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daniel deronda

30 december 2017

In the throes of George Eliot completism, sometime in the 1980s, I read all of her novels except Silas Marner, which I had read at the age of ten in 1969 and vowed that life would be too short ever to read again. In the ensuing years, I re-read Middlemarch many times, "teaching" it, even publishing an article about it, so that I went from George Eliot completist to, nominally, George Eliot scholar. But I remembered Daniel Deronda as the most interesting of her books in many ways. I finally set aside a holiday break to re-read Daniel Deronda, without dipping into too many other books in the meantime.

The experience wasn't what I'd hoped for, but wasn't a waste of time, either. Daniel Deronda consists of two stories loosely linked by plot and strongly linked by theme. In one, the beautiful, shallow, clueless Gwendolen Harleth marries a scoundrel named Grandcourt in haste, and repents at leisure. In the other, the beautiful, deep, clueless Daniel Deronda explores the secrets of his very existence, secrets that he suspects have something to do with Jewishness – despite his upbringing as a conventional Gentile gentleman.

All this takes place in England in the mid-1860s. The practical hinge between the two plots is Sir Hugo Mallinger. Grandcourt is Sir Hugo's nephew and heir. Deronda, everyone supposes, is Sir Hugo's illegitimate son, cut off from anything more than financial inheritance. The thematic hinge is that Grandcourt too has illegitimate children, and that Gwendolen has wronged them by marrying him. An even bigger-picture hinge is that the Jews of England stand in the relation of unacknowledged relatives to the insolent, anti-Semitic majority – and that a Jew passing for Gentile, even inadvertently, is like an unowned relation defrauded of his birthright.

There's a lot going here. You have to admit that Daniel Deronda is not your typical Victorian triple-decker. It is more philosophical than the rest of George Eliot's fiction, which is saying a lot. It is definitely, as Virginia Woolf noted of Middlemarch, "written for grown-up people": unhesitantly broaching matters of sex, gender, religion, and racism, matters that other Victorian novelists avoid or paper over.

Ultimately, though, compared to Middlemarch or The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda is relatively undramatic. Gwendolen, by far the most interesting character, is fatally in love with Deronda. In turn, Deronda is in love with Mirah, a "Jewess" that he's fished out of the Thames after she'd despondently flung herself in. This eternal triangle is nicely complicated by marrying Gwendolen off to Grandcourt for mercenary purposes, and giving Deronda a comic-relief rival for Mirah's hand in the person of feckless artist Hans Meyrick. But the situation is deflated by making Deronda about as compelling a romantic interest as your basic webpage of relationship advice.

Gwendolen, as her marriage grows worse, becomes obsessed with Deronda. She always wants to be a better person: she has married to get an income that will keep her mother in respectability, but to do so she's condemned Grandcourt's mistress Lydia Grasher to relative penury, with no expectations for the Grasher children. Gwendolen expresses her fascination for Deronda by asking him constantly for moral guidance. "He gave me a little sermon," she describes one of these encounters (384, ch. 29). And that's the kind of guy Deronda is, a dispenser of sermons. He gives decent advice. But so did Car Talk, and they were more amusing.

There's a fault-line, then, in Gwendolen's character. She is selfish enough to look out for the main chance, but compunctious enough to berate herself for doing so. Actually that kind of fault-line is all too realistic. The problem, for Eliot's fiction, comes when that fault-line isn't exploited for fictional interest.

Meanwhile, Deronda is relentlessly noble, and his love interest Mirah is relentlessly pure, and her benefactors the Meyricks (except for blowhard Hans) are relentlessly selfless, and her brother Mordecai is a stick-figure consumptive intellectual, and Deronda's involvement with all these hard-to-take characters is fairly fantastic. He finds Mirah in the river, he finds Mordecai in a bookstore when looking for Mirah's brother more or less at random, he happens to be a Jew just as he's developing an academic interest in Judaism … Actually this fairy-tale coincidence is not a weakness in my book. I love both Dickens and Hugo, who employ far more contrivance in their contrivances. But the keen psychological insights of Daniel Deronda are vitiated by its dependence on the weird and the fortuitous. It's inconsistent on its own terms.

George Eliot did a lot of research for this novel, and clearly respected Judaism deeply. But she also has a preternatural sense of Jewishness as a racial quality. Somewhere in Daniel Deronda's Hebrew DNA is a Jewish mystic longing to come to daylight – and wouldn't you know it, he finds the perfect mentor and the perfect helpmeet; and then bingo, in the bargain, he finds a Jewish heritage.

I've written elsewhere about Anthony Trollope's uneasy way of satirizing Victorian anti-Semitism while also getting to represent its nastier attitudes. Daniel Deronda makes far more complex use of Jewish themes, and explores anti-Semitism much more elaborately, than Trollope's novels. But to a reader 140 years later, that can bring on that much more uneasiness. Eliot invents a family called the Cohens, a pawnbroker with his wife. mother, and kids. Ezra Cohen, the pawnbroker, is a congenitally hucksterish sort, and his son Jacob an even purer example of the breed (the first thing Jacob does when he meets Deronda is to cagily offer to "shwop" pocketknives; 443, ch.33). Several of the other characters are appalled at the very thought of the Cohens; even the lovely Mrs. Meyrick declares that

I am as glad as you are that the pawnbroker is not her brother: there are Ezras and Ezras in the world; and really it is a comfort to think that all Jews are not like those shopkeepers who will not let you get out of their shops. (628, ch. 46)
Which is one of George Eliot's points, of course: that all Jews are not like the worst stereotypes. So why introduce the worst stereotypes?

The Cohens do turn out to be perfectly nice people, despite their racial proclivities, and are even invited to Daniel and Mirah's wedding. Ooops, spoiler there, but you may have seen it coming. Daniel Deronda has a happy ending, one of the very few, if not the only, Victorian novels where the happy ending consists of an "English gentleman" learning and embracing his Judaism. But as earnest as Eliot gets about Deronda's mission to understand and uplift his people, she packs some critique into one of her Jewish characters, too.

Deronda's mother, the opera singer Alcharisi, handed her toddler son off to Sir Hugo Mallinger (as it turns out, not Daniel's father), in order that the boy could be liberated from his Jewish identity. She had long wished for a similar liberation, and for the most part achieved it. But "you can never imagine what it is to have a man's force of genius in you, and yet to suffer the slavery of being a girl," she tells the grown-up Daniel after revealing his race to him (694, ch. 51). Her own father, Daniel's grandfather, "never thought of his daughter except as an instrument," a conduit for replicating the next generation of Jews (726, ch. 53). Here Eliot forges another thematic link, a feminist one, between her two stories. Just as Gwendolen suffers in a patriarchal marriage, Alcharisi has suffered in a patriarchal family of origin.

It's certainly not anti-Semitic to observe that there are patriarchal varieties of Judaism. Eliot's achievement is the more intriguing in that she develops strong, admirable Jewish characters alongside some less-well-advised stereotypes – and then goes on to critique aspects of Jewish culture that seem to her both lamentable and correctable. Alcharisi has broken free – though at the cost of hating Jewishness itself. And then, perversely, her son Daniel takes the side of his grandfather, becoming the intellectual and spiritual executor of long-dead man he'd never met – becoming a Jew in part in order to marry a compliant woman who embraces her Jewishness and her subservience to men.

It's all very interesting, even if it doesn't wholly work as a novel. I may have to retain my impression of Daniel Deronda as the most interesting of George Eliot's books – though I may never feel compelled to re-read it.

Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. 1876. London: Penguin, 1986.