THE JEWISH ODYSSEY OF GEORGE ELIOT
By Gertrude Himmelfarb
Encounter, $25.95, 180 pages
Reviewed by Caitrin Nicol
Mary Ann Evans, who later would become known as the novelist George Eliot (1819-1880), announced at the age of 22 that she would no longer be attending church. The evangelical flame of her adolescence had burned down to agnosticism; as she explained in a letter to her heartsick father, “while I admire and cherish much of what I believe to have been the moral teaching of Jesus himself, I consider the system of doctrines built upon the facts of his life and drawn as to its materials from Jewish notions to be most dishonorable to God and most pernicious in its influence on individual and social happiness.”
She became only more critical as time went on, remarking elsewhere that Judaism is estimable only insofar as Christ “transcended” it, and Christianity insofar as it transcended Christ, “like turtle soup without turtle.” Yet her final novel, “Daniel Deronda” (1876), sympathetically features the quest of its title character, unknowingly born a Jew, to discover and embrace his birthright and seek a political destiny for his people in Palestine.
Eliot, a leading female intellectual who opposed women’s suffrage and an archmoralist who lived openly with a married man for decades, was a mass of such apparent contradictions. She also was a writer of disarming clarity, as is her latest interpreter, Gertrude Himmelfarb. Miss Himmelfarb, in characteristically diamond-cutting prose, takes up the riddle of Eliot’s special interest in Jewish renewal and nationhood long before Zionism even had a name. “The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot” is a masterful and many-faceted account of Eliot’s influences, sources, historical surroundings, changing views and latter-day defense of Judaism.
Miss Himmelfarb has done more to redeem the Victorians in modern eyes than any other historian, though Eliot needs little redemption. But while “the Jewish question” engaged Eliot, she mainly failed to make it interesting to non-Jewish readers. “Daniel Deronda” was met with disappointment at the time and has been neglected ever since, with most critics balking at “the strong Jew element.”
A secondary, gentile protagonist, the spirited and spoiled Gwendolen Harleth, has captured most of the attention; her costly development of a “moral imagination” (to borrow a favorite phrase of Miss Himmelfarb’s) is Eliot in fine form - “a consummate expert in the pathology of conscience,” as Lord Acton called her. F.R. Leavis even set about to “liberate” the English half and publish it as Harleth, though at the last moment, the publisher thought better of it.
Conversely, soon after “Daniel Deronda’s” publication, a Hebrew translation was produced “without the Gwendolen distraction,” and a selection of just the philosophical discussions was passed around enthusiastically in Lemberg.
“I meant everything in the book to be related to everything else,” Eliot rebuked the cherry-pickers. Miss Himmelfarb hints at some crossover themes, but one only wishes she had made a more determined inquiry into these relationships. “Daniel Deronda” is a study in subjection: chosen and forced, stifling and sublime, in human bonds and in adherence to the demands of a larger calling. It is at the level of the bonds between individual characters - bonds that by necessity involve an element of service - that Eliot, the exquisite psychologist, lays the foundation for the relation of individuals to their religious and national identity.
Her final essay (“The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!” collected in “Impressions of Theophrastus Such”), also an argument for Jewish statehood, reveals this point of philosophical communion: “Our dignity and rectitude are proportioned to our sense of relationship with something great, admirable, pregnant with high possibilities, worthy of sacrifice, a continual inspiration to self-repression and discipline by the presentation of aims larger and more attractive to our generous part than the securing of personal ease or prosperity.”
This beckoning to moral elevation through subjection to “something great” was her perennial concern and the animating principle of her famous philanthropic failure, Dorothea Brooke of “Middlemarch” (1874) - Daniel Deronda’s immediate predecessor as a hero. Dorothea’s aimless aspirations never find a proper port; and ardent though they are, many of Eliot’s characters’ reflections on “being good” or “becoming better” are impossibly vague. It may be that the specificity of Jewish laws and customs, the very esoterica she found repugnant earlier in life, offered themselves to her sympathy as a welcome foil for this sort of wandering.
More decisively, Judaism serves Eliot’s larger social vision as an unmatched “medium of transmission and understanding,” as Deronda’s mentor, Mordecai, puts it. Elsewhere he states the case more elegantly: “Have I not breathed my soul into you? We shall live together,” he says shortly before passing. Transmission is the ultimate and in some ways the only cultural question, not tied to any age, though presented with unique challenges in hers (and ours). Eliot lived at the end of an epoch; one of her biographers dubbed her “the last Victorian” for her defense of virtues scheduled for extinction.
Friedrich Nietzsche, the extinction’s master architect, sneered of “those little moralistic females a la Eliot” that “in England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is.” Dying in 1880, Eliot lived just long enough to draw up to the edge of the existentialist abyss that was to swallow up those small, principled emancipations. Perhaps her agnosticism was tempered finally by the intimation that goodness without God was not to be enough. (Her “odyssey,” however, did not lead to conversion.)
Miss Himmelfarb’s exposition of the much-maligned “Jew element” in Eliot’s last novel suggests a foresight stretching beyond that immediate defeat, a prophetic vision that saw past the failure of post-religious moralism to rejuvenated belief on the other side of a century - a still-small moral revolution as uncertain as they always are, whose time indeed may even now not have arrived. Prescient in Zionism, Eliot may yet prove prescient in this as well. It is not the way she would have chosen to resurrect virtue, but in looking back to travel forward, it is as apropos as any of her other surface-level incongruities.
Caitrin Nicol is managing editor of the New Atlantis.