Review Fridays: Gwendolen by Diana Souhami

The details:

Title: Gwendolen: A Novel
Author: Diana Souhami
Genre: Historical fiction
Pages: 336
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

I must first confess that I never finished reading Daniel Deronda. My interest waned somewhere near the middle, and I didn’t manage to convince myself it was worthwhile to pick up again. The hero was far too good and far less interesting than Gwendolen Harleth, and I wished that George Eliot had spent more time on the character who should have been the heroine. Luckily, Diana Souhami has filled the gap in the narrative with Gwendolen: A Novel. She tells the story from Gwendolen’s point-of-view, making her into a woman precariously occupying Victorian society.

This is a very introspective book. It is told in the first person as if it were a letter to “you,” Daniel Deronda. Gwendolen begins the novel having just learned that her family is impoverished. Her options are limited by Victorian England’s narrow view of what sort of work women can and cannot do. She latches onto Daniel and the necklace he rescues for her from a pawnbroker as a sort of moral talisman. She thinks that he has the answers to what will make her life more fulfilling and turns to him for advice.

Souhami cleverly adds in another character: George Eliot, a woman who tries to create identity out of a variety of names. George Eliot is also Mary Anne Evans to some friends, Mrs. Lewes to most, and Polly to Mr. Lewes. Gwendolen is confused by this last one, but Polly is a common nickname for Mary. Eliot herself journeyed from a shy, awkward young woman into a novelist who flouted Victorian conventions. Mrs. Lewes questions Gwendolen thoroughly at various points. Gwendolen is disconcerted by the amount of knowledge the novelist has about her, but she continues on her own path regardless of all of the turmoil and tragedy of her past.

This is a book about a young woman struggling to build her own identity. Gwendolen initially cowers under the weight of her fear. As time goes on, she tries to regain a sense of self out of the pain of her past. She attempts to figure out what an ideal life looks like by meeting new people and taking note of their way of life. The ending was very satisfying, and, even if not immediately, I will be giving Daniel Deronda another chance in order to read more about Gwendolen Harleth.


Review Fridays: Lolly Willowes

The details:

Title: Lolly Willowes
Author: Sylvia Townsend Warner
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 222
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

Sometimes, when I am unfamiliar with an author or a book when it is considered to be a “classic,” I look at reviews before reading. Perhaps it would be better to go in without any idea at all about the novel, but I personally prefer to have some idea of the author’s biography and the tone of the book. The first one I found for Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner called it a “sweet, little book.” After actually reading, I wonder how much that description would make the author convulse in her grave in absolute misery of having her creation called sweet and little. Lolly Willowes is many confusing and wonderful things, but sweet it is not.

After her father’s death, Laura Willowes has been transferred along with the furniture to her brother’s house. As a an unmarried woman of a certain age, she is expected to help her brother’s wife with household duties and to help care for the children. The children dub her Lolly, and she is thenceforth called only that name by her family. I suppose this has the makings of being a sweet, little book, but the magical part of it is that Warner completely crushes expectations. Lolly comes to realize that something is not quite right in her life. Like many women who came before her and that would come after, Lolly was doing what was expected of her, but she did not find herself to be particularly fulfilled in that knowledge.

The first part of the book is all over the place. It is filled with exposition and refuses to tell the story in a straight line of time. Past and present, back and forth, the narrative seems to run in circles. In a way, it contributes to the feeling that this book is one big protest against the role of unmarried women in society. It defies traditional story telling methods, instead favoring an approach more like entering one’s consciousness. Ideas come and go in disorganized circles. When Laura finally rebels, going against the wishes of her family, doing what she wants even when they tell her it is not sensible, the writing style begins feeling calmer. The book seems more put-together by the second part.

Warner introduces witchcraft as if it is the most natural thing in the world. Laura is not as concerned about sorcery in regards to men; they seem to have less need of her attention. There is no moment of disbelief, no doubt in the existence of magic. The book embraces the supernatural in an empowering way. Of course Laura should have possession of greater-than-earthly powers. It is only right that she should. She is living in a world where she does not need help and does not need to help others. It is a solitary, but happy, existence.

This novel was written a few years before Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, but it deals with a lot of the same issues. It seems that, in the world of Laura Willowes, the only way for an unmarried woman of a certain age to forge a life of her own is to sell her soul to the devil in order to gain it. It shouldn’t be that difficult, but that is the only option Laura has. Warner poses questions about women’s existences, questions that do not have easy answers, but she attempts in this book to find a point to start talking about the issue. To be honest, I did not enjoy this book much from a literary perspective, but it is interesting from a feminist point-of-view.