The Male Villain as Domestic Tyrant in Daniel Deronda: Victorian Masculinities and the Cultural Context of George Eliot's Novel

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In her capacity as "Belles Lettres" reviewer for the "Contemporary Literature" section of the Westminster, Marianne Evans--who later adopted the pseudonym George Eliot and became one of the most popular and influential British novelists of the 19th century--passed over the poet's reputed "obscurity" and published a favorable review of Robert Browning's Men and Women in January 1856. Later, Browning became a friend of Eliot and her companion George Lewes, occasionally visiting their Priory home after returning to England from Florence in 1862, when Eliot was completing Romola, her historical novel set in 15th-century Florence. The friendship, which grew in the mid-1860s, was undoubtedly encouraged by a shared fascination with the history of Renaissance Italy. Eliot was even given a private tour of Browning's "museum" dedicated to the memory of his deceased wife, the celebrated poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (1) Browning did not exert a major influence on Eliot's fiction, but of course she was familiar with his work, and I want to call attention to a brief allusion to one of his most popular poems in her last novel.

A collection of Browning's dramatic monologues, first published in 1842, contains poems that are still among the best known and most widely anthologized of his works. In particular, "My Last Duchess" remains a favorite: perhaps it is the most popular Victorian poem of all. Browning probably modeled this classic portrait of an aristocratic male domestic tyrant on Alfonso II, fifth and last duke of Ferrara (15331597), whose young bride Lucrezia died under mysterious circumstances in 1561. (2) In the original edition, the poem had been entitled "Italy" and paired with a companion poem, "France," which was later renamed "Count Gismond." Apparently Browning had meant to contrast what he took to be representative treatment of women in the two national traditions: as a mere possession or beautiful object in the first, as a vessel of innocence whose honor must be defended at all costs in the second.

Eliot's Daniel Deronda (serialized February-September, 1876), incorporates her own version of a tyrannous husband: Henleigh Grandcourt, a heartless and domineering English aristocrat who marries the beautiful but flawed heroine, Gwendolen Harleth. There can be no doubt that Browning's Duke was on her mind while she was writing the novel: she has Hans Meyrick, one of the characters in the novel, playfully refer to Grandcourt as "Duke Alphonso" in a letter he writes to the protagonist, Daniel Deronda (p. 708). However, when she was writing Deronda, Eliot was also very much aware of another tyrannous Italian husband portrayed by Browning, this one unambiguously identified with a late-17th-century historical figure (3) and developed in much greater depth: Guido Franceschini, the Florentine nobleman of depleted fortune who functions as the villain of The Ring and the Book (1868-1869). This is Browning's longest and most prestigious poem at more than 20 thousand lines, and it represents by far his most ambitious use of the dramatic monologue. The success of Browning's "masterpiece" in his late career helped to give him a status among English poets almost equal to that of Alfred Tennyson. In the U.S. it solidified his reputation as a great moral teacher and philosopher as well as poet. (4) However, though she and Lewes read Browning's long poem aloud to each other, Eliot was not favorably impressed by what she took to be Browning's overly elaborate treatment of a criminal trial (Karl, 1995; pp. 431-432, 445). Her critical comments (written to her publisher Blackwood in confidence, because of her acquaintance with the poet) suggest that she was not particularly sympathetic with Browning's insights into the psychology of his principal characters.

I take Eliot's characterization of the tyrannous husband as a key to understanding the construction of masculinities in her final--and most experimental and controversial--novel. …