About half of “Meeting Streams” (the second book of Daniel Deronda) is about Gwendolen, while the second half focuses on Daniel Deronda. At the beginning of the book, Gwendolen is, surprisingly to herself, having a bit of trouble with “her favorite key of life — doing as she liked” (ch. 13), not because of anyone else’s interference or any untoward circumstances, but because “she could not foresee what at a given moment she might like to do.” Having decided to accept Grandcourt, she is still having trouble getting herself to respond encouragingly to his advances. Instead she finds herself turning off anything that approaches a proposal.
Gwendolen feels that she must marry some time and finds the idea of marrying Grandcourt more desirable than she had thought any marriage could be. She would have great wealth and the power of doing as she liked. And then, Grandcourt was quiet and not absurd — perfect for giving her countenance without interfering. “But what else was he?” Here, she realizes, her intuition ends. She doesn’t really know him and doesn’t understand why, despite the fact that she likes his undemonstrativeness, she feels constrained, almost benumbed, around him. Gwendolen knows almost nothing about him and “ignorance gives one a large range of probabilities.”
At this point, Gwendolen reminded me strongly of Dorothea Brooke (Middlemarch), both by a similarity and some important contrasts. Both young women were unfortunately ignorant. Gwendolen’s knowledge of the world comes largely from books her mother thinks “dangerously instructive”. Dorothea acknowledges herself ignorant and feels that, if she only knew better, she could be better. Both young women were ill-educated. Both have intense desires, which they do not know how to fulfill. This ignorance leads both of them to make poor marriage choices, due to their lack of knowledge about the men they wish to marry.
Their mistakes, however, though both springing from ignorance, also proceed from very different goals. Dorothea wanted to make the world a better place. She thought that, in devoting herself to her husband, she would dispel that ignorance which she believed kept her from doing the good she wished to do. Gwendolen was only concerned with her own pleasure, and she saw marriage to Grandcourt as the best way of securing that enjoyment. When her uncle points out that marriage to Grandcourt, in bringing both rank and wealth, would also increase her power in a way “which may be used for the benefit of others”, Gwendolen “wanted to waive those higher considerations.” She does not want to see the duties involved in marriage, she only undertakes it to secure to herself the power of doing as she liked.
Dorothea and Gwendolen were both ill-equipped for making such important life-decisions, but their different attitudes and priorities greatly affected the consequences of those mistakes, both on themselves and others.
The portion of the book which is dedicated to Daniel’s history and character also has some interesting things to say about education. Daniel was educated by a tutor and then sent to Eton, followed by further education at Cambridge. In getting ready to go to Cambridge, Daniel asked Sir Hugo, “I hope you will not be much disappointed if I don’t come out with high honors.” Sir Hugo replies that he wants Daniel to do himself credit, but has no desire that he “come out as a superior expensive kind of idiot” (ch. 16). Still, to please Sir Hugo, Daniel tries for a mathematical scholarship.
But here came the old check which had been growing with his growth. He found the inward bent toward comprehension and thoroughness diverging more and more from the track marked out by the standards of examination: he felt a heightening discontent with the wearing futility and enfeebling strain of a demand for excessive retention and dexterity without any insight into the principles which form the vital connections of knowledge. (Ch. 16, emphasis mine)
It sounds like education in George Eliot’s time had many of the same problems it has nowadays.
Screencap from the 2002 adaptation of Daniel Deronda with Hugh Dancy as Daniel Deronda.