Monday, January 12, 2015

The effect that clung and gnawed was a sense of imperfect mastery – reading Daniel Deronda badly

If I had more sense I would set Daniel Deronda (1876) aside and not write about it as I did with Middlemarch (1871-2) when I read it several years ago.  I read Daniel Deronda quite badly, with a real and irritating sense of struggle.  Eliot, in her two final masterpieces, challenges some of the assumptions I have about what makes great fictional art.  Arguments about great art, I would like to say, but I have some doubts.

I was reading the novel better in the middle than in the beginning, and even better by the end (850 pages allows a lot of room for improvement), so what the heck, I thought, take a run at the book, who knows what might happen.

Daniel Deronda has double plots that do not interweave but merely touch.  The one is about the sparkling Gwendolen Harleth and her bad marriage; the other about the title character and his search for identity, let’s say, which involves a number of Jewish characters.  The standard problem with the novel, one that even preceded its publication, is that many readers dislike the “Jewish” half of the novel so strongly that they fantasize about a semi-imaginary novel titled Gwendolen Harleth.  See The Great Tradition (1948) by F. R. Leavis for an example.  Henry James apparently agreed, since he chose to write something very much like that novel just a few years after reading Daniel Deronda, calling it The Portrait of a Lady.  I had figured this out by the 150 page mark, and I have not even read the James novel, but Leavis says it is his discovery (“which seems to have escaped notice,” p. 15 still – I have not actually read this book).  Fine, whatever.  So obvious.  I am sure many people had noticed before.  Leavis has always gotten on my nerves.  See above, aesthetic assumptions.

My introduction to Daniel Deronda was in The New Republic twenty plus years ago, a long review article of what book I do not remember dealing with the Jewish Question in Eliot’s novel and treating it with great seriousness.  I only vaguely knew that the marriage plot was in the book, but rather was predisposed to take it as a serious philosemitic treatment of Jewish issues of continuing interest.

Which it is.  But then the Gwendolen Harleth side has a terrifically alive and fizzy heroine, as good as – who are Eliot’s liveliest?  Young Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss? – as good as her best, and an outstanding brute of a villain, alive in his own way, and a handful of fine, often comic, supporting characters.  There were times when I had the idea that Eliot could have worked in Golden Age Hollywood, writing zippy dialogue for Claudette Colbert.  On Daniel Deronda’s side of the novels, characters are idealized, ideas are more important, and there is a lot less zip.  Sometimes the zip dries up completely.

I guess I see the point of the Gwendolen Harleth people.  None of this has much to do with any struggles I had, though.  The two halves are meant to clash a bit.  The dissonance is interesting, and perhaps new.  Maybe I will write about that.  I will just do my usual rummage through the book.  There is certainly plenty to look at.

For example, cat mummies in Chapter 32:

Yet how distinguish what our will may wisely save in its completeness, from the heaping of cat-mummies and the expensive cult of enshrined putrefactions?

Useful advice for a book blogger.  I read this book badly, but I’ve done worse.

The title, in context the thoughts of the terrible husband, is from the end of Chapter 30.


  1. I have always felt what you say, that the two parts are meant to clash. One thing that seems interesting is how little it ever occurs to Gwendolen that there's a world like Daniel's: she's so confused when it turns out that his interests and romances are entirely unconnected with her, for instance. He (and Mirah) are uncomfortably idealized: I hope you'll write about that! The actress who plays Gwendolen in the BBC adaptation is Romola Garai: now that's fate.

  2. "uncomortably idealized" - yes! This is an uncomfortable novel in many ways. I will write a little about that. Real vs Ideal. Deronda in Wonderland. Something like that.

    I did see the name of that actress. At first I thought I was not seeing straight or something.

  3. You confess to not reading The Portrait of a Lady. Now I feel less guilty about my own neglect of that novel (although I have attempted it half a dozen times but lost interest). Who knew we would have anything so trivial in common (although it might not be trivial).

    After reading your posting on Daniel Deronda, I wonder now if I will ever bite the bullet and read Eliot's novel. I wonder.

  4. The Portrait of a Lady and Tess of the d'Urbervilles are my top 19th century Humiliations, the most famous books I should have already read. If "should" means much here, which it does not. I should probably never read one of them, as a guard against excessive pride.

    Daniel Deronda is a difficult book, and a surprisingly unpleasant one in places. Unpleasant in meaningful ways, artfully unpleasant, but rough going, even aside from some of the other struggles I had.

  5. When I reread the novel fairly recently I was really interested in Gwendolen's quest for power: other of GE's "heroines" have great power, or influence, but they are so sympathetic or benevolent that they never seem domineering. But Gwendolen really longs to dominate -- and her failure is so explicitly gendered, as she is reined in by all the things she can't do, and then by Grandcourt (an even more chilling villain-egotist than Tito!).

  6. Also, I read Portrait of a Lady only once and so long ago I don't remember it in any detail. I'd also never read Deronda at the time. So if you do decide to read it, let me know and I'll read along.

  7. The power struggle - or really the futile power play - is fascinating, as is Eliot's defense of Gwendolen. That I definitely want to look at.

    Since I was casting roles above, I'll say I want Daniel Day-Lewis as Grandcourt.

    I will remember your suggestion when I go for Portrait. Someday.

    1. What if I were to bait the hook by saying that I would give TPOAL another attempt? I need some sort of motivating goal at this point in my life, so maybe a generous dose of accessible Henry James is just what the doctor ordered. If I begin visiting with Isabel Archer, I will let you know.

    2. At the rate I have been reading long books, the James novel would take me 4 months to finish, so that is a good book for other people, not me, to read right now. Good luck with it. Pull out some of those Jamesian stunners for me. I have some chewy Eliot sentences saved for this week.

    3. Stunners forthcoming as I am determined to work my way through the list of 50 English language novels concocted by the late D. G. Myers, and Portrait is the first chronologically. Call the effort my tribute to a fine teacher.

    4. It is a fine list, everything a list like that should be.