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Archive for November 20th, 2022


From Andrew Davies’ 2004 serial drama, three of the major characters of Daniel Deronda: Daniel (Hugh Dancy); Gwendolen Harleth (Romolai Gareth), and Grandcourt Mallinger (Hugh Bonneville)

Here I describe the experience of the book I’ve had over these 3 months, describe it generally and argue that the way of reading it as two separate sides is not adequate — though understandable. To read it as one tapestry with the Jewish story just one strand won’t do either. The problem is, Where is George Eliot in her book? and how is it a text we find her working her own deeper psychic problems out through.  She is mirroring her and Lewes’s life once again (as she did in Middlemarch) …

Ellen

Dear friends and fellow readers,

For the past 3 months, in four different ways, on top of reading the book silently to myself, I’ve been engaged socially through George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. I took a course in the book (alas only 7 sessions, but we went over time — well past 90 minutes — a number of times) with the marvelously inspiring enchanting Maria Frawley online at Politics and Prose; I participated in a group reading and discussion of it with at least 20 people on the TWWRN face-book group, where each three days someone wrote about three chapters, often in detail, with summaries, evaluations, questions, pictures attached. It was a close read of a mighty meaty book. I listened to Nadia May reading it aloud in an unabridged form on CDs in my car. And I watched for an umpteenth time Davies’s brilliant adaptation (4 DVD form and streaming). This was probably my 4th time through over many years.


Early scene of Mirah (Jodhi May) singing for the Meyricks, Daniel to the side in attendance

This is a book which needs a book to do it justice, and I want to write a not overlong blog about these experiences. I will first write about it in the way literary critics often end up: divide my description into two stories, one about a pair of Jewish characters, Mordecai, dying when we meet him from some fatal organic disease or TB; and child-like Mirah Lapidoth, whom Daniel becomes involved with after he rescues Mirah from suicide by drowning, slowly falls in love with her, and so helps her build a career as a singer and teacher of music. Daniel goes on a quest within London and finds out for her her long-lost brother, Mordecai:  think of Shakespearean romances derived from the 3rd century Greek ones of vast watery worlds where after disaster, tragedy, there is renewal, reunion.


Mordecai (Daniel Evans) waiting and watching for a Deronda on a bridge over the Thames

The other story is, in this scheme, then about at least three groups of English characters, of whom the vulnerable (because monetarily bankrupted after being brought up to do nothing to be self-supportive) Gwendolen Harleth is the center; she marries a sadistic debauched cold man, Grandcourt Mallinger, who has a mistress, Lydia Glasher, now widowed, with four children by Grandcourt.   He, together with her forcible vehemence, haunt and cow the nervous, and proud (also child-like) Gwendolen.


Lydia (Greta Scacchi) terrifying figure for Gwendolen, found among some neolithic stones on Grandcourt’s property.

There is Daniel’s foster father, Sir Hugh Mallinger (brilliantly randy Edward Fox), genial, cynical, a relief for this reader (he is never solemn), the shaded face suggesting how he evades many questions:

Sir Hugh’s wife, daughters (no son); Daniel’s friend, Hans Meyrick, student painter whose family Daniel helps support themselves. Grandcourt’s sycophant Lush (James Bamber in the film).  The Arrowpoints who include a couple who hold out for marriage for love (lest they not get to pass the precious life they have together). And we must not forget Daniel’s mother, Leonora, now called the Princess or Contessa Maria Alcharisi (Barbara Hersey), a strange exotic figure, like Mordecai, a type of character straight out of Walter Scott. She probably belongs to the Jewish story, but she has fiercely thrown off this identity, and tried to erase Daniel’s; her connection to Daniel is through Sir Hugo who once loved her.

Told this way it almost seems an exciting read; the movie is exciting and mesmerizing to watch (strange and repellent beauty), but the book is slow-going, meditative, long passages filled with argumentative and poignant worked-out thoughts. If you look at it this way, you end up having to discuss some very questionable ideals (nationalism, zionism), a genuinely progressive agenda, pro-semitic or at least anti- anti-semitic, on the one hand, and, on the other, the usual attack on coerced mercenary marriages, run by cruel, indifferent and malign men, the subjection of women, with quite a number of them complicit.  This includes importantly Gwendolen’s lachrymose probably abused-as-a-wife mother, Mrs Davilow (played by the endlessly worried looking concerned Amanda Root) who nonetheless does nothing to prevent her daughter from marrying partly for that mother’s sake for money a man Gwendolen knows nothing about that does matter.  Mrs Davilow should & does know enough:

Daniel becomes the linchpin of this diptych, the man of integrity trying to serve all; identity-less when we first meet him, slowly discovering his Jewish heritage. His presence and needs leads us to think about how motherhood as practiced ideally then, and partly now too imprisons women; about adoption as an alternative way of bonding people: it worked for Daniel and Sir Hugo, who love one another, and for Daniel and his mother, who did have her career, though in the book Eliot thoroughly punishes her for it, making her endlessly miserable and now dying and still angry at her father imposing on her the subjected (to her stigmatized) identity of a Jewish wife, mother.

An interesting side-theme is the place of music in our lives, and how to build a career through aristocratic patronage. The learned radical musician Herr Klesmer presides over this: beautiful interesting quotations from Italian poetry of the era:

But there are other ways one could read the book. Here is a second, concentrating again just on the book itself. It’s not two separate stories, but a group of [English] interwoven strands, with Jewish one threaded in and out of the larger tapestry:  the Meyricks take in Mirah, Hans falls in love with her, Daniel’s foster father and his wife promote Mirah, protect Gwendolen after her monstrous husband dies — mostly from an accident he brought on himself. Daniel becomes Gwendolen’s adored trusted confidant, functioning as a psychiatrist-priest: they are the central couple.

Women’s stories might be said to predominate, with the hard deals they are dealt for the most part in life to the fore, but equally there are a group of male stories, with some of the men at least having had to make their way in the world as does Deronda. Even Lush (David Bamber), the failed academic should be considered a human being; he is a conduit for information whom Sir Hugo is not above using.

Both ways account for how basically we read the book in the P&P class and on face-book; how Davies would have us humanely interpret it, with an emphasis on the loving friendship between Mordecai and Daniel, as Daniel takes over Mordecai’s life work (and his sister) — Davies often brings out the male individuals in his film adaptations

The problem here for me is both descriptions omit George Eliot. Where is she? For me this book only becomes understandable when you see Eliot’s presence strongly everywhere — both in the book’s daring insights about women, especially motherhood and the limited choices given women otherwise; and in its odd flaws or sudden absences and contradictions.

What I bring together are Lydia Glasher’s fate: “it was as if some ghastly visions had come to her [Gwendolen] in a dream and said, ‘I am a woman’s life’ (Bk 2, Ch 14) and Mirah’s probable one. The book is at times hopelessly fairy tale stuff (part of its flaws); when Mirah’s basely fraudulent father left his wife taking Mirah with him as a child, he was later led to try to sell her to a man, and probably she would not have been able to escape; if she had made her way to London to find her mother and brother once more, it’s highly unlikely she would have been rescued by a Deronda.


Near suicide romanticized

Grandcourt’s death is too convenient (as is Raffles in Middlemarch, even if both deaths are used to show the ambiguity of murder itself in ordinary life),as well as the legacy aftermath which rescues from destitution Lydia Glasher and her children, and Gwendolen and her mother and sisters.  Eliot never seems to remember the probability in most families would be:  had such a huge estate been left to a nobody mistress and her bastard son, it would have been ferociously contested. Without Daniel’s generous subsidy, the Meyricks would have lived a subsistence life — a widow (Cecilia Imrie tries hard, but the “little mother” designation grates on me), and two or three daughters — they are basically women with one artist son without any money to back them up in life’s ordinary emergencies.


From the National Gallery, we see Eliot’s friendly alert face

I see in all the women of the book and Deronda himself surrogates for Eliot as she over and over again thought about and dramatized the life’s experiences she had known — breaking away from a stern, religious father, a vindictive brother, working for small sums as an editor in the house of a philandering man, not only her unmarried life with Lewes, but Lewes’s own life –Lewes is a model for Ladislaw in Middlemarch, so his burning idealisms (and very sick state) are poured into Mordecai who dies at the end. She was a step-mother to Lewes’s sons, whose lives were not easy.

I see George Eliot in all her fictions immolating central characters who have integrity and good natures. In “Janet’s Repentance,” Janet seems to have been blamed (for alcoholism), and her reward for escaping the brutal husband (also dead by the end) is to become a repentant depressive. Her husband beat her brutally and the community, Eliot shows, allowed this. At the close of The Mill on the Floss, Maggie drowns herself; in Romola, its heroine of the same name endlessly sacrifices all (sexless too). Dorothea gives all to others with little break. There’s the child-like guilty and self-effacing heroines of DD, Gwendolen (desperate to be good) and Mirah (who seems incapable of sustaining an angry thought). The only woman in the book who tried to follow her destiny was Daniel’s mother — presented in this light, not from the light of her career. From what I can see of Eliot’s life, though she’d break down (like Maria Edgeworth before her and Virginia Woolf after) after she published a book and could not read critics, she fulfilled herself mightily. She broke away for herself, spend an individual life of achievement, and did not turn into an exotic, though others from far may have seen her that way since it was felt she had to isolate herself or be subject to continual vicious attacks. The books’ greatness is to show us these predicaments; what makes them disappointing is the relentless pressure on the best major characters to renounce their worthwhile dreams and projects. Daniel has not really started his. It’s a saturnine joke that Lydgate having been forced to establish a lucrative practice among the rich in Bath achieves research about gout that is valuable.

I can only be suggestive: the best biographical study I know thus far is The Real life of Mary Anne Evans by Rosemarie Bodenheimer; one of the best books on her art, George Eliot’s Serial Fiction by Carol A. Martin; The Cambridge Companion has some fine essays, and for me very insightful is The Transformation of Rage: Mourning and Creativity in George Eliot.

Here she is, for example, as a poet, a foremother poet.

It has been a tremendously stimulating three months for me as I made my way through this book with all these other intelligent reading friends and companions.


Probably a bad edition (no introduction, no notes) but the best cover illustration …

Ellen

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