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A work of genius probably best read by others of the same ilk.
on 28 July 2010
Weird merging of polemic for a Jewish Homeland with neat human story of the search for personal identity. The themes fit together but the novel doesn't really make sense.
Before I read this book I visited Eliot's grave in Highgate Cemetery, close to where I live. A number of her enraptured fans bought plots near by so they could be with her in death, and she was clearly an extraordinary and thrilling person, with a piercing and academic intellect, but somewhat frail, so that she could not, for example, travel to the US to see the New World.
This was her final book and in it, "I meant everything in the book to be connected to everything else," she said. But what an immense downer that sentence puts on the reader who is compelled to examine every phrase in conjunction with all others at the expense of enjoying the narrative. Nobody wants to read a book looking only for clever interconnects, since that reduces the reader to the role of an engineer admiring the mathematics instead of the form of a complex structure; the interconnectivity of a novel's themes and gestures should be there to be enjoyed if you look for them but, given Eliot's introduction, the reader can never be sure which were intended and which are invented in the reader's own mind. Perhaps that is the point, or perhaps anyway doesn't matter, but the search for intent can be rather maddening when it is supposed to be enlightening.
Superficially there are two books here, one about Gwendolen Harleth, a middle class girl who is determined to be herself in a world where she is expected to be what society requires; and the second about Daniel Deronda, born as the apparent nephew of the aristocratic Sir Hugo Mallinger, but who doesn't know who his parents are and spends the book, like Gwendolen, in search of his identity.
Gwendolen is splendid stuff as she makes a complete hash of her life and finds that her wild and independent spirit is brought down by her marriage to Sir Hugo's nephew, Grandcourt. She becomes a destroyed human being with no identity save that which Deronda is able to give her.
So far so good, but the Deronda branch of the story is heading in an unexpected direction, as he discovers that he is Jewish and embraces Judaism. This is a clumsy bit of plotting that only matters because it is the central narrative of the novel, which explores the identity of the Jewish race and whether or not it should have a homeland (this is 1876 remember, when the idea of a Jewish Homeland was almost entirely new). This has nothing in plot terms to do with poor old Gwendolen although the idea of identity obviously flows through. Nonetheless Deronda plugs into his Jewish past with enthusiasm and sails off to try to establish a Jewish Homeland
Deronda and Gwendolen are sort of intertwined as she leans completely on him to show her the path out of her despair. On the other hand he is never really very interested in anyone in the book except himself but is frightfully polite, kind and earnest so he gives support to Gwendolen without actually being of any real use.
Even at the time reviewers differentiated the `Jewish' and `Gwendolen' parts of the book and there were editions published with just those parts in them (and sequels where Deronda came back for Gwendolen). All in all then it's a bit of a mess, neither coming out properly as a pamphlet concerning the plight of minorities nor as being a novelistic examination of identity. Because she was a genius, Eliot easily papers over the cracks and so there is much here to be savoured. But if you step back from the work and ask the simple question as to whether or not you enjoyed it and would read it again, it becomes problematic and can be seen to have missed the mark.