Daniel Deronda: Maidens Choosing

“Gwendolen had her way, of course …”
(Daniel Deronda, chapter 23)

“[M]an is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” (Job 5:7). Mirah Lapidoth had an early acquaintance with this truth. Mirah is a passive young women, humbly enduring what comes her way. She has, however, a horror of doing evil which finally leads her to run away from her father when she suspects him of trying to more or less sell her to a rich Count.


Gwendolen approaches her trials with a completely different attitude. She feels that “[t]he family troubles … were easier for every one than for her” (ch. 24). This is actually probably the case. Gwendolen has always felt that happiness lay in “personal pre-eminence” and now she is faced with the necessity of trying out for the place of governess — with the possibility of being rejected. Poor Gwendolen (she’s been called that half-a-dozen times so far in the book) has always thought that her own personal objections to being “treated like a passenger with a third-class ticket” was reason enough why she should not be, and is now experiencing a very painful paradigm shift.


Her first attempt to escape the fate of becoming a governess meets with further proof of this painful fact. She consulted Herr Klesmer as to the possibilities of her going on the stage and perhaps being a singer as well — as, of course, she would want to take a high position. (Incidentally, this is the life that Mirah left, where she was subject to those “indignities” that have “no very definite form” for Gwendolen.) Klesmer tells Gwendolen, as kindly as possible, that she is completely unsuited for such a life. His words crush not only Gwendolen’s hopes, but also further that sense of herself “on the common level”. His words stay with her: “you will not, at best, achieve more than mediocrity — hard, incessant work, uncertain praise — […] mortifications, people no longer feigning not to see your blunders — glaring insignificance” (ch. 23).

Gwendolen is even angry with Grandcourt “for being what had hindered her from marrying him” (ch. 21). Then he returns. The temptation to escape her dreary lot is too great and, despite having previously resolved against doing so, Gwendolen accepts him. While Gwendolen has continued in ignorance as to Grandcourt’s actual character, the reader has not. He enjoys having power over others and using it to annoy them, and is utterly unpredictable. He wants to be completely master of the attractive and, to him, piquant Gwendolen. She also looks forward to asserting herself in her marriage and has absolutely no concept of “of the mutual influences, demands, duties of man and woman in the state of matrimony” (ch. 27). Obviously, one of them is headed for unhappiness and it will probably be the more ignorant Gwendolen.


On a happier note, Gwendolen is not the only maiden choosing a husband. In this book, Catherine Arrowpoint engaged herself to Herr Klesmer. Catherine is of the stuff good friends are made. Little details like her calling on Mrs. Davilow after the loss of her fortune (ch. 21) make Catherine such a likable person. Though she is not beautiful, “[t]here is a charm of eye and lip which comes with every little phrase that certifies delicate perception or fine judgment, with every unostentatious word or smile that shows a heart awake to others” (ch. 22). It is no wonder that Klesmer loves her. Of course, her parents aren’t happy that she is marrying a Jewish composer with a “deuced foreign look”, but being the sensible girl she is, she doesn’t see such things as an insuperable impediment and sticks to her engagement.


This is part of the Eliot Project which “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter and I are doing. Read “Sophie’s” notes on the third book of Daniel Deronda here: “Maidens Choosing”.

Screencaps from the 2002 adaptation of Daniel Deronda with Hugh Dancy as Daniel Deronda, Romola Garai as Gwendolen Harlth, Hugh Bonneville as Henleigh Grandcourt, and Jodhi May as Mirah Lapidoth.

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4 Responses to Daniel Deronda: Maidens Choosing

  1. Fantastic– I love the idea of your ‘Eliot Project’– Daniel Deronda is the only Eliot I have read so far, bit I’m participating in a read along of Middlemarch in December, which I’m really looking forward to. Great post!

  2. RedHeadedBookLover says:

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