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.