Daniel Deronda

daniel derondaDaniel 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.

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22 Responses to Daniel Deronda

  1. I am so glad to see you review this novel. It, along with Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, is at the very top of my list of favorite great novels, precisely for some of the reasons you list. It is not the perfect jewel of either Middlemarch or Great Expectations; rather, we see Eliot near the end of her writing life stretching herself to achieve even greater greatness (if such a thing exists), and this fabulous, flawed novel is the result. Even the mighty power of Eliot’s intellect cannot penetrate the mysteries of the English Jews, but that is one of the fascinating things about the book. Her attempt to explicate and delineate what is actually proto-Zionism may not fully succeed, but it is a valiant attempt. And you wisely leave to the reader to discover the amazing creation that is Daniel’s mother. Read the novel, and then see the very good BBC production starring Hugh Bonneville and, in the lead role, a young Hugh Dancy’s singular upper lip.

    With the cessation (we hope temporary) of the magnificent book blog Wuthering Expectations (which I discovered on this blog), Shelf Love is the only blog I now follow, and I hope you will carry Tom’s torch and review even more classic novels along with your love of contemporary fiction. Carry on…

    • Jenny says:

      I can never decide between Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House for my favorite Dickens. I go back and forth. I must re-read Great Expectations; I have to confess that I didn’t like it at all the first time I read it, and the movie confirmed me in that opinion.

      Daniel’s mother is one of the great creations of literature. She is absolutely modern. I was struck all of a heap. And the way she made me fall in love with Gwendolyn! That perfect, moral relationship between her and Daniel, like a spar to a drowning woman (ha, see what I did there)! It was fantastic.

      Thank you so much for your encouragement! I have a commitment to read at least one pre-1900 book a month. So you’ll see at least that!

  2. Gee, I follow something like a hundred book blogs. I oughta cut back. But as we all know, “celerity should be contempered with cunctation” (epigraph, Ch. 15).

    If you want to follow the Jewish thread, Amy Levy’s Reuben Sachs (1889) is some kind of response to Daniel Deronda. Levy is quite a figure – “first Jewish woman at Cambridge,” etc. Died young.

    Of course Herr Klesmer is a great artist. His name is “Musical Instrument”! It is like destiny or something. Imagine carrying that name around and not being a good musician. It is too tragic to consider. Eliot’s musician is a refugee from an E. T. A. Hoffmann story.

    • Jenny says:

      I had an orthopedist once named Dr. Bones.

      Do you really think Klesmer is from ETA Hoffmann? I think he’s too wise and kind. I think he’s escaped from her own life.

    • Dr. Bones, perfect. What choice does a man with a sense of humor have, given that name?

      Klesmer is quite close to Hoffmann’s Kreisler, a recurring character who is quite close to Hoffmann, who was himself a musician. So I mean, Klesmer is not a refugee from just any Hoffmann story. Kreisler, as a musician, is a wizard figure (yes, wise and kind) who can move between the real world and the Hoffmann dream-world, much like Klesmer moves between Gwendolen’s Real and Deronda’s Ideal, with its fairies and princesses.

      Daniel Deronda is the most German 19th century British literature I encountered, I think – the Deronda half, that is, the part so many readers hate hate hate, not just book bloggers but heavy hitters like Leavis.

      • Jenny says:

        So Kreisler is an escapee from Hoffmann’s own artistic life, into his stories, and then into Daniel Deronda. Interesting.

        Why do you think readers hate the Deronda parts of the story? To my mind, it’s intentionally inseparable from the Gwendolyn part.

  3. curlygeek04 says:

    A great review of a book I loved. I also found Gwendolyn fascinating, and loved the treatment of Jews. I love Victorian literature, but I get so frustrated with the Victorians’ insulting characterization of Jews. I was nervous that this book wouldn’t live up to my hopes, but it did.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, that’s why I was so gobsmacked to see what happened in the book. It makes other novels so much more embarrassing, doesn’t it? Knowing that this (flawed, but) open-minded, fair, thoughtful treatment of Judaism is possible? That you don’t have to keep making the evasion, “Well, he’s a product of his time”? There must be so much written about this book.

  4. I’m surprised no one has mentioned “Anna Karenina,” the other classic “X” plot novel (the “X,” for those who may not understand, stands for two major plot lines that intersect in some, but not necessarily important way to the story, but may resonate thematically). Again, Eliot’s flaws are more interesting than Tolstoy’s more controlled story, and Levin doesn’t have a fabulous mother or a preternaturally saturnine Jew in his life (that I can recall–it’s been a long time since I have read both books, and high time I re-read them both). Granted, Gwendolyn’s fate isn’t the same as Anna’s, but both women are victims of a society that judges with a double standard.

    • Jenny says:

      I would never have thought to compare the two novels. I’ll have to give it more thought, but I’ll say this straight away: I think Daniel is a more compelling character than Levin. Maybe just because I’ve just come from reading it! But still.

  5. readerlane says:

    I’m encouraged by your thoughts to try Daniel Deronda again. I just couldn’t get into it when I was in college (although I loved Middlemarch) but perhaps like Jane Austen’s Emma, it’s a book I’ll like better now than I did as a student.

    • Jenny says:

      As I said, I found it slow reading — but I was never less than engaged. I’d try it again and see what you think. Lots of things improve on re-reading!

  6. Hi, Jenny. In one respect and one respect only, I like and admire “Daniel Deronda” in the same way I like and admire “Dombey and Son”–that is, though I like DD for many reasons, many of which you name, and the treatment of Jews in particular, there is a je ne sais quoi resemblance between it and DaS in the thickness of the prose, I suppose I would call it, and in the great length. With both of them, I thought I might stop reading several times, yet with neither did I do so, persisting until the end. I do think that DD is superior to many a more structurally perfect Victorian novel, and though it meanders like what Henry James calls “loose and baggy monsters,” I think it deserves all the praise you’ve given it.

    • Jenny says:

      There’s another comparison I wouldn’t have thought to make! In any case, I think this book is bursting at the seams with interest. I only have Romola and Felix Holt left of Eliot’s to read, and I wonder if they are any good.

      • Sorry, I’ve moved down here, away from “Reply.”

        She has a good one on Felix Holt, too, but Rohan Maitzen’s Romola piece is a classic.

        Readers hate the Deronda half of the story because theydon’t believe in the characters, which is a fair point in that many of them are not believable in the Austenish “real and rounded” sense, but unfair in the sense that who cares! – none of the characters are real! – it’s all made up!

        These readers – or maybe it’s a different group – hate the clash of styles. A novel should be written one way, and do one thing, I guess is the arbitrary implicit rule.

        I linked to the 4th post in my series of five, but it will likely make more sense from the beginning.

      • Jenny says:

        My trouble with this proposition, including your excellent piece, is that it bore no relation to my experience reading the book. I accept that there were clashing styles — anyone could see that. And pointing out that it’s the Real vs the Ideal helps a lot in thinking about what’s happening to Daniel, who is sort of the pivot-point between the Harleth-world and the Cohen-world. But I didn’t hate any of it. I was completely engaged.

        What do you make of Daniel’s mother?

      • No, I didn’t hate it either. I liked it. It’s not my arbitrary rule! This argument you will have to have with Levi Stahl and F. R. Leavis. They are wrong, so you should win the argument. You asked why, and that’s why.

        I don’t remember the fairy tale princess as being particularly more interesting than most of the other fairy tale characters in Daniel’s story – the tiny fairies, for example. What do you mean that she made you fall in love with Gwendolyn? I do not remember being any more in love with Gwendolyn after her scene.

        Just a note about Ivanhoe: the novel has one Jewish character who was an actual influence on – cause of? – British philo-semitism, but the second main Jewish character is not much more than a compilation of anti-Semitic stereotypes.

      • Jenny says:

        Sorry, that part of my comment to Christopher was very unclear. I meant that Eliot made me fall in love with Gwendolyn, not that Daniel’s mother did.

        I think the fairy princess is quite startlingly un-wax-work-like and more like — well, more like something out of ETA Hoffman, as long as we’re discussing it. She is brusque, selfish, emotional about herself but not about Daniel, self-willed, bitter about the role of women in Judaism. No tiny feet for her. No one is going to pack her in a suitcase. I liked her enormously.

      • The way you describe the character, she sounds like something of an authorial self-portrait, and an accurate one; just replace “women in Judaism” with “women in England.”

        By total chance I just read a 70 page biography of “Eliot” by Lyndall Gordon, which will be in her forthcoming book Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World, so I have at least one powerful version of her in my mind. Was Evans “selfish,” for example? Yes, when she had to be, she sure was. No Angel in the House here. Such an impressive figure, long before she turned to writing fiction.

  7. lbloxham says:

    Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe has a rich sympathetic plot with Jewish characters at its core. Ivanhoe comes much earlier than Daniel Deronda and it has stood out for me as remarkable for its/Scott’s attitudes.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m surprised I didn’t think of Ivanhoe — I haven’t read it, but I knew some of the characters were Jewish and that it was famous for that. I will have to put that on my list! I need to read more Scott anyway.

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