Last month, a list appeared with views of literary critics from outside the UK on the best British novel ever. With most of the usual suspects there or thereabouts (no Joyce, of course), the clear choice of the respondents for the cream of the crop was George Eliot’s Middlemarch, truly a novel for grown-ups. Looking for something meaty to while away the last weeks of the reading year, I decided to take that as a sign and… read another of Eliot’s novels instead – let’s see how I went 😉
Daniel Deronda, Eliot’s final novel, is, on the face of it, another of her substantial English novels. Running to more than eight-hundred pages, it was originally published in eight monthly installments in 1876, and being set merely a decade earlier, the book aroused great excitement, especially after the success of Middlemarch.
Eliot begins with a dramatic scene in a gaming room on the continent, with statuesque beauty Gwendolen Harleth enjoying her moment as the centre of attention – until, that is, she notices the dark eyes of an unknown gentleman on her, those of the titular Mr. Deronda. As the reader prepares for their formal introduction, tragedy strikes, and Harleth is forced to rush back to England (but not before Deronda is able to do her a small service anonymously, one which has the effect of connecting their fates somewhat).
At this point, the novel takes us back in time, and we accompany Gwendolen and her family as they make a move to the country, settling in a new neighbourhood where the young woman soon makes several conquests. A recently arrived gentleman, Mallinger Grandcourt, becomes another of her admirers, and while Gwendolen initially rebuffs his advances, a change in her family’s fortunes leads her to accept his proposal. Even her mother is less than convinced with the idea at first:
‘Is he a man she would be happy with? – was a question that inevitably arose in the mother’s mind. ‘Well, perhaps as happy as she would be with any one else – or as most other women are’ – was the answer with which she tried to quiet herself; for she could not imagine Gwendolen under the influence of any feeling which would make her satisfied in what we traditionally call ‘mean circumstances’.
p.131 ( Penguin Classics, 1995)
This is a decision which is to haunt mother and daughter for a very long time…
So far, so Trollope, and these first few-hundred pages certainly have much in common with Tony T.’s bucolic romances. With her title character mostly conspicuous by his absence for the first part of the novel, Eliot appears to be teasing us (to the extent that some readers would have preferred Gwendolen Harleth as a title…). Slowly, though, young Mr. Deronda’s role in the novel becomes clearer and much more prominent, changing what was a typical English novel of manners into something very different, a modern work of a search for identity.
You see, Deronda, a young man brought up in luxury as the ward of a nobleman, prevents a young woman from drowning one day, becoming from that moment deeply involved in her life and her quest to find her lost mother and brother. This chance encounter proves to be the catalyst for a series of meetings and the impetus for him to finally explore his own roots. As the fates of Deronda and Harleth slowly diverge, the Victorian readership is left to wonder whether the marriage which looked preordained after the first few parts will ever come to pass…
By today’s standards, there’s little surprising about Daniel Deronda, but for the Victorians, the ‘contamination’ of a wonderful little romance by the Jewish strand came as a shock. In the excellent introduction, Terence Cave explains how public reaction to the novel cooled as it progressed, with many readers upset at Eliot’s close examination of Jewish culture and society in what they were expecting to be a thoroughly English novel. Perhaps more interestingly, though, the book attracted attention on the continent, with fragments translated into various tongues. In particular, parts of the European Jewish community praised the novel, while wishing that the ‘extraneous’ Gwendolen Harleth strand had been left out – a rather different interpretation 😉
For me, this would have been a shame as the development of Harleth’s character is one of the most successful features of Daniel Deronda. From a headstrong, beautiful young woman raised to believe herself the centre of the world, experience and hardship form her into a woman bitterly disappointed by life, unable to imagine a future beyond the pain she feels today. Initially, she feels unstoppable, even after her family’s financial ruin:
And even in this beginning of troubles, while for lack of anything else to do she sat gazing at her image in the growing light, her face gathered a complacency gradual as the cheerfulness of morning. Her beautiful lips curled into a more and more decided smile, till at last she took off her hat, leaned forward and kissed the cold glass which had looked so warm. How could she believe in sorrow? If it attacked her, she felt the force to crush it, to defy it, or run away from it, as she had done already. Anything seemed more possible than that she could go on bearing miseries, great or small. (p.18)
Alas, the writer is playing with poor Gwendolen here – bearing miseries without end is exactly what she will have to do.
In comparison with the complexity of Gwendolen’s half of the story, a multi-faceted part of the tale, Deronda himself comes across as a bit bland. Very nice, but not immensely well-developed, he’s a nice young man with a bit of a saviour complex:
Persons attracted him, as Hans Meyrick had done, in proportion to the possibility of his defending them, rescuing them, telling upon their lives with some sort of redeeming influence; and he had to resist an inclination, easily accounted for, to withdraw coldly from the fortunate. (p.324)
In truth, he needs to be well-mannered and tolerant in order to be able to accept his role and interact with the Jewish characters, especially given the reality of Christian-Jewish relations of the time, but that doesn’t excuse his being rather dull (after Felix Holt, another main character less interesting than the supporting cast).
Returning to Cave, the last part of the introduction (an addition which thoroughly enhances the book) discusses coincidences and Eliot’s use of romance genre conventions. Cave argues passionately in favour of the way they are used in the novel, yet at times it smacks a little of protesting too much. Certainly, I was unconvinced. I felt that the many coincidental meetings and discoveries were a little overdone, taking away from the weight of the novel.
Of course, despite any minor criticisms, Daniel Deronda is an excellent novel. It’s an attempt to create something new, an English country novel melded with a story of racial interaction and multiculturalism. There’s plenty here for fans of the traditional, with plenty of Trollopian touches (courtship and hunting) and a hint of the Austenesque too (Gwendolen could be seen as an Emma with less wit and humour – and a grimmer fate). What might surprise some readers more is the humour to be found here, with lots of wry asides hidden amongst the classical allusions and psychological revelations.
Daniel Deronda doesn’t measure up to Middlemarch, but then (as those critics proved in their survey) very little does. Despite its flaws (and there are a few), Eliot is once again operating in a different league to most fiction; I did little more here than scratch the surface, leaving whole areas (the role of women, classical and biblical parallels) unmentioned. This is a book to try if you have a spare week or three in your reading calendar – and if you don’t, well, perhaps you should try and make the time 😉