Daniel Deronda was George Eliot’s final novel and her most controversial work.
The book contains a double plot, which was quite common with Victorian novelists such as Charles Dickens and William Thackeray, but Eliot took an unusual direction in this novel by introducing a Jewish theme. Between 1860 and 1874, the idea of re-establishing a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel was the focus of a group of men who came to be known as the Proto-Zionists, or the fore-runners of Zionism and Eliot’s story revolves around this.
Daniel Deronda is a comfortably off young man who has no knowledge of his origins and thinks he is the illegitimate son of his benefactor. By dint of circumstance he becomes involved with Mordecai, a young Jewish man dying of consumption, who believes that Deronda has been sent to him so that he may pass on to him his knowledge and vision.
Before he encounters Mordecai, Deronda meets Gwendolen Harleth, a beautiful but self-centred and vain young woman who ends up ‘marrying money.’
Her husband, Henleigh Grandcourt, is decadent, controlling, callous, and extremely wealthy.
Throughout the novel the lives of Deronda and Gwendolen criss-cross and Gwendolen sees him as her saviour in some ways, turning to him for guidance as her husband’s domination and control begins to crush her.
This is a large-scale novel with many twisted strands and each of the chapters tend to alternately focus on specific characters which makes for dense reading at times.
I found the relationship between Gwendolen and her husband compelling reading and when the narrative changed to focus on what was going on in Deronda’s life, I felt irritated me at times because I was anxious to see how the couple’s relationship would work out.
Reading about Gwendolen was like watching the slow growth of a soul and it was one of my favourite parts of the book.
Eliot was well-read and intellectual – you don’t have to read for too long to realise that the themes she explores in this novel were assiduously researched. Excerpts, quotations or mentions of art, economics, literature, history, and music plus 683 explanatory notes in my copy of the book (!! and of course, I had to read them all) attest to that. This book is quite different to her other books, especially Adam Bede (which was delightful) and Silas Marner (which I also enjoyed).
Daniel Deronda requires a real commitment to get through, but it’s worth it.
I’ll get back to Gwendolen’s soul journey shortly, but first I have to say that there were some minor characters that were just delightful.
Mrs Meyrick was one of them. She and her daughters lived in a house that looked very shabby from the outside but was, in reality, a place of beauty and culture…
‘…their minds being like mediaeval houses with unexpected recesses and openings from this into that, flights of steps and sudden outlooks.’
She was a kind, motherly woman with much wisdom:
‘Don’t be forecasting evil, dear child, unless it is what you can guard against. Anxiety is good for nothing if we can’t turn it into a defence. But there’s no defence against all the things that might be.’
Herr Klesmer was another gem. A first-rate Jewish musician engaged by the wealthy Arrowpoint family to teach Catherine, their only daughter and heiress to the family fortune, a handsome catch for anyone after a fortune, but Klesmer was a proud and honourable man. It was inconceivable that Catherine would consider an attachment to Klesmer…
But along came Mr Bult, a political man of a good family, a ‘new pretender to her hand,’ and Herr Klesmer spoke up…
‘…you are to me the chief woman in the world – the throned lady whose colours I carry between my heart and my armour…you once said it was your doom to suspect every man who courted you of being an adventurer, and what made you angriest was men’s imputing to you the folly of not believing that they courted you for your own sake…
It was a bitter word. Well, at least one man who has seen women as plenty as flowers in May has lingered about you for your own sake. And since he is one whom you can never marry, you will believe him…don’t give yourself for a meal to a Minotaur like Bult…’
‘Why should I not marry the man who loves me, if I love him?’ said Catherine. To her the effort was something like the leap of a woman from the deck into the lifeboat.
‘It would be too hard – impossible- you could not carry it through. I am not worth what you would have to encounter. I will not accept the sacrifice. It would be thought a mésalliance for you, and I should be liable o the worst accusations.’
‘Is it the accusations you are afraid of? I am afraid of nothing but that we should miss the passing of our lives together.’
This was one of my favourite scenes. They both had to face her parents who were totally astonished and absolutely furious but Catherine had a will of her own and Klesmer didn’t care about the fortune.
Now back to Gwendolen.
Gwendolen was self-absorbed. ‘Always she was the princess in exile,’ and was a person who had a ‘strong determination to have what was pleasant, with a total fearlessness in making themselves disagreeable or dangerous when they did not get it.’
But she had one redeeming quality. She loved her mother, although she didn’t really express that very well at times. In fact it was mostly out of fear of her mother being forced to live in poverty that she married Grandcourt.
Grandcourt did provide for her mother after they were married but he shunned any contact with both the mother and uncle, whose family had been so good to her and this was very painful to Gwendolen.
Eliot’s characterisation of Grandcourt is chilling:
‘…his negative mind was as diffusive as fog, clinging to all objects, and spoiling all contact.
…quarrelling with Grancourt was impossible: she might as well have made angry remarks to a dangerous serpent coiled in her cabin without invitation.
Grandcourt had an intense satisfaction in leading his wife captive after this fashion: it gave their life on a small scale a royal representation and publicity in which everything familiar was got rid of and everybody must do what was expected of them whatever might be their private protest – the protest (kept strictly private) adding to the piquancy of despotism.
The beings closest to us, whether in love or hate, are often virtually our interpreters of the world…may be acting as a melancholy theory of life in the minds of those who live with them…’
The neutral loftiness of her husband chilled Gwendolen but unconsciously she began to appreciate people she had previously held in contempt. In her talks with Deronda he had encouraged her to find some mental enlargement by reading difficult authors so she took to reading Descartes, Bacon, Locke, and others. However, they didn’t blend with her daily agitations and instead she discovered this ‘mental enlargement’ when she reflected upon her family and especially the kindness shown to her and them by her uncle in the past.
She began to see others through a different lens.
‘She, whose unquestioning habitat had been to take the best that came to her for less than her own claim, had now to see the position which tempted her in a new light, as a hard, unfair exclusion of others.’
She had married Grandcourt with the idea that she could conquer him as she had done with others but she had not considered that ‘the desire to conquer is itself a sort of subjection.’ Grandcourt proved to be unconquerable and Gwendolen’s humiliation gave her eyes to see others more kindly.
‘She was experiencing some of that peaceful melancholy which comes from the renunciation of demands for self, and from taking the ordinary good of existence, and especially kindness, even from a dog, as a gift above expectation.’
Daniel Deronda is really a story of redemption. I haven’t said very much at all about the eponymous hero because Gwendolen’s journey of the soul was the most interesting part of the book for me. He, too, had a journey of the soul, but I’ll leave it at that.
I read this with my book club and it was interesting to hear how differently we engaged with this novel. If you enjoy History there are some very interesting aspects Eliot covers and perhaps if I read the book again I’d concentrate on those more but I found the author’s exploration of character, choice, and growth through suffering full of depth and insight.