No, I have changed my mind. I will write that post about Eliot’s humor.
It is a funny book; Eliot is a funny writer. The Jewish side of the book is close to humorless, another knock against it. And the Gwendolen Harleth side loses its humor, too, understandably given the story, which means that the first third of the novel has a lot of humor and the rest very little. Maybe this is the imbalance that leads to so much disappointment.
Music was soon begun. Miss Arrowpoint and Herr Klesmer played a four-handed piece on two pianos, which convinced the company in general that it was long… (Ch. 5)
Or the one I mentioned a couple of days ago, where Gwendolen’s Aunt Gascoigne is describing the advantages of a possible marriage for her:
“Only think: there is the Grandcourt estate, the Mallinger estate, and the baronetcy, and the peerage,” – she was marking off the items on her fingers, and paused on the fourth while she added, “but they say there will be no land coming to him with the peerage.” It seemed a pity there was nothing for the fifth finger. (Ch. 28)
That last line is the one that I thought was worthy of and as mean as the heartless Evelyn Waugh; it might be thought uncharacteristic of Eliot by a reader not familiar with the “Mrs. Tulliver’s Terpahim” and “The Family Council” chapters of The Mill on the Floss.
The two preceding jokes have in common that they are both mocking the philistines in Gwendolen’s family. It was only just over twenty years since Matthew Arnold had drafted the German (and Biblical) word “philistine” into English as a term for self-satisfied bourgeois anti-intellectualism. Eliot set up her novel as a war between the Jews and the Philistines, with the former the defenders of thought and creators of beauty and the latter interested only in status and money. Eliot is merciless about Aunt Gascoigne, for example, even to her name – “[her husband] had once been Captain Gaskin, having taken orders and a diphthong but shortly before his engagement” (Ch. 3).
Vladimir Nabokov’s essay “Philistines and Philistinism” begins:
A full-grown person whose interests are of a material and commonplace nature, and whose mentality is formed of the stock ideas and conventional ideals of his or her group and time. I have said “full-grown” person because the child or the adolescent who may look like a small philistine is only a small parrot mimicking the ways of confirmed vulgarians, and it is easier to be a parrot than to be a white heron. (Lectures in Russian Literature, p. 309)
Daniel Deronda is about two not yet full grown people (Daniel Deronda and Gwendolen Harleth) moving towards heronness. Neither have quite gotten there by the novel’s end, although Daniel is pretty close, and I have hope for Gwendolen. One of Eliot’s daring moves – this is an aside – is to write a Bildungsroman where the character barely changes, but where every tiny movement counts for a lot.
So the two main characters are on a different path, and the Jewish characters are off in a different aesthetic world. But the families of the protagonists, the confirmed vulgarians – Eliot gives it to them but good, and it is a pleasure to watch her do it.
All right, given how badly I read it, that is more than enough about Daniel Deronda.