Gwendolen is a retelling of George Eliot’s classic Victorian novel Daniel Deronda and finally gives a clear voice to its ill-starred heroine. The novel opens in Gwendolen’s perspective, her story told from the space of the many years since Deronda forsook her for another woman.
The novel opens as Gwendolen, her widowed mother, and sisters are forced to take up residence in the country. Beautiful, spoiled, and willful to a fault, Gwen is the talk of the small village but begins to experience the harsh realities of the real world. As her self-esteem tumbles, she is forced into circumstances beyond her control: marry a man she despises or become a governess. She chooses the easy path with her marriage to Henleigh Grandcourt, a cruel, vindictive man who seeks to crush the very life out of her. Her one consolation is the thought of Daniel Deronda, the ward of the wealthy man, and her imagined knight-in-shining-armor.
George Eliot’s portrayal of Gwendolen is of a juvenile egoist who ultimately redeems herself at the end of the novel. Gwendolen seeks to give a deeper understanding to the flighty, sharp, and wholly self-absorbed girl and does so with sympathy and clarity. Gwendolen’s redeeming quality is her own self-loathing; she knows she is a bad person who will be punished for her misdeeds. She resigned to this fate but eventually determined to become a better person for it. The only caveat in her portrayal is her rather quick assertion that she loves Daniel; it is clear that Gwendolen does not have a large capacity for love, and so the love-at-first-sight trope is difficult to digest. However, Gwendolen is a fascinating literary novel that attempts to breathe humanity into one of literature’s maligned heroines.