Daniel Deronda is the fifth of George Eliot’s novels that I’ve read, and the first that I found to be really slow reading. I don’t know whether it was my mood or the weather or the news cycle, but I burrowed my way through this 600-page book at a slow pace, rather than snapping it up delightedly as I’ve done with others of her works, and it took me a couple-three weeks to finish it.
The most likely explanation for my slow pace is that this book is chock full of stuff. It’s a novel full of rich characters and interesting problems — love, of course, and marriage, and parentage, and vocation, and the wonderful way Eliot watches her characters grow — and it tackles one thing in particular that I’ve never seen done in a 19th-century novel before, or at least not in this way, and I don’t suppose I ever will again. It might be just its particular brand of wonderfulness that slowed me down.
One of the things I always like best about Eliot’s novels are her women characters. We first see the magnificently beautiful Gwendolyn Harleth at a roulette table in Germany, on a winning streak, convinced that she is the embodiment of luck and that nothing can stop her. After a moment, she becomes aware that Daniel Deronda is watching her play, with what she perceives as disapproval, and this is the tipping point: she begins to lose money. From this first encounter develops a specifically moral relationship.
Gwendolyn is petulant, childish, manipulative, and utterly self-willed, and seems unlikely to marry because she can’t imagine a marriage that would allow her the personal freedom she enjoys as a single woman. Most men seem ridiculous to her. Then she meets Henleigh Grandcourt. Grandcourt has a freezingly cold, utterly indifferent demeanor that saves him from appearing ridiculous to Gwendolyn, and she finds herself admiring him. A discovery about his past, involving another woman, parts them for a short time, but a reversal in Gwendolyn’s family fortunes makes her decide to accept him after all, despite her earlier decision never to see him again. By this time, we as readers know that he is not just cold but cruel and depraved. Gwendolyn will need all her pride and courage, and much more, to face this marriage.
Gwendolyn’s character is fascinating. The story of her moral and personal growth from a chilly, satirical, almost perfectly self-centered woman into someone who humbly and blindly strives to look beyond herself and help others — to “make others glad she was born” is a long and dramatic one. She is capable of being terribly shocked by the betrayal of a promise that her marriage represents, and she is haunted less by Grandcourt’s emotional abuse than by her guilt over that betrayal of another woman. She clings desperately to Daniel Deronda as the one beacon of honesty and integrity she knows, though they are never romantically involved. And slowly, slowly she begins to learn that she has some kind of worth, and can build a life she would earlier have considered pointless.
On the other side of the scale, we have Mirah Lapidoth. Here again, Daniel Deronda catches a woman in the moment of losing everything, but at greater stakes than a game of roulette. While boating on the Thames, Daniel meets Mirah when she is about to drown herself. He rescues her and takes her to friends, where she is revealed to be a delicately beautiful stage-trained singer and a Jew. Mirah’s quick gratitude, her hardworking nature, her sensitivity, her deep humility, and her talent are in direct opposition to Gwendolyn’s nature. But both women climb from an abject place to a better because of their contact with Daniel Deronda.
Daniel was brought up by an English nobleman, Sir Hugo Mallinger. He has never known his parents, but has always suspected that he is Sir Hugo’s illegitimate son. Rather than let this make him bitter or jealous of the inheritance he’s missed out on, though, he has tried to learn compassion and philosophy from his circumstances. He’s a kind, generous man with few biases, with a strong moral compass. What he doesn’t have is a calling — a vocation — some strong purpose he can take up for his life’s work. When he meets Mirah, and later her consumptive, passionate brother Mordecai, he begins to have some sense that he has found such a purpose.
Vocation receives an interesting treatment in this book. There’s a German musician, Herr Klesmer, who superficially is a little silly — his manners and clothes are not like a traditional English gentleman’s, and he comes in for his share of ridicule. But as the book develops, it becomes clear that he is a truly great artist, devoted to his work and to the hard work and personal sacrifice that inevitably come with it. He is searingly honest. He is oblivious to class difference, which art obviates. There is one scene in which Gwendolyn asks Klesmer his opinion on whether she could take up acting in order to earn some money for her family, expecting him to tell her that she is delightful in every way and certainly better than most stage actresses. Instead, he gives her a painfully honest appraisal, telling her that only after years of devoted effort to the art might she begin to take on serious roles. I wondered as I read whether Klesmer was giving us some of Eliot’s own experience of working — really working — at a calling and a craft.
Perhaps the main thing that makes this novel stand out, to which I could not possibly do justice in a review like this, is its treatment of Jews. When Daniel rescues Mirah and begins to look for her family, he finds himself torn. He isn’t a prejudiced man, except with the general biases of his age, and he has already begun to love and respect Mirah as an artist and a woman. Yet he’s afraid, with some of those ingrained biases, that if he does find her family, they won’t be as refined or as respectable as she is. What if they are stock-character Jews, only interested in money? Then he reassures himself that he knows plenty of Christians who are only interested in money. But what if they can’t be converted? But he wouldn’t want to change someone’s religious beliefs against their will anyway, would he? This inner argument goes on, one that may be intimately familiar to well-meaning white people who find themselves surprised when an unsuspected racist bias rears its head from time to time.
But when Daniel actually meets Mordecai, the argument stops. He finds himself called and convinced, in his heart, that this man is in some deep sense a brother. He devotes himself to making Mordecai happy and comfortable, to connecting with him, to learning more about his world. Mordecai is a deeply learned Jew, a Zionist, a passionate man around whom other Jews feel a little uncomfortable (though respectful.) His mark as a dying man has called him beyond the threshold of caring what others think, and he meets Daniel with all the happiness of meeting a friend you thought you’d never see again. And part of what makes this joy complete is that he believes, with no supporting evidence, that Daniel too is Jewish.
Never in any other 19th-century novel have I seen this kind of treatment of Judaism. Three main characters in the novel are Jews, and a central idea of the book is this conversation about prejudice and bias and what a person is worth to friends and acquaintances if Jewishness is part of the equation. Can the great English theme of parentage and heritage and inheritance and marriage and faith take on new meaning if the people involved are English Jews?
This was a fascinating novel. There’s so much more to say about it — I haven’t even mentioned my favorite character, Daniel’s mother — but this post is already epic and most people have probably stopped reading. Just this: it isn’t a perfect novel. It has its flaws. But it’s so well worth reading. I was drawn into it, deep, deep; I’m not sure I’ve surfaced yet.