Rearranging the characters in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, acclaimed British biographer Souhami (Murder at Wrotham Hill, 2012, etc.) audaciously puts a modern spin on a literary classic.
“Capricious, reckless, and in need of guidance,” “petulant and hard to please”: Gwendolen Harleth points out her flaws early and often in this secret confession to Deronda, the man who offers concern but not the love she craves. Gwendolen meets Deronda at a European spa where she has fled after being wooed by a rich but possibly sinister suitor, Henleigh Grandcourt. Beautiful and headstrong but hampered by her family’s ruined fortunes, Gwendolen is expected to make a good marriage to keep her mother and four stepsisters afloat. But she does not love Grandcourt, attracted instead to Deronda’s honesty and pure-mindedness. Her family’s worsening finances, however, force Gwendolen to overlook her doubts and accept Grandcourt. Three weeks later, she finds herself trapped in marriage to a cruel, vicious man. Meeting Deronda at social events, Gwendolen becomes even more deeply aware of her misery, but Deronda is now following his own path and can offer only sympathy and encouragement, even when Gwendolen is widowed. Souhami’s narration is deft and painstaking but, confined to Gwendolen’s self-absorbed perspective, has a limited range, further hindered by the more static phase the story enters after the sadistic marriage ends. Gwendolen still pines for Deronda but heals, rejoins society and spends time with George Eliot—“I had a sense of unreality, as if I was a work of fiction, a creation of her pen”—eventually learning to stand on her own two feet.
Playing with ideas about creativity, exploring Victorian gender roles and women’s rights, Souhami’s first novel is a well-crafted, idea-driven curiosity.