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Cover of first edition of Daniel Deronda, 1876
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Daniel Deronda is a novel by George Eliot, first published in 1876. It was the last novel she completed and the only one set in the contemporary Victorian society of her day. Its mixture of social satire and moral searching, along with a sympathetic rendering of Jewish proto-Zionist and Kabbalistic ideas, has made it a controversial final statement of one of the greatest of Victorian novelists.
The novel has been adapted for film three times, once as a silent feature and twice for television. It has also been adapted for the stage, most notably in the 1960s by the 69 Theatre Company in Manchester with Vanessa Redgrave cast as the heroine Gwendolen Harleth.
Daniel Deronda contains two main strains of plot, united by the title character. The novel begins in late August 1865 with the meeting of Daniel Deronda and Gwendolen Harleth in the fictional town of Leubronn, Germany. Daniel finds himself attracted to, but wary of, the beautiful, stubborn, and selfish Gwendolen, whom he sees losing all her winnings in a game of roulette. The next day, Gwendolen receives a letter from her mother telling her that the family is financially ruined and asking her to come home. In despair at losing all her money, Gwendolen pawns a necklace and debates gambling again to make her fortune. In a fateful moment, however, her necklace is returned to her by a porter, and she realises that Daniel saw her pawn the necklace and redeemed it for her. From this point, the plot breaks off into two separate flashbacks, one which gives us the history of Gwendolen Harleth and one of Daniel Deronda.
In October 1864, soon after the death of Gwendolen’s stepfather, Gwendolen and her family move to a new neighbourhood. It is here that she meets Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt, a taciturn and calculating man who proposes marriage shortly after their first meeting. At first open to his advances, she eventually flees (to the German town where she meets Deronda) upon discovering that he has several children with his mistress, Lydia Glasher. This portion of the novel sets Gwendolen up as a haughty and selfish, yet affectionate daughter, admired for her beauty but suspected by many in society because of her satirical observations and somewhat manipulative behaviour. She is also prone to fits of terror that shake her otherwise calm and controlling exterior.
Deronda has been raised by a wealthy gentleman, Sir Hugo Mallinger. Deronda’s relationship to Sir Hugo is ambiguous, and it is widely believed, even by Deronda, that he is Sir Hugo’s illegitimate son, though no one is certain. Deronda is an intelligent, light-hearted and compassionate young man who cannot quite decide what to do with his life, and this is a sore point between him and Sir Hugo, who wants him to go into politics. One day in late July 1865, as he is boating on the Thames, Deronda rescues a young Jewish woman, Mirah Lapidoth, from attempting to drown herself. He takes her to the home of some of his friends, where they learn that Mirah is a singer. She has come to London to search for her mother and brother after running away from her father, who kidnapped her when she was a child and forced her into an acting troupe. She finally ran away from him after discovering that he was planning to sell her into prostitution. Moved by her tale, Deronda undertakes to help her look for her mother (who turns out to have died years earlier) and brother; through this, he is introduced to London’s Jewish community. Mirah and Daniel grow closer and Daniel, anxious about his growing affection for her, leaves for a short time to join Sir Hugo in Leubronn, where he and Gwendolen first meet.
From here, the story picks up in “real time”. Gwendolen returns from Germany in early September 1865 because her family has lost its fortune in an economic downturn. Gwendolen is unwilling to marry, the only respectable way in which a woman could achieve financial security; and she is similarly reluctant to become a governess, one of the few respectable ways a woman of her background can work, because it is an extremely low status position in which she would be transformed from wealthy landed gentry to the status of a servant (one of the troubles of being a governess is that one’s status is above that of servant, so governesses seldom socialized with servants, yet at the same time, their status was below that of their employers, so they could not socialize with them either). She hits upon the idea of pursuing a career in singing or on the stage, but a prominent musician tells her she does not have the talent. Finally, to save herself and her family from relative poverty, she marries the wealthy Grandcourt, despite having promised Mrs. Glasher she would not marry him, and fearing that it is a mistake. She believes she can manipulate him to maintain her freedom to do what she likes; however, Grandcourt has shown every sign of being cold, unfeeling, and manipulative himself.
Deronda, searching for Mirah’s family, meets a consumptive visionary named Mordecai. Mordecai passionately proclaims his wish for the Jewish people to retain their national identity and one day be restored to their Promised Land. Because he is dying, he wants Daniel to become his intellectual heir and continue to pursue his dream and be an advocate for the Jewish people. Although he is strongly drawn to Mordecai, Deronda hesitates to commit himself to a cause that seems to have no connection to his own identity. Deronda’s desire to embrace Mordecai’s vision becomes stronger when they discover Mordecai is Mirah’s brother. Still, Deronda is not a Jew and cannot reconcile this fact with his affection and respect for Mordecai/Ezra, which would be necessary for him to pursue a life of Jewish advocacy.
Gwendolen, meanwhile, has been emotionally crushed by her cold, self-centered, and manipulative husband. She is consumed with guilt for disinheriting Lydia Glasher’s children by marrying their father. On Gwendolen’s wedding day, Mrs. Glasher curses her and tells her that she will suffer for her treachery, which only exacerbates Gwendolen’s feelings of dread and terror. During this time, Gwendolen and Deronda meet regularly, and Gwendolen pours out her troubles to him at each meeting. During a trip to Italy, Grandcourt is knocked from his boat into the water, and after some hesitation, Gwendolen jumps into the Mediterranean in a futile attempt to save him. After this, she is consumed with guilt because she had long wished he would die and fears her hesitation caused his death. Coincidentally, Deronda is also in Italy. He has learned from Sir Hugo that his mother is a Jew and lives in Italy, and he goes there to meet her. He comforts Gwendolen and advises her. In love with Deronda, Gwendolen hopes for a future with him, but he urges her onto a path of righteousness, encouraging her to help others to alleviate her suffering.
Deronda meets his mother and learns that she was a famous opera singer with whom Sir Hugo was once in love. She tells him that her father, a physician and strictly pious Jew, forced her to marry her cousin whom she did not love. She resented the rigid piety of her childhood. Daniel was the only child of that union, and on her husband’s death, she asked the devoted Sir Hugo to raise her son as an English gentleman, never to know that he was Jewish. Upon learning of his true origins, Deronda finally feels comfortable with his love for Mirah, and on his return to England in October 1866, he tells Mirah this and commits himself to be Ezra/Mordecai’s disciple. Before Daniel marries Mirah, he goes to Gwendolen to tell her about his origins, his decision to go to “the East” (per Ezra/Mordecai’s wish), and his betrothal to Mirah. Gwendolen is devastated by the news, but it becomes a turning point in her life, inspiring her to finally say, “I shall live.” She sends him a letter on his wedding day, telling him not to think of her with sadness but to know that she will be a better person for having known him. The newlyweds are all prepared to set off for “the East” with Mordecai, when Mordecai dies in their arms, and the novel ends.
- Daniel Deronda — The ward of the wealthy Sir Hugo Mallinger and hero of the novel, Deronda has a tendency to help others at a cost to himself. At the start of the novel, he has failed to win a scholarship at Cambridge because of his focus on helping a friend, has been travelling abroad, and has just started studying law. He often wonders about his birth and whether or not he is a gentleman. As he moves more and more among the world-within-a-world of the Jews of the novel he begins to identify with their cause in direct proportion to the unfolding revelations of his ancestry. Eliot used the story of Moses as part of her inspiration for Deronda. As Moses was a Jew brought up as an Egyptian who ultimately led his people to the Promised Land, so Deronda is a Jew brought up as an Englishman who ends the novel with a plan to do the same. Deronda’s name presumably indicates that his ancestors lived in the Spanish city of Ronda, prior to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.
- Gwendolen Harleth — The beautiful, spoiled daughter of a widowed mother. Much courted by men, she is flirtatious but ultimately self-involved. Early in the novel, her family suffers a financial crisis, and she is faced with becoming a governess to help support herself and her family. Seeking an escape, she explores the idea of becoming an actress and singer, but Herr Klesmer tells her that she has started too late, that she does not know the meaning of hard work, training, and sacrifice. Gwendolen marries the controlling and cruel Henleigh Grandcourt, although she does not love him. Desperately unhappy, she seeks help from Deronda, who offers her understanding, moral support and the possibility of a way out of her guilt and sorrow. As a psychological study of an immature egoist struggling to achieve greater understanding of herself and others through suffering, Gwendolen is for many Eliot’s crowning achievement as a novelist and the real core of the book. F R Leavis famously felt that the novel would have benefited from the complete removal of the Jewish section and the renaming of it as Gwendolen Harleth. It is true that though the novel is named after Deronda, a greater proportion is devoted to Gwendolen than to Deronda himself.
- Mirah Lapidoth — A beautiful Jewish girl who was born in England but taken away by her father at a young age to travel the world as a singer. Realising, as a young woman, that her father planned to sell her as a mistress to a European nobleman, to get money for his gambling addiction, she flees from him and returns to London to look for her mother and brother. When she arrived in London she found her old home destroyed and no trace of her family. Giving in to despair, she tries to commit suicide. Rescued by Daniel, she is cared for by his friends while searching for her family and work, so that she can support herself.
- Sir Hugo Mallinger — A wealthy gentleman; Sir Hugo fell in love with the operatic diva Maria Alcharisi when she was young and agreed, out of love for her, to raise her son Daniel Deronda.
- Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt — Sir Hugo’s nephew and heir-presumptive, a wealthy, manipulative, sadistic man. Grandcourt marries Gwendolen Harleth and then embarks upon a campaign of emotional abuse. He has a mistress, Lydia Glasher, with whom he has several children. He had promised to marry Lydia when her husband died but reneged on the promise to marry Gwendolyn instead.
- Thomas Cranmer Lush — Henleigh Grandcourt’s slavish associate. He and Gwendolen take an immediate dislike to one another.
- Lydia Glasher — Henleigh Grandcourt’s mistress, a fallen woman who left her husband for Grandcourt and had his children. She confronts Gwendolen, hoping to persuade her not to marry Grandcourt and protect her children’s inheritance. To punish both women, Grandcourt takes the family diamonds he had given to Lydia and gives them to Gwendolen. He forces Gwendolen to wear them despite her knowing that they had been previously worn by his mistress.
- Ezra Mordecai Cohen — Mirah’s brother. A young Jewish visionary suffering from consumption who befriends Daniel Deronda and teaches him about Judaism. A Kabbalist and proto-Zionist, Mordecai sees Deronda as his spiritual successor and inspires him to continue his vision of creating a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. Named after the biblical character Mordecai, who delivers the Jews from the machinations of Haman in the Book of Esther
- Herr Klesmer — A German-Jewish musician in Gwendolen Harleth’s social circle; Klesmer marries Catherine Arrowpoint, a wealthy girl with whom Gwendolen is friendly. He also advises Gwendolen not to try for a life on the stage. Thought to be partly based on Franz Liszt.
- The Princess Halm Eberstein — Daniel Deronda’s mother. The daughter of a rabbi, she suffered under her father’s dominance; he saw her main purpose was to produce Jewish sons. To please him, she agreed to marry a religious man, her cousin, knowing he adored her and would let her do as she wished after her father died. When her father was dead, she became a renowned singer and actress. After her husband died, she gave her son to Sir Hugo Mallinger to be raised as an English gentleman, free of all the disadvantages she felt she had had as a Jew. Later when her voice seemed to be failing, she converted to Christianity to marry a Russian nobleman. Her voice recovered, and she bitterly regretted having given up her life as a performer. Now ill with a fatal disease, she begins to fear retribution for having frustrated her father’s plans for his grandson. She contacts Daniel through Sir Hugo, asking him to meet her in Genoa, where she travels under pretense of consulting a doctor. Their confrontation in Italy is one of the novel’s important scenes. Afterwards, she tells Deronda where he can recover a chest full of important documents related to his Jewish heritage, gathered by her father.
Literary significance and reception
Jewish Zionism in the novel
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Daniel Deronda is composed of two interwoven stories and presents two worlds which are never completely reconciled. Indeed, the separation of the two and the eventual parting of one from the other is one of the novel’s major themes. There is the fashionable and familiar upper-class English world of Gwendolen Harleth and the less familiar society-within-a-society inhabited by the Jews, most importantly Mordecai (or Ezra) Cohen and his sister Mirah. Living between these two worlds is Daniel, who gradually identifies more and more with the Jewish side as he comes to understand the mystery of his birth and develops his relationships with Mordecai and Mirah. In the novel, the Jewish characters’ spirituality, moral coherence and sense of community are contrasted favourably with the materialist, philistine, and largely corrupt society of England. The implication seems to be that the Jews’ moral values are lacking in the wider British society that surrounds them.
Daniel is ideological, helpful, and wise. To give substance to his character, Eliot had to give him a worthy purpose. Eliot had become interested in Jewish culture through her acquaintance with Jewish mystic, lecturer and proto-Zionist Immanuel Oscar Menahem Deutsch, and part of the inspiration for the novel was her desire to correct English ignorance and prejudice against Jews. Mordecai’s story, so easily forgotten beside the glitter and passions of Gwendolen’s, nonetheless finishes the novel. Partly based on Deutsch, Mordecai’s political and spiritual ideas are among the core messages of the book, just as Felix Holt‘s politics are the core intellectual element of his novel. In a key scene in Daniel Deronda, Deronda follows Mordecai to a tavern where the latter meets with other penniless philosophers to exchange ideas. There follows a lengthy speech in which Mordecai outlines his vision of a homeland for the Jews where, he hopes, they will be able to take their place among the nations of the world for the general good.
Influence on Jewish Zionism
On its publication, Daniel Deronda was immediately translated into German and Dutch and was given an enthusiastic extended review by the Austrian Zionist rabbi and scholar David Kaufmann. Further translations soon followed into French (1882), Italian (1883), Hebrew (1893), Yiddish (1900s) and Russian (1902).
Written during a time when Restorationism (similar to 20th century Christian Zionism) had a strong following, Eliot’s novel had a positive influence on later Jewish Zionism. It has been cited by Henrietta Szold, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, and Emma Lazarus as having been influential in their decision to become Zionists.
The depiction of Jews contrasted strongly with those in other novels such as Dickens‘ Oliver Twist and Trollope‘s The Way We Live Now. In spite of there having been a Jewish-born Prime Minister for many years (Benjamin Disraeli was baptised as a boy), the view of the Jews among the British at the time was often prejudiced, sometimes to the point of derision or revulsion, which is reflected in opinions expressed by several of the British characters in one scene in the book.
In 1948, F. R. Leavis in The Great Tradition gave the opinion that the Jewish sections of the book were its weakest, and that a truncated version called Gwendolen Harleth should be printed on its own. Conversely, some Zionist commentators have advocated the opposite truncation, keeping the Jewish section, with Gwendolen’s story omitted.
Some modern critics, notably Edward Said, point to the novel as a propaganda tool to encourage British patriation of Palestine to Jews. The novel is explicit in sending the non-Christians to a non-Christian land, and also in maintaining that “like may only marry like”, i.e., Deronda can only marry his beloved if they are the same race/religion/ethnicity. Hostile critics have suggested that the book promotes a fundamentally racist view of marriage. However, in the novel the German-Jewish pianist Klesmer marries the Christian Englishwoman Catherine Arrowpoint, suggesting that Eliot’s views on this are subtler than these critics suggest.[original research?]
Kabbalah in the novel
A major influence on the novel is the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah, which is directly referred to in the text. Mordecai describes himself as the reincarnation of Jewish mystics of Spain and Europe and believes his vision to be the fulfilment of an ancient yearning of the Jewish people. Many of the encounters between Mordecai and Deronda are described in quasi-mystical terms (for example, Mordecai’s meeting with Deronda on the River Thames). The inclusion of this overt mysticism is extraordinary in the work of a writer who, for many, embodies the ideals of the liberal, secular humanism of the Victorian age.
Daniel Deronda is full of references to spiritual, archetypal, and mythological imagery, from the Kabbalism of Mordecai to the encounter of Lydia Glasher with Gwendolen among a group of standing stones and Gwendolen’s reaction to the image of a dying man. Of all of Eliot’s novels, this is the most mystical with an analysis of religious belief as a progressive force in human nature, albeit a non-Christian one.
In 1970 the book was adapted into a BBC TV drama in six episodes, written by Alexander Baron, produced by David Conroy and directed by Joan Craft. John Nolan starred as Daniel Deronda, with Martha Henry as Gwendolen and Robert Hardy as Grandcourt .
In 2002 the book was adapted into a serial drama by the same name, written by Andrew Davies and directed by Tom Hooper. The three part show was broadcast on BBC One from 23 November to 7 December 2002. Hugh Dancy starred as the titular Daniel Deronda, with the show winning two British Academy Television Craft Awards, a Banff Rockie Award, and a Broadcasting Press Guild Award.
- Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. Ed. Graham Handley. Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Sally Shuttleworth (2003). “The Psychology of Childhood in Victorian Literature and Medicine”. In Gillian Beer, Helen Small, and Trudi Tate. Literature, Science, Psychoanalysis, 1830–1970. Oxford University Press. p. 90. ISBN 9780199266678.
- e.g. by among others Alan Walker. See Walker, Alan (1993) . Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years, 1848–1861. Ithaca: Cornell University Press Paperback Edition. p. 250. ISBN 0-8014-9721-3. Retrieved 26 October 2012.
- Kaufmann, David (1877). George Eliot und das Judenthum, Versuch einer Würdigung Daniel Derondas [George Eliot and Judaism: An Attempt to Appreciate “Daniel Deronda”] (in German). Krotoschin.
- Daniel Deronda editions at WorldCat
- Encyclopedia Judaica
- reported in Leavis’s own introduction to Daniel Deronda, Panther edition, 1968
- Guardian booksblog
- “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims”
- cf page 406 OUP edition ISBN 0-19-281787-6, Chapter 38 in all prints
- “Daniel Deronda”. British Film Institute. Retrieved 30 October 2012.
- Newnam, Malcolm. “Teddington Studios”. Britmovies. Retrieved 30 October 2012.
- Robertson, Colin (10 June 2003). “BBC2 comedy drama honoured at Banff” (subscription access). Broadcast (Emap Media).
- “2003“. Broadcasting Press Guild. Retrieved 17 October 2010.
- “Craft Nominations 2002“. British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved on 17 October 2010.
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Daniel Deronda at Project Gutenberg
- Daniel Deronda at the Internet Movie Database (1921)
- Daniel Deronda at the Internet Movie Database (1970) (TV)
- Daniel Deronda at the Internet Movie Database (2002) (TV)
- Guardian article on Daniel Deronda and Judaism by Paul Owen
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