“But now look up the river,” said Mordecai, “See the sky, how it is slowly fading. I have always loved this bridge: I stood on it when I was a little boy. It s a meeting-place for the spiritual messengers. It is true—what the Masters said—that each order of things has its angel…Here I have listened to the messages of earth and sky; when I was stronger I used to stay and watch for the stars in the deep heavens. But this time just about sunset was always what I loved best. It has sunk into me and dwelt with me…it was my own decline:…it waited till at last it brought me my new life—my new self—who will live when this breath is all breathed out.”
I found this to be an important book for two reasons. Firstly, there are an incredible amount of characters, both main and secondary. Daniel Deronda and Gwendolen Harleth both feature at the top, but so do their families and friends, including the Jewish Polish refugee Mirah, her ‘sisters,’ her brother and dear Uncle Hugo. Eliot manages to tell all of their stories without the reader getting confused, because their lives are intertwined and in the grand scheme of the novel, all feed off of and move due to one another.
The second reason I find this book important is because of Daniel and his personal journey that ends in the discovery that he is Jewish. Classic literature is rife with anti-Jewish sentiment and the stereotypes are disappointing. However, I am a very firm believer that context is everything (in this case, that the time period must be taken into consideration) and I can still, for example, enjoy Edith Wharton’s novels despite some nasty anti-semitic barbs. So the positive portrayal Eliot describes of Judaism and the London Jewish community Daniel encounters is surprisingly refreshing.
When the story opens we are introduced Gwendolen Harleth and Daniel Deronda who have a chance encounter at a gaming table in the fictional town of Leubronn, Germany. She is winning easily at roulette until the gaze of this stranger unnerves her causing loss after loss. The next day she receives a letter from her mother telling her the family is in financial ruin and she must come home immediately. Without money Gwendolen is forced to pawn a necklace to buy a ticket home. The next day the necklace is mysteriously returned. Daniel, who saw her go in to the pawn shop, paid it off. The story is next told in split flashbacks alternating between the two.
With Gwendolen’s stepfather dead and her mother and sisters without funds her aunt and brother in law finance a very modest home for them, but it doesn’t include their upkeep. Gwendolen is fiercely independent having vowed never to marry, but with no immediate prospects she feels obligated to find some means to support what is left of her family. She is horrified when offered a governess position and frantically makes other plans hoping she can develop her voice into a singing career; when she is heard by a professional musician she is dismayed to learn she has no talent. Just when she comes to terms her life as a governess, she meets Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt a charming, but rather harsh, calculating man.
There has always been an undercurrent of attraction between Daniel and Gwendolen, but when he became involved in discovering his biological family she was in no position to wait. But then Gwendolyn discovers Grandcourt had a mistress, Lydia Glasher, who he is still supporting along with their several children. Shocked, she runs away to her friends in Germany, though soon realizing her independence is fruitless. She returns and concedes to marry Grandcourt with the assurance he will take care of her mother and sisters and hoping she can manipulate him with her her beauty and wit, believing she is to him a prize he won and that will be enough.
It is devastating for Gwendolen when she realizes Grandcourt will forever treat her abominably, knowing she knows about his past and finding ways to throw it in her face. She tries to be brave in this marriage for her mother’s sake, but her life is miserable. However, the resolution for this misery is quite shocking.
Daniel has been raised by his Uncle Hugo, in a kind and comfortable household, but Hugo has always refused to discuss Daniel’s biological parents. Daniel is curious, but has never pushed Hugo to reveal. In what will become a turn of the utmost in his fate, Daniel befriends Mordecai, a Jewish mystic, who sees in Daniel a kindred spirit and spiritual brother who feels Daniel’s Jewishness before he knows it himself. Daniel attends synagogue services, spends Shabbat dinners with Mordecai’s friends, the Cohen family and feels very attracted to their Jewish life. As Daniel is drawn deeper into this community he is keen to study Jewish theology, history and even Kabbalah.
Into the mix comes Mirah Lapidoth. a young Jewish woman, who arrives in London from Poland, after escaping her abusive father. He has always insisted her mother and brother were dead, but she has never believed him. She is penniless and in the futility of the search and her loneliness she attempts to take her life by jumping in to the Thames. She is rescued by Daniel who happens to be rowing past at that exact moment. He takes her to his friends Mrs. Meyrick and her three daughters, who treat her like a part of the family, where she begins to heal her body and spirit. Her Jewishness is acknowledged and though Mrs. Meyrick hopes she will become a Christian it is without deprecation, because Mirah herself could never let that go.
One of the key moments for Daniel is the revelation of his biological parents. Sir Hugo arranges a meeting with his mother and he learns the reasons she abandoned him; that the expectations her strict Jewish father placed on her were impossible for her to fulfill. A free spirit chomping at the bit of marriage, she chose freedom when her husband died, giving up her son to her close friend. The legacy of Daniel’s grandfather is also a discovery that changes his world.
Out of so much tragedy for so many characters, there are happy endings and promises of self-realization for everyone. And I have to say after staying with this bunch for over 700 pages that is fine with me!
Thoughts on the Judaism of this Book
As I said at the beginning, Eliot paints one of the most knowledgeable and sympathetic portraits of Jewish life I have ever read in a classic novel. Of course, I am only speaking to my experience and not “the Jewish question” in classic literature in general. For example, Mordecai’s knowledge of Jewish history and its mystic elements and the sympathetic and detailed life of the Cohen family and the Jewish community of which they are involved is so specific, it made me wonder at Eliot’s preparation for writing the novel.
And that made me remember a book I picked up long ago on George Henry Lewes, Eliot’s romantic partner. George Henry Lewes and George Eliot: A Review of Records, by Anna Theresa Kitchel (1933) is a narrative collection of Lewes diaries, letters and other documents that contains numerous references to George Eliot and her books.
Kitchel uses Lewes’s diary entries during the summer of 1873 on a trip to Germany to describe collecting “data” with Eliot when Daniel Deronda was still in the development stage.
July 28th : Strasbourg. Bought book on Jewish subjects for Polly’s novel.
July 31st: Bought books.
August 15th: Left for Mainz—found synagogue and hour of service.
August 16th: To synagogue—rarity of Jewish type.
It is fascinating for me to read the research methods of authors and in this case, instructive to see how ‘hands on’ Eliot regarded her experience for a factual representation of Judaism and the Jewish community.
I am a Jew….And it’s not only that I am a Jew, but I come of a strain that has ardently maintained the fellowship of our race—a line of Spanish Jews….My grandfather preserved manuscripts, family records stretching far back, in the hope that they would pass into the hands of his grandson. And now his hope is fulfilled, in spite of attempts to thwart it by hiding my parentage from me.
Do not think of me sorrowfully on your wedding-day. I have remembered your words—that I may live to be one of the best of women, who make others glad that they were born. I do not yet see how that can be, but you know better than I. If it ever comes true, it will be because you helped me. I only thought of myself, and I made you grieve….You must not grieve any more for me….it shall be better with me because I have known you. Gwendolen Grandcourt
Title: Daniel Deronda
Author: George Eliot
Publisher: The Mershon Company
Challenges: Classics Club, Mount TBR