The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Encounter, 250 pp., $25.95
Through portraits of a few carefully chosen Victorian figures, and with the aid of a deft prose style, acidic with irony, Lytton Strachey, in Eminent Victorians, set out to squelch the Victorians. He mocked Victorian earnestness, debased Victorian energy, and lacerated what he took to be the essential hypocrisy of the Victorians and their pretense to an elevated spirit leading on to good works. The immediate effect, lasting for decades afterwards, was devastating.
Strachey was a central figure in the group of writers and intellectuals known as Bloomsbury, and his attack is understandable. We know, as the cant phrase has it, where he was coming from. The Bloomsbury Group--a name that today sounds suspiciously like a dubious hedge fund--stood opposed to everything the Victorians stood for: earnestness, probity, the struggle with fundamental social, political, and moral problems and issues. The Victorians came at things straight on; the Bloomsbury writers--Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Clive Bell, Strachey, et alia--preferred obliquity.
The Victorians had a comprehensive and confident view of human nature; the Bloomsbury writers could only assert, as Woolf contended, that human nature had changed in 1910, though she neglected to say precisely from what to what. The Victorians asserted the need for soundness of thought, high principles, and life considered in the long run; John Maynard Keynes, Bloomsbury's economist, said that in the long run we are all dead, which eased the way for his fellow Bloomsburyites rather joylessly to philander, bugger, and stress personal relations over national destinies. For a long spell, it appeared that Bloomsbury had won, making the Victorians seem little more than a roster of prudish neurotics dedicated to nothing grander than sexual repression.
No longer, for today the Victorians have regained their rightful stature, and this owing in great part to the work of the intellectual historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. She is the anti-Lytton Strachey; her work over a long career--her first book, Lord Acton: A Study of Conscience and Politics, was published in 1952--has wiped the irony from the Strachey title, and reminded us how genuinely eminent the Victorians were. Darwin, Macaulay, Mill, Dickens, Carlyle, the Brontës, Matthew Arnold, Thackeray, Ruskin, Newman, Trollope, Acton, Tennyson, Browning, Bagehot, Disraeli, Gladstone, the cavalcade of Victorian genius is greater than that of any other period in any other nation in the history of the world. In her several book-length studies of the Victorians and their milieu, Gertrude Himmelfarb has elegantly and incisively set out the nature of the Victorians' achievement, honoring the complexity of their lives and works, reminding us that giants once walked the earth without unduly emphasizing that pygmies--sorry to report that they would be us--do now.
Of all the great Victorians, perhaps none was more complex, unpredictable, and finally astonishing than Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot. When the 26-year-old Henry James visited her in 1869, he wrote to his father that "she is magnificently ugly--deliciously hideous." He added that "in this vast ugliness [which James describes] resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her." James wrote of the "great feminine dignity and character in those massively plain features," and concluded by saying that "altogether she has a larger circumference than any woman I have ever seen."
By circumference I take James to mean breadth of understanding, largeness of spirit, depth of sympathy--the qualities possessed by only the greatest of novelists. That George Eliot is among the small company of the world's great novelists is without doubt. She is a central figure in F. R. Leavis's The Great Tradition. Her place at the very top rank in Anglophone literature is secure. I'm not sure of her reputation among the French, Italians, or Germans, though some have suggested that Daniel Deronda (1876), her last and most complex novel, may be the best German novel ever written in English.
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.
Himmelfarb remarks on George Eliot's restrained use of all she had learned before creating the intensely Jewish characters in Daniel Deronda. Like the true artist she was, she obtained all she needed to know, and deployed her knowledge with precision and artistic tact.
The controversy about Daniel Deronda is over just how good a novel it is. Gertrude Himmelfarb thinks it a great novel, among the very greatest. The wide variety of its characters, its high level of penetrating observations, the intricacy of its plot, its delicate but devastating satire, the powerful emotions it evokes, all are of the stuff of a masterpiece. Yet some powerful critics, F. R. Leavis most notable among them, thought Daniel Deronda a great half-novel, feeling that the other half--specifically, the parts of the novel featuring its Jewish characters--a distraction that would have been better expunged.
Leavis rated George Eliot among the world's great novelists. He claimed she was not as great as Tolstoy, but "she is great, and great in the same way," for "her best work has a Tolstoyan depth and reality." He found, moreover, some of this best work in Daniel Deronda. He makes the persuasive point that Henry James is unlikely to have written The Portrait of a Lady, without the richer models--richer, that is, than Isabel Archer and Gilbert Osmond--of the characters Gwendolen Harleth and Henleigh Grandcourt from Daniel Deronda to draw upon.
But in Leavis's view the novel's Jewish characters--the eponymous hero; Mirah, the young woman he rescues from suicide and later marries; and Mirah's prophetic brother Mordecai, who sees in Daniel a successor who will lead the Jewish people to their historical destiny in the Zion of Palestine--are too ideal, too flat, too cardboard-like in their creation. Leavis's notion was to lop them off, and change the novel's title to Gwendolen Harleth, after the chief female character in the novel, the story of whose wretched marriage to the cold-blooded aristocrat Grandcourt runs alongside those of the novel's Jewish characters.
Two plots run concurrently in Daniel Deronda. One is the story of Gwendolen Harleth, a great natural beauty, self-absorbed to the highest power, born to a widowed mother without means, who uses the beguilements of her radiant charm to contract a disastrous marriage to a domineering, cold-blooded aristocrat. The other is the story of Daniel Deronda, whose true parentage and Jewish origins are revealed to him late in the novel, a revelation that comes as a gift to a man who has, as another character says of him, "a passion for people who have been pelted." The two plots are elaborately interlaced, with Deronda, raised by the baronet Sir Hugh Mallinger, who is the uncle to Grandcourt, bridging the novel's two worlds, Jewish déclassé and English gentry.
Gertrude Himmelfarb argues against F. R. Leavis's notion of decapitating the Jewish portions of the novel, and rightly so, for Daniel Deronda would be much diminished without the Jewish element. Deronda's sense of mission as a Jew gives his life a purpose, and the novel itself a meaning, well beyond the story of a mere abortive romance between Gwendolen and Daniel. "The idea that I am possessed with," Deronda tells Gwendolen at their final meeting, "is that of restoring a political existence to my people, making them a nation again, giving them a national centre such as the English have, though they are scattered over the face of the globe." From this sense of mission Deronda derives his stature. "But were not men of ardent zeal and far-seeking hope everywhere exceptional," writes Eliot.
If Daniel Deronda has a weakness, it is in George Eliot's lapsing into philo-Semitism. One of the most difficult tests confronting a novelist is the creation of characters who are at once thoroughly good and yet still believable--think of those mawkish young women in Dickens, Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, Agnes Wickfield in David Copperield, and the rest. George Eliot does not always pass this test. She tends to idealize her three principal Jewish characters. Daniel Deronda, for example, whose altruism borders on beyond the believable, often sounds sententious, if not priggish. Still, the cast of the novel's Jewish characters, from the family of the pawnshop-owning Ezra Cohen to the musician Klesmer (said to be loosely modeled on Franz Liszt) to Deronda's long-lost actress/singer mother, to Mirah's thieving father Lapidoth with his gambling addiction, far from being idealized, are so rich in their variety and various in their richness as to qualify Eliot as a connoisseur of Jewish types. This is all the more extraordinary since her personal acquaintance with Jews was scarcely wide. Emmanuel Deutsch, an assistant in the library at the British Museum, whom Himmelfarb describes in two concise pages, was one Jew whom she did know moderately well and whose Jewish scholarship made a strong impress on her.
Because it is outside her line of inquiry, Gertrude Himmelfarb does not mention the strong strain of feminism running through Daniel Deronda (though she does mention that George Eliot was not in favor of female suffrage). How could it be otherwise in a woman who felt she needed to masculinize her name, lest her fiction be passed by as the jottings of merely another trivial woman novelist? George Eliot's feminism is of a superior kind. Gwendolen Harleth's financial problems in the novel, which propel her into her wretched marriage, would not have confronted a man, whose fate would be more firmly lodged in his own hands, and would not have needed to turn to marriage for their solution. And Deronda's mother, when she tells her son that she abandoned him and her Judaism for a career in the theater, is surely partially speaking for George Eliot when she says to her son: " 'You are not a woman. You may try--but you can never imagine what it is to have a man's force of genius in you, and yet to suffer the slavery of being a girl.' "
As for George Eliot's penchant for abstraction, complained about by James and others, it takes the form of generalization, commenting, as if from the sidelines, on the action going on in the novel. So Eliot writes that, apropos of Gwendolen's detestation of her husband: "The intensest form of hatred is that rooted in fear, which compels to silence and drives vehemence into a constructive vindictiveness, an imaginary annihilation of the detested object, something like the rites of vengeance with which the persecuted have made a dark vent for their rage, and soothed their suffering into dumbness." Then, neatly gliding back into her narrative, she continues, "Such hidden rites went on in the secrecy of Gwendolen's mind."
Ruminations of this sort--on temperament, on the nature of thinking, on second-sight, on gambling, on a vast deal more--weave in and out of the narrative proper. One of the modern fiction workshop laws is that a writer should always show and never tell; George Eliot did both, and with sufficient success to wipe the law off the books. Tell all you want, the new law should read, so long as you remember to do it brilliantly.
The larger question looming over Daniel Deronda is how did George Eliot come to have her profound imaginative sympathy for the Jews. One might think her being a literary artist--a human type supposedly specializing in both imagination and sympathy--would suffice as the answer. But the fact is, if one runs through the names of the great playwrights, poets, and novelists writing in English, beginning with Shakespeare and far from ending with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, one discovers that almost all of them saved a cold place in their hearts for the Jews. The great writers of the Western world have much more often than not joined the brutes, thugs, and tyrants in going along with commonplace prejudice against the Jews.
George Eliot is distinguished in not being among them. Himmelfarb traces out Eliot's views about Jews, from her early, vaguely contemptuous view to her profound understanding of the significance behind Jewish history and religion. Writing about the Jews as she did, Himmelfarb claims, required "audacity" on Eliot's part. And she did not fall into the platitudes of Jewish-Christian Brotherhood Week. In Daniel Deronda she didn't write a novel to show that the Jews were a civilized, progressive people, eager for assimilation into ever more enlightened European societies. "Her Jewish question," Himmelfarb writes, "was not the relation of the Jews to the Gentile world, but the relation of the Jews to themselves, to their own people and their own world, the beliefs and traditions that were their history and their legacy."
George Eliot's prescience here, as exhibited in Daniel Deronda and elsewhere, is little short of astonishing. She understood the prejudice against the Jews of her day, which is not very different than it is in our own. In an essay titled "The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!" she characterized this prejudice thus: "A people with oriental sunlight in their blood, yet capable of being everywhere acclimatized, [the Jews] have a force and toughness which enables them to carry off the best prizes; and their wealth is likely to put half the seats in Parliament at their disposal." She understood the mission of every Jew, who
should be conscious that he is one of a multitude possessing common objects of piety in the immortal achievements and immortal sorrows of ancestors who have transmitted to them a physical and mental type strong enough, eminent enough in faculties, pregnant enough with peculiar promise, to constitute a new beneficent individuality among nations, and, by confuting the traditions of scorn, nobly avenge the wrongs done to their Fathers.
She also understood the necessity of a Jewish nation as a rallying point and political means for the carrying of this mission to completion. In Daniel Deronda she puts this vision in the words of Mordecai, the poor Jewish tutor, living on charity, who at the novel's end becomes Daniel Deronda's brother-in-law:
In the multitudes of the ignorant on three continents who observe our rites and make the confession of the divine Unity, the soul of Judaism is not dead. Revive the organized centre: let the unity of Israel which has made the growth and form of its religion be an outward reality. Looking towards a land and a polity, our dispersed people in all the ends of the earth may share the dignity of a national life which has a voice among the peoples of the East and the West--which will plant the wisdom and skill of our race so that it may be, as of old, a medium of transmission and understanding.
The role of the Jews, as George Eliot understood it, and as Himmelfarb underscores, was a combination of separation and communication. They were to remain, through their religion and sense of peoplehood, separate, but always a people with much to communicate to the rest of the world. In a brilliant passage toward the end of The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, Himmelfarb writes that Daniel Deronda, published well before the Holocaust and the founding of Israel, before the Dreyfus Affair and the pogroms in Eastern Europe, "reminds us that Israel is not merely a refuge for desperate people, that the history of Judaism is more than the bitter annals of persecution and catastrophe, and that Jews are not only, certainly not essentially, victims, survivors, martyrs, or even an abused or disaffected people." George Eliot's great prescient point is that, as Himmelfarb notes, it was not anti-Semitism but "Judaism, the religion and the people, that created the Jew. And it was Judaism that created the Jewish state, the culmination of a proud and enduring faith that defined the Jewish 'nation,' uniting Jews even as they were, and as they remain, physically dispersed."
That George Eliot, who was herself neither Jewish nor ever thought of becoming Jewish, understood so well and sympathized so completely with Jewish aspirations, that she grasped the Jews' true historical destiny, that in many ways she came to know the Jews better than they knew themselves, is a tribute to a great writer. Gertrude Himmelfarb's splendid book, lucidly setting out George Eliot's accomplishment in this richest of her novels, reminds us that the powers of imagination and sympathy, in the hands of a true artist, are limitless.
Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author, most recently, of Fred Astaire (Yale).