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George Eliot

REVIEW:  Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

REVIEW: Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

I became a George Eliot fangirl after reading and loving Middlemarch a few years ago. I had previously only read Silas Marner by Eliot, in high school English, and while I had kind of liked parts of it, I recalled it as a bit of a slog (but then, a lot of 19th century fiction was and is a bit of a slog for me). When casting around for a classic to read, I thought of this, George Eliot’s last book, about which I knew nothing beyond the title.

Daniel Deronda by George EliotDaniel Deronda opens in a casino in a resort town in Germany, and the first few chapters only mention the title character in passing. The initial focus is on Gwendolen Harleth, a vivacious young woman who is staying with friends, gambling and generally enjoying time away from the constraints of her family. Daniel is also in town and he and Gwendolen make note of each other but aren’t actually introduced, and when she returns to her room late one night Gwendolen finds a letter from her mother that changes the trajectory of her life. Her family is financially ruined, her mother writes, and Gwendolen must come home immediately. Gwendolen prepares to return home the next morning but first pawns a necklace with the idea that she might use the money as a stake in winning back the family fortune. (Gwendolen appears to be about as naively hopeful about gambling as I am on those rare occasions that I buy a lottery ticket.) Before she can set out for the casino again, a hotel porter returns her necklace with a mysterious note from someone who “found” it. Gwendolen realizes that Daniel Deronda, whom she knows to be staying at a hotel adjacent to the pawnbroker’s shop, must have seen her and bought the necklace back for her. She is angry and humiliated by this unexpected and unexplained liberty from a stranger, thinking:

No one had ever before dared to treat her with irony and contempt. One thing was clear: she must carry out her resolution to quit this place at once; it was impossible for her to reappear in the public salon, still less stand at the gaming- table with the risk of seeing Deronda.

The story then moves to an earlier time (I found the timeline confusing here; I first thought that Gwendolen was returning home after the previously described events, but it eventually I realized that she’s returning home from an earlier absence), and we meet the Harleth family, consisting of Gwendolen’s mother and four younger sisters. It’s clear that Gwendolen is ultimately the person around whom the family revolves; her mother is pessimistic and meek, and her sisters no match for Gwendolen’s charisma and force of will. It’s not surprising that she chafes at the restrictive life she has been reduced to, though Gwendolen, especially early on, is often not a terribly sympathetic character, being both self-involved and rather disdainful of others. She accepts it as her due when men fall in love with her, and generally only thinks in terms of what she can get out of people. Still, when she speaks of wishing to have adventures like Lady Hester Stanhope, or laments that as a woman (especially as an unmarried one), she doesn’t have the freedom that men of her class enjoy, it’s hard not to feel for her; one realizes she might indeed be a very different person if she *had* been born male.

I was beginning to wonder why the novel was called Daniel Deronda by the time the title character reappeared and we finally learned something about him. Deronda’s past is mysterious, even to himself – he has been raised by Sir Hugo Mallinger, who has told him nothing of his parentage. Deronda (and others) believe he may well be Sir Hugo’s illegitimate son, but he seems afraid to ask, or perhaps just too respectful of his foster father to discomfit him in any way. If Gwendolen is seriously flawed, Daniel Deronda himself is damn near a Christ figure (minus the martyrdom) – he is the epitome of righteousness and goodness. For all that, Daniel doesn’t really feel one dimensional – his pain over his unknown origins gives his character depth.

Daniel and Gwendolen’s lives continue to intersect when, back in England, she is courted by Henleigh Grandcourt, the nephew of Sir Hugo Mallinger. Anyone can see that Grandcourt is bad news, and eventually Gwendolen sees it too; it is revelations about his past and present situations that send her fleeing to Germany originally. But when she returns to the news of her family’s penury, and the prospect of having to work as a governess, Gwendolen breaks a promise and accepts Grandcourt’s suit.

Meanwhile, Daniel rescues a young woman from the Thames as she attempts to drown herself and takes her to the family of his good friend Hans Meyrick for care. Mirah Lapidoth is a Jewess who has come to London to find her long-lost mother and brother; despairing and alone, Mirah is suicidal by the time Daniel finds her.

It’s Daniel’s attempts on Mirah’s behalf to locate her missing family that put him in contact with a Jewish family, the Cohens, and their mysterious houseguest, the consumptive sage Mordecai. Mordecai ends up being Daniel’s friend and teacher, introducing him to a world and a religion he’d been unfamiliar with. Soon revelations about Daniel’s true origins sharpen his interest and draw him deeper into the lives of both Mordecai and Mirah.

As with many 19th century novels that I’ve read, there is at times, in Daniel Deronda, a lack of subtlety in conveying themes, especially where issues of morality are concerned. It’s not that the characters are one-dimensional, but generally virtue is rewarded and vice is punished, or at least repented of. The contrast between Gwendolen and Mirah is particularly sharp and at times felt unfair. By the time Gwendolen marries Grandcourt, it’s clear that she does so not just to benefit herself but her mother and sisters, who are relying on her to make a good marriage and get them out of their dire financial straits. Furthermore, when the marriage turns sour (actually, I’m not sure it’s ever anything *but* sour), Gwendolen takes pains to keep the truth of it from her concerned mother. (Though this may be due in part to Gwendolen’s natural strong pridefulness as well as a desire to protect her mother from the truth, I saw this as evidence of growth on her part.) Yet Gwendolen repeatedly flagellates herself for her choices, remembering the broken promise and the advantages the marriage brought her but forgetting that her choice was not entirely motivated by self-interest.

Mirah, meanwhile, chooses (attempted) death over dishonor. (Though I believe suicide is a sin in Judaism; perhaps this was not such a consideration for Mirah, raised without religion by her wicked father.) Mirah is the sort of historical novel character that I think readers were originally meant to admire because she’s just so good. But she comes off simpy and colorless most of the time. She’s not truly unlikable, but in contrasting her with Gwendolen, who I think we’re supposed to judge for her willfullness, the reader is sort of forced to choose between them (much as Daniel is, though for him it’s no choice, really). I’m always going to choose the Gwendolen type over the Mirah type, even if early in the novel Gwendolen made me want to slap her a couple of times. She has spirit; meanwhile Mirah is often described using the modifier “little”, which got on my last nerves.

I will go even further and say I prefer spirited, selfish Gwendolen to chastened, semi-helpless Gwendolen. It’s interesting to me that a female author who could fairly be seen as proto-feminist portrays her female characters in such a traditional and unfeminist light. I don’t judge Eliot here; it’s not really surprising as she’s a product of her times. I think even giving a character such as Gwendolen some depth and sympathy was probably more than could be expected of many of Eliot’s contemporaries.

Similarly, the depiction of Judaism and Jews is both interesting and a bit problematic for me. Clearly Eliot is more sympathetic to Jews than many other 19th century British authors (and probably many other 19th century Brits, period). But she does indulge in stereotypes in the portrayal of the moneylender Cohen and his somewhat graceless and grasping family. To be fair, they are not truly demonized, and a lot of Daniel’s (fairly muted) distaste for them could probably be judged simple classism (which even the most liberal of 19th century authors were guilty of, in my reading experience). Perhaps if Cohen hadn’t been a moneylender it wouldn’t have read as squicky to me. Similarly, when Mirah’s father shows up, he’s thoroughly villainous, a greedy, thieving gambler who essentially tried to pimp his daughter out (which is why she fled him initially). There’s nothing in his portrayal that read specifically like an indictment of Jews or Jewish characteristics to me, but at the same time his depiction did make me a little uncomfortable.

Ultimately, Daniel Deronda did not capture my imagination the way that Middlemarch did, but I appreciate the creation of a female character who is flawed but not irredeemable, and an interesting look at the way Jews were depicted in 19th century English literature. My grade is a B.

Jennie

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REVIEW: Middlemarch by George Eliot

REVIEW: Middlemarch by George Eliot

middlemarchMy recent success with 19th century English novels has emboldened me to continue to  tackle classics. I have also gotten into the habit of downloading public domain books onto my iPhone (the app I use is Stanza). I still love my Sony PRS-505 Reader, but the thing that’s great about reading on the iPhone is that I can whip it out  wherever and  whenever (heck, I usually have my iPhone  in my hand  anyway) and read a page or two while waiting for the elevator, standing in line at the grocery store, etc. I also find that the small iPhone screen actually works better for me when reading big, meaty novels with dense text – the writing is broken up into very small, manageable chunks and I get a sense of satisfaction from turning the page frequently (okay, I may be weird about that). It’s true that it took me a long time to read Middlemarch, and that it was likely a lot of pages. I’m not sure how many because the book was only  displaying page counts by chapter, but it was 87 chapters; at an average of 50 pages per chapter, that’s 4,350 pages. But they were short pages! Anyway, thus ends my PSA for the awesomeness of reading public domain classics on the iPhone; on to Middlemarch.

My previous experience with George Eliot consists of reading Silas Marner in high school. I remember a lot of  my classmates  hating it; by my own recollection (high school was a long time ago), it was a slog but not without its rewards. (Which was true of a lot of generally-hated high school books, I have found. Except for The Old Man and the Sea. Never The Old Man and the Sea. Ugh.) But my impression of Eliot was that she belonged to that class of 19th century novelists that are more maligned than revered these days, at least by all but literature majors and English professors (others  that belong in this group include Henry James and Thomas Hardy).

Indeed, Googling “I Hate Middlemarch” yields two Facebook groups immediately, one of which suggests that Eliot should have been drowned at birth (harsh!) and calls the book “a heinous crime against humanity.” So what did I think?

I actually kind of loved Middlemarch.

Middlemarch is subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life”, and indeed it captures the goings on of a fairly large cast of characters over the period of a couple of years in an unremarkable English town in the 1830s. I’ve really come to appreciate first-hand accounts of this time period (both fiction  and non-fiction), because it was such an interesting age in England. The impact of the Industrial Revolution was still spreading throughout the land, and other reforms were being vigorously pursued by various factions. Middlemarch touches on many of these issues: political reform, doctrinal religious differences, advancement in medical knowledge, the obligation of landowners to their tenants, education and the role of women in society.

One thing that really struck me reading Middlemarch was its humanity. I don’t know why, but I’m always faintly surprised by nuanced characterizations in older novels – I tend to think of them as having a more black-and-white view of humanity, with characters being either unrelentingly good or pure evil (I think Dickens at his worst is guilty of this type of characterization, though to be fair he also wrote many more complex characters). The main characters in Middlemarch are all flawed to a degree; some are more sympathetic than others, and one I spent much of the book wanting to smack, but they are human, not cardboard characters put in place to teach Important Moral Lessons. Even one of the least likable of the characters roused my sympathy by the end, because he pays so dearly for his misdeeds.

The story begins with the introduction of two sisters, Dorothea and Celia Brooke. The orphaned sisters are in the care of their uncle, Mr. Brooke, one of the novel’s few rather comical figures. Mr. Brooke is  a silly man who tends to prattle on whether he knows what he’s talking about or not (usually he does not). Dorothea is serious and devout, and a fervent believer in social  reform, particularly concerned about the plight of poor tenant farmers in the area. She’s one of the main characters in Middlemarch, and one of those 19th century characters whom the reader keenly feels is disavantaged by not being born male; she is forced to sublimate her wishes over and over again because of her sex, and can really only do the good she wants to do in conjunction with a husband or some other male benefactor. Celia is much more conventional, interested in pretty things and looking forward to the role of wife and mother. In spite of their differences, the sisters are very close. Dorothea is pursued by Sir James Chettam, a handsome and wealthy baronet, but she rejects him in favor of the clergyman Edward Causabon, and so James marries Celia (to whom he is honestly much better suited).

The marriage of Causabon and Dorothea illustrates one of the novel’s main themes, that of marriages that turn out unhappy because of mistaken or unrealistic expectations on the part of one or both partners. In this case, Dorothea is expecting to be the right hand of a brilliant man (Causabon is working on a scholarly tome  called The Key to All Mythologies), and thus share in his intellectual pursuits in the only way open to her in 19th century England. She does not realize that Causabon expects a much more conventional, biddable wife, and that in any case his brilliance is overstated – he is in fact beset by insecurity and self-doubt as he pursues his never-ending project.

Another marriage that founders under the weight of faulty assumptions is that of the doctor Tertius Lydgate, recently arrived in Middlemarch, and Rosamond Vincy, the mayor’s spoiled daughter. Their marriage itself is something of an accident, coming about when Lydgate realizes that the attentions he’s paid to the beautiful and vivacious Rosamond are viewed as being much more serious than he intended them to be. Lydgate is a flawed though somewhat sympathetic character: his devotion to his patients and to the advancement of medical knowledge ends up alienating him from some important people in Middlemarch, which has an effect on his career and his ability to support Rosamond. Like Causabon, he expects his wife to be a docile, submissive creature, but he gets more than he bargained for when Rosamond’s demand for a high standard of living forces them into ruinous debt. However much Lydgate marries without intention or love, he tries very hard to make Rosamond happy, and her childish and self-centered attitude makes her one of the least likable characters in the entire novel. If not for one brief act of self-sacrifice  late in the book, Rosamond would’ve been pretty intolerable. I appreciated that Eliot gave even this (believably) shallow character some nuance in the end.

The hasty marriages Eliot depicts are contrasted by the long courtship between Rosamond’s brother Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, the daughter of   the wise and compassionate land manager Caleb Garth. Mary is  a life-long friend of Fred’s, and she works  for Fred’s extremely cantakerous uncle, Mr. Featherstone in the early chapters of Middlemarch. Fred is often in her company as he is known to be the uncle’s heir, though it’s a changeable thing (and eventually is changed for the worse, or perhaps the better, depending on how you look at it). Fred is in love with Mary, and Mary appears to be at least quite fond of Fred, but he has a lot of growing up to do before they can be together. For one, he must settle on a career. His family pressures him to join the clergy, but Mary, knowing how ill-suited Fred is to that profession, refuses to marry him if he does.

Middlemarch is frank about the role of religion and of the  clergy in the lives of its characters. Fred is not the only character urged into this profession for practical reasons.   The Reverend Farebrother, briefly a rival for Mary’s affections, is open with his friend Lydgate over his shortcomings as a minister. He’s actually better at it than he thinks, concerned for his parishoners and full of good sense, but he must gamble to supplement his income and support his mother and aunts, and he’d really rather pursue scientific studies than religious ones.

One of the pleasures of the novel is the way that the characters’ lives become intertwined over the course of the story. Middlemarch is not a tiny village; many of the characters know or know of each other, but sometimes only in passing.   The paths of many of the pivotal characters do cross, however, sooner or later. One of the characters who ties the others together is Mr. Bulstrode, a pious and rather judgmental financier who is brother to Mrs. Vincy and thus uncle to Rosamond and Fred. Bulstrode has a dark secret (more on that in a moment) that gives him a secret connection to Will Ladislaw, who is Causabon’s cousin and who cherishes a secret love for Dorothea after meeting her on her honeymoon in Italy.

I’m sure it starts to sound a bit soap-operish in summary, but I think Eliot has a point to make about the way that the lives of these people intertwine; one drops a stone in a pond and the ripples spread to touch those that the person may barely know.

Regarding Bulstrode and his secret: it’s been my observation (albeit from limited study) that 19th century English novelists were fond of this device.  A character may be living a blameless and Christian life, but the sins of the past eventually catch up with him or her. See:  Eliot’s own Silas Marner, Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of D’Urbervilles, a lot of Dickens.

The language in Middlemarch can get a bit…byzantine, in that 19th-century way, by which I mean I occasionally did get lost in sentences that were a paragraph long with little punctuation and a lot of words that didn’t make much sense unless you read them three times, slowly. I’ve come to expect this from classics of the 1700-1800s, and actually I do find that repeated exposure does make comprehension easier. And while this is not a comic novel, Eliot manages to get in some wicked jabs occasionally. My favorite was this:

“To point our other people’s errors was a duty that Mr. Bulstrode rarely shrank from…”

How can you not love a writer who skewers her characters as neatly as that? My grade for Middlemarch is an A.

Best regards,

Jennie

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