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Summer 2014
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Books and Culture

Benjamin A. Plotinsky
That Jewish Novel
Gertrude Himmelfarb explores the rocky terrain around Daniel Deronda.
22 May 2009

The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, by Gertrude Himmelfarb (Encounter Books, 250 pp., $25.95)

Is it wonderful or not wonderful? That’s what critics have been asking about the novel Daniel Deronda ever since its 1876 publication. Their answer has often been in the negative, and surely part of the reason for their low opinion is that Daniel Deronda had the bad fortune to be written by George Eliot. Just four years before, Eliot had published her masterpiece, Middlemarch, which still lays a strong claim to being the greatest novel in English. It was a tough act to follow, and any novel that tried was probably destined for poor reviews. But there was a second, less happy reason for the critics’ disappointment: this final novel of perhaps England’s finest novelist took Judaism as one of its main subjects. More, it viewed Judaism with sympathy, portrayed it with astonishing erudition, and even made the case for a Jewish state in the historic land of Israel—long before Theodor Herzl’s publication of Der Judenstaat in 1896 or the First Zionist Congress the following year.

“Her contemporaries did not know quite what to make of this,” writes historian Gertrude Himmelfarb in The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot. In scholarly fashion, Himmelfarb refrains from too explicitly blaming the novel’s critical reception on the anti-Semitism then—and still—modish in England. Indeed, she absolves the book’s best-known detractor, the twentieth-century British critic F. R. Leavis, of bigotry. Like many readers, Leavis divided Daniel Deronda in half. He approved of the parts relating to Gwendolen Harleth, the spoiled young woman who is one of the novel’s two main characters. But to Leavis, the parts relating to Daniel Deronda himself, which also contained the novel’s Jewish elements, constituted “astonishing badness.” Leavis famously attempted to publish an edition of Daniel Deronda that expurgated the Jewish parts; less famously, Himmelfarb tells us, “some enthusiastic Jewish readers performed that ‘surgery’ in reverse, publishing a Hebrew translation without the Gwendolen distraction.”

From a purely literary point of view, criticism that praises the Gwendolen episodes while heaping scorn on the Deronda episodes is deeply mistaken. Such a division ignores the threads that, as Eliot herself emphasized, connect the two protagonists (“I meant everything in the book to be related to everything else there,” she wrote). For instance, both characters begin the novel with no great sense of purpose—Gwendolen forever proclaiming her ignorant boredom with the world, Deronda not too ignorant but too open-minded to commit himself to a career. (“His imagination had so wrought itself to the habit of seeing things as they probably appeared to others, that a strong partisanship, unless it were against an immediate oppression, had become an insincerity for him.”) The ensuing episodes do away with both characters’ purposelessness, painfully teaching Gwendolen morality and giving Daniel a specific mission into which he can finally throw his energy. Daniel Deronda was, in this sense, a fitting sequel to Middlemarch, which had explored the lot of those who failed at the mighty projects dictated by their high ambitions; in her last novel, Eliot addressed the equally complicated problem of those whose ambitions wavered to begin with.

The critics’ blindness to the relevance of the Deronda material is not the only evidence that many of them may have been motivated by genteel anti-Semitism. Just as damning is that Daniel Deronda is so evidently an exceptionally good novel. The moral and psychological insights for which Eliot is renowned are on full display, as is the technique she perfected in Middlemarch of rendering those insights in figurative language. No other writer could have written: “We fall on the leaning side; and Deronda suspected himself of loving too well the losing causes of the world.” Or this, with typical irony: “How can a man avoid himself as a subject in conversation? And he must make some sort of decent toilet in words, as in cloth and linen.” Or this:

The fiend makes preparation his favourite object of mockery, that he may fatally persuade us against our best safeguard: he even meddles so far as to suggest our taking out waterproofs when he is well aware the sky is going to clear, foreseeing that the imbecile will turn this delusion into a prejudice against waterproofs instead of giving a closer study to the weather-signs.

Even the novel’s smallest characters—like Lady Mallinger and Mrs. Arrowpoint, who get a dozen or two lines of dialogue apiece in the entire 312,000-word book—are so striking as to make a lesser novelist weep with envy. No, Daniel Deronda is not Middlemarch, but it is a great novel in its own right—a work that, had it been written about a less controversial subject by any other novelist, would surely have been regarded as that novelist’s magnum opus.

And all this aside from those pesky Jewish elements, which Eliot researched with an energy and thoroughness befitting the intellectual that she was. Himmelfarb gives an admirable account of Eliot’s industry: “Her notebooks comprise hundreds of pages of excerpts from the Bible and prophets, the Talmud and medieval commentators, modern German scholars . . . and a multitude of other works in Latin, Greek, German, French, and, of course, English. She also took lessons in Hebrew. . . . The list of books she consulted comprises twenty-three pages.” But even for an intellectual, such astonishing devotion to what was hardly a fashionable subject begs to be understood. Why was Eliot writing a book about Judaism in the first place? The question becomes even more puzzling, Himmelfarb points out, when we consider that Eliot, not a believing Christian herself, painted Judaism “not merely as a venerable relic of antiquity . . . but as a living, vibrant religion, a religion, moreover, that contained within itself the promise of nationhood and statehood.”

If Himmelfarb’s fine book has a flaw, it is that it never answers this difficult question. The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot has much to teach us about the status among European intellectuals of the “Jewish question,” which Himmelfarb defines as the “question of the proper role of Jews in a Christian society, or, as others preferred, in a secular society.” The book likewise gives a solid account of Eliot’s introduction to Judaism and her growing interest in it. For those unprepared to read the novel, Himmelfarb provides a brief retelling of the chief episodes, with an emphasis on the Jewish ones. (Readers should be warned that she necessarily discloses the many surprises in Daniel Deronda—its “Revelations,” to quote the title of one of its eight component books—meaning that lovers of fiction should be sure to tackle the novel before opening Himmelfarb’s book.) Himmelfarb devotes one chapter to an essay, also on the subject of Jews and nationality, that Eliot wrote after Daniel Deronda. But nowhere do we learn what impelled Eliot, against the predilections of her land, her time, and her own religious leanings, to write such a philo-Semitic novel.

The question may well be unanswerable. Nevertheless, Himmelfarb does an enormous service just in reminding us of the importance of this often maligned book. More recently than the nineteenth-century critics who frowned at its Jewishness, twentieth-century academics have sneered at its Zionism, seeing in the novel the intellectual advance guard of what they regard as a despicable colonialist enterprise. And as Himmelfarb astutely points out, the Zionism championed in Daniel Deronda is of a kind very different from the Zionism that represents the State of Israel as merely “the response to the Holocaust.” Eliot, of course, was writing half a century before the Nazis came to power. In a time when nationalism was in better odor than it is today, her conviction was that the Jews, too, were a nation—one, as Himmelfarb puts it, “that could find its fulfillment only in a polity and a state.”

If anything were needed to render Zionism even more repellent to today’s right-thinking academics, it would be this: the contention that Israel is not a necessary evil, not a refuge that persecuted Jews unfortunately cannot do without, but rather the rightful and proper abode of a people. This week, an American president has once again begun the familiar process of urging Israelis to risk their safety in exchange for empty and unenforceable promises from avowed terrorists. Eliot’s proposition—a distinctly positive, national Zionism—suggests that such steps are not just destructive, but fundamentally misguided as well.

Benjamin A. Plotinsky is the managing editor of City Journal.

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