"A bold feat of imagination . . . . Intriguing and moving: a fictional recovery of the woman's interior experience . . . and a powerful meditation upon the nature of creativity. Both an arresting interpretation of George Eliot's work and a compelling fiction in its own right." —Rebecca Mead, author of My Life in Middlemarch
In an astonishing unsent love letter, a 19th-century Englishwoman looks back at her formative years, when she fell in love with one man but married another—the richest bidder—to save her family
Gwendolen Harleth, an exceptionally beautiful upper-class Englishwoman, is gambling boldly at a resort when she catches the eye of a handsome, pensive gentleman. His gaze unnerves her, and she loses her winnings. The next day, she learns that her widowed mother and younger sisters, for whom she is financially responsible, have lost their family's fortune. As a young woman in the 1860s with only her looks to serve her, Gwendolen's options are few, so when Henleigh Grandcourt, a wealthy aristocrat, proposes to her, she accepts, despite her discovery of an alarming secret about his past.
During their marriage, Grandcourt is psychologically and physically brutal to her, shattering her confidence. Gwendolen begins to encounter the alluring gentleman from the resort—Daniel Deronda—in her social circles, but Grandcourt, cold and calculating, takes pains to isolate her from everything she loves. Gwendolen's desperation nearly overcomes her, until an unexpected turn of events suddenly liberates her from Grandcourt's tyranny and leaves her financially independent. Newly free, but riddled with insecurity and desire, Gwendolen must take painful steps to shape a life that has not gone according to plan.
Gwendolen and her world, originally creations of George Eliot, are inhabited and brought to sympathetic and nuanced life in this irresistible debut novel by Diana Souhami, an award-winning British biographer.
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About the Author
Diana Souhami is the author of 12 critically acclaimed nonfiction and biography books, including Selkirk's Island (winner of the Whitbread Biography Award), The Trials of Radclyffe Hall (winner of the Lambda Literary Award and shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize for Biography), the bestselling Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter (winner of the Lambda Literary Award and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year), Gertrude and Alice, and Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho, and Art. She lives in London.
Diana Souhami is the author of 12 critically acclaimed nonfiction and biography books, including Selkirk’s Island (winner of the Whitbread Biography Award), The Trials of Radclyffe Hall (winner of the Lambda Literary Award and shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize for Biography), the bestselling Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter (winner of the Lambda Literary Award and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year), Gertrude and Alice, and Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho, and Art. She lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
By Diana Souhami
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2015 Diana Souham
All rights reserved.
I was winning when I met your gaze. Its persistence made me raise my head then doubt myself. It broke my luck.
That was our first encounter. A Saturday in September, toward four in the afternoon, the day still light but cool and fresh, Homburg so pretty, so dull, swallows in the eaves of the houses, grapevines on the walls. Little to do but stroll the main street and glance in shop windows at gifts for the rich to give to the rich: ribbons, perfumes, baubles. Only the long, red, stuccoed building in the middle of the street enticed: the Kursaal, the town's social hub. Madame von Langen, my second cousin, accompanied me. Through the great door another far door opened to a garden, beyond the garden was a park, beyond the park the Taunus Mountains wooded with fir, birch, beech, and oak. It was a vista that promised escape from the tight little town and my own despair; a vista that suggested good fortune. A vista that deceived.
In the gilded rococo gaming room naked nymphs cavorted on the ceilings; the players — old, powdered, and engrossed — multiplied in the walled mirrors. There was a reverential silence, a sanctity; red or black, the spin of the wheel, the nasal whine of the croupier: "Faites vos jeux, mesdames et messieurs." My hand, gloved in pale gray, stretched out to rake gold napoleons toward me. I was twenty and born to be lucky. My numbers were Mama's birthday, the day I was born, my father's age when he died (thirty-six), the date Mama then married the hateful Captain Davilow. That September day at the Kursaal I thought my life might transmute into luck. I began with pittance money, but the more I won the bolder I became. I felt destined to win a million francs before the end of play. I was blessed, the most important woman in the room. Then your gaze deflected me. Your judgmental eyes.
I see that gaze now. It mixed attraction with disdain. Your eyes drew me in but implied I was doing wrong. I was beautiful but flawed, you seemed to say. I felt the blood drain from my face. It was the coup de foudre (as in Bellini's Romeo and Juliet), the start of my unequivocal love for you and your equivocal love for me.
Perhaps all that followed I in a moment saw. As if I knew I was to be excluded from where I so desired to belong. I was capricious, reckless, and in need of guidance, my life waiting to be defined.
I began to lose heavily. My mood plunged, then rose in defiance. I put ten louis on my chosen number; my stake was swept away; I doubled it, again then again. It took so little time for the croupier to rake from me the last heap of gold. My eyes burned with exasperation. Madame von Langen touched my elbow and whispered we should leave. In my purse only four napoleons remained. As I left, I turned to meet your eyes, which I knew were still on me. My look was defiant, yours ironic. Did you respect my daring, my courage to lose?
Mine is a gambling temperament, impulsive, reckless, hopeful. I so wanted the high stakes, the winning chips. To win was to defy the familiarity and fear of loss. Or to court it. It took a punishing journey for me to reach a point of balance between elation and despair.
* * *
I HAD FLED to the von Langens from horror at home. I stayed with them in their hired apartment. They took scant notice of me. The baron, tall with a white clipped mustache, liked to sit in the gardens of the Kursaal and read the court columns of the Times. Madame von Langen liked a flutter at the tables, though no more than a ten-franc piece on rouge ou noir.
That evening after dinner we returned to the Kursaal for the music. I wore a sea-green dress, a silver necklace, a green hat with a cascading pale green feather fastened with a silver pin. I anticipated seeing you again. The rooms shimmered with heat from the flares of gaslights; a trio of strings played Mozart and Weber; thick-necked men with cigars talked in groups; women with fans reclined on ottomans. I felt that all who were there admired me — my retroussé nose, almond eyes, pale skin, light brown hair. I heard Vandernoodt say a man might risk hanging for Gwendolen Harleth. "There was never a prettier mouth, a more graceful walk," his companion said. I was used to hearing such things.
I flirted and charmed, but what I wanted, hoped for, was again to see you. Then you appeared. You stood in the doorway, that detachment you have, your way of observing, your tall, still figure, dark hair, dark eyes. In a nonchalant voice I asked Mr. Vandernoodt who you were. "Who's that man with the dreadful expression?" He answered he thought you looked very fine, your name was Daniel Deronda, and the previous evening he had sat with you and your party for an hour on the terrace but you spoke to no one and seemed bored. He said you were English and a relative of Sir Hugo Mallinger, with whom you were traveling. You were staying at the Czarina, the grand hotel in the Oberstrasse.
* * *
DANIEL DERONDA. I still love your name. Here in violet ink is my admission of love and pain, hope and struggle. You will never read it, though all is written with you in mind. I know now that I kept a place in your heart and that in a way you loved me, though not as I hoped to be loved, or as I loved you. I hoped I was the woman from whom you might have felt unable ever to be apart, the girl, the woman whom you might have chosen, not to take with you to the other side of the world, but to love and be with until parted by death.
* * *
I ASKED THE Vandernoodts to introduce you to me. You were related to Sir Hugo, so Madame von Langen agreed. The baron looked for you on the terrace and in the café, but you were gone. I waited, but you did not return. It was the first of the disappointments you caused me. Each left me bereft and alone. You had hovered at the threshhold, surveyed the scene, and found it not to your liking. Then you left.
That was the start of my habit of anticipation: looking for you but not finding you. How often in the city crowd have I mistakenly believed I saw you: your walk, the way you turn your head.
It was midnight when we got back to the von Langens' apartment. A letter had been left by a servant on the table in my room. It was from my mother, Fanny Davilow. She chastised me for not having written, feared this letter might not reach me, and that I had traveled on to Baden with the von Langens without telling her. "A dreadful calamity has befallen us all," she wrote. She, I, my half sisters, all of us were ruined. Our agent, Mr. Lassman, had gambled the firm's fortunes on which our entire income depended; the business had collapsed with debts of a million pounds. Whatever money I had with me I must use to return home at once for she was unable even to send my fare. I must not borrow from the von Langens for she could never repay them. We must leave our house, Offendene, immediately. A Mr. Haynes would take over its rental. We had nowhere to go; we should have to live in "some hut or other." There was no money to pay tradesmen or servants. The calamity affected my uncle (Mama's brother-in-law, Henry Gascoigne), and his family too. My four half sisters were in tears; they and Mama would have to sew or mend for a pittance wage; I must find work as a governess.
I read the letter twice. I was annoyed and unconvinced by it. I was used to Mama's laments and exaggerations and unwilling to jump to her anxious command. I had never known Mama to be happy. I feared contagion from her gloominess. My uncertain plan had been to return home at the end of September, but even before this letter I was afraid to do so. On impulse I had fled the muddle and shame that beset me there: the rich man determined to marry me, whose proposal I had almost accepted, not because I loved him or knew what love was before I met you, but to provide for Mama and be exalted in Society. And then his concubine, "the snake woman," who lay in wait for me, told me he should marry no one but her; that she had left her husband for him, and their son should be his heir.
* * *
SO MUCH HAD happened so quickly; I was in a maelstrom of temptation and fear. And now it seemed penury and homelessness threatened too. I did not know what to think or do, or where to turn. I was aggrieved by Mama's letter, aggrieved by you. Had my luck at roulette stayed unbroken, I might have won enough to pay for everything: my return home, the rent on the house, the servants' wages. But even as I read of this latest disaster, I suspected it was not money I gambled for.
I pondered whether to leave for home immediately or go to the Kursaal, win to counter my misfortune, and perhaps again see you. I decided to pawn my turquoise chain. The pawnbroker at least might give me enough to pay for an afternoon at the tables and my fare home. The chain had no sentimental attachment. It had belonged to my father, of whom I had no memory. He was killed when I was a year old, thrown from his horse as it jumped a brook.
I was impatient for morning and for the pawn shop to open. I did not go to bed. A cold bath revived me. I was traveling without a maid, so I packed my own case and put on my gray traveling dress. I pondered my reflection in the long mirror between the two windows in my room. Despite this deluge of disaster, I felt I was charmed. My happiness and good fortune must prevail.
* * *
BEFORE MY HOSTS came to breakfast I stole out unobserved to Mr. Weiner, the little Jew pawnbroker in the Oberstrasse. The morning air of late summer was sweet with roses and lavender. On my way I passed the Hotel Czarina. No one was about. As I went into the shop I thought if anyone sees me they will think I am going to buy some jewel or bauble as a gift. The chain was pretty but frivolous, and I felt no remorse at parting with it, only annoyance that the greedy little Jew priced it at a mere four louis.
Within half an hour I was back at the von Langens' apartment. My hosts were still not up, so I waited in the salon. I intended merely to tell them Mama wished me to return home and to make no mention or revelation of trouble. And now that I had eight louis, I so wanted to gamble again. I was wondering how much I could risk yet still have enough for my fare, when a servant brought in a packet, addressed to me, which had just been delivered to the door.
I took it to my room. It was the necklace I had pawned less than an hour before, wrapped in a linen handkerchief from which the initials were torn. Enclosed on a scrap of paper was a scrawled penciled note in capital letters: A STRANGER WHO HAS FOUND MISS HARLETH'S NECKLACE RETURNS IT TO HER WITH THE HOPE THAT SHE WILL NOT AGAIN RISK THE LOSS OF IT.
* * *
SO IT BEGAN. You as my conscience. I knew it was your doing. Rebuked once more, chastised by your view of how I ought not behave. It was as if you sought proof of my transgressive ways. What did you mean you had found the necklace? You must have watched me from a window in the Czarina, seen me enter and leave the pawnbroker, waited until I was out of sight, then hurried to quiz him. Why did you wait? What did you know of my reason for going to his shop in the early morning? I had shown no particular distress. I might have been buying presents for my half sisters. And why the ripped handkerchief and halfhearted anonymity of the necklace's return? I was angry. Who was I to you that you should be so personal? What right had you to shadow me and pry into my affairs?
I had said very little to Weiner. He assumed all valuables brought to his door were because of bad luck in the Kursaal. Perhaps you told him you were my guardian. But you knew nothing of me; we had not even spoken. You knew nothing of the letter from my mother. It was my necklace to dispose of as I wished. I might have been instructed to pawn it. Why did you assume it was of any importance to me? Why your assumption that I had an obligation to keep it? You knew nothing of its provenance. You bought it back for what was to you small change.
In my room I wept from tiredness, anger, frustration, confusion. So many damning things had already happened. I needed to believe in my own worth. Yet behind my anger I dared feel flattered, dared hope your concern was an invitation to intimacy and that you were as drawn to me as I to you. Your intrusion wounded my pride, but when you wrote of your hope of my not again risking the necklace's loss, perhaps you were offering to save me from future risk and keep me safe. I packed the necklace wrapped in your note and handkerchief and my own confusion. Your words were a reproach, like your critical gaze as I gambled. But my youthful hope was not immoderate. You were young, handsome, seemingly unattached. In the cool of early morning why should you leave your hotel, track the path of a beautiful girl to a shop, ask about her transaction there, try to put right her suspected hardship, find the address of her lodgings ...? Why should you bother to do all that unless you were smitten.
I had no choice but to leave Homburg immediately. I could not risk seeing you again in the Kursaal or the street. A servant called me to breakfast. I dried my eyes and joined the von Langens. "Mama has written," I told them. "She urgently needs my help and has summoned me to return home at once."
My hosts protested at my traveling alone. I assured them I would travel in the ladies' compartment, rest on the train, and be safe. They took me in their carriage to Homburg station, instructed the porters, and waved me farewell. I arrived at Offendene on the following Saturday morning.
Offendene — set amid tranquil pastures and the leafy lanes of Pennicote village. It is the only house I have ever viewed as home. We had lived there scarcely a year when news of this financial calamity came.
Mama, my half sisters — Alice, Bertha, Fanny, and Isabel — and Miss Merry, the housekeeper, all were grouped on the porch when I stepped down from my carriage. "Well, dear, what will become of us?" was Mama's bleak greeting. I observed her faded beauty and shabby black dress. Her despondency cut me. My sisters looked at me with subdued concern. I was the eldest. I was responsible. Before my luggage was lifted down, I resolved to safeguard the roof over all their heads.
* * *
PERSEVERE WITH MY story, and you will learn how a welter of humiliation led me to sell my soul to achieve this. I did what I knew to be wrong, then paid heavily as the wheel of my misfortune kept spinning.
* * *
THE HOUSE, A sprawling redbrick mansion, was serene: the smell of applewood fires in the hearths, the flickering shadows of candlelight. Oil paintings hung above the staircase that led from the large stone hallway: a huntsman on a bay surrounded by hounds, a poacher, and a gamekeeper; sheep and goats in a barn; girls on a riverbank. The dining room's oak paneling smelled of beeswax; the rosewood chairs were covered with worn red satin. Over the mantelpiece dogs snarled at each other in two dark paintings, and Christ worked his wonders with loaves and fishes. The wainscot carved with garlands in the drawing room, the organ built by Henry Willis, all the familiar detail seemed impervious to bad news.
* * *
WE HAD NOT seen Offendene before we moved in. Uncle Henry — the Reverend Gascoigne — arranged matters for us after Captain Davilow, my stepfather, died. On moving day Mama and my sisters gathered on the porch and looked questioningly at me. "Well, dear, what do you think of the place?" Mama asked, and I made my rapid and abiding judgment: "I think it charming, a romantic place; anything delightful may happen in it; no one need be ashamed of living here; it would be a good background for anything." Offendene gave ample room for me, Mama, my half sisters, Mrs. Startin (their governess), Miss Merry, and Jocasta Bugle (the maid). Though the house lacked the splendor Mama thought my due, I truly believed we might be happy in it and that I might shut out the apprehension that the dark comes however bright the day. I have always been afraid to hear about the indifference of the universe, my own insignificance, the casual inevitability of death, and the caprice of chance. Even at school I trembled when astronomy was taught.
Excerpted from Gwendolen by Diana Souhami. Copyright © 2015 Diana Souham. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
About the Author,
By Diana Souhami,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Gwendolen by Diana Souhami is based upon the classic novel, Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. The novel is written in an epostilatory style as the main character, Gwendolen, is writing a letter to the man she has been obsessively in love with for years. In her story, she reveals the horrors of her unhappy and abusive marriage. I have never read the classic, so I have no pre-conceived expectations about the story. The first half of the novel started off well, introducing Gwendolen who is gambling and meets Daniel Deronda for the first time. Their first encounter introduces Gwendolen's unrequited love that will endure an entire lifetime. Her love is never fulfilled, however, when she learns her family has become impoverished and she must marry well in order to take care of her widowed mother and younger sisters. She marries a wealthy and titled nobleman who soon becomes overly controlling and very abusive. I found the first half of the book gripping and definitely a page turner. The pace in the second half of the story slows down a bit and changes course from action to deep introspection and self-appraisal on Gwendolen's part. She reflects on her life, her love, her husband, her fate. The character of Daniel Deronda was never fully developed, but I found him interesting and I would love to have learned more about him. This was a very interest, albeit unusual novel. It has intrigued me enough to read one of George Eliot's novels.
When I read the Nook free trial it seemed promising and for the first 50 pages or so held my attention. Then it just started to drag on and on. I had no feelings for any of the characters at all and nothing, and I mean nothing, interesting happens. Perhaps, if I had read George Eliot's book Daniel Deronda, the character of Gwendolen Harleth would be more interesting but even with that I can't imagine this being a page-turner. Again, if you're a big George Eliot fan then maybe you'll enjoy but this reader was disappointed.