Daniel Deronda: Who's Who

Gwendolen Harleth Gwendolen Harleth
played by Romola Garai

Gwendolen falls in love with Daniel Deronda when she first sees him at the gaming tables. She senses he is not like other young men, but she has no idea how different he actually is. Outwardly alluring and vivacious, Gwendolen is spoiled and childish, selfishly determined to get what she wants out of life.

Rising star Romola Garai, who coincidentally shares her first name with another of George Eliot's heroines, admits that playing Gwendolen was a challenge for her. "The thing that I found difficult to understand," she explains, "is why someone as intelligent as Gwendolen would make such a fatal error in marrying this man that she believes she can control. I suppose that just comes from naïveté. Gwendolen has no experience with the world at all, outside of her domestic sphere."

Garai believes that Gwendolen's "fundamental flaw is selfishness," she says, "and that's what George Eliot is exploring. Eliot was quite a social activist; she very much believed in being interested in the world around you, especially in Victorian London. [Elizabeth] Gaskell, Eliot, and other women writers were engaged in a moral struggle to improve themselves. And Gwendolen doesn't think about others, and as a result suffers because she doesn't know enough about other people to be able to judge characters properly. So she makes this mistake, which is just appalling, because she has to suffer the ignominy and mental torment, as it were, of this desperately unhappy marriage."

Garai grew up in Hong Kong and Singapore, where she lived until she was 10. Her intelligence, rather than being stifled like Gwendolen's, was encouraged by her parents, who liked to discuss books and music around the dinner table. It is this that Garai attributes to her success. "It doesn't matter how good you are [as an actor]; if you can't talk to the director, that really affects the result."

She got her start in acting when she was plucked from the anonymity of A-level examinations to play the young Elizabeth in The Last of the Blonde Bombshells. She abandoned a degree in English at Queen Mary's College to concentrate on her acting, a move that appears to have paid off judging by her growing list of credits. Garai can also be seen in 2002's Nicholas Nickleby, and the upcoming Havana Nights: Dirty Dancing 2.