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Friday, 20 March 2015

Burnous and shawl, or Thoughts on Grandcourt

A scene from chapter 11 of Daniel Deronda (1876)- as Gwendolen Harleth comes back from a walk with Mr Grandcourt and finds her mother with Mr Lush, a man she dislikes:
"... It was hardly a bow that Gwendolen gave—rather, it was the slightest forward sweep of the head away from the physiognomy that inclined itself toward her, and she immediately moved toward her seat, saying, 'I want to put on my burnous.' No sooner had she reached it, than Mr. Lush was there, and had the burnous in his hand: to annoy this supercilious young lady, he would incur the offense of forestalling Grandcourt; and, holding up the garment close to Gwendolen, he said, 'Pray, permit me?' But she, wheeling away from him as if he had been a muddy hound, glided on to the ottoman, saying, 'No, thank you.'
A man who forgave this would have much Christian feeling, supposing he had intended to be agreeable to the young lady; but before he seized the burnous Mr. Lush had ceased to have that intention. Grandcourt quietly took the drapery from him, and Mr. Lush, with a slight bow, moved away. 'You had perhaps better put it on,' said Mr. Grandcourt, looking down on her without change of expression.
'Thanks; perhaps it would be wise,' said Gwendolen, rising, and submitting very gracefully to take the burnous on her shoulders..."

This is reminiscent of a passage from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848):

"'Who was the gentleman you danced with last,' resumed she, after a pause—'that was so officious in helping you on with your shawl?'
'He was not officious at all, aunt: he never attempted to help me till he saw Mr. Boarham coming to do so; and then he stepped laughingly forward and said, 'Come, I’ll preserve you from that infliction.' ' 
'Who was it, I ask?' said she, with frigid gravity.
'It was Mr. Huntingdon, the son of uncle’s old friend.'"

And a similar scene from Mansfield Park (1814):

"Fanny's last feeling in the visit was disappointment: for the shawl which Edmund was quietly taking from the servant to bring and put round her shoulders was seized by Mr. Crawford's quicker hand, and she was obliged to be indebted to his more prominent attention."

Coincidence? 




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My initial thought is that Grandcourt, Huntingdon and Henry Crawford, who get the burnous/ shawl in the end, are all douchebags. And they are. But if I can see quite clearly Henry Crawford (selfish, vain, unscrupulous, untrustworthy, deceitful, insensitive... though charming, good-mannered, intelligent...) and Arthur Huntingdon (unprincipled, dissolute, hedonistic, self-indulgent, glib, treacherous, incorrigible, alcoholic...), I don't know what to make of Grandcourt. He's not a good man, that is certain- he controls, dominates and suffocates Gwendolen, chooses not to marry Lydia, lets go of Lush, doesn't care about anyone and doesn't give people a chance to explain themselves. But if he is egoistic, self-absorbed and selfish, so is Gwendolen; if he wants everything to follow his own wishes and prioritises himself above all others, so does Gwendolen; if he wants to control people, so does Gwendolen; if he lacks empathy, so does Gwendolen. Why is it that we feel sorry for and sympathise with her and condemn him? Because, obviously, in this marriage, she's the victim. But is he really cruel to her? Or is she a victim mostly because she is used to having her way and being obeyed, and now everything is reversed? Her suffering has to do with Lydia's curse and her own conscience, and if the theory I mentioned is true (abuse), it makes life intolerable for her, but both of these points are not really about Grandcourt, though he pretends not to know what he does know just to have the upper hand. 
Another reason Gwendolen appears easier to sympathise with is her conscience. But how do we know that Grandcourt doesn't have a conscience? We don't know his thoughts. This man doesn't express emotions and doesn't appear to struggle with guilt, but he may. Why he marries Gwendolen instead of Lydia, I don't understand (perhaps because Gwendolen can be shown around whereas his relationship with Lydia was a scandal; or because Lydia is more equal to him, more like him, and thus harder to control), but he does make up for it by taking care of Lydia and their children in terms of money. This is another similarity between him and Gwendolen, who, after hurting somebody (her mother, for instance), makes up for it and eases her own conscience by giving something else as compensation or showing affection. Grandcourt isn't too mean and stingy to Gwendolen and her family either. What if he's not as bad as the narrator says? What if he's a kind of Pechorin- a selfish, amoral, hedonistic, nihilist, cruel man, bored with everything and interested in nothing, who deep down inside is more perceptive, sensitive and troubled than we realise, who at the core still sees his own wrongdoings and feels bad about them?

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