was left to her. But to everyone’s surprise the only question for her is to accept anything at all from Grandcourt. This is not the first time Eliot’s work where a female character has to make a choice involving money and love. I am thinking particularly of situations in “Middlemarch” and “Felix Holt: The Radical.” In those cases if the character chooses love, she loses the money or at least a significant amount of money. Here Gwendolyn first chose money over love (or at least some future possibility of love), but in the end values her integrity more than money.

As anyone who reads nineteenth century literature knows, these were not easy decisions. Middle class women without independent means had few acceptable means of earning a living. The most traditional being the unenviable lot of a governess which is, in fact, the choice Gwendolyn spurns to marry Grandcourt in the first place. A consistent thread throughout Eliot’s writing is that women should listen to their conscience, not financial need, in making such decisions.

This is especially interesting to me since in the Clarendon edition of “Adam Bede,” Eliot is quoted to the effect that her primary audience is young men. That certainly was a major theme of “Adam Bede,” which was her first novel, but it also continues throughout her work. It is certainly fair to say that the experiences of the young men in “Daniel Deronda” are also intended to speak to that audience. Although I did not enjoy this novel any where near as much as her other work, Eliot still something important to say, both for her time and for ours.


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