‘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.

But it was not in the plan of the novelist as elaborator of plots to actualise what we must see as the felicitous potentiality. I might have said that George Eliot, the great genius, having begun what was to be a major work on a grand scale by associating Gwendolen with her future disciplinary guide in the ideal way, hands Deronda over to the other George Eliot if the ‘hand over’ wouldn’t have implied a conscious duality. But, as I have said already, the extraordinary thing about George Eliot (who had been known as a distinguished savant until decidedly middle-aged) is that her novels yield no evidence of the least awareness of the radical difference. Yet the difference is radical: it entails the difference between the ability to draw on the deepest springs of creative life[†] and a confident lack of that ability. And I have further to insist – having described Mary Ann Evans as a savant and remembering that she hobnobbed with the great intellects of the age and was known as the translator of Strauss and Feuerbach – that the creative genius was incomparably more intelligent than the other George Eliot. This is a point that oughtn’t to have needed making, but it does – which is a sign of its crucial importance.

The difference matters to us and matters in relation to the recognised standing of the novelist; it is decidedly for us, at any rate, to cultivate and refine our consciousness of it and of the issues involved. It is in Chapter XVI, the first of those I excise, that we get the monitory hint of what actually is going to be done with Deronda. He appears before that in Chapter XV, which I have included in Gwendolen Harleth. He is still, with Sir Hugo Mallinger, at Leubronn after Gwendolen’s sudden departure, and in this conversational exchange about her we know unquestioningly that we have the Deronda of the opening chapter; it is the same distinctive kind of interest in the ‘pretty gambler’, evoked by the same creative sensibility:

   When Sir Hugo and Deronda were alone, the baronet began –

   ‘Rather a pretty story. That girl has some drama in her. She must be worth running after – has de l’imprévu. I think her appearance on the scene has bettered my chance of getting Diplow, whether the marriage comes off or not.’

   ‘I should hope a marriage like that would not come off,’ said Deronda, in a tone of disgust.

   ‘What! Are you a little touched by the sublime lash?’ said Sir Hugo, putting up his glasses to help his short sight in looking at his companion.

   ‘Are you inclined to run after her?’

   ‘On the contrary,’ said Deronda, ‘I should rather be inclined to run away from her.’

   ‘Why, you could easily cut out Grandcourt. A girl with her spirit would think you the finer match of the two,’ said Hugo, who often tried Deronda’s patience by finding a joke in impossible advice. (A difference of taste in jokes is a great strain on the affections.)

   ‘I suppose pedigree and land belong to a fine match,’ said Deronda, coldly.

   ‘The best horse will win in spite of pedigree, my boy. You remember Napoleon’s mot – Je suis un ancêtre,’ said Sir Hugo, who habitually undervalued birth, as men after dining well often agree that the good of life is distributed with wonderful equality.

   ‘I’m not sure that I want to be an ancestor,’ said Deronda. ‘It doesn’t seem to me to be the rarest kind of origination.’

   ‘You won’t run after the pretty gambler, then?’ said Sir Hugo, putting down his glasses.

   ‘Decidedly not.’

   This answer was perfectly truthful; nevertheless it had passed through Deronda’s mind that under other circumstances he should have given way to the interest this girl had raised in him, and tried to know more of her. But his history had given him a strong bias in another direction. He felt himself in no sense free.

It is the next chapter (XVI) that points forward to the complicating development in relation to which we have to consider George Eliot’s embarrassing duality. The scene is Sir Hugo’s residence, and the chapter opens:

   Deronda’s circumstances indeed had been exceptional. One moment had been burnt into his life as its chief epoch – a moment full of July sunshine and large pink roses shedding their last petals on a grassy court enclosed on three sides by a Gothic cloister. Imagine him in such a scene: a boy of 13, stretched prone on the grass where it was in shadow, his curly head propped on his arms over a book, while his tutor, also reading, sat on a camp-stool under shelter. Deronda’s book was Sismondi’s History of the Italian Republics: the lad had a passion for history, eager to know how time had been filled up since the Flood, and how things were carried on during the dull periods. Suddenly he let down his left arm and looked at his tutor, saying in purest boyish tones –

   ‘Mr Fraser, how was it that the popes and cardinals always had so many nephews?’

   The tutor, an able young Scotchman who acted as Sir Hugo Mallinger’s secretary, roused rather unwillingly from his political economy, answered with the clear-cut, emphatic chant which makes a truth doubly telling in Scotch utterance –

   ‘Their own children were called nephews.’

   ‘Why?’ said Deronda.

So he learns the meaning of the word ‘illegitimate’ and there ‘darts into his mind with the magic of quick comparison the possibility that here was the secret of his own birth, and that the man he called uncle was really his father.’ He is only 13, but his inner life from that moment is painfully intensified and complicated – a ‘circumstance’ that (we are to understand) helps to explain the preternatural wisdom, gravity and authority that later, though he is only a couple of years older than Gwendolen, lead her to make him her compassionate but largely unwilling and embarrassed confessor. The mystery of his birth is an essential ingredient in the Anti-Gwendolen Harleth (we may call it) that fills about half of the immense Victorian novel. The mystery isn’t cleared up until Daniel Deronda is nearing its end, when Daniel turns out to be legitimate after all, and not a son of Sir Hugo, but a Jew. He gets his beauty and his distinction from his mother, the Princess Halm-Eberstein who, herself a Jew, had arranged with Sir Hugo to have him brought up as an English gentleman.

Among the unrealities and falsities that are confirmed or authorised by this discovery is that Deronda can now propose to Mirah (whose long-sought brother the prophetic Mordecai, it turns out, is) with the certainty of being, not – as before – rejected, but accepted: for Mirah, he can hardly help knowing, is devoutly in love with him, but naturally wouldn’t think of marrying anyone but a Jew. I call all this an unreality because neither Deronda nor Mirah is real, while George Eliot’s endorsing participation in Deronda’s euphoria at being proved a Jew – it goes with resentment at having been so long kept out of the spiritual and moral advantages of his Jewishness – makes it a falsity too. In fact, the only interest – and it doesn’t preclude boredom – yielded by the tedious Victorian web of plot-ingenuities leading, at great length, to the coincidence that brings Deronda to Genoa for his interview with the Princess, his mother, in time to be recognised by Gwendolen and Grandcourt at the Italia, and be at hand to take charge of Gwendolen after the marine disaster, is a study of George Eliot’s own clear and self-committing sympathetic involvement and the nature of the duality to which this relates.

There is a pervasive unreality that contrasts with the vivid livingness and actuality of the persons, scenes and episodes that George Eliot the creative genius makes present to us. It is the unreality of self-indulgent day-dream, indulgence that passes unrecognised by the novelist for what it is. When she writes as the great genius, her truly noble and compassionate benignity is controlled by the intelligence and insight it informs – or, more simply, it goes into the intelligence and insight and functions as these. But she has a profound need to feel benignly and compassionately disinterested, and sometimes this prevails as a kind of intoxication that licenses for self-indulgence the weak side of her femininity. The egoism and falsity of day-dream manifest themselves as sentimentality.

What deserves to be called genuine compassion is exemplified in the penetrating intelligence with which Gwendolen is given us: she is as unlike George Eliot herself as could well be, but the disinterestedness of sympathetic insight could hardly go further than in Gwendolen Harleth. It looks as if the strain of maintaining this utterly unflinching and unsentimental realism, the strain of continued self-exposure to the reports of disinterested insight, does something to explain the paradox of Daniel Deronda – the collapse into day-dream self-indulgence.

The day-dream is a kind of fairy-tale, ending for Deronda in happiness and benign intoxication ever after. He is a fairy-tale hero-prince, irresistibly beautiful, absolutely altruistic and a genius – for this last is what the letter Sir Hugo sends the Princess virtually says. In the Meyricks’ Chelsea home, which provides a haven for Mirah (its proximity to the river has point), he is referred to as Prince Caramalzaman. True, the mode of reference is humorous in tone, but the humour has no astringency in it – it’s a form of sentimentality. In fact, I find the whole Meyrick milieu, including the humorous and artistically irresponsible Hans, Deronda’s Cambridge protégé-friend, insufferable. A certain astringency is seldom far away in the art of the great George Eliot: there is no astringency at all in the treatment of Deronda and the Deronda world.

The George Eliot of noble altruism offers to offset and authenticate the exalted Hebraism of the prophetic Mordecai – whom she implicitly endorses – with the indulgent low-life realism of the pawnbroker and his whole ménage, including the odius spoilt brat Jacob and little Adelaide-Rebekah, whom Deronda, unmistakably agent here of non-mother sentimental femininity, is made to kiss. The astringency of the creative genius can be wholly unreductive and is in any case free from superiority. In the portrayal of the admirable Mr Gascoigne it serves as defensive explanation of Gwendolen: his worldliness is necessary to the wisdom that George Eliot is far from treating as a debit-item against him. The inability of that wisdom to see that marriage to Grandcourt can only be disastrous is neither hateful conventionality nor stupidity: it is inevitable, and is registered as bringing out how virtually inevitable some painful misadventure is for a girl like Gwendolen in the world – the normal civilised world – into which she has been born. The astringency is strongly there in the portrayal of Klesmer, who – a great artist, standing up without compromise for the supreme importance of creativity – represents a basic value of the great George Eliot. It is the marriage of Miss Arrowpoint to Klesmer and not Deronda’s to Mirah that gives us the significance, the authoritatively endorsed antithesis, of Gwendolen’s to Grandcourt.

There isn’t, and there couldn’t be, either a Klesmer or a Miss Arrowpoint in anything inspired by the Deronda ethos. For Klesmer and Miss Arrowpoint together represent irrepressible creativity understood, immensely respected and truly valued by intelligence – its essential part in the living human world realised and consciously recognised. What is posited as supremely admirable in Deronda is not creativity, but rather its absence: he is noble altruism personified – it is made plain to us that the meaning of life resides for him in the exercise of noble compassion; we are told, as by George Eliot, that his extraordinary distinction manifests itself in the service of unfortunates who need succouring: ‘Persons attracted him, as Hans Meyrick had done, in proportion to the possibility of his defending them, rescuing them, telling upon their lives with some sort of redeeming influence.’ The Deronda in George Eliot is not conscious that this ideal of noble altruism doesn’t belong to the great writer who vindicated her insight and her faith by creating Klesmer and Miss Arrowpoint. It is actually a form of egoism; the day-dream self-indulgence and the unreality so apparent here are characteristic: ‘Since I began to read and know, I have always longed for some ideal task in which I might feel myself the heart and brain of a multitude – some social captainship, which would come to me as a duty, and not to be striven for as a personal prize.’ Deronda’s utterance is equally the novelist’s – it exemplifies the day-dream self-identification, and what one notes is the way in which it reduces the possibilities to a choice between ‘duty’ (fixed and known beforehand, and assumed to be authoritatively final) and a ‘personal prize’. The artist’s striving is of another kind than that which achieves ‘personal prizes’, and the effect of the reduction is to rule out the artist’s distinctive responsibility, which is of an utterly different order from anything that the word ‘duty’ suggests.

I am not judging one way or the other the attitude towards Zionism that George Eliot expresses through Deronda: ‘That is a task which presents itself to me as a duty ... I am resolved to devote my life to it.’ I am merely insisting that the George Eliot who presents us with a Deronda whom she asks us to take as being real with a reality that qualifies him to exist in a world that contains Gwendolen, Grandcourt, Mr Gascoigne, Herr Klesmer and Miss Arrowpoint is guilty of a radical confusion. It follows that the Deronda-wisdom derives no penetration or authority from the insight of the great creative George Eliot, and the confusion faces the would-be liberator of Gwendolen Harleth with a difficulty. It is not only that Gwendolen as the insight of genius has presented her does need to be provided with a lay-confessor: there has also to be dealt with the problem constituted by the worst aspect of the confusion inherent in George Eliot’s duality. The spiritual disciplinarian to a Gwendolen is, one may venture, necessarily a man, and one can hardly censure the imagination that conceived him as attractive. The shattering (for Gwendolen) irony of the close can’t, then, be dispensed with – the blow dealt her by the unforeseen when her trusted and almost deified physician tells her, the patient, just as the consciousness of having fallen in love with him dawns in her, that he is about to marry someone else. The difficulty for the liberator is that the physician is Deronda, the significance of whose development is to be seen in its goal – Zionism – and the someone else is Mirah, the worthy sister of the prophet Mordecai: so that it is impossible to purge Gwendolen Harleth completely of the voluminous clouds of Zionising altruism and Victorian nobility that Deronda trails and emits – and is, in so far as he doesn’t, as he does now and then, in scenes where he is present with Gwendolen or where the novelist’s focus is on her, speak in the voice and spirit of the greater of the George Eliots.

It has nevertheless turned out to be after all possible to produce a sufficiently self-contained Gwendolen Harleth by excising the virtual half of the total work that seems to justify the title the novelist gave it – the half that is focused on Deronda and the process leading up to the proof of his Jewishness; and further, by reducing to the necessary minimum the confidential talks between Deronda and Gwendolen. Not to have done this last could only have been to emphasise the formal imperfection left by the excision of the unacceptable Deronda theme – most certainly unacceptable as a major something against which the theme of Gwendolen and Grandcourt is, in the novelist’s invention, to be counterpointed.

I make the penultimate chapter (with some elisions) of Daniel Deronda – significantly, the next and last concerns Deronda’s marriage to Mirah – the final chapter of Gwendolen Harleth. It had to go in, for it records his embarrassed last interview with Gwendolen, in which he has somehow to tell her of the approaching marriage. We read it as having its main focus on Gwendolen, and it closes with a truly fitting end for Gwendolen Harleth.

   When he was quite gone, her mother came in and found her sitting motionless.

   ‘Gwendolen, dearest, you look very ill,’ she said, bending over her and touching her cold hands.

   ‘Yes, mamma. But don’t be afraid. I am going to live,’ said Gwendolen, bursting out hysterically.

   Her mother persuaded her to go to bed, and watched by her. Through the day and half the night she fell continually into fits of shrieking, but cried in the midst of them to her mother, ‘Don’t be afraid. I shall live. I mean to live.’

   After all, she slept; and when she waked up in the morning light, she looked up fixedly at her mother and said tenderly, ‘Ah, poor mamma! You have been sitting up with me. Don’t be unhappy. I shall live. I shall be better.’

It is a perfect close to the novel that, of all she wrote, seems to me the supreme product of the great George Eliot’s genius. It can hardly be denied that egoism is one of Gwendolen’s most prominent characteristics. But ‘egoism’ is a word that has a number of forces – the novelist herself is highly conscious that Grandcourt’s egoism is very different from Gwendolen’s. His is basic, ultimate, irremediable and evil. He is described as a ‘used-up life’; and he has no satisfaction left but to feel superior to everyone and to dominate and make his power to do so felt – and he remains always bored. There is a remarkable coincidence with Lawrence when George Eliot refers to Grandcourt as a ‘handsome lizard of a hitherto unknown species, not of the lively, darting kind’. I am thinking of the passage in The Crown (V) where Lawrence takes the snake and the newt, and reptilian creatures generally, as representing ‘the opposite equivalent of creation’. And it is not for nothing that in the same pages I find an analysis confirming my remark that the noble altruism and the emphasis on duty as a sufficient end in itself of which the Zionising George Eliot makes Deronda the representative is a form of egoism – of imprisonment in the ego. The Deronda-will to be subject to a fixed and all-commanding duty is anti-creative. ‘We cannot,’ says Lawrence, ‘subject a divine process to a static will, not without blasphemy and loathsomeness.’ It is no mere matter of artistic creation, though that it should be the great creative George Eliot who implicitly makes my point about her Gwendolen is significant. It is not merely that the prostrate Gwendolen’s resolution to ease her mother’s distress can hardly be called the will that is egoism. Lawrence’s distinction between Will and Power is a necessary one; Gwendolen certainly has egoistic will, but she has something else too – she has Power: creative life that comes in from outside the enclosing ego.

This truth about her is manifested in many ways; the Power that flows from beyond the ego is what Lawrence calls divine. That Gwendolen has it is again and again virtually stated too, as here: ‘Behind, of course, were the sad faces of the four superfluous girls, each, poor thing – like those many thousand sisters of us all – having her peculiar world which was of no importance to any one else, but all of them feeling Gwendolen’s presence to be somehow a relenting of misfortune: where Gwendolen was, something interesting would happen ... ’ This life-giving vitality of Gwendolen’s, so different from Grandcourt’s sinister will, makes her reduction to an abjectly complete loss of belief in herself and life peculiarly poignant. But the close of Gwendolen Harleth strikes the right note – not happy, but intimating that the loss of Power was not final. It is a close that, with beautiful felicity, puts the final emphasis on Gwendolen as the girl who was worth all the attention bestowed on her by a great, clear-sighted and profoundly wise genius. To have included the last chapter of Daniel Deronda would have been to end with a fling in the face of the absolutely necessary critical discrimination – that between the supremely feminine great novelist who meant so much to both Henry James and D.H. Lawrence and the ‘normally’ noble Victorian woman-intellectual who, as such, was capable of exemplifying a weaker kind of feminity. It would have been to end with an insistence that the Hebraising Deronda of the fullDeronda-theme was real with the compelling reality of Gwendolen, her mother, Grandcourt, Mr Gascoigne, Lush, Herr Klesmer and Miss Arrowpoint.

It is impossible to imagine how the spiritual disciplinarian of the opening of Daniel Deronda might have been developed in a way that, while providing for the poignant irony of the close, wouldn’t have entailed our anaesthetising ourselves to the Zionism with which, after the first 15 chapters, George Eliot in her duality commits herself to identifying him. The gratuitousness of the identification – for it is gratuitous – she disguises from herself by making it a ‘universal’ concern that is to be contrasted with the narrow egoisms of Gwendolin and Grandcourt. But actually this kind of noble altruism, as Deronda so naively reveals in his way of welcoming the discovery that he is a Jew and now has a fixed and certain ‘duty’, is a way of dodging true responsibility. The less we are reminded of the Hebraising background the better, if Deronda is to be acceptable in the essential role he has in Gwendolen Harleth.

And it seems to me, reading through the chapters forming that magnificent product of George Eliot’s creative genius, that Deronda, as he figures there, sufficiently justifies his presence and makes plain how and why he is a necessary actor.

We could hardly ask for more; George Eliot set us a problem that didn’t permit of a perfect solution. But the imperfection is not of a kind to embarrass us or hold us up. In any case, a masterpiece of George Eliot’s most brilliant and mature art is made more accessible for recognition than when embedded in Daniel Deronda. So in that sense it is possible to say, or at any rate to hope, that a classic has been permanently added to English literature.

[*] 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.’