Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda is a young man of uncertain parentage brought up to be an English gentleman as the ward of kind-hearted Sir Hugo Malinger in England in the 1870s. The pain and shame of the possibility of being illegitimate and the lack of knowing his family has worked in him a tender heart and an inclination to help and rescue others in need. He is uncertain about what to do with his life, dropping out of university and resistant to Sir Hugo’s urging that he take up politics. “To make a little difference for the better was what he was not contented to live without; but how to make it?”

But though he is the title character, he appears silently in the first chapter and then not again until about the 15th. Those intervening chapters and the intertwining storyline are taken up with Gwendolen Harleth, a beautiful, vain, self-centered, seemingly heartless young woman. Used to getting everything she wants, her world is shaken when her family loses its fortune and the only option they can find is to move and for her to “take a situation” as a governess. To escape that fate she goes against her conscience to marry Henley Grandcourt. She knows he has a shameful secret, but she doesn’t know he knows she knows, and his knowledge gives him power over her. She was initially attracted to him because he didn’t fawn and act “ridiculous” around her like the other smitten young men in her wake, and he was rich and seemed to indulge her. But after the marriage, the niceties are off and he turns out to be a cold and cruel man whose main source of pleasure is in mastering others.

Daniel had crossed her path in the first chapter, and when they meet again, her misery in her marriage and her tormented conscience draw her to him almost as an alternate conscience and confessor.

Meanwhile Daniel finds Mirah Lapidoth at the lowest point in her life and undertakes to help her as much as he can. She is a young Jewess who was taken from her mother and brother and forced to work on the stage, but she escaped and returned to try to find them again. In Daniel’s search through the Jewish quarter of town for Mirah’s family, he meets a young zealous Jew named Mordecai, who is dying and thinks Daniel is the answer to his prayers for a successor and future leader of his people. Daniel can’t help him in that aspect because he is not Jewish, but Mordecai insists he could be since he doesn’t know his own parentage. Though Daniel continues to resist him, they do become friends and Daniel learns more about Jewish culture.

The rest of the book is taken up with the intersection and development of these lives and Daniel’s ultimately finding his identity and purpose.  In fact, identity could be an overarching theme of the book: Daniel searches for his, Gwendolen wrestles with hers, Grandcourt hides his, Mirah and Mordecai are guided by theirs.

This is the first of George Eliot’s books that I’ve ever read, though I heard a performance of Silas Marner (and want to read it as well as Middlemarch some time). I enjoyed the psychology of her writing, the way she delved into and displayed each character’s pysche. Though, as with many older classics, there is a lot more explaining than there is in modern work, the author still tucks in neat scenes that expose a lot about the characters without further explanation, like the one where Grandcourt shows his cruelty by baiting one dog and then rejecting it.

Since Eliot is a “a writer who, for many, embodies the ideals of the liberal, secular humanism of the Victorian age,” according to Wikipedia, obviously the book is written from that standpoint, and though there are Biblical allusions, grace and forgiveness are largely and sadly missing: e.g., when Gwendolen confesses to having hateful thoughts and is stricken by her conscience, she is urged to try to live a better life, serve a purpose outside herself, etc., rather than to confess to God and seek His help. That’s not surprising when you read a bit about Eliot and find that she either missed or resisted that grace in her own life as well.There are also some weird mystical allusions in regard to Mordecai, who thinks his soul will be reincarnated in Daniel.

The Wikipedia article on Daniel Deronda also goes into the influences leading to the Jewish elements in the book in a time when society was rather anti-Semitic. I thought these lines from the book were telling:

Deronda, like his neighbors, had regarded Judaism as a sort of eccentric fossilized form which an accomplished man might dispense with studying, and leave to specialists. But Mirah, with her terrified flight from one parent, and her yearning after the other, had flashed on him the hitherto neglected reality that Judaism was something still throbbing in human lives, still making for them the only conceivable vesture of the world…This awakening of a new interest–this passing from the supposition that we hold the right opinions on a subject we are careless about, to a sudden care for it, and a sense that our opinions were ignorance–is an effectual remedy for ennui, which, unhappily, cannot be secured on a physician’s prescription.

I first became acquainted with this novel when I saw the BBC film several years ago starring Hugh Dancy as Daniel, Romola Garai as Gwendolen, and Hugh Bonneville (currently of Downton Abbey fame) as Grandcourt. I think it was one of the first period dramas I ever saw, and except for too many shots of Gwendolen’s cleavage, I was enamored with movie. I just watched it again this week on Netflix and I was less so. The filmmakers were attentive to many details, such as Daniel’s tendency to grasp his coat high near the collar and Grandcourt’s to keep a thumb and forefinger in one pocket, and many lines and scenes are taken straight from the book. But they turned Daniel and Gwendolen’s relationship into more of a romance, almost an adulterous one, and changed some scenes and lines in others (such as Gwendolen’s visit to Mirah). I still enjoyed the film, though not as much as I would have without the changes, and it does follow the overall structure of the book, but of course it condenses it.

I listened to much of the book via audiobook, and Nadia May’s reading and accents were delightful. But some of the philosophical parts were harder to comprehend without pondering the words in print, so I referred often to the free (at this time) e-book version as well.

I’m thankful to Heather at Do Not Let This Universe Forget You for choosing Daniel Deronda for Carrie’s Reading to Know Book Club for August. I enjoyed the journey!

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)