Daniel Deronda is George Eliot’s last novel. Middlemarch, also by Eliot, is a strong candidate for my favourite novel, and it’s certainly in the top five. It’s generally agreed to be the best of her works, and I think I agree. Nevertheless, Daniel Deronda was very good.
There are two main stories, both concerned primarily with the aristocracy of nineteenth century England. This is a world in which “poverty” means “might not always be able to afford a servant”, or even “needs to work for a living”. Most nineteenth century novelists seem to have written about this world, even Dickens, although he spent rather more time dipping into the life of the poor than most of his contemporaries. It makes for a slightly strange reading experience from a modern perspective.
One story concerns a beautiful girl who has just reached the age at which she is expected to marry, and her misadventures in that direction. The other concerns an attractive young man, the eponymous Daniel Deronda, and the process by which he finds his purpose in life.
This book is set apart from the other novels of the period I’ve read by the involvement of Jewish characters. They are sympathetic, and Deronda spends some time deeply involved with them. The first thing I noticed was that anti-semitism is much less serious now than it was then; Eliot is on the pro-semitic side, but some of her comments would count as anti-semitic these days, and the opinions of some of the characters, even sympathetic ones, are positively shocking by modern standards. This, in fact, is something I notice a lot in reading nineteenth century literature. Racism, sexism, and anti-semitism are all far, far less serious now than they were a century and half ago. That doesn’t mean that there are no problems, but anyone claiming that there has been no progress is completely lacking in historical perspective.
The other thing is that the Holocaust shadows everything, particularly the Jew Deronda goes to meet in Mainz, talking contentedly of how integrated they are into German society, and how much they enjoy their freedom. I don’t think it would be possible to write that scene now; knowing that the author knew what was coming would freight it with too much meaning.
According to the introduction, the critical consensus is that the storyline about the girl, Gwendolen Harleth, is a success, while the Deronda’s storyline is not. I disagree; I think that they are both successful. However, they are somewhat different types of story. The Deronda storyline is touched with the numinous, while a large part of the point of Gwendolen’s story, I think, is that it is not. For critics for whom any touch of the fantastic, of, indeed, any thing that goes outside the circle of their own experience, is a blemish in a novel to be gently deplored, this may be enough, but I feel that is a rather narrow way to assess literature. There is also the fact that Gwendolen’s story has its share of tragedy, while the tragedies that threaten Deronda’s story are not, in the end, quite as tragic as might be expected. Many critics seem to believe that books that are positive must be shallow, a belief that is quite shallow itself.
I may be slightly biased in that I very much liked the character of Deronda; from comments reported in the introduction, I gather that this is not a universal reaction. I can understand why he would react in the way that he does, because he struck me as very similar to me. That doesn’t mean that anyone else would agree, of course, but it did put me in sympathy with him, and thus dispose me to enjoy his half of the story.
At any rate, I would definitely recommend this book, probably to be read after Middlemarch. I think it is my second favourite of the Eliot novels I’ve read.