“Was she beautiful or not beautiful? and what was the secret of form or expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance? Was the good or the evil genius dominant in those beams?” — Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot; Book I, Chapter I.
It is of the heroine, Gwendolen Harleth, that Daniel Deronda asks himself these questions. There is more than one kind of beauty: that of form and that of character. Often lack of the latter mars the former. Gwendolen is externally beautiful, but her character is more doubtful and Daniel Deronda finds that, despite her lovely face, the effect is that of “unrest rather than of undisturbed charm” (ch. 1).
Gwendolen is a spoiled child and, as suggested by its title, Book I of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda is spent exploring her character. Gwendolen wants to be striking. Her ambition is to do what will “strike others with admiration” and in that way get an “ardent sense of living” (ch. 4). This is what seems pleasant to her and her own pleasure and happiness is of paramount importance to her.
At the beginning of the story, Gwendolen’s step-father is dead and her family (which is not particularly well-to-do) has just moved to Offendene to be near her aunt and uncle. Here Gwendolen determines to make a fresh start. “Other people allowed themselves to be made slaves of …. It was not to be so with her; she would no longer be sacrificed to creatures worth less than herself, but would make the very best of the chances that life offered her, and conquer circumstances by her exceptional cleverness.” (ch. 4, emphasis mine).
Gwendolen is wilful and self-absorbed, full of “young self-exultation.” She possesses a trait common to many: “a strong determination to have what was pleasant, with a total fearlessness in making themselves disagreeable or dangerous when they did not get it” (ch. 4). She is, however, also charming and lovely. She has a gentle mother, who both dotes on and fears her, and four “troublesome”, “superfluous” (ch. 3) sisters to make up her kingdom.
Despite these advantages, Gwendolen is subject to “fits of spiritual dread” of which she is ashamed: “Solitude in any wide scene impressed her with an undefined feeling of immeasurable existence aloof from her, in the midst of which she was helplessly incapable of asserting herself.” (ch. 6).
Such is Gwendolen at twenty. When Daniel Deronda first encounters her, she is gambling in Leubronn. She was winning spectacularly until she noticed him watching her. She felt that he looked down on her as inferior, “that he felt himself in a region outside and above her, and was examining her as a specimen of a lower order” (ch. 1). She resents his observation and coincidently begins to lose, all the while certain that he is still watching her. When she finally looks at him again, she finds a “smile of irony in his eyes”. But at least this is better than that he should disregard her and Gwendolen is sure that he must admire her spirit.
“The general conviction that we are admirable does not easily give way before a single negative …. In Gwendolen’s habits of mind it had been taken for granted that she knew what was admirable and that she herself was admired. This basis of her thinking had received a disagreeable concussion, and reeled a little, but was not easily to be overthrown.” (Ch. 1)
Then a misfortune comes. Gwendolen’s family loses their money. Still, Gwendolen feels herself beautiful and lucky — how can anything bad happen to her? Something will happen to make things not unpleasant for her. She pawns a necklace to get money to return home, but before she leaves, she receives her necklace back again. She is certain that it came from Deronda and her pride is wounded. “No one had ever before dared to treat her with irony and contempt” (ch. 2).
The book of Daniel Deronda begins with the line, “Let thy chief terror be of thine own soul”. So far, Gwendolen has been full of self-assurance, convinced that in her world she is supreme. Nothing has yet happened to overthrow her conviction.
Screencap from the 2002 adaptation of Daniel Deronda with Romola Garai as Gwendolen Harleth.