Title: Gwendolen: A Novel
Author: Diana Souhami
Genre: Historical fiction
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.