- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 8, 2003

Of George Eliot’s novels, “Daniel Deronda” is the last and perhaps most remarkable, notable in particular for its extraordinary portrait of Gwendolen Harleth, a uniquely complex Victorian heroine. Gwendolen is young, beautiful, ambitious, and proud; boundlessly confident, and profoundly ignorant of everything outside the narrow purview of her pampered life.

Many critics consider the earlier book “Middlemarch” Eliot’s supreme achievement. True, that novel may be superior to “Deronda” in some respects: Its protagonist Dorothea Brooke, a brilliantly drawn fictional character, is probably more sympathetic than Gwendolen. The twin plots of “Middlemarch,” too, have a careful structure and a momentum that the more abstract “Deronda” lacks. Although the later novel’s eponymous hero is a decent enough fellow, he is too bland a figure for most readers to feel any affinity with him.

On the other hand, Gwendolen positively radiates life, as does her supremely swinish husband, Mallinger Grandcourt. It is rare for a 19th-century novelist to describe the workings of a woman’s mind and soul with such deep understanding. Unlike Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, Gwendolen not only arrives at self-knowledge with a full awareness of her own shortcomings, but by the close of the novel she has committed herself to continue to grow in spirit and to become, as she says, “a better person” — a commitment the reader believes in.

At the outset, however, Gwendolen is not especially interested in personal growth. Indeed, Book One of the novel — titled fittingly “The Spoiled Child” — first reveals the young beauty sitting at a gaming table in a German resort hotel. Standing in the same room, Daniel Deronda is struck by her beauty and by her intense concentration on the game, and can’t take his eyes off her.

Here most readers will naturally suspect that Eliot is setting up the pair to eventually meet, fall in love and — after overcoming sundry obstacles — marry by the novel’s end. But Eliot, not a predictable writer by any means, takes us down a less familiar, more interesting path. Gwendolen and Deronda do meet back at home in England. Then Gwendolen, after her family has been ruined financially, realizes it is incumbent on her to marry soon — and marry well. She feels certain she will find a wealthy husband.

Enter Mallinger Grandcourt, the heir presumptive to a baronetcy. Grandcourt wins her hand, but not before she has discovered that he has a longtime mistress who has borne him two children. Her knowledge that she has compromised morally to marry an unworthy man poisons the relationship from the outset. If she had imagined that she would have any positive influence over her cold, overbearing husband, married life soon disabuses her of this hope. Her feelings are of no consequence to Grandcourt.

When Gwendolen sees Deronda again — despite Grandcourt’s wishes — she opens her soul to him. “There are people who are good and enjoy great things — I know there are. I am a contemptible creature. I am afraid of everything. I am afraid of getting wicked,” she confesses to him. “Tell me what to do.”

At this point, Eliot tells us more of the enigmatic Deronda. He has come to the rescue of a young Jewish girl, Mirah, who tried to drown herself in the Thames. While he tries to help Mirah find her long-lost brother, he becomes acquainted with Jews and is drawn to them. Raised by a lord to be an English gentleman, he vaguely fancies that he is the lord’s illegitimate son. But then he is summoned to Italy to meet his mother for the first time. He learns that she is very wealthy and is dying — and that he is a Jew.

It was quite a bold move on Eliot’s part to make her hero Jewish. Only very recently had Jews been allowed to run for Parliament. Although Benjamin Disraeli (a Jewish convert to Anglicanism) had been made prime minister, the English of Queen Victoria’s day were not altogether accepting of Jewish people and culture.

Ultimately, Eliot’s hero sets forth for the Middle East, where he dreams of establishing a Jewish state in what was then called Palestine. With startling prescience, Eliot (writing in 1873) has Deronda declare: “We may live to see a great outburst of force in the Arabs, who are being inspired with a new zeal.” In today’s world the prediction has a singularly topical ring to it.

Gwendolen’s true character and fate are also revealed in Italy. When the couple is out sailing, Grandcourt is knocked overboard and drowns. Although Gwendolen leaps into the water, she is unable to save him and blames herself for his death. At their final meeting, Deronda tells the widowed Gwendolen that he is leaving the country, perhaps for a long time, and that he is getting married. Gwendolen bursts out, “I said I should be forsaken. I have been a cruel woman.And I am forsaken.” But by the next day she is able to say to her mother, “Don’t be unhappy. I shall live. I shall be better.” It is a tribute to Eliot’s genius that we know she will be.

Cynthia Grenier writes The Mag Trade column for The Washington Times.

“The Lost Word” appears on the second Sunday of each month. In it, commentators remind us of interesting but often forgotten writers and books from years past.

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