Monday, September 16, 2013

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Source of book: I own this. My wife found a hardback Everyman’s Library edition at a library sale for me.

This book was the August selection for the Reading To Know book club, but it took a bit longer than that to read. Here are the other reviews:

I would imagine most of us read Silas Marner as part of our assigned reading in high school. That was my introduction to George Eliot. I later read The Mill on the Floss, which has some autobiographical elements.

George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans. She also went by Marian and Mary Anne at various times, but decided to write under a man’s name so that her novels would be taken seriously and not pigeonholed into the light romantic fluff associated with female writers. (A version of this prejudice continues today, of course.)

Eliot was considered to be rather unattractive, even at a young age, but was highly intelligent and a voracious reader. Her parents thus decided that an advantageous marriage was unlikely, and invested in her education. Like Christina Rossetti and Anne Bradstreet, she was able to gain an education unusual for women of the time.
George Eliot circa 1860, by Samuel Laurence. This is the most flattering picture of her I could find.

True to the expectation, she stayed home and kept house for her father from the death of her mother when she was sixteen until his death when she was thirty. After a year abroad, she returned to England and edited a political journal for several years.

In 1854, at age thirty-five, she began a relationship with George Henry Lewes, which was to last for the next twenty years until his death.

The problem was, Lewes was already married. He had an open marriage, and his wife had several children by another man. Since he knew of that affair, he lacked grounds to divorce her. She likewise, could not divorce him, because adultery wasn’t grounds for a woman to get a divorce, so they just went their separate ways. (For more peculiar rules regarding divorce in the Victorian and earlier eras, see my post on domestic violence.) So, Lewes and Eliot couldn’t marry. Had they lived a century later, they would have been able to marry, and thus avoid the stigma.

Now, having a longstanding affair like this was actually fairly commonplace in the Victorian Era. It wasn’t even all that scandalous if a man had a mistress. It was rather expected. But, a man had to be discreet. He should pretend the other woman didn’t exist. Lewes and Eliot made the social mistake of being open about their relationship. (Keep this thought in mind, because it becomes a key plot point.)

Daniel Deronda was Eliot’s last book. While Middlemarch is generally considered to be her masterpiece, there are many who make the argument in favor of Daniel Deronda. Since I have not read Middlemarch yet, I cannot weigh in. I can, however, highly recommend Daniel Deronda.

My edition of this book is 900 pages long. I am reasonably used to long books. I have read several over 500 pages this year. However, August was a busy month for me, and I got behind. It took a while to get through it.

Even by Victorian standards, this isn’t a short book. I believe one of the main reasons for this is that Eliot combined two books into one.

On the one hand, this is a tragedy. The tragedy of Gwendolyn Harleth, who marries for money against her conscience and better judgment, and pays (most) of the consequences, before being rescued by a deux ex machina at the end.

The other half of the tale is one of self-discovery by the title character and his eventual romance with the beautiful Jewess, Mirah Lapidoth.

Both plots tie together pretty well, but either could have stood alone - particularly the first one.

Gwendolyn is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating female protagonists in Victorian literature. One of the clues as to Eliot’s gender is that she is far harsher to Gwendolyn than any male Victorian author could be. Her faults are not excused, but are dwelt on, and not lovingly. Still, Eliot makes her just sympathetic enough that she isn’t a villain. She is irritatingly entitled and egoistic, but one still doesn’t wish terrible things on her. And she certainly finds herself in an awkward position without a clear good choice.

Stunningly beautiful, and reasonably witty, she is expected by all to make an advantageous marriage. Sure, she is a bit full of herself, and her tongue has an acid edge, but she is young, and will presumably improve with a little age.

Two problems, though, interfere. First, she fears the dependency that marriage will bring. She has no intention of being ruled by a man. (Her mother’s unhappy second marriage gives her pretty good reason for anxiety.)

Second, her family loses its fortune. It wasn’t a big fortune to start with, but now she becomes responsible for the financial fortunes of her family. Her uncle the clergyman generously helps with their support, but he doesn’t have that much to share. Her mother intends to do some sewing for the little it will bring in, but it is Gwendolyn who is expected to become a governess until her great beauty snares an appropriately wealthy man.

Gwendolyn is not eager to submit to the role of governess, though. She has never been raised with employment in mind, and her proud spirit recoils at having to take orders.

“As to the sweetness of labour and fulfilled claims; the interest of inward and outward activity; the impersonal delights of perpetual discovery; the dues of courage, fortitude, industry...these, even if they had been eloquently preached to her, could have been no more than faintly apprehended doctrines…”

This is an interesting mirror image of Eliot’s own experience. She was “ugly” and therefore was raised with the idea that she would have to find employment, income, and satisfaction in working with her hands or brains.

Perhaps this might have lent the bitter edge to her portrayal of Gwendolyn.

Enter Henleigh Grandcourt.

(Side note: I love the way this name rolls off the tongue. I am reminded of a similarly stuffy British name in the character of Heneage Dundas - a minor character in Patrick O’Brian’s books.)

Grandcourt is blessed with, not one, but two likely inheritances. He got his father’s property, of course. He is also in line to receive the property of his uncle, Sir Hugo Mallinger (another delightful character), who had the misfortune to have only daughters. This is a source of distress to the good-natured, if a bit clueless Sir Hugo, as his own family will be relatively impoverished while his nephew receives nearly everything.

Grandcourt takes a liking to Gwendolyn, and seems on the verge of proposing, when Gwendolyn makes an unpleasant discovery.

Grandcourt has another family already. In his younger years, he took up with the wife of an Irish military officer. She left her husband because he was abusive; so, by comparison, Grandcourt seemed like a welcome change, even if they couldn’t marry. (Again, enter those Victorian marriage laws: abuse was not grounds for a woman to obtain a divorce. Her husband could have divorced her due to her adultery, but chose not to out of spite.) So, Grandcourt never does marry Lydia, his mistress, but they have children together.

Gwendolyn meets Lydia and learns all, and essentially promises not to marry Grandcourt. Her prospective poverty, however, overcomes her scruples, and she marries Grandcourt. First and foremost, because she realizes this is the way she is expected to rescue her family (and, let it be said, herself) from poverty.

This is where the sexual politics get interesting. Grandcourt is in a position of power. He has a vast current and prospective fortune, which he has and will receive solely because he is male. Gwendolyn is impoverished. So, she already owes him big time.

Grandcourt isn’t a benevolent dictator either. He gets off on controlling others, and Gwendolyn is simply his latest pet. She is beautiful arm-candy, and he knows that he can get her to do whatever he wants. In fact, her resistance to his control makes his success all the sweeter.

I was reminded a bit of another written a decade later by George Meredith. I am determined that all of my children read The Egoist before they marry. Actually, anyone enamored of Victorian era marriage should read it. In that book, which is humorous where Daniel Deronda is dark, the wealthy and highly eligible Sir Willoughby sees woman as a mirror for himself to gaze in and see his own views and opinions reflected back. It is all about him, and women are just commodities in which he can revel: they confirm his high opinion of himself.

Where Willoughby is laughably clueless, but completely non-malicious, Grandcourt is truly malevolent. He “prefers command to love,” as Eliot puts it.

His behavior is never violent - or even outwardly angry. To an outsider, Gwendolyn even has a “good” marriage. But Grandcourt is undeniably abusive to her. He has the power, and enjoys bullying her. And, under the laws she lives under, she has no options. To leave would mean an even worse poverty, as her disgrace would prevent employment - except as a prostitute. And then, her family would suffer as well.

Even worse for Gwendolyn is her guilt concerning Lydia. She knows she has wronged her, but cannot at this point make things right. As Eliot puts it, the Furies have entered her marriage and pursued her. In her despair, she turns to Deronda for advice as to how to become a better person.

Who is Daniel Deronda? That is a question not answered until near the end of the novel. Deronda has been raised by Sir Hugo, who has never revealed his parentage. Everyone, including Deronda himself, suspects that he is Sir Hugo’s illegitimate son, but only Sir Hugo knows.

In the meantime, while he decides what he intends to do with himself for the rest of his life (he has a little income from those mysterious parents), he ends up rescuing Mirah from a suicide attempt. She has fled her abusive father, who attempted to sell her into prostitution, and had been looking for her mother and brother, who she hasn’t seen since she was a very small child.

Deronda locates the brother (the mother is long dead) by a series of coincidences, and becomes friends with him.

While this part of the plot is less convincing that the other, it contains some very interesting ideas. First of all, Eliot introduces the idea of Zionism - the quest to re-establish the nation of Israel - at a time when it was fairly new to non-Jews in Europe. I was a bit surprised to find it here. I was not surprised to find descriptions of anti-Semitism as it existed in Europe.

In the light of subsequent events, it was a bit jarring to see a note of optimism about the acceptance of Jews in Germany, to be sure. Eliot could not have foreseen the Holocaust, but details of her descriptions look prophetic in retrospect. (This would be an interesting future post. The connection of the Holocaust to millennia of anti-Semitism in Europe. Also the unfair portrayal of Nietzsche as a proto-Nazi and the whitewashing of Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic views in certain right-wing circles. I’ll think about it.)

There are also a few mentions of the Kabbalah, the Jewish version of mysticism. If you are interested in further fictional reading in this regard, I highly recommend the short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (not to be confused with Isaac Singer, the sewing machine magnate.)  

The two plots come together at a few crucial points. One is the contrast between Gwendolyn’s self absorption and Deronda’s compassion. She thinks nearly entirely of herself (and a little of her mother). Deronda is easily caught up in the emotion of empathy for those less fortunate - even Gwendolyn.

There is also the contrast between Gwendolyn, who fears work, and fears even more being subservient to anyone, with the Meyricks, who take in Mirah despite their own poverty. Gwendolyn has difficulty imagining life outside her privileged bubble, and it is only through Deronda’s encouragement that she is finally able to look outside herself.

I really wish I had the time and space to quote extensively from this book. There really are great lines throughout - often many on one page. From the opening scene with its description of wealthy gamblers (which could be a modern description of gamblers at Las Vegas, minus a little of the glitz), to the many potent zingers against social hypocrisy.

Particularly pricking are the ones on class and gender relations.

For example, in the description of Gwendolyn’s aunt, “Many of her opinions, such as those on church government and the character of Archbishop Laud, seemed too decided under every alteration to have been arrived at otherwise than by a wifely receptiveness.”

Or, of Grandcourt, “was good-looking, of sound constitution, virtuous or at least reformed…” Yes, a woman must be unstained and pure. A man can settle for “reformed” provided he has a nice little income.

Or the later observation that “Gwendolyn’s view of her position might easily have been no other than that her husband’s marriage with her was his entrance on the path of virtue, while [Lydia] Glasher represented his forsaken sin.”

Perhaps Gwendolyn’s flippant remark to Grandcourt, laced with more truth than she intends to share:

“We women can’t go in search of adventures - to find out the North-West Passage or the source of the Nile, or to hunt tigers in the East. We must stay where we grow, or where the gardeners like to transplant us. We are brought up like the flowers, to look as pretty as we can, and be dull without complaining. That is my notion about why some of them have got poisonous.”

Eliot plays more on this idea through the character of Deronda’s mother, who was forced by a domineering father into a marriage she did not desire. The pressure to be the good girl eventually overwhelmed her, leaving havoc behind.

Or maybe Eliot’s biting aside after Sir Hugo lightly dismisses the importance of birth in determining success, “as men after dining well often agree that the good of life is distributed with wonderful equality.” TouchĂ©.

This, contrasted with Deronda’s observation about wealth. “[I am] not rich, except in the sense that every one is rich who has more than he needs for himself.”

I might also go with Eliot’s perceptive notice that gambling is a refuge from dullness and boredom. (Ever watch a bingo game at a senior center? Just a little scary.)

“I don’t admit the justification,” said Deronda [to Gwendolyn]. “I think what we call the dullness of things is a disease in ourselves. Else how could any one find an intense interest in life? And many do.”

I also loved Deronda’s comment that age or novelty by itself should not be an argument for or against anything. Fashions - and ideas - must be weighed on their own merits, and not rejected or accepted just because of the comfort of habit or the thrill of the new.

Also, the exchange between Mrs. Meyrick and her outspoken daughter Kate.

“I notice mothers are like the people I deal with - the girls’ doings are always priced low.”
“My dear child, the boys are such a trouble - we should never put up with them, if we didn’t make believe they were worth more.”

It was also fun to learn a new word: calignosity. Calignous is “misty, dim; obscure, dark.” In context, Deronda prefers that he not know his origins, preferring “cheerful calignosity.” I love that.

Finally, I must note some great observations regarding music. Deronda attends a Jewish service, and is carried away by the power of the liturgy, even though he cannot understand it.

That “strongest effect of chanted liturgies which is independent of detailed verbal meaning - like the effect of an Allegri’s Miserere or a Palestrina’s Magnificat. The most powerful movement of a feeling with a liturgy is the prayer which seeks for nothing special, but is a yearning to escape from the limitations of our own weakness and an invocation of all Good to enter and abide with us; or else a self-oblivious lifting up of gladness, a Gloria in excelsis that such Good exists; both the yearning and the exultation gathering their utmost force from the sense of communion in a form which has expressed them both, for long generations of struggling fellow-men.”

Yes. A thousand times yes! If you have never experienced this, I pity you.

The most I can do is to introduce you to the two masterworks of the Renaissance era cited above. You can (and should be able to) enjoy and understand both without knowing the text. But, for the record, the Miserere is Psalm 51, written by King David after getting called on his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband. (The text accompanies the music in this clip.)

The Magnificat is the song of the Virgin Mary from the Gospel of Luke, after she is told she will give birth to Christ. 

My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him : throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel : as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever. (translation from The Book of Common Prayer)

I’ll end with Deronda’s view of the place of music in the soul. Gwendolyn has given up singing after a true musician tells her she lacks the skill to be a professional. She rejects Deronda’s proposal she take it up again for pleasure and for the good it will do her.

“I don’t feel able to follow your advice of enjoying my own middlingness.”
“For my part,” said Deronda, “people who do anything finely always inspirit me to try. I don’t mean that they make me believe I can do it as well. But they make the thing, whatever it may be, seem worthy to be done. I can bear to think my own music not good for much, but the world would be more dismal if I thought music itself not good for much. Excellence encourages one about life generally; it shows the spiritual wealth of the world.”
“But then if we can’t imitate it? - it only makes our own life seem the tamer,” said Gwendolyn, in a mood to resent encouragement founded on her own insignificance.
“That depends on the point of view, I think,” said Deronda. “We should have a poor life of it if we were reduced for all our pleasure to our own performances. “

This is encouraging to me. I know the limitations of my own ability all too well, and it falls short of the perfection I desire. But excellence is worth pursuing for its own sake.

Anyway, I loved this book, and highly recommend it. Eliot is psychologically astute, and the conversations seem as if they could be from our own time, even though the institutions have changed. The main weaknesses are typical of the Victorian era: a sentimental ending, a too-neat resolution, a death from consumption, and the conformity at the end to the “damsel in distress” view of gender roles. Once one acknowledges the need to adhere to certain elements of the formula to sell books, one can enjoy Eliot’s solid command of narrative, pacing, and especially the language, which is rich and yet easily comprehensible.

Note on the Furies:

The Furies, also known as the Erinyes, were a group of female underworld deities in Greek mythology. (Eventually, it became common to refer to three of them.) They were goddesses of vengeance, pursuing those who did wrong, particularly those who broke oaths. They figure prominently in Aeschylus’ play cycle, the Oresteia, in which they relentlessly pursue the protagonists in vengeance for the ongoing blood feud within the family of Agamemnon.

They are thus fitting in this book, as they pursue Gwendolyn, who has broken her oath to Lydia.

The Remorse of Orestes or Orestes Pursued by the Furies, 1862 by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. I wonder if this painting partially inspired Eliot’s use in this book. It predated the book by just a few years.


  1. Ah, this book hits upon all your pet topics. I'm going to ignore those because I think they don't need to be harped on continuously.

    I appreciated and agreed with many of your points. I actually couldn't stand Lydia. I thought SHE got what she deserved. Whether or not she could or could not get a divorce is of no consequence in my mind. There is no excuse for sin and she committed flagrant adultery. There is no excusing it with, "Look at the bad laws of the time." There IS no valid excuse for sin. If you decide to commit a sin and/or a crime with someone, you shouldn't be the least surprised when it doesn't work out well for you in the end. Going around cursing others does little except increase your own predictable frustrations. I don't care WHAT her reasons. I did not pity her and I found her ridiculous. (This is not to say that I don't believe she had a right to LEAVE an abusive husband. I think there is plenty of Bibical argument for getting out of an abusive marriage and I also believe that is just cause for a divorce.) But the laws of her land were different and you must abide by them. Leave him by all means. But don't expect an affair to work in your best interest and don't rely on a man who is happy to sneer at the laws of the land. And that leads to my dislike of Grandcourt in general and is a whole 'nother subject.

    I see why you'd say this is your typical Victorian novel where everything wraps up neatly. I didn't think it wrapped up neatly though. Gwendolyn is in a pathetic and unadmirable state. (I know I'm not supposed to think that, but I do!). She has lost all ability to think for herself and/or make any decisions while consulting someone older and wiser than herself. She throws herself emotionally at Deronda and expects him to lead her out of the mess she willingly walked into. I really, really disliked her reliance on Deronda at the end. I found that incredibly distasteful. I know there can be a desire to rely on someone that you THINK is strong in any given situation but that doesn't always mean that you are meant to do so or that you ought to do so.

    I just finished watching the BBC production and I liked how they handled Deronda in the end with Gwendolyn. He was sympathetic but there was a guard up (as there is in the book but I liked seeing it visually pronounced in the film version).

    All in all, I'm very glad to have read this one! And I'll leave it at that for now.

    1. I didn't really feel sympathy for Lydia either. Certainly her vindictiveness was inexcusable.

      What I am trying to point out with my focus on the laws of the time is that there are many among us now that have divorced for any number of reasons. They have often remarried, and are fully accepted in our society and in our churches. The difference isn't so much what they have done, but what the law says about it. I wouldn't be too quick to just say "but you have to follow the law" and dismiss the actions of others. This comes perilously close to the risk to Gwendolyn of feeling self righteous because she was the legitimate spouse. (I guess that is one of the big questions the book raises. Who was worse, Lydia, or Gwendolyn?) Absolutely agree that Lydia was foolish in the extreme. (And what on EARTH did she see in Grandcourt anyway?)

      Again, I am not defending her, and did not find her an attractive character. I also loathed Grandcourt. (He is a delightful villain, though. The person who seems OH so respectable and desirable, but is an absolute snake.)

      I share your dislike of Gwendolyn's dependency. (I generally like strong women, and those who take responsibility for themselves. As I said, I loved her as a character, because she was complex and interesting. I would not enjoy her company.) I definitely agree with your analysis of her loss of backbone.

      I haven't seen the BBC version, although I have heard there are some plot changes, which I always find annoying.

  2. Wow, this is a great review of the book! Gwendolyn is a fascinating character and I read quite a few accounts that say Eliot used quite a bit of her own experience in creating her.
    The BBC version of the movie is good. I mean, it's ok. I did get annoyed quite a bit at some of the casting and the plot changes. I'm inclined to say it's not a big deal if you skip it.

  3. Ah, I loved this review! The quotes, the music examples-now I can't wait to read the book.