The Book of Daniel

The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot
By Gertrude Himmelfarb
Encounter, 250 pages, $25

In her novel of 1876, Daniel Deronda, George Eliot fa-mously foresaw the re-establishment of a Jewish state, and in the history of Zionism, the book is far more than a literary curiosity. To get a sense of how far-reaching the novel’s influence would be, one need only consider the case of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the driving force behind the revival of Hebrew as a modern language. The Russian-born Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) first envisioned his life’s work during the revival of Russian nationalism that came with the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78. But it was a reading of Daniel Deronda in translation shortly afterward that spurred him into action—which meant his leaving Russia for Paris to study medicine as a preparation for life in Palestine.

History can move quickly. A few of the book’s original readers may have still been alive in 1948, when Israel proclaimed its independence. George Eliot’s memory is duly honored in the Jewish homeland. But Daniel Deronda itself—or rather, those parts of Daniel Deronda about its Jewish characters and their beliefs—is rather less honored by literary critics and scholars. The very parts of the book that led to its significant place in modern Jewish history are also responsible for its problematic reputation as a work of literature.

These are matters taken up by Gertrude Himmelfarb in her new book, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, which is exactly the sort of incisive and authoritative account that Himmelfarb’s readers have come to expect. This is Himmelfarb’s fourteenth book, published 57 years after her debut with Lord Acton: A Study of Conscience and Politics, and it is animated, in equal measure, by her exceptional feeling for Victorian culture and a sympathetic understanding of Jewish aspirations.

The “Jewish Question,” as it began to be called in the mid-19th century, only became a major preoccupation of Eliot in the last fifteen years of her life. (She died in 1880.) Before then, there were no more than scattered references to Jews in her essays and letters. She first made her mark with her translations of two German critiques of established religion, David Strauss’s Life of Jesus and Ludwig Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity. Her close study of these works completed her estrangement from the ardent evangelical faith she had adopted as a schoolgirl, and turned her into a freethinker. Both also contained harsh words about Judaism for its “arrogant” and “retrograde” character. Of these, she said nothing. But that does not mean they failed to register with her. Indeed, Himmelfarb goes so far as to claim that in Daniel Deronda, Strauss and Feuerbach were her “secret antagonists”—that she was taking their negative account of Judaism and standing it on its head.

The first readers of Daniel Deronda were understandably puz-zled by its emphasis on matters Jewish. How had such a writer, a skeptic and agnostic, suddenly come to present them with a novel celebrating Judaism, of all things—and not just Judaism, but the ideal of restored Jewish nationhood as well? Even today, there seems something mysterious about the intensity that she brought to her Jewish theme—all the more so given that her vision of Judaism and a Jewish state, as Himmelfarb reminds us, was “disinterested,” since “she was not Jewish and had no personal stake in it.”

It is at least possible to trace some of the steps that led her toward it. The crucial one was her meeting in 1866 with Emanuel Deutsch, a Jew from Silesia then in his mid-thirties who was working as an assistant in the British Museum. A prodigious linguist from an Orthodox Jewish background, Deutsch became a minor celebrity himself with the publication in the Quarterly Review of a much-discussed article on the Talmud. Eliot thought it “a glorious article,” and said its author was “a very dear, delightful creature.” He became a close friend.

Deutsch exercised a strong influence over her. He instructed her in Hebrew and Jewish scholarship. After visiting Palestine, he also spoke constantly of his vision of national redemption and an ingathering of the exiles. He died in Alexandria in 1873, en route once again to Palestine, at a time when Eliot’s plans for Daniel Deronda—which included a massive program of background reading—were well advanced. Writing to her when the book first appeared, her friend George Grove (later famous for his dictionary of music) told Eliot that it made him think of “our dear Deutsch.” More specifically, Deutsch is commemorated in the character of Mordecai, the scholar and visionary who plays a key role in urging Deronda along the path of Jewish self-discovery.

 A young aristocrat of mysterious origins, Deronda is brought up by a guardian, an affable baronet whom he suspects of being his father. Of his mother he knows nothing until shortly before her death, when she asks to meet him. Although she now rejoices (thanks to a second marriage) in the title of the Princess Halm-Eberstein, it turns out that she has had an illustrious career as an opera singer. She is also Jewish, as was her first husband, Deronda’s father. Both had a traditional Jewish upbringing. But the Princess is a convinced assimilationist, and after the early death of Daniel’s father she persuaded her friend the baronet to take Daniel under his wing—partly for the sake of her career, partly so that the boy could be brought up as an English gentleman, without any of the disadvantages of his Jewish inheritance.

These revelations are not quite as disconcerting as they might be for Deronda, since he has already begun to feel strange affinities with the Jews. His interest in them dates from a dramatic episode in which he rescues a girl called Mirah from drowning. She proves to be Jewish, and—something no less intriguing in his eyes—proud of the fact. He subsequently gets to know Mordecai, who suspects from the first that Daniel might be Jewish, and who sees in him the potential leader of a Jewish national revival. Mordecai has not long to live: it is Deronda’s fate, he argues, to carry out the mission of which he himself can only dream.

Daniel Deronda is a book divided, because Eliot places equal emphasis on the story of an Englishwoman, Gwendolen Harleth, and her disastrous marriage to the wealthy and callous Henleigh Grandcourt. In the later stages of the novel, Deronda becomes closely involved with Gwendolen, now a  widow: she is also a troubled woman, and he acts as a kind of spiritual adviser. But it is Mirah whom he marries. (By this stage we have learned that Mordecai is her long-lost brother.) The book ends with the newly wedded couple preparing to sail for Palestine, but not before Mordecai, who had hoped to come with them, dies in their arms. His last words are the Shema, the most commonly recited Hebrew prayer, while the last words of the book are a few noble lines from Milton’s Samson Agonistes—a perfect Anglo-Hebraic ending.


VIrtually all the reviewers who wrote about the novel on its first appearance were united in their praise for the half of the book that tells the sorrowful tale of Gwendolen Harleth. With few exceptions, they found the Jewish half inferior, and this has remained the standard verdict.

Some of the early critics who were unhappy with the Jewish half plainly found it distasteful by definition: extra-literary prejudices were at work. Some were simply bored by it. It lay beyond their range of interests. But others, almost certainly a majority, had no quarrel with the Jewish theme itself. What they objected to, on artistic grounds, was the way George Eliot had handled it.

Later critics, most strikingly F.R. Leavis in his influential book The Great Tradition (1948), have added to the indictment. The list of charges against the Deronda sections is a long one—they have been variously described as stilted, verbose, wooden, schematic, rhapsodic, and hopelessly idealized—and there is undeniable truth in these charges. Most of the Jews in the book do seem bathed in an artificial light. The more articulate ones are forever explaining themselves, making speeches rather than acting out their parts. Much of the dialogue is impossibly high-flown.

But is this all there is to it? The first thing to be said by way of qualifying this bleak picture is that “the Jewish half” isn’t the undifferentiated lump of material the critics imply it is. There is great variety. If Mordecai embodies one version of Jewish achievement, for instance, the formidable musician Klesmer embodies another. Klesmer has put his faith in his art. His Jewishness is very attenuated; he is thoroughly cosmopolitan. But it isn’t only his name that marks him out. His origins are a social fact of which he remains awkwardly if whimsically aware. Asked by a guest at a party whether he is “a Pan-slavist,” he flashes back, “No; my name is Elijah, I am the Wandering Jew.” Eventually he marries the very English Miss Arrowpoint. (Her mother, who at first vehemently opposes the match, dismisses him as “a gypsy, a Jew, a mere bubble of the earth.”) Whatever the book’s final drift, George Eliot appears to approve quite as much of the freedom the marriage represents as she does of Mordecai’s separatism.

Klesmer is a brilliantly drawn character. The Cohens, the family Mordecai lodges with, introduce us to a less elevated region of Jewish experience. At first Deronda recoils from their “ignorant self-congratulating prosperity” (Papa Cohen is a pawnbroker). Then he comes to respect their good nature, and to recognize that they are raised above what would otherwise be an utterly commonplace existence by their religion.

George Eliot has taken on a difficult task here: she is an outsider, trying to write sympathetically but unsentimentally about a milieu that had barely figured in English fiction before. On the whole, she succeeds about as well as anyone could have done at the time. Her account is sometimes too cozy, sometimes too picturesque. But it is has many lively touches. She is amusing, for example, on the fascination of the Cohen family with royalty. One small Cohen daughter is called Adelaide Rebekah (“Adelaide” in honor of the wife of Queen Victoria’s predecessor, William IV). Her baby sister is called Eugenie Esther (to commemorate a visit to London Napoleon III had made with his Empress ten years before, about which the Cohens are still talking).  

One cannot read the Jewish scenes in Daniel Deronda without being impressed by George Eliot’s intelligence and breadth. Even the dull patches have their rewards—a luminous observation here, a telling detail there. And with Mordecai she occasionally achieves the prophetic fervor at which she aimed. (Himmelfarb is notably more enthusiastic about him as a piece of character-drawing than she is about Deronda or Mirah. She contends forcefully that the scene in which he first unfolds his creed to Deronda is one of “the highlights of the book.”)

But in the end, there is no getting away from it. It is undeniably true that the portraits of Gwendolen and Grandcourt are triumphs, as fully realized as anything in Middlemarch or The Mill on the Floss. With Deronda, Mordecai, and Mirah, on the other hand, there is an unmistakable straining after effect. In writing about them, George Eliot was misjudging her gifts. At her best, as a novelist, she was essentially levelheaded. But the Deronda story called for something wilder, even operatic—for a Dostoyevsky, perhaps (if one can imagine him as a philo-Semite), or a Victor Hugo.

The weakest character of the book is Deronda himself. He is a paragon of virtue and fine feeling. He has faultless manners and a “seraphic face.” He is also a man of leisure, a rich dilettante who feels vaguely in need of a cause and is lucky enough to have one come his way. Much of the time he wouldn’t be out of place in a romance novel.

Conor Cruise O’Brien makes an interesting point in connection with him, however. In his book The Siege, O’Brien quotes Mordecai’s description of what the Jew who was to fulfill his life’s hopes had to be like:

His face and frame must be beautiful and strong, he must have been used to all the refinements of social life, his voice must flow with free and easy current, his earnestness must be free from sordid need, he must glorify the possibilities of the Jews.

“Poor and oppressed people who long to assert their dignity,” O’Brien adds, “love a leader like that.” The Irish found one in Charles Stewart Parnell, the half-American aristocrat who took up their cause in the late-19th century. The Jews found one in the commanding and worldly figure of Theodor Herzl, who once said, “I shall be the Parnell of the Jews.” And Mordecai found his ideal leader in Deronda.

George Eliot’s feeling for Jews and Judaism was anchored in her exceptional knowledge of Jewish culture. But it can’t be divorced from her more general ideas, either. In particular, as Himmelfarb explains, it can only be understood in “the larger context of nationality, the national identity that Eliot attributed to all great peoples.” It is true that after the history of the past hundred years, national identity has become an idea to be approached with care. But in the words of the historian Bernard Semmel in his George Eliot and the Politics of National Inheritance (a book Himmelfarb cites with approval), Eliot was advocating “a nonaggressive cultural nationalism.” Himmelfarb herself writes eloquently about the benign role played by tradition and community in Eliot’s work: for Deronda, she observes, “Judaism was a living, ‘throbbing’ faith precisely because it had its roots in ancient traditions and laws, in enduring habits and sentiments.”

One of the last things Eliot wrote was a remarkable essay, published in 1879, called “The Modern Hep! Hep!” “Hep! Hep!” was a cry, supposedly dating back to the Crusades, that was used by anti-Jewish mobs in Germany in the early-19th century. In the course of the essay, Eliot leaves her readers in no doubt that ancient prejudices have yet to run their course. But its title signals contrast as well as continuity. Modern anti-Semitism is ugly, she says, but it can’t compare with the persecution and brutality of the past.

Indeed, the threat posed by anti- Jewish prejudice to the Jewish national idea is not a primary consideration in Daniel Deronda itself. Mordecai preaches a more positive doctrine—the preservation of Jewish tradition, the restoration of a national center to Jewish life, the proper fulfillment of Jewish potential.

However visionary Eliot’s understanding of a future with a Jewish state may have been, she could not perceive what was to come, how the anti-Semitism that would grip Europe in the decades after her death would prove far, far worse than anything that had come before it.

Still, there is an important general point here, which Gertrude Himmelfarb rightly emphasizes. Today, as she says, Israel is commonly presented as having come into being as a response to the Holocaust. It is as though the state had no other roots, no other ideological or historical basis—as though anti-Semitism were the defining element in Jewish history as a whole.

But George Eliot’s Jewish question, in Himmelfarb’s words, “was not the relation of Jews to the Gentile world, but the relation of Jews to themselves, to their own people and their own world.” And the same held true for those early Jewish readers who drew inspiration from her. Read today, Daniel Deronda is a powerful reminder that Zionism was an act of affirmation, not of despair.

It is a pity about the novel’s flaws. But Daniel Deronda has signal qualities, as Himmelfarb beautifully demonstrates, that more than make up for them—a vitality, a generosity, and a sense of purpose that still speak to us directly.

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