Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Last year around this time, I read Adam Bede, George Eliot’s first novel. It’s fitting that when I was rummaging around my to-read box, I found Daniel Deronda, Eliot’s last novel. I wanted a meaty, socially-conscious novel with a diverse cast of well-realized characters. Eliot does not disappoint, and Daniel Deronda captivated me to the point that I began scribbling some notes in the margins of my lovely used copy.
I love George Eliot so much. Sooooo much. Let me make this clear: George Eliot is a god.
(A friend suggested I should use the word “goddess”, but if we don’t call women actors “actresses” or “murderesses” any more, I’m going to phase “goddess” out as well.)
Eliot’s ability to transport me to her contemporary Europe is nothing short of wizardry. It’s easy to complain that fiction from a hundred years ago is too difficult to read because of changes in style or too difficult to comprehend because of cultural shifts, but Eliot’s command of imagery and characterization transcends all such barriers. In the previous novels of hers that I’ve read, Eliot replicates the atmosphere of rural England as the echoes of the Industrial Revolution reverberated across its emptying fields. Now in her last novel she gives us a glimpse of the emerging middle class.
The book is called Daniel Deronda, so readers are excused if they are confused by the fact that, for the first third of the book, Deronda appears in one chapter before Eliot turns all her attention on Gwendolen Harleth. The story is as much Gwendolen’s as it is Deronda’s, and it is only towards the very end of the book that Deronda’s narrative seems to take precedence. I understand why the back of my Wordsworth Classics edition claims “Eliot breaks new ground for the English novel with the unusual form and content”, for at first it seems like these two protagonists’ narratives are utterly unrelated. Yet each is enhanced by the other, and by the parallels one can draw between them.
Gwendolen is an interesting protagonist because she is unlikable—but sympathetic. She is spoiled (a fact that is not, itself, a spoiler, because the very first book is called “The Spoiled Child”) and sheltered and possibly Eliot’s way of digging at the shallow creations of fellow Regency and Victorian novelists who completely missed the point of Austen and the Brontë sisters. Gwendolen is in fact an excellent case study of how to write an unlikable character, because Eliot’s omniscient narrator explores the events that have shaped her as a young woman. When confronted with her mother and sisters’ penury (money matters and the loss of money being a favourite motif for Eliot), Gwendolen’s initial reaction is hilariously naive: she announces she will pursue a career as a famous actor or singer. Eliot, through the slightly stereotypical figure of Hans Klesmer—suffering German artiste—shuts Gwendolen down and hard! The schadenfreude as Gwendolen’s cognitive dissonance works overtime to process Klesmer’s complete and unrelenting criticism of her proposal is lovely, all the more so because, thanks to earlier scenes and interactions, we see it coming while Gwendolen remains her oblivious, egoistic self.
Ego is, of course, at the core of both of this novel’s stories. Gwendolen is not really used to anyone saying “no” to her. (Deronda is so enigmatic to her in part because he is probably the first person to do this when he aborts her ruinous gambling streak by returning her necklace.) She basically rules her mother through a combination of genuine affection and latent guilt on her mother’s part over her father’s desertion of the family. Gwendolen’s half-sisters are never fleshed out beyond being set pieces, to the point where I don’t remember their names. Eliot portrays her as far more self-possessed and self-determined than the typical young woman of her time. This is evident from her thoughts on marriage, illustrated by this, the first of many quotes I felt the need to underline:
Her observations of matrimony had inclined her to think it rather a dreary state, in which a woman could not do what she liked, had more children than was desirable, was consequently dull, and became irrevocably immersed in humdrum.
(From there, Eliot goes on to explain that Gwendolen “desires to lead”, building her up as an ambitious and calculating woman who belies the somewhat foolish girl we see in the first chapter. Gwendolen is inexperienced but intelligent.) Eliot’s own complicated views on love and matrimony are on full display here, but even better is the biting critique of a patriarchal society that infantilizes women. She conjures even more powerful imagery to this effect slightly later in the novel, with Gwendolen’s riposte while verbally fencing with Grandcourt:
We women can’t go in search of adventures—to find out the North-West Passage or the source of the Nile, or to hunt tigers in the East. We must stay where we go, or where the gardeners like to transplant us. We are brought up like the flowers, to look as pretty as we can, and be dull without complaining.
Wow. You go, girl.
It’s tempting, especially with a cursory knowledge of Eliot’s life, to conclude that the above sentiments are an all-in-all indictment of marriage. Eliot is short-circuiting the Romantic tropes that dictate that marriage is the inevitable destiny of the female lead. However, the critique here is a little more complicated, because Eliot isn’t railing against marriage so much as the more subtle fact that for women in Gwendolen’s position, marriage is essentially the only respectable option. Eliot gives us a look at several women who are content in marriages, like the redoubtable Mrs. Meyrick. What she opposes is the pressure to marry and the social cost to women who do not marry, or who marry the wrong person. Eliot further underscores this double standard through Grandcourt’s illegitimate children with Mrs. Glasher: even those few men, like Sir Hugo, who think he should probably have married Mrs. Glasher do not even bother censuring him. Women don’t have that option, and that makes Eliot furious. (I haven’t even gotten started on the number of times various men and women describe Gwendolen as being a “coquette” or “coquetting”—yeah, they gerunded that shit—during her interactions with Grandcourt. I just … seriously, if you’re at all interested in a feminist look at Victorian England, you need to read George Eliot.)
Gwendolen isn’t the only facet through which Eliot explores the restrictions on women. After cousin Gwendolen spurns him, Rex resolves to move to Canada and “build a hut, and work hard at clearing, and have everything wild about me, and a great wide quiet.” (I love this scene all the more because when Rex mentions Canada, Eliot’s narrator parenthetically remarks, “Rex had not studied the character of our colonial possessions.”) Anyway, what’s interesting is that while Rex is imagining this brave frontier life in Canada, his sister Anna is all gung-ho about joining him as his housekeeper. Initially this just seems like an attempt to show how Anna is devoted to Rex as a sister. However, Gwendolen’s later remark about how women are restricted from having adventures casts Anna’s eagerness in a different light: maybe she secretly yearns for adventures herself, and this is the only way she can think of having them.
Much like the book itself, I’m well into this review before returning to the character of Daniel Deronda. I was just so captivated and moved by Gwendolen’s story, the arc of the tragedy of her compromise with Grandcourt, that I needed to express all of the above. My feelings about Daniel are less complicated, and they tie in with some misgivings about the structure of his plot.
I enjoyed how Eliot provides a sympathetic portrayal of Jews and Jewish culture even while the majority of her Christian characters are thumping bigots. She deftly shows her Jewish characters to belie the stereotypes at every turn: the pawnbroker Ezra Cohen proves to be an upstanding citizen; Ezra Mordecai has a heart far too big for his weakened body. At the same time, otherwise nice and intelligent people like Hans and his mother, or the Mallingers, make the type of offhand comments that exemplify the institutionalized anti-Semitism so endemic to English life.
Deronda takes the revelation that his Jewish surprisingly well. This has something to do with his growing love for Mirah, of course. Perhaps, also, he appreciates that his Jewish identity equips him with a rich heritage and, thanks to Mordecai’s Zionist influences, a sense of purpose and importance. Instead of merely being Sir Hugo’s foster son and protege, Deronda is now a Jew hoping to reclaim his heritage, both figuratively and literally by travelling to Jerusalem.
Towards the end of the novel, Eliot allows the Zionist elements of Deronda’s story to become expansive, devoting page upon page for Mordecai to explain his vision. I think this might be somewhat a case of wanting to show her work (TVTropes) and just getting a little carried away. As a result, Daniel Deronda’s philosophical elements are more overt than they are in some of Eliot’s earlier novels. She has a lot of ideas and differing perspectives that she tries to reconcile, and she isn’t always successful. (I have similar misgivings about the oddly convenient appearance of Deronda’s mother at the end of the book.)
At first, I thought that this meant I should give the book four stars. I did love it, but not nearly as much as Middlemarch or The Mill on the Floss. It’s far from perfect. If I reserved five stars for perfect books, however, that would be miserly indeed. Daniel Deronda an impressive work; its flaws are merely the signatures of Eliot’s ambitious scope for storytelling. This novel’s portrayal of late–nineteenth-century England from the perspective of impoverished middle class women and a rich but heritage-less man trying to find a purpose. It is another fine example of Eliot’s talent for creating memorable and amusing characters of varying degrees of depth, and for her truly stunning command of language in encouraging the reader’s empathy.