Reading George Eliot in the time of COVID-19

Books and articles on the history of modern Zionism often refer to the important role of Daniel Deronda, a 755-page didactic novel written by George Eliot.

Portrait of George Eliot, circa 1849, by François D’Albert Durade, at the National Portrait Gallery in London (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Portrait of George Eliot, circa 1849, by François D’Albert Durade, at the National Portrait Gallery in London
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)

Books and articles on the history of modern Zionism often refer to the important role of Daniel Deronda, a 755-page didactic novel written by George Eliot, the pen name for Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880). The book, the last of Eliot’s seven novels, was published in 1876 and is noteworthy for its unusually favorable depiction of Jews, as well as for promoting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It was translated into a number of languages, including Hebrew and Yiddish, and was familiar to a number of early Zionist figures including Chaim Weizmann, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and Golda Meir.
While Eliot is widely thought of as one of the most important writers of the Victorian age, I had never read any of her work. The COVID-19 period of self-isolation seemed to be an appropriate time to read Daniel Deronda.
The book begins at an advanced point in the plot with a chance meeting of Gwendolyn Harleth a beautiful and ambitious young woman with a strong sense of entitlement, and Daniel Deronda, an educated young gentleman who has been raised in the charge of Sir Hugo Mallinger, a well-to-do Englishman; after which the story reverts in time to their separate tales. Gwendolyn’s family faces financial ruin due to an investment failure. She makes an unwise marital choice and becomes the trophy wife of a controlling, arrogant and wealthy aristocrat, who happens to be Sir Hugo’s nephew and heir. Meanwhile, Daniel rescues a young Jewish woman named Mirah and helps her find her brother, Ezra Mordecai, a frail consumptive, who teaches him about Judaism and about the national dream of Jewish people.
Gwendolyn and Daniel meet up again toward the end of the novel, after Gwendolyn’s husband has drowned in a boating accident and after Daniel has learned that he is Jewish. A chastened and remorseful Gwendolyn is drawn to Daniel, but he is committed to Mirah. Daniel and Mirah marry and set off with a dying Mordecai to the “East” (Palestine) in fulfillment of the dream of a national rebirth of the Jewish people.
The novel includes a surprising number of transliterated Hebrew words and expressions such as; ruach hakodesh (Holy Spirit), Gan Eden (paradise), chuppah, mezuzah and tefillin. It includes references to passages from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), and the Talmud, which is referred to as the “Babli-by which affectionate – sounding diminutive is meant the vast volume of the Babylonian Talmud.”
As he is about to die, Mirah’s brother “uttered in Hebrew the confession (the Shema) of the divine unity, which for long generations has been on the lips of the dying Israelite.”
A key point in the novel occurs when Mordecai invites Daniel to join him at a meeting of the “philosophers club” at a local pub, the Hand and Banner. The club is an informal gathering of about nine or ten working class men of a variety of backgrounds and ages to meet to discuss the social issues over the day. Mordecai uses the opportunity to expound at length on his ideas. He notes that “the soul of Judaism is not dead” and that “the heritage of Israel is beating in the pulses of millions.” And “let there be another great migration, another choosing of Israel to be a nationality.”
Mordecai speaks further of “a new Judea poised between East and West” and that “the sons of Judah have to choose that God may again choose them.”
Daniel Deronda was published 14 years before the term “Zionism” in the modern sense was coined by the Austrian journalist Nathan Birnbaum and more than two decades before the first Zionist Congress was held in Basle. It even preceded the publication of Auto-Emancipation, a pamphlet written in 1882 by Leon Pinsker, one of two of what are considered to be foundational documents of the Zionist movement, the other being the book Rome and Jerusalem written by Moses Hess in 1862. Moreover, while Pinsker and Hess were Jews, the author of Daniel Deronda, the first appearance of a Zionist program in the English language, was not.
Eliot didn’t stop promoting the idea of a Jewish national revival with Daniel Deronda. It was her last novel. However, two years later she published a collection of 18 essays, The Impressions of Theophrastus Such. The final essay, “The Modern Hep Hep Hep,” which is 32 pages long, is an even more forceful and direct appeal on behalf of the need for the establishment of a Jewish national home (The title refers to the cry used by anti-Jewish rioters in Bavaria in 1819 in reaction to a relaxation of restrictions on Jews. Much Jewish property was destroyed and many Jews were killed).
The crux of Eliot’s essay are the following questions: “Are they (the Jews) destined to complete fusion with the peoples among whom they are dispersed... or are there in the breadth and intensity with which the feeling of separateness, the seven millions scattered from east to west? Are the conditions present for the restoration of a Jewish state planted on the old ground as a centre of national feeling, a source of dignifying protection, a special channel for special energies which may contribute some added form of national genius, and an added voice in the councils of the world?”
The Daniel Deronda edition that I read included an introduction by Graham Handley which highlighted the extensive amount of research on Jews and Judaism carried out by Eliot, including visits to libraries and synagogues in England and on the Continent, as well as Hebrew lessons given by Emanuel Deutsch, a German Jewish scholar of Semitic languages who worked at the British Museum.
Deutsch a prolific essayist, who met Eliot in 1866 and died in 1873, visited the Holy Land in 1869 and was a likely prototype for Daniel Deronda. An article that he wrote titled The Talmud, published in 1867 by the Quarterly Review, received widespread attention, including from Eliot.
Eliot’s pivot toward the Jews may have been largely a result of her friendship with Emanuel Deutsch, as has been suggested. On the other hand, the historian Paul Johnson (History of the Jews, 1987) writes that her interest in the Jews began much earlier.
Handley’s introduction also notes that Eliot’s earlier views on Jews were not always favorable. This point tweaked my interest and so, with time on my hands, so to speak, I decided to read Middlemarch, the Eliot novel written before Daniel Deronda. Middlemarch, a masterful 900 page work declared by a BBC poll to be the best novel ever written in the English language, describes the capricious nature of provincial life in England during the 1830s. All references to Jews are negative and reflect the casual antisemitism of British society of the time. One character is referred to, with disdain, as a “Pharisee”, others are mentioned as being “rich as Jews,” and one as a “thieving Jew pawnbroker.”
The reference to pawnbrokers also appears in Daniel Deronda in that the family that cares for Mordecai, the Cohens, are in that business. In fact, the common prejudice of associating Jews with money is an association that Eliot finds difficult to discard, for even in The Modern Hep Hep Hep, she notes “their (the Jews’) cupidity and avarice were found at once particularly hateful and particularly useful (to Christians)”.
Johnson writes “This book (Daniel Deronda) is little read now and was accounted an artistic failure at the time. But in terms of its practical effects it was probably the most influential novel of the nineteenth century.” I’m not so sure that it is little read now, particularly with respect to Jewish readers. Moreover, Daniel Deronda, continues to attract attention; including a recent eight lecture on-line course based on the novel by the Harvard scholar Ruth Wisse, as well as a made-for-television movie series.
Reading Eliot’s novels was an eye-opening experience (of the three I have read so far my favorite, in terms of literary merit, is Silus Marner). However, while Daniel Deronda was clearly an influential novel, I’m not convinced it can match the effect of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the 1852 novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which had an enormous impact on attitudes toward slavery. ■
The writer is a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo