Daniel Deronda by George Eliot.

"As the words penetrated her, they had the effect of a draught of wine, which suddenly makes all things easier, desirable things not so wrong, and people in general less disagreeable. She had a momentary phantasmal love for this man who chose his words so well, and who was a mere incarnation of delicate homage."
Daniel Deronda was George Eliot's final novel published in 1876 (following Middlemarch, 1871-2) and it's her only novel set in her contemporary times. It tells two intertwining and opposing stories, the first of Gwendolen Harleth, a beautiful young woman whose family have been financially ruined. The novel begins by describing her beauty,
Was she beautiful or not beautiful? and what was the secret of form of expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance? Was the good or evil genius dominant in those beams? Probably the evil; else why was the effect that of unrest rather than of undisturbed charm? Why was the wish to look again felt as coercion and not as a longing in which the whole being consents?
Gwendolen is indeed an uncomfortable character. She is spoilt and selfish, lacking almost entirely in empathy, and yet she becomes a sympathetic character: this lack of empathy is beyond her control, she isn't merely "unpleasant", it's almost presented at times as a kind of personality disorder. She lacks security, and occasionally displays her lost and frightened side. Her personality develops, as the best of Eliot's characters do, and we end up hoping for her happiness, however, with her bad choices, this does not seem likely. To secure financial stability she marries for money, something that came to be looked down upon, yet as Eliot shows, what real choices did Gwendolen, a young woman from a now poor family, have? So she marries Henleigh Grandcourt, one of the greatest villains in Victorian literature. He is all of Gwendolen's bad points amplified: cold, cruel, malicious, and controlling. The marriage is disastrous from the start.

Meanwhile, the second story is that of Daniel Deronda, a kind and intelligent young man believed to be the illegitimate heir to Lord Hugo Mallinger. One day whilst boating on the River Thames he saves Mirah Lapidoth from drowning herself. Mirah is Jewish, and as Daniel comes to know Mirah better he learns more about Judaism and the Jewish community in London. Anti-Semitism in Victorian England was still very much prevalent at this time. The Prime Minister, when Daniel Deronda was first published, was Benjamin Disraeli (author of Sybil, 1845), who was born Jewish and so argued to be the first and only British Prime Minister of Jewish descent (though he himself identified as a practising Anglican): at this time British Jews had only been able to sit in Parliament for eighteen years following the Jews Relief Act 1858. Charles Dickens gave a negative portrayal of Jewish people in Oliver Twist (1838) as did Anthony Trollope in The Way We Live Now (1875), and not surprisingly Eliot was criticised for her sympathy showing the prejudice they faced. Even as late as 1948 F. R. Leavis wrote that the Jewish sections ought to be removed (claiming that they are weak) and a shorter version titled 'Gwendolen Harleth' ought to be published. Conversely Jewish readers called for the Gwendolen sections to be removed on account that they had nothing to do with the main plot. Fortunately Daniel Deronda remains in one piece, and the (though at times caricature-like) portrayal of the morality and spirituality of Mirah, her family, friends, and associates contrast sharply with the materialistic and superficial world of Gwendolen.

Finally: Daniel Deronda is partly set in London, and so in it we get a glimpse of the London of the 1860s when the novel was set. Above on the left is a photograph of Blackfriar's Bridge taken in the 19th Century, and to the right is Blackfriar's Bridge again, taken in 2004. This is the bridge George Eliot had in mind when she wrote of Mordecai's thoughts in the 38th Chapter:
Thus, for a long while, he habitually thought of the Being answering to his need as one distantly approaching or turning his back towards him, darkly painted against a golden sky. The reason of the golden sky lay in one of Mordecai's habits. He was keenly alive to some poetic aspects of London; and a favourite resort of his, when strength and leisure allowed, was to some one of the bridges, especially about sunrise or sunset. Even when he was bending over watch-wheels and trinkets, or seated in a small upper room looking out on dingy bricks and dingy cracked windows, his imagination spontaneously planted him on some spot where he had a far-stretching scene: his thought went on in wide spaces; and wherever he could, he tried to have in reality the influences of a large sky. Leaning on the parapet of Blackfriars Bridge, and gazing meditatively, the breadth and calm of the river, with its long vista half hazy, half luminous, the grand dim masses or tall forms of buildings which were the signs of world-commerce, the oncoming of boats and barges from the still distance into sound and colour, entered into his mood and blent themselves indistinguishably with his thinking, a fine symphony to which we can hardly be said to listen makes a medium that bears up on our spiritual wings. Thus it happened that the figure representative of Mordecai's longing was mentally seen darkened by the excess of light in the aerial background. 
I did like this book very much, though I couldn't quite engage with it. It was fascinating to read about Jewish people in 19th Century England, and about Zionism (note that this phrase was not coined until 1890, fourteen years after the novel's publication), and of course I enjoyed reading the Gwendolen story as well, and the intertwining of Daniel and Gwendolen's fates. It was, as I said, somewhat caricature-like in some aspects, and a little too 'sensationalist' for my liking, but as ever I appreciate Eliot's wit, warmth, and wisdom.

Here are some illustrations to finish off with, from the 1899 edition published by Hawarden Press.

Further Reading


  1. I really wanted to love this novel, and I did engage with both stories but somehow it just fell a little flat for me. I think it was because the stories don't intertwine enough --- both are interesting but need more commonalities to make a whole.

    Again you add so much wonderful information! I didn't know that DD was the only one of Eliot's novels set in her own times.

    Interestingly, my Jewish friend says that she cringes whenever she reads the sections on Judaism. I've never asked her to elaborate but I expect somehow Eliot didn't quite portray them in a believable manner .....??? I think I'm going to ask her.

    1. I thought I would absolutely love it, so actually I'm sort of pleased I'm not the only one!

      I read something somewhere about how some Jewish people react to this, I think there are some cringe-worthy bits - here's a quote from The Guardian (I linked it in the post):

      "But Eliot is not above prejudice towards a certain sort of Jew herself. She assumes the reader will not take to the Cohen family, headed by a shiny-faced pawnbroker, and even apologises in the last chapter for allowing them to attend a key wedding. Meanwhile, her portrayal of the innocent Mirah swings the other way, so saintly it has shades of the noble savage. She is so childlike that when she finally finds romance it feels almost unsavoury."

      I'm wondering what Eliot to read next..... Possibly Felix Holt :)

  2. I've never actually read anything by Eliot, and after reading your post I don't think this will be the one I start with. Eliot is one of those authors I know little about, and therefore have avoided as I don't know a good entry point.

    I'm glad you managed to find lots to appreciate in this story :)

    1. No, I don't think this would be the best novel. I dare say The Mill on the Floss or Middlemarch would be good. Or Silas Marner, maybe, but I read that ages ago and I just can't remember it! :)

  3. I think I am going to spend next week, or part of it in this novel. It gave me a lot of trouble. I am not looking for love when I read, but this is a difficult and uncomfortable book, as if designed to deflect love.

    1. It's a tricky book indeed, I'll be interested to see what you make of it after a re-read.

  4. I watched a TV adaptation of DD and enjoyed it but not having read the book I don't know how it was to the story. I am sure I will read this one day - it sounds interesting - but not inspired to just yet.

    1. I'll have to watch the TV adaptation - it'll be interesting to compare the two! :)

    2. So have you watched Andrew Davies's adaptation of Daniel Deronda?

    3. No, not yet - looking out for it though :)

    4. OK. I've watched it.

    5. Nope.
      I wrote about it here: http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2015/03/daniel-deronda-and-andrew-davies.html
      1 of the things that bothered me was that they romanticised the relationship between Daniel Deronda and Gwendolen.


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