Saturday, August 7, 2010

dimly she conceived herself

(A warning: I am about to give away parts of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda and one little bit of Dickens' David Copperfield)

Reading one of the Gwendolyn chapters in Daniel Deronda I came across this description of that young middle-class woman's state of mind after her family's fortunes have suddenly dipped: "dimly she conceived herself getting amongst vulgar people who would treat her with rude familiarity -- odious men whose grins and smirks would not be seen through the strong grating of polite society." In other words, she thinks she is going to turn into Henny Pollit, who is the creation of Christina Stead. She is going to swap creators, she will exchange gods, she will be described in new language. "But for Henny there was a wonderful particular world ... this inferno."

... in the streetcar was 'a dirty shrimp of a man with a fishy expression who purposely leaned over me and pressed my bust, and a common vulgar woman beside him, an ogress, big as a hippopotamus, with her bottom sticking out, who grinned like a shark and tried to give him the eye,' and how this wonderful adventure went on for hours, always with new characters of new horror ... all these wonderful creatures, who swarmed in the streets, stores, and restaurants of Washington, ogling, leering, pulling, pushing, stinking, over-scented, screaming and boasting, turning pale at a black look from Henny, ducking and diving, dodging and returning, were the only creatures that Henny ever saw.

The young Henny was daintily kept, like the young Gwendolyn, but then she married Samuel Pollit and became bitter and endlessly theatrical, every movement a piece of theatre, even the ordinary act of closing and opening her eyes or of leaning on a table, "a commonplace habit which looked very theatrical in Henny." Unmarried Gwendolyn takes part in amateur theatrical tableaux, dressing in a sheet and pretending to be the statue of Hermione at the end of A Winter's Tale, but when you regard her as a performer you see that her real talent lies in drawing attention to herself in social settings.

Going on a little I discovered that it was not Gwendolyn's fear of odious men that was the foretaste of the future but her performance as the statue. After the family calamity she marries an aristocrat named Grandcourt who imposes his will upon her; he wants her to be calm and controlled, unchanging and supremely ornamental. There is no leering, pushing pulling, stinking, in Grandcourt's world, nothing is over-scented, no one screams or boasts, everything is mild and decorous -- it is a hell for her, but the opposite of the one she imagined. Grandcourt is so fond of continuity that he withstands his own death on page seven hundred and fifty-eight and strides forward through time to install himself in a different book under the name of Gilbert Osmond. He is American now, but it is him, it is his revenant. He finds another Gwendolyn, who, like the first one, does not recognise him for what he is. He recognises her, even though she is now Isabel Archer. It is possible that before Gwendolyn he had another woman in another century and that both of their roles are perpetual.

There is another figure of stasis in Deronda besides Grandcourt. Her name is Mirah, a young Jewish woman who is in the book because Eliot wanted to convince her Victorian-era readers that not all Jews were, as the stereotype had it, vulgar, greedy, cunning, and venal. Some of them were far less interesting than that, and Mirah is one of the uninteresting ones. She is a Victorian Heroine. Her hair is beautiful and her profile is beautiful and and her eyes are beautiful and her singing is beautiful and her playing of the piano is beautiful, and everyone loves her and the hero loves her and the hero's friend loves her and her brother loves her and she loves all of them and so full of love is she that she wishes her horrible father would come back into her life so that she could love him too, which he does, and talks her out of everything she's got in about five minutes, which is wonderful and endearing of him although the author expects you to disapprove.

A saintly character like Mirah never changes. Only her circumstances change. All she can do to alter herself is die. She is made out of some adamantine material; she is not the iron that Ruskin admired because it was capable of rusting but the steel he hated because it would not breathe. (And yet he wanted to marry a woman like her.) Never worn down or worn in, she can only be destroyed. Writers who place the roots of modern science fiction in the 1800s will mention Frankenstein and Jules Verne, but as far as I know they have never addressed the most public of all Victorian science-fiction constructions, the perpetual woman. "O Agnes," says David Copperfield, to his own particular example, "O my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when realities are melting from me, like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward!" In Woman and the Demon: the Life of a Victorian Myth, Nina Auerbach makes Agnes into a talisman. "Agnes is to David as he is to his own novel. Her right to orchestrate his death comes from her magical role as maker and shaper of his life" And I think of Fiorinda in E.R. Eddison's A Fish Dinner in Memison, who causes the whole terrestrial globe to be built and then pops it with a hair-pin, finishing the book. "With a nearly noiseless puff it burst." So the Victorian era of Deronda turned into the Edwardian and exploded against World War I.

Managed by a slightly different author, Agnes Wickfield could have been terrifying. From the first time I read the book I've thought that Uriah Heep had a lucky escape.

'What I am, you have made me, Agnes. You should know best.'

'I made you, Trotwood?'

'Yes! Agnes, my dear girl!' I said, bending over her. 'I tried to tell you, when we met today, something that has been in my thoughts since Dora died. You remember, when you came down to me in our little room - pointing upward, Agnes?'

'Oh, Trotwood!' she returned, her eyes filled with tears. 'So loving, so confiding, and so young! Can I ever forget?'

'As you were then, my sister, I have often thought since, you have ever been to me. Ever pointing upward, Agnes; ever leading me to something better; ever directing me to higher things!'

"[A]s magic objects," writes Auerbach, such heroines "exude a power beyond the human."


  1. As always, Deane, an original take on three books I've read but will now view in a new light!

  2. Thanks. I like Auerbach's take on Agnes quite a lot. Agnes makes an unrealistic human being and a boring character (the endless humourless moralising, the always-pointing-upward), but as far as totemic magical objects go, she's fantastic.

  3. Oh dear, I do remember poor Mirah. I'll never think of her the same way again. And, I still do need to get to Stead.

  4. I was willing to give her a chance, Mirah, right up to the moment when she told Mrs Meyrick that she couldn't bear the theatre because actors in character were nice and polite and out of character they were vulgar. After that, the long passages of Mrs Meyrick and the Daughters Meyrick fighting over who could love her the most, and even longer passages of the Hero and the Hero's Friend fighting over who could marry her the most, were just icing on the cake. "You're kidding me," I thought, when Daniel and Sidekick started pouting at one another near the end. "Which one of you poor morons gets to carry off that booby prize?"