Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Sunday Book: Daniel Deronda - George Eliot

Victorian novels - so much misplaced stigma. First there was Dickens' Little Dorrit which I surprisingly liked and now there is George Eliot's Daniel Deronda which I totally loved. I read Middlemarch a couple of years ago and liked it but didn't completely bond with it. I suspect that was more to do with my timing than the book itself - I'm going to need to reread it now after my recent DD love-in. Heads up, I think Eliot is probably an author that demands a higher-than-average level of reading attention. That's not to say that she or her novels are 'difficult' (at least Daniel Deronda isn't), just that she has so much to say that if you simply skim them you will miss out on a lot. But yes, everyone, Daniel Deronda is really good! How un-analytical but how true. Wonderful rich plot, wonderful rich characters, wonderful rich book.

It is another big fatty - my budget copy is about 680 pages, I think. The Wordsworth Classics are £1.99 which means that you get a glorious amount of book for your buck. Although the book is named Daniel Deronda it could have as easily been called Gwendolen Harleth. The beautiful Daniel and Gwendolen would be the book's hero and heroine if the author wasn't Eliot, hence rendering the terms rather morally simplistic, they are the book's protagonists at least. They probably get roughly equal screen time but Gwendolen completely dominates the first half of the book and, I think, has the stronger character. After a chance encounter we watch their lives become dangerously intwined. The backstories and psychologies are so fleshed out it is incredible - Gwendolen and Daniel are incomparable to the functional Arthur and Amy in Little Dorrit for example (don't get me wrong, I didn't totally object to them even if they were a little 'good' for my liking, they fulfil the plot requirements but they are one trick ponies). There is oodles of plot as well, it is all very exciting. Not only could I not have predicted the ending, I couldn't have predicted the middle. I don't really want to say anything in case I ruin any of the many surprises...

(DD sitting on top of a Cecil Beaton scrapbook)

Also of note, the fascinating investigation of Judaism in Victorian society. Obviously the book isn't completely free of anti-Semitic prejudices (although let's not pretend that our wonderful modern society is either, here's looking at you Mr. Galliano) - it was published in 1876 after all - but it is unbelievably open and forward-thinking for its time. It is astonishing to compare the characters in Daniel Deronda to the archaic Jewish caricature who pops up briefly in Little Dorrit (1857). An entirely different world and conception. I don't know enough about the portrayal of Jewish characters in English literature to comment on it in any depth but I was really impressed.

The whole book warmed my feminist cockles. Not so much because of the content but rather the quality and breadth of the novel. I truly love Jane Austen, she is one of my favourite novelist and imo she has written some of the most conceptually perfect books in the English language, but I can see the argument (even if I don't agree with it) that her novels are domestic, narrow and 'feminine'. Their miniature scale leaves them open to that kind of criticism. Daniel Deronda though could taken on the Victorian patriarchal literary establishment! She just covers so much ground - travel, religion, local and national politics, morality, bad marriages and illegitimacy... Her intellect and brilliance shines so fiercely. I know I sound like a fan girl but I do feel a bit in awe. I want to thrust it all the people who have ever spoken patronisingly about 'women's writing' and tell them to stick it in their pipes and smoke it! Not that I'm against women's writing but I find the term and some of its implications theoretically dodgy. Anyway, I'm going to stop talking because I have already said enough vast, sweeping, unsupported, un-academic things to give any of my tutors a heart attack and I wouldn't want to actually kill them.

The long and the short of it, this is an amazing, affirming, thought provoking book. There was laughing, there was crying, there was a real emotional connection. It is great and everyone should read it!

Has anyone read it?

Chuck x


  1. I'm convinced, I will have to read this x

  2. i just associate eliot with middlemarch. and i hated that :( xx

  3. Yey, spreading the love, Margaret!

    Maybe this might change your mind, Dannie...?