I confess that Daniel Deronda by George Eliot has taken some reading. It was a frustrating book in that it had too much good stuff to abandon, but too many passages of dense unreadability for consistent entertainment. It was a relief to know that even Eliot champions like F. R. Leavis found it good in parts but not in others. As with so many big, chunky classics, the interest happens at the end of the reading, when you can look back over the whole and see the patterns emerge. Daniel Deronda is brilliant for that, being a book of intriguing elements that keep falling into different permutations: missing parents, boating incidents, women who sing, dangerous gambles, hidden sexual misdemeanours, poor interpretations and all sorts of issues around spiritual poverty and spiritual excess. It also avoids the sort of orthodox marriage plot that Jeffrey Eugenides recently located right in Eliot’s camp. Instead, it plays around with all sorts of curiously asymmetrical relationships. I wonder whether it’s one of those novels that are better to discuss than actually to read.
There are essentially two sides to the story, hinged together by the figure of Daniel Deronda. On the one side there is the story of spoiled darling, Gwendolen Harleth, a stately beauty with an adventurous, reckless side, who loves to be admired but has no desire for the yoke of marriage. Gwendolen begins the novel as the character you love to hate; she is brutal and wilful, caring only for her own small pleasures and dedicated to the maintenance of her self-esteem. The story opens with a little set piece that ends up having profound significance in the story. Holidaying with family friends abroad, Gwendolen is doing rather well at the gambling tables, until she notices Daniel Deronda watching her. His stern gaze seems to have the effect of changing her luck, and she loses (in fine style) all her winnings. When Daniel notices the following day that she has pawned a turquoise necklace, he buys it back for her – anonymously. In fact, Gwendolen is in the midst of a crisis. She has come to Europe after plans for a grand marriage have fallen through. She had become a figure of interest to Henleigh Grandcourt, a wealthy relative of Daniel Deronda’s, whose pallid languor, clever wit and perverse desires represent the unhealthy corruptness of British aristocracy. But when Gwendolen discovers a dreadful secret in his past, she flees abroad to avoid any possible marriage offer. She is soon summoned back home by the dreadful news that her mother has lost her fortune, and of course the marriage she detested in prospect now becomes a way of securing her family’s wellbeing. In a pitiful state of unhappiness, Gwendolen turns more and more to Deronda as a sort of moral compass for her, a therapist avant la lettre, whose guidance she desperately seeks.
Daniel is busy with his own affairs, however. He has grown up the cherished ward of his Uncle Hugo Mallinger (who will be obliged to leave his estates to Grandcourt in the absence of his own son) and does not know who his parents are. In good English fashion, no one has ever spoken to him about his roots, thinking that this would be best. But in fact Daniel hides a deep wound of insecurity and shame about his origins. He grows up a perfectly moral character, however, in the best Eliot tradition. He is the champion of the underdog, the man who loves and longs to support the damaged and marginalized people of the world. Unsurprisingly, then, when he rescues a beautiful young Jewish girl from drowning, and learns that she has been searching fruitlessly for her mother and brother, he takes the problem on for her and becomes her benefactor. The quest for Mirah’s relatives leads Deronda into the Jewish quarters of London. There he meets a prophet-like figure, the consumptive Mordecai, who has himself been searching for a perfect soul to continue his life’s work, which is a sort of impossible fantasy of nationhood for the Jewish people, and believes that Daniel is the man for the job.
George Eliot is a writer of strong moral sentiment who had a deeply idealistic streak. At one level, the two halves of this novel correspond to these two tendencies: Gwendolen (a metaphor in her way for the spirit of the empire) must be broken and reformed in better moral shape, whilst the Jews whom Daniel meets provide the sort of idealised working class figures, intellectual men engaged in preserving conservative traditions, that she wanted to portray with social realist honesty. The intriguing thing is that the two halves don’t mesh, remaining stubbornly unrelated to one another throughout the novel. But there are all sorts of mismatches of this type, of which Daniel and Gwendolen are by far and away the most interesting example.
Gwendolen is a woman with too much manliness, brought up by a weak and indulgent mother as the real master of the household, whereas Daniel is a man with too much femininity, his own moral scruples forming a sort of extreme sensitivity that holds him in unproductive limbo. Both have to face up to the insufficiencies of their privileged quality. Gwendolen lacks the necessary male strength and aggression to stand up to Grandcourt and suffers instead a sort of hysterical collapse. And Daniel, whose sympathy Eliot describes time and again, is not truly sympathetic enough to help her. Forced into the role of her counsellor, he suffers tremendous unease and offers only the blandest of advice. He much prefers ‘helping’ the sweet, untaxing, self-sufficient Mirah. Ultimately, Gwendolen must shoulder the role of hero in this novel, because she undergoes huge psychological change and meets her problems bravely. Daniel, the would-be sympathetic hero, becomes what he always suspected he was, and disappears at the end of the novel into a fantasyland beyond the author’s, or reader’s imagining. Readers who would like a feminist angle in this text are destined to be disappointed. The characters Eliot rescues are those intent on doing good in the wider world, and Gwendolen’s sphere of interest is too personal. And readers who enjoy the romantic prospect don’t fare any better. The novel seems made for the union of Gwendolen and Daniel, but that is not the conclusion Eliot offers. In fact, the complete absence of healthy sexual attraction between people in the novel, the sort of red energy that spawns hope and forward movement and dynamic action, seems exemplary of its assymetrical oddities.
There is much to enjoy in this novel, including psychological insights of delightful acuity. But there is an awful lot to plough through, too. I wish I could say that the Jewish side of the narrative was fascinating, but it is dreadfully dull, not to mention awkwardly poised between satisfying the stereotypes Eliot’s readers would mostly have subscribed to, and rehabilitating the Jewish character by idealistic means. The mere appearance of Mordecai made me want to skip chapters, because his prophet-in-the-wilderness speech is almost unreadable. But hey, you can see Eliot trying her nineteenth century best. Perhaps what’s so interesting about this flawed novel is the distant drumroll of the twentieth century approaching, as the grand narrative with its satisfying closure breaks down here, and neither at the level of individual destinies nor of social realities do we find neat resolutions or the promise of a hopeful future. As I said, that’s really interesting to think about, but a little frustrating to read.