The Magazine

Eminent Victorian

The story of George Eliot's 'Daniel Deronda'.

Jun 8, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 36 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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The intellectual background, composition, and critical reception of Daniel Deronda is the subject of Gertrude Himmelfarb's The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot. The book is replete with the serious scholarship, intellectual penetration, and good sense that readers have come to expect from Himmelfarb. Her deeper subject is how George Eliot, the daughter of a churchgoing country estate manager in Warwickshire, came to her understanding of the Jews, their condition in the 19th century, their aspirations, their fate in a world historically hostile to them. Among her other remarkable qualities and accomplishments, George Eliot turns out to be among the earliest and most sophisticated of Zionists.

"Eliot was the rare novelist," Himmelfarb writes, "who was also a genuine intellectual, whose most serious ideas found dramatic expression in her novels." Henry James took this point a bit further, putting a critical twist to it, when he averred that "the fault of most of her work is the absence of spontaneity, the excess of reflection; and by her action in 1854 (which seemed superficially to be of the sort that is usually termed reckless), she committed herself to being nothing if not reflective, to cultivation of a kind of compensatory earnestness."

The "action in 1854" was Mary Ann Evans's union with George Henry Lewes, an intellectual journalist then at work on his Life of Goethe. She had met Lewes three years earlier. Through legal complication that made him unable to obtain a divorce from his wife, Lewes and Mary Ann Evans went off together to Germany, where she mastered German. Theirs was the closest of relationships, dear and deep, a mating of souls and intellects, heightened by each helping the other in every way possible. Nor had it anything of the air of bohemianism about it, the least tincture of acting in defiance against the norms of society. Instead, their union was the act of two people who adored each other but discovered all conventional means of connection closed off to them. Once united, they never thought of each other as other than husband and wife. She dedicated The Mill on the Floss "to my beloved husband, George Henry Lewes."

Lewes it was who encouraged George Eliot (as she later became) to write fiction. Hitherto she had restricted herself to criticism, reviewing chiefly for the Westminster Review, of which she was an assistant editor, and doing translations of Feuerbach, Spinoza, and other erudite works. She began writing fiction at the age of 37, and published her first full novel, Adam Bede (1859), at 40. From there she went, as the Victorians had it, from strength to strength: writing, to mention her best-known novels, The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1863), Felix Holt, The Radical (1866), Middlemarch (1871), and Daniel Deronda (1876). Lewes supported her in every way--Henry James calls him "the administrator of her success"--a support that ended only with his death in 1878. George Eliot died two years later.

Henry James remarked that the unconventionality of George Eliot's union with G. H. Lewes kept her from moving freely in the society of her time, and thus restricted her opportunities for social observation. He also suggests that Lewes may have turned her interests more in the direction of science and philosophy than was salubrious for the novelist in her. James did allow that she had an "overflow of perception," and after all it was James himself who wrote on the nature of genius in art, in The Tragic Muse, that "genius is only the art of getting your experience fast, of stealing it as it were."

Certainly this was true of George Eliot; being a person on whom little was lost, she acquired a great deal from what experience was available to her. But she also, as Himmelfarb notes, gained a vast amount from her reading, which was extensive, serious, and as far as possible from desultory. Himmelfarb cites the wide range of writers George Eliot mentions having read in her letters, and when she comes to consider her preparation for writing Daniel Deronda, her novel with Jewish characters at its center, provides more detailed information:

Eliot's notebooks for this period contained excerpts from the Bible and Prophets, the Mishnah and Talmud, Maimonides, medieval rabbis and Kabbalistic works, as well as contemporary German scholars (Moses Mendelssohn, Heinrich Graetz, Moritz Steinschneider, Leopold Zunz, Abraham Geiger, Abraham Berliner, Emmanuel Deutsch), French scholars (Ernest Renan, Jassuda Bedarride, Georges Depping, Salomon Munk), English scholars (Henry Milman, Christian David Ginsburg, Abraham Benisch, David de Solar, Hyam Isaacs), and scores of others.