Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Other Woman: Lydia Glasher and the Disruption of English Racial Identity in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Other Woman: Lydia Glasher and the Disruption of English Racial Identity in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda

Article excerpt

In the early pages of George Eliot's final novel Daniel Deronda (1876), Gwendolen Harleth wrestles with the impending decision to accept or reject the marriage proposal of Henleigh Grandcourt, a formidable but wealthy man. Gwendolen realizes that an alliance with Grandcourt would rescue her, as well as her mother and sisters, from financial hardship, so facing a future as a governess, Gwendolen decides to accept his offer. Unfortunately, her hope of a blissful marriage with Grandcourt quickly dwindles when Lydia Glasher, Grandcourt's long-time mistress, appears before Gwendolen at the Whispering Stones. Upon her introduction within the novel, Lydia is referred to as "[a]n impressive woman, whom many would turn to look at again in passing; her figure was slim and sufficiently tall, her face rather emaciated, so that its sculpturesque beauty was the more pronounced, her crisp hair perfectly black, and her large anxious eyes also what we call black" (128). A closer examination of this relatively neglected character reveals a subtle yet consistent move by Eliot to continually color Lydia, her children, and her environment with black and dark features, which was a technique commonly utilized by Victorian writers to rhetorically differentiate between "pure" Anglo-Europeans and members of racially "impure" groups, such as the Irish, Jews, and Africans.

Despite the fact that Lydia is a British woman with white skin, I contend that her dark features are constantly reinforced in an effort to associate her metaphorically with members of a non-white, particularly an African, race. This association extends beyond the physical, because, while non-Anglo groups were ostracized socially due to their supposed inferiority, Lydia's sexual immorality that has resulted in four illegitimate children also renders her an outcast. Eliot purposely paints Lydia as a "black" woman to parallel her subordinate social status with the plight of other non-white races whom "superior" Europeans systematically denigrated and from whom they divorced themselves. In fact, Lydia's physical portrayal mirrors that of the Jewish characters in the novel who are repeatedly linked with darkness and foreignness in an effort to draw attention to and critique their outsider status within Anglo society, like Mirah who has "dark hair" (193), Herr Klesmer who appears "foreign" (228), and Mordecai, who, like Lydia, is described as having "crisp black hair" (357).

Because of the prominence of the novel's "Jewish half' of the narrative structure, it is not surprising that scholars generally refer to Eliot's sympathetic treatment of Jewish characters to make claims about her attitudes towards imperialism and race relations. Beginning with Edward Said's belief that Eliot's depictions of Jewish characters indicate support for the colonization of the East (63-65), others have reinforced this notion, including Reina Lewis: "In keeping with those critics who have claimed that Daniel Deronda is a novel whose apparently split plot is driven by a concern with heredity, race and degeneration, it will be further argued that the deployment of Jews as a signifier of otherness for English society reinforces, despite its attempts to challenge, naturalized ideologies of racial difference" (192; see also Meyer 160 and Wohlfarth 190). But Nancy Henry has challenged these readings by asserting that Daniel Deronda actually presents readers with a complicated picture of British imperialism, one that does not completely condone such practices but is eager to expose them as morally questionable (George Eliot and the British Empire 113).

Like Henry, I hope to complicate questions of English national identity in Daniel Deronda, even beyond Eliot's more obvious indictment of Victorian anti-Semitism as rooted in scientific and cultural discourses, by demonstrating that Eliot strategically positions Lydia as a member of a non-Anglo race to emphasize her figurative role as a colonized woman under the control of Henleigh Grandcourt. …

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