Thursday, January 15, 2015

Real life was as interesting as ‘Sir Charles Grandison’ – Daniel Deronda's Real and Ideal

The second big innovation or experiment in Daniel Deronda is the one readers dislike so much, the joining of two stories written in discordant styles.  Last spring Levi Stahl and Maggie Bandur wrote an interesting series of pieces on the novel, put together as they were reading the book, in which they both follow the usual path (in fourteen detailed posts): delight at Eliot’s charming, ambiguous recasting of Emma followed by disillusion at the direction the Jewish part of the novel eventually takes, especially its wooden characters.  The word that they both use is “believe” – they do not believe in Deronda’s side of the novel, suggesting they in some way believe in Gwendolen Harleth’s side.

Stahl and Bandur are right, that one set of characters is lifelike and rounded (and fun) while another set – “We should stamp every possible world with the flatness of our own inanity” says Deronda in a not entirely unrelated context (Ch. 36).  Many readers respond: “You’re telling me!”  But I’ll argue that although “flat” is accurate, “inane” is not.  What looks at first like a failure of execution is in fact a success, but of concept.  Perhaps the concept is a failure.  I thought it worked all right.

Crudely, the marriage half of the novel is Realism, the Jewish half Idealism.  The former is English, the latter German.  Daniel Deronda is a fairy tale hero, the boy of dubious parentage who after trials discovers that he is a prince.  In one sense, I mean what he learns about his heritage, and in another I mean that although he is not actually a prince his mother turns out to be a princess, which, since I was on to the pattern by this point, was almost rubbing it on a little thick.

Deronda slips into fairy tale world when he rescues a princess (there are several instances where he crosses a threshold into Jewish Wonderland).  He gives her shelter in some kind of fairy cave, inhabited by Queen Mab – the fairy who presents the princess with the “tiny felt slippers” that are like “sheaths of buds.”  These slippers are too large for the princess, even though the fairies are themselves tiny, “all alike small, in due proportion with their miniature rooms…  All four, if they had been wax-work, might have been packed easily in a fashionable lad’s traveling trunk”  (Ch. 18).  That is one strange sentence.  But these characters, the Meyrick family, are meant to be a kind of wax-work. 

They so thoroughly accepted Deronda as an ideal, that when he was gone the youngest set to work, under the criticism of the two elder girls, to paint him as Prince Camaralzaman.  (Ch. 16)

They have moved to the Arabian Nights, but you see what I am talking about.  This is before we get to Mordecai, who a kind of philosophical or mystical Ideal.  Or see Chapter 37, in which the prince, princess, and little fairy women try to define the Ideal, but in aesthetic terms:

“If people have thought what is the most beautiful and the best thing, it must be true. It is always there.”

“Now, Mirah, what do you mean?” said Amy.

“I understand her,” said Deronda, coming to the rescue.  “It is a truth in thought though it may never have been carried out in action.  It lives as an idea.”

It is possible that this kind of scene is not well suited to the novel as we now think of it.  Try the long debate in the Philosopher’s Club, Ch. 42, for an even more dubious example.

I obviously have my own doubts about how some of this works, although I question specific scenes, not the notion of combining such clashing aesthetic ideas.  This was not my problem with Eliot.  I don’t actually believe in any of the characters.  They are all waxworks to me, some molded to fool the eye, some more abstract.  Eliot’s characterization in the Jewish Daniel Deronda is no different, in principle or execution than that in the idealist German fiction of Goethe, Stifter, or Hoffmann.  Mordecai and the fairy sisters are as well-rounded as the wizard and his snake daughters in The Golden Pot.

This would be the time to note the curious similarities between Hoffmann’s recurring musician Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler and Daniel Deronda’s musician named Musical Instrument (Klesmer), both of whom are able to move between the real world and the magical world presumably somehow by means of their special status as musicians.

I don’t always enjoy what Eliot is doing with all this, but it is a bold move.

The post’s title is from Chapter 4.  The joke is that most readers now - almost all - would find Jane Austen's (and apparently Gwendolen Harleth's) favorite novel to be the most boring novel ever written.


  1. I thought Eliot was supposed to be one of the big realists, but this sort of puts those claims to doubt. Sounds like when Eça decided to do fantasy and wrote The Mandarin; or better yet The Relic, with the two different levels - Teodorico's realistic, sordid narrative, and the idealistic dream-narrative about Jesus Christ.

  2. I wonder about the publishing, marketing, reading, and reviewing contexts for Eliot's effort. After all, anything Jewish even in late 19th century England might have met with some resistance. So, I guess what I am saying is this: our 21st century lenses through which we read the novel are not the same as the lenses for Eliot's contemporaries -- and there (within those contexts) is ripe territory for an interesting approach to re-viewing the novel. Or I could be quite wrong.

  3. It's interesting, though, to watch her with the Deronda character as she struggles with changing the idealized brother/sister/Dickens format of male-female relations into something...sexier.

  4. Shelley - it is interesting. Deronda is sufficiently "real" that a romance with Harleth is a plausible direction. It is easy enough to see why many readers want the novel to be different than it is.

    Miguel - like Eça, Eliot is a major realist except when she is not, which is more common than people think, and leads to trouble as readers try to bash the more idealist writing into a more realist shape. She names a musician Muscial Instrument, for pity's sake. I keep harping on that because it is so outrageous and so exposed.

    RT - Eliot's publisher, who read the book as a serial, with Eliot submitting a hundred pages at a time, was the very first reader to love the romantic / realistic part and experience dismay as the Jewish part of the novel began to take over. Much of the public reaction, the reviews, were openly anti-Jewish in a way Eliot anticipated within the novel - we're not bigots, but why are you making us spend time with those people?

    The main reason I specialize in my reading to the extent that I do is to learn how to see through the critical lenses of earlier readers. I would not have noticed how German Daniel Deronda is if I had not been recently reading the relevant books.