Every few years I rediscover George Eliot. I just finished Adam Bede. I cried over Hetty Sorrell, the shallow, flirtatious, irritating, self-centered dairymaid who wins our sympathy only after she gets pregnant by the squire’s son, runs away, and then kills her baby. Hetty is the predecessor of Thomas Hardy’s much more complex Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Is it worth reading otherwise?
Well, its not my favorite.
Nonetheless, it’s fascinating that Hetty’s story is based on a real case. Eliot’s aunt, an early Methodist woman preacher, spent the night in a Nottingham prison comforting a woman sentenced to death for infanticide. These issues are still very real in the 21st century, with the Christian right raging against abortion rights.
Let’s keep abortion safe and legal, as we used to say in my NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) days.
And of course Dinah, the Methodist preacher in Adam Bede, is based loosely on Eliot’s aunt.
I’m on an Eliot binge. I finished Middlemarch in December. And now I’m thinking of reading Daniel Deronda again. Can I justify it so soon?
In 2010 I happily reread Daniel Deronda. DD is probably my favorite Victorian novel, definitely my favorite George Eliot. I jot down a few things every rereading, but never anything one needs to know: I leave that for the scholars.
On Jan. 31, 2010, I wrote:
Daniel Deronda is perhaps my favorite book. (Sometimes it’s The Mill on the Floss: the favorite fluctuates.) My husband bet me I could read it in a weekend: he lost. But three hundred pages into it, I still love Gwendolyn Harleth, the overly-confident, beautiful, witty, snobbish heroine, who reminds me very much of Emma. Gwendolyn is skilled, but she could be more skilled. 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. She is a Diana, a chaste huntress (she rides to hounds, and when her male escort falls from his inadequate mount and strains his shoulder, she appallingly thinks it funny, because she views it in her mind as a kind of cartoon). She despises men, does not want to marry, and dreams of doing something great. But her mother loses her money, and Gwendolyn must give up her dreams.”
Reading 19th-century novels is intensely personal. They feel more real than most modern novels. Put me in another century, in a society where the rules are clearly understood, at least in retrospect, where a middle-class woman doesn’t have to choose between defining herself by an ill-paid job or being a non-entity at home, and defining herself by an ill-paid job is the approved option, I know where I am. (Probably the maid, but oh, well…)
The Victorians unembarrassedly deal with moral questions–there seems to be time for that, because their characters aren’t racing to the restroom to do coke every five minutes, as in some contemporary novels I read last year.
Eliot’s humanism, moral vision, and sympathy for her characters is greater than that of almost any contemporary writer I can think of.
So I’m Victorian in my literary tastes.
And, though I don’t have the faintest idea who some of the characters are in contemporary novels, I am on the side of the erring Gwendolyns and the (Jane Austen’s) Emmas, the lively, talented, if self-absorbed, characters who will entertain me at tea, but who, sadly, make egregious personal errors through not understanding what they are seeing and who suffer through their strong-willed transcending the limits of their sex. In Emma’s case, it is fantasy, laughter, and the desire to dominate others: she does not understand what she is seeing and sees only what she wants to see, and part of the error is that she doesn’t see as Knightley does. In Gwendolyn’s case, it is also fantasy and the hope of dominating: she believes she may become a musician rather than marry when her family loses its money, and she does not understand that by marrying Grandcourt, a sadist, and of course she is too young to understand that’s what he is, she forfeits all control. (Grandcourt and Knightley–now there’s a pair.) Both women are bright but not well-educated. But Emma is rich so she has an easy berth. Gwendolyn’s error of marriage is irrevocable.
Of course Daniel Deronda is not just about Gwendolyn, but it is Gwendolyn who haunts me. Nineteenth-century or not, there are a lot of Gwendolyns out there.
And, to end this on not such a serious note, here is an excerpt from my Jan. 29, 2010 blog:
Because of reading Daniel Deronda at the gym, I burned off far fewer calories than usual, pedaling slowly in a trance. My 900-page Penguin is disintegrating–the binding is so loose it’s more like a calendar with tear sheets than a book–but I’m preserving it in a rubber band so I can reread the intro and commentary. Although I like to make fun of others’ notes in books, I have to laugh at myself: there is an aberrant chicken cacciatore recipe on the last page, which I scrawled there for reasons best known to my younger self. Couldn’t I have borrowed a piece of paper?”