The Lives We Never Live

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I was watching the BBC miniseries Daniel Deronda the other day. Based on the George Eliot novel of the same name (which I’ll have to hunt down and read now), it follows the career of the titular character, who ends up having to choose between two love interests. It’s a beautifully done series, and it’s on Netflix, so if like me, you have a weakness for 19th century period dramas, it’s one of the better ones out there.

Hugh Bonneville is creepily magnificent as the aristocrat who enjoys his domination over others. Romola Garai is brilliant in the role of Gwendolyn Harleth, the young woman who must choose between love and her family’s financial security. She was arguably the most interesting character, and I rather think Eliot could have left out the part about Deronda’s other love interest, and named the book after Harleth. We all love the stories that follow Lizzie Bennet’s injunction, “Do anything rather than marry without affection.” However, the reality for most young women in financial straits in 19th century was that dreamy Mr. Darcy, the perfect gentleman AND in possession of £10,000 per year, did not often come along. Gwendolyn Harleth (whose name, by the way, I think is at least as mellifluous as Mabel Lane Fox) is a sympathetic and compelling character, and it’s hard to really fault her too much for her choices, even as one is horrified by both the choices and their consequences.

But what I wanted to talk about was Daniel Deronda. Hugh Dancy, of course, is handsome and brooding as the good-hearted but troubled Deronda. We meet him as he first catches a glimpse of the lovely Gwendolyn Harleth, losing at billiards, and secretly buys back a necklace she pawns. Later, he rescues the beautiful Jewish singer Mirah Lapidoth from drowning herself in a river, and the stage is set for a love triangle. Only this love triangle is about more than just love. It’s about Daniel Deronda’s quest to discover (and decide) who he really is. Eventually, the choice of whether to pursue Gwendolyn or Mirah becomes more about how Daniel sees himself, and what he wants to do with his life than his feelings for either woman.

In a weird way, Daniel’s dilemma over whom to marry (and by extension, who to be) reminded me of this series of photographs by Czech photographer Dita Pepe, in which she imagined what she would be like married to different men. It was striking to me how different she looked in the different photographs, and what different assumptions I made about her as a person.

Whom to choose as a life partner is certainly an important decision. But in these cases, it serves as a sort of metaphor for the roads we might have taken in our lives, and the people we might have been. I know that I have far more things I’d like to be than lives available to try them. I’d like to be an international human rights lawyer, an artist, a writer, a university professor in comparative literature, history, Middle Eastern Studies, European Studies, 19th century British literature, philosophy, and/or a dozen other subjects, a field biologist, an environmental activist, an editor at a publishing house or a magazine, and an investigative journalist. Those are all things I can picture myself being good at. But there are other things I’d like to try being, even though it’s not easy for me to picture myself being good at them–like a ballet dancer, or a theoretical physicist, or an astronaut.

This is probably also one of the motivating factors in my desire to travel and live in as many different places as possible. Because every new place is kind of a different life, and allows me to explore different facets of who I am.