|Hugh Dancy as Daniel Deronda - BBC 2002|
I decided my more- than- 500-pages tome for this summer would be Daniel Deronda and I successfully got through its 675 pages + notes + introduction slowly but enjoying every bit . Long didactic passages about Zionism included? Yes, I found them interesting if not exciting.
My first meeting with George Eliot’s last novel was actually 10 years ago with its 2002 BBC adaptation , which soon became one of my best favourites , when I hadn’t even read a page from the book and only just heard about it.
BBC drama was stunning and I found the story so original and brave that I promised myself I would read the book sooner or later. I’ve kept the promise though it wasn’t sooner. You know, how is it that we usually complain? Too many books, too little time. That’s it. Now, let’s start my musings giving some order to my thoughts , focusing on few important themes and, especially, let’s introduce the book properly.
Book blurb (Penguin edition)
As Daniel Deronda opens, Gwendolen Harleth is poised at the roulette-table, prepared to throw away her family fortune. She is observed by Daniel Deronda, a young man groomed in the finest tradition of the English upper-classes. And while Gwendolen loses everything and becomes trapped in an oppressive marriage, Deronda's fortunes take a different turn. After a dramatic encounter with the young Jewish woman Mirah, he becomes involved in a search for her lost family and finds himself drawn into ever-deeper sympathies with Jewish aspirations and identity. 'I meant everything in the book to be related to everything else', wrote George Eliot of her last and most ambitious novel, and in weaving her plot strands together she created a bold and richly textured picture of British society and the Jewish experience within it.
|George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)|
When Daniel Deronda came out it was as a serial of eight instalments from February to September 1876 and its author, George Eliot, was a successful bestselling author. As early instalments appeared, sales exceeded those of Middlemarch and reviews were promising. However, the novel was so different from her previous works to perplex not only many readers, but also John Blackwood, Eliot's publisher, and even Eliot’s supportive lover George Henry Lewes . When Book III was out reviews became more critical. What was so disturbing for readers and critics?
My Wordsworth Classics edition includes a long, accurate, very informative study by Dr Carole Jones , which introduces Daniel Deronda as “ Eliot’s most heterogeneous and nearly – contemporary work” in which, Dr Jones adds, the author “examines estreme moral issues, such as race, religion and imperialism, alongside more controversial analyses of social decay and gender inequality. Radically, the novel’s devastating critique of a degenerate English society was achieved by way of an audacious comparison with Judaism.”
|Romola Garai as Gwendolen Harleth|
That was in fact George Eliot’s provocation, that was what shocked many of her readers. Many fell for George Eliot ‘s provocation and Daniel Deronda became her most controversial work and still is, in fact. Both in her writing and in her life, Mary Ann Evans (true name of George Eliot) loved being unconventional and in contrast to the Victorian norms (she worked in the public sphere, supporting herself as an editor, then as a writer, with great success , she even moved in with a married man , defying her Christian upbringing and the strict social conventions of her time). But in her last novel she ventured into dangerous territory by leading her main character, young aristocrat Daniel, to explore and embrace his newly discovered identity, religion, and culture as a Jew and finally marry his little Jewish protegée, Mirah.
Social and cultural criticism as well as deep psychological insight (psychological realism) are Eliot’s best talents. Though not at their best, both are definitely relevant to the complex narration here. What I most appreciate in her work is just her skill at depicting complex human personalities and make the readers sympathetic toward them.
|Daniel rescuing Mirah (Jodhi May)|
In this book, the reader follows Daniel Deronda’s and Gwendolyn Harleth’s intertwining lives in search for personal and vocational fulfilment and sincere relationships. She is beautiful but spoiled and selfish, he is selfless but restless and alienated. Set largely in the degenerate aristocratic society of the 1860s, Daniel Deronda proposes two champions of goodness, the eponymous hero and his “little Jewess”, Mirah, the girl he rescues and protects and who will become Gwendolyn’s antagonist in the quest for Daniel’s heart.
Daniel and Mirah - especially the latter – have been criticized at times as boring characters or as types opposed to Gwendolyn’s lively and round personality. I like them both instead and I’m convinced their complexity lies just in their being pure selfless creatures living a corrupt selfish world, trying to cope with and to bravely accept their portion of human sufferings.
|Gwendolen and her husband, Grandcourt (Hugh Bonneville)|
You may have read or heard that a century after the book's publication, the eminent Cambridge critic F. R. Leavis proposed to cut out of it an alternative novel to be titled Gwendolen Harleth : "as for the bad part of Daniel Deronda," he said, "there is nothing to do but cut it away. The "bad part" – the eloquent speechifying of Mordecai, the Zionist visionary – is high oratory, not novelistic art”.
We can agree with Leavis’s literary reasons , but in doing so we risk agreeing “to eviscerate the morally serious, historically judicious and passionately just George Eliot “ as writer Cynthia Ozick stated.
Love her or hate her. That is what happens with George Eliot: either you totally come to admire her commitment or you simply must leave her work be. To try to re-write it or suggest improvements is totally unfair and un just. You may always read Dickens or Gaskell (I love them both deeply with all their differences).
If you like Victorian literature and its historical context, my recommendation is give the book a chance and watch the TV series - in whichever order you prefer. I’m sure you’ll find a way, your own way, to sympathize with Eliot’s characters because they are all extremely touching human beings.
As for the cultural and political debate about Zionism and its relationship to the present, I’ll leave it to scholars and fans interested in those aspects. I prefer to re-watch the miniseries and concentrate on the human aspects of the story and on how faithful the script was to the novel. That’s something I’ll really enjoy doing.