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.
Daniel Deronda is George Eliot‘s (born Mary Ann Evans) final novel. Published in 1876, it blends two different stories with one central character.
Gwendolen Haroleth is down on her luck. Gambling the last of her money away at casino in Germany, she meets Daniel Deronda, a young man who saves Gwendolen by returning to her a necklace she had gambled away the night before. There the story breaks off into two different stories: Daniel’s and Gwendolen’s.
Gwendolen’s mother has recently become a widow for the second time. She takes her children and moves in with her brother. Knowing that she has to marry and marry well, Gwendolen meets Henleigh Grandcourt, an older man with a mistress, several illegitimate children and a less than warm personality. He proposes marriage to Gwendolen and she accepts him, despite knowing that her marriage will disinherit his children and break previously made promises to his mistress.
Daniel has been raised by Sir Hugo Mallinger, a man he believes to be his father. But his heritage and his true parents are a mystery. As he is boating on the Thames, he prevents Mirah Lapidoth, a young Jewish singer from killing herself. Mirah is looking for her family. Daniel through meeting Mirah, begins to connect to London’s Jewish community and answer some questions about his unknown past.
In 2002, Daniel Deronda was made into a miniseries with Romola Garai as Gwendolen, Hugh Bonneville as Grandcourt, Hugh Dancy as Daniel and Jodhi May as Mirah.
I enjoy the book and the movie. In a literary era when the only Jewish character is Fagin from Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, Mirah and her brother Mordechai are drawn as fully formed human beings, with good and bad qualities. The movie has an excellent cast with as much taken from the book as any adaptation from novel to the screen can be taken.
I recommend both.