In her own time, the author George Eliot was either a lunatic or a visionary. But that depended on the person providing the opinion.
Her 1876 novel, Daniel Deronda, was a revolutionary book in it’s own right. It is the story of a young man who discovers his Jewish heritage. By the end of the novel, he has embraced his identity and leaves England for the Holy Land.
Gertrude Himmelfarb’s 2009 non fiction book, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, starts with the author’s early life. She was born to an evangelical Christian family, the product of her father’s second marriage. As a young woman, she was one of the earliest converts to agnosticism. Her education was more extensive than other young women of her era, she was well read and spoke several languages, including Hebrew. Daniel Deronda is her last novel.
Daniel Deronda was written during a blessed lull in Jewish history. The Jews lived in peace with their neighbors, the Dreyfus affair that was the spark that created modern Zionism has not yet occurred. But antisemitism was still rampant and the rare Jewish characters that appeared in Victorian literature ( a la Fagin from the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist) was not exactly the most positive of images.
The author examines all of these individual elements and how they all come together to create what is essentially the first pro-Zionist novel with Jewish characters that are as fully formed and human as their Christian counterparts. I like this book because it pulls back from the fiction to reveal the woman behind the novel. I do want to warn readers that the book is a bit academic and might not hold the reader who is not using it for school purposes.
But it is a good book and I recommend it.