Some people are going to be really annoyed by Diana Souhami’s new book and she knows it.
“I am sure the George Eliot purists will hate this,” she says of her attempt to redeem the life of a woman left adrift at the end of one of the great Victorian novels, Daniel Deronda.
Gwendolen Harleth is a beautiful spoilt young woman who falls in love among the gaming tables of a German casino but chooses the wrong man and ends the book having achieved none of her desires. “Eliot abandons her and sends her back home having had a disastrous marriage and been abandoned by the man she loves. My first instinct was to try to help her,” says Souhami, sitting over coffee in her flat in the Barbican.
She looks splendid in stack-heeled baseball boots, skinny jeans and a stripy, cropped linen jacket, with a dyed blue streak across the front of her white hair. Did she want to rescue Gwendolen, whose name is the title of her new novel? “Yes, to rescue her. Or to put her on the path to rescue.”
Souhami is admirably equipped for the job, having made her name as a biographer who blurred the boundary between fact and fiction. She has specialised in what one reviewer called “grand lesbians and ragged mariners”. The lives of Hannah Gluckstein, Gertrude Stein, Greta Garbo, and Radclyffe Hall came under her scrutiny, to great acclaim, before she switched and wrote about the original inspiration for Robinson Crusoe in her book Selkirk’s Island. This won the 2001 Whitbread Biography Award.
Later came Coconut Chaos, an encounter with the descendants of the mutineers from HMS Bounty, in which neither the narrator nor her travelling companion is reliable. Now in Gwendolen she has turned to one of George Eliot’s best and most complex characters, first seen in 1876. Why did this fictional, flighty, self-possessed, and maddening young woman appeal?
“I had always wanted to follow her on, to know what else would have happened. It seemed an opportunity to write from a 21st-century feminist perspective, to give her a liberation, in a way,” says Souhami, who is 74. “Eliot tells you early on that she can’t bear to be touched by anybody but her mother. That puts a seed of thought into your mind. Why should that happen to someone so young and beautiful?”
To secure her family’s future, Gwendolen agrees to marry the wealthy Henleigh Grandcourt, who turns out to be very cruel. “Eliot hints at his being sadistic, but I could say overtly that he was a rapist within marriage.” Grandcourt forces himself on Gwendolen night after night, yet still somehow Souhami invokes a tiny trace of sympathy for him. This comes as a surprise to her. “No! You can’t feel sympathy for Grandcourt. Why? Tell me!”
Because although he is absolutely evil, he is also a prisoner of circumstance and upbringing, as they all are. “Yes but I think he was truly a frightful person. Look how he treated his dogs …”
Souhami highlights how paralysing the social conventions of the time were, for both men and women. Courtship is played out with stolen glances and silences pregnant with apparent meaning, disastrously misunderstood. The gift of Gwendolen is to take us into the mind of a Victorian woman and feel how claustrophobic and frightening her world could be. “Who could she talk to? Her mother? She got a bit gloomy if she heard bad news.”
Souhami introduces George Eliot herself as a character. “Gwendolen is astonished that she knows so much about her. I also introduce Barbara Bodichon, who was a friend of Eliot’s and real feminist. I let Gwendolen go up in a hot air balloon and be liberated from this narrow, constrained Victorian life. She couldn’t marry, not least because she didn’t want to, but I do give her freedom. I do give her a not unhappy ending.”
Daniel Deronda, the object of her doomed love, has other passions to pursue, including the awakening of his Jewish identity. Souhami, who has Jewish roots, agrees with the critic FR Leavis that Eliot’s novel would have been better without all that. “I have excised it to a large extent. There was anti-Semitism around and one of Eliot’s purposes was to quash that. I think Jewish communities were very grateful to her. But Daniel Deronda is an unsatisfactory character, Gwendolen is by far the more interesting. The wife he chooses is a bit mouse-like, isn’t she?”
She claims the right to write like this because fact and fiction are more confused than ever. “We live in a world of virtual realities, where we are not quite sure whether the Queen is the Queen or Helen Mirren or Margaret Thatcher is Meryl Streep. The boundaries between subjective response and objective fact become very blurred, particularly when everyone is in their bespoke world of iPhones. You could pinch yourself about what real relationship is, and who are the real characters, don’t you think?”
Still, some will ask, how dare she mess with a classic? “The academic elite are increasingly rather challenged. They can’t stay purist with all that is happening in the world. I have not diminished George Eliot. I don’t go beyond what was perhaps possible. It was a time of change.”
Eliot’s close friends campaigned for equality. “It still hasn’t arrived, has it? Not really. But that time is the beginning of where it changes. Barbara Bodichon, education rights, suffragists, this movement and yearning to have a voice, which goes on and on for us. There are more groups who are just breaking silence now.”
Doing so was part of her own intention as a lesbian when she wrote her first book back in the Eighties, after working as a producer for the BBC. “I really wanted to do this thing of breaking silence, of visibility.”
How much has changed? “One of the really positive things has been gay liberation. Not just from the point of view of gays and lesbians, but also the change it has affected in people who have accepted them. In our parents, in our siblings, in our friends. They are not just accepting, they are really pleased to have us around. Because of that change, I feel less need to write exclusively about lesbians.”
How does Souhami evaluate her own contribution to that change? “I don’t. I think we are all of us one voice. I made a contribution, I can say no more than that,” she says, the biographer and novelist once again content to direct the gaze on to others. “There are so many good lesbian writers, and so many visible lesbians, in all different fields. This is what is important, in a tolerant world. That is what we all want, isn’t it?”
Gwendolen, by Diana Souhami, Quercus, £16.99Reuse content