‘Gwendolen Harleth’

F.R. Leavis

George Eliot called her last novel Daniel Deronda, so that to separate part of it off for publication[*] under another title than her own might seem to be challenging the judgment, the deliberate and emphatic intention, of the author herself in the most questionable way. But there are two George Eliots, and they both – neither, it seems, embarrassed by consciousness of the duality – play dominating roles in the massive book: they dominate it together as if they were one. But the essential spirits in which they dominate are so much not one that the creatively vital of them by its mere presence as what it unmistakably is exposes the creative impotence of the other. That George Eliot should have been so unconscious of the incompatibility of the spirits she has in fact married together is one of the things that seem most to justify the usual dismissal of Daniel Deronda. It also makes the book in a special way a rewarding critical study, one that notably illuminates the nature of creativity. But my directing purpose here is not what such a statement suggests: it is to establish in the only way possible that there is a major classic, which may be suitably called Gwendolen Harleth, hidden from the general recognition it deserves in the voluminous mixed work that George Eliot published – a classic it is incumbent on us to reclaim for English literature.

It is Gwendolen Harleth who represents the great creative George Eliot – Gwendolen, together with the drama in which she is the focal character. The other George Eliot, to whom, respectful as we are bound to feel towards her, we must deny the insight, the disinterested intensity and the irresistible power of the major creative genius, gave to the novel the name of Daniel Deronda – on behalf, as it were, of both. It is a prompting that we have to defy. That is easily said: but the right kind of defiance isn’t so easily determined and arrived at.

That George Eliot is great, and that her greatness is qualified by characteristic weaknesses – this is generally recognised. It is not perhaps a commonplace that, though not in an even way, and never achieving perfection, she went on advancing in her novelist’s art to the end, and produced her most impressive work in her last novel. But it is so: the very substantial strong part of Daniel Deronda is itself, I hope it will be recognised, one of the major classics of the English tradition – it seems to me a greater novel than Middlemarch. Yet it is little read by the public that makes, or keeps, such judgments a live currency, accepted and effectively real. The trouble is that the insufferably boring stretches that the title insists on loom so large, and do in fact face the conscientious reader with a painful corvée. And the enlightened and kindly sprightliness of the Meyrick household, Mirah’s refuge, hardly tends to compensate for the non-excitements of the long-unvindicated hope of finding and identifying Mirah’s brother, for Mordecai’s flow of prophetic eloquence, and for the complexities of family history that explain why Deronda had the opportunity to save Mirah from committing suicide in the Thames.

There can be few who have read Daniel Deronda to whom the idea has not occurred of freeing by simple surgery the living part of the immense Victorian novel from the deadweight of utterly different matter that George Eliot thought fit to make it carry: it promises on first thoughts to be a pretty easily effected disencumberment. But when one contemplates the challenge in a practical spirit a forbidding major difficulty presents itself – I speak as one who in the past has several times been moved to consider the idea as a possibility to the realising of which one ought, out of admiration for George Eliot, to apply oneself.

The difficulty lies in that ‘thought fit’: she did, having no discordant perception or apprehension, think fit to unite the compellingly imagined human truth of Gwendolen Harleth’s case-history with the quite differently inspired presentation, the difference being radical and disastrous, of her Daniel Deronda in what is offered us as an organically-conceived total work, a living single whole. The very opening of the first chapter intimates that we shall hardly find it possible to eliminate Deronda from the projected Gwendolen Harleth. Not that we can point to anything in the initial episode that could have led us to foresee (but for our knowledge of what actually ensues) the kind of problem we should find ourselves faced with. Deronda and the essential relation between him and Gwendolen are introduced with all the inspired skill, the perfection of touch, of the great George Eliot. We arrive at realising the full significance of this favourable judgment only a good deal later – when we have become familiar with a Deronda towards whom we can’t feel in the way the novelist counts on us to feel, and when we know that the kind of interest she takes in him is something about which we can’t be happy.

It is essential to the presentation of the Gwendolen whose naively egoistic confidence has been shattered, and who, having married Grandcourt, finds herself trapped in a torment of conscience and impotence, that she should have a lay father-confessor to resort to, an authoritative spiritual guide whom she trusts implicitly: the need is in and of her case. The observer whose ironically compassionate interest in her as she stands at the gaming table still strikes one when – knowing what developments are to come – one considers again the opening episode and its sequel, the prompt and offensive return to Gwendolen of the turquoise necklace she has pawned, is (in embryo) potentially the right confessor for her. There is certainly nothing in our sense of him to preclude that development: the deep-piercing imaginative intuition of the great creative George Eliot here is focused where the observing Deronda’s (which is in fact hers) is – on the beautiful, young, reckless and proud Gwendolen and the fate she is defying.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] F.R. Leavis’s account of the project involving his surgical ‘liberation’, from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, of the novel ‘Gwendolen Harleth’ may be seen as an interesting document of a confident time which is now past: such-and-such a chapter ‘had to go in’, and others had to stay out. Bodley Head were, in the event, in 1976, unable to proceed with the publication of the liberated text.

[†] What Blake said of works of his own is relevant here: ‘Tho’ I call them Mine, I know that they are not Mine.’