In the course of my reading I admit that my feelings towards the novel’s taxing heroine have run first hot and then cold. I sympathize with her desire to assert her will and create a life of her own fashioning, and yet I find her happily admitted self-love despicable at best (seriously, who says things like: “How can you help what I am? Besides, I am very charming” STOP YOURSELF (84). However, after reading Mary Poovey’s enlightening and empowering (This one’s for all my ladies!) chapter “The Ideological Work of Gender” I am more convinced than ever of the necessity of Gwendolen’s actions. In fact, those same self-serving actions called to mind a favorite on-screen persona, the one, the only, Miss Holly Golightly
I know it seems a connection purely for pop culture’s sake but I beg that you humour me – Holly and Gwendolen are soul sisters separated by a hundred years, a continent, and access to an upscale jewelry store. Both women work within gender constructions that immediately place them at a disadvantage, both make ample use of their good looks and considerable charms to achieve the most advantageous ends for themselves and they both are largely unapologetic about doing so. For some, this last similarity is unforgivable and damnable in a female. A sign of what our darling Mr. Grandcourt would term “all coquetting” (119). And this makes sense if we are to agree with the picture of Victorian mindsets as Poovey explains them in her chapter, namely that the main role of the female was to marry and reproduce and in so doing add to the domestic bliss of a household. Based on a bizarre and erroneous binary constructed partially on biological differences it was decided that “women were governed not by reason (like men), but by something else, then they could hardly be expected (or allowed) to participate in the economic and political fray” (Poovey 11). It follows then that if women were not to participate in economics or politics on a large scale than there will be disapproval when women take an active interest in securing their own personal finances and political autonomy, through the “coquetting” of previous note.
Naturally in an era where women can expect to enjoy the full fruits of self – realization and independence it seems cold, calculating and downright cruel to watch Gwendolen enjoy the attentions of the pleasant-enough Rex and then reject him out of hand as someone unsuitable to her needs. Likewise we recoil as Holly rapidly uses and discards her many paramours in an attempt to catch the biggest fish, but upon second glance I find our judgments (or hey, maybe just my own) built upon the same faulty binary as the despicable Mr. Greg of Poovey’s chapter. I expect that the women in these stories WILL be married, that this role in fact is the ultimate fulfillment of their being. (G, too accepts this fate as we see in her exchange with her uncle on page 125.) And as if that isn’t frightening enough I expect them to accept this fate with no resistance or attempts to make the most of it. So far removed am I from a life that is run explicitly on these terms that I find it possible to condemn their behaviours. But surely, this condemnation is ill-conceived. Should it not be the gendered constraints that I find at fault? Should I not applaud these women for asserting a personality and preference where few others dare to? I say, I have judged Gwendolen to harshly, she is making the best of a horrible situation (albeit obnoxiously). We can take some comfort in Holly’s end with the delightful Paul Varjak (a huge departure from the original text but one I love all the same), as well as the direction of the novel which hints at a similarly favourable match for our Gwen, but until that time I say GOLIGHTLY, GWEN! And YAYA!
Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.
Poovey, Mary. Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.