Diana Souhami is a debut novelist, but her twelve previously published works of nonfiction arrived to critical acclaim (she has won both the Whitbread Biography Award and the Lambda Literary Award). Given the talent and ambition she shows in her first novel, Gwendolen*, I suspect we’ll be seeing more of Ms. Souhami’s fiction.
First, the ambition: Gwendolen is a re-telling and expansion of George Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda (as you can see in the very clever cover design, the original nineteenth-century cover has been altered). It’s quite a task to take on the formidable Eliot, but Daniel Deronda is perhaps ripe for such interpretations; some critics of the novel thought it could do without Gwendolen Harleth, and some thought that Gwendolen was worthy of her own novel.
That’s what Ms. Souhami gives us. The first two-thirds of Gwendolen recount the events of Daniel Deronda from Gwendolen’s intimate perspective, in the form of a very long letter written to Deronda, but never sent. Gwendolen is beautiful, but self-centered and insensible to the ways of the world:
And so it began: life-changing decisions made by sudden inclinations, vanity, and rash daring. [ … ] I did not stop to consider what it meant truly to know another person or myself. I knew nothing of the world beyond the drawing rooms of Pennicote and the bewildering nowhere places of my childhood travels: nothing of the war in America, the struggles of the suffragists, the suffering of the workhouse, the customs and mores of other societies. And nothing whatsoever of the motivations of men or of the qualities that might matter, beyond chandeliers, paddocks, and diamonds, when choosing a husband. (50)
Gwendolen explains the dire financial straits and over-reliance on her considerable beauty that led her to marry Grandcourt, a rich but cruel man whom she did not love and whom she knew to be involved with another woman (a longtime mistress with four children). The moral depredations of Grandcourt that Daniel Deronda hints at are fully revealed in Gwendolen.
The remaining chapters of the novel explore what Gwendolen’s life is like after the events of Daniel Deronda, and it is here that Ms. Souhami’s talents are put to best use. While the first two parts of the book are close in spirit to Eliot’s work, they are not satisfyingly different enough from the original. However, when exploring the changes in Gwendolen’s material circumstances and emotional states in her new life, I found myself eager to learn more about Ms. Souhami’s new characters, like the circus performer Julian/Juliette, the painter Paul LeRoy (based on a real person), and the group of suffragists Gwendolen befriends.
I was thrown off by the inclusion of Mrs. Lewes (George Eliot) as a character known to Gwendolen; it didn’t quite work, especially since Eliot’s uncanny knowledge about Gwendolen’s private affairs is never explained. And the notes about real people slipped into the tone of biography, instead of remaining in Gwendolen’s distinctive voice. I wanted the novel to explore Gwendolen’s relationship with her four stepsisters in greater depth instead.
Alas, this last section is far too brief, and doesn’t bloom as it could have, had the proportions of the plot been reversed. However, Ms. Souhami’s talent for sketching lively characters and period settings and her way of framing classic literature to allow readers to think about the social systems of the present ensures my willingness to read her next novel when it appears.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.