‘No,’ said the Princess, shaking her head and folding her arms with an air of decision. ‘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. To have a pattern cut out – “this is the Jewish woman; this is what you must be, is what you are wanted for; a woman’s heart to be of such a size and no larger, else it must be pressed small like Chinese feet; her happiness made as cakes are, by a fixed receipt.”’
This was a £1.99 purchase from the Oxfam bookshop near where I work. It’s a whopping 675 pages long (not including 414 footnotes and a lengthy introduction) so it works out at less than 0.002p per page. What a bargain!
As this is my first time delving into blogging it seemed like quite a good one to start with; big enough to sink my teeth into but still an author I’m already a little familiar with, having read Middlemarch last summer. It took just over two weeks to complete but for five of those days we were in Krakow and I read absolutely nothing at all, not even on the plane. Instead I spent most of each two hour flight in a semi-drunken haze listening to the Radio 4 War and Peace podcast (which is excellent btw).
So, what’s it about? Daniel Deronda is an earnest but rather disillusioned gentleman of ‘unknown birth’. In Germany he meets the beautiful and spoiled Gwendolen Harleth and watches silently from a distance as she carelessly fritters her money away at the roulette wheel. Gwendolen has come to Germany to evade the advances of Sir Henleigh Grandcourt after discovering that he already has a long-term mistress and several illegitimate children hidden away in the country. Deronda becomes inextricably entangled in Gwendolen’s troubles and their two stories are told side by side. At the same time, we hear about Mirah Lapidoth, “a little Jewess” Deronda has rescued from drowning herself in the Thames. In helping Mirah he finds himself drawn into the Jewish community and begins to question who he is and where he has really come from.
It’s fairly unusual for me to like a new novel immediately but there’s something about that first scene where Deronda watches Gwendolen at the roulette wheel. It was so good I went back and read the first chapter again when I got to the end. It’s a shame I didn’t find the second half of the book quite so gripping. It was an intense read and I found myself occasionally looking forward to the end.
But I can see why everyone is so captivated by Gwendolen Harleth. Even at her most vain and self-absorbed she’s never one-dimensional or irritating. She has all the excitement and all the wittiest lines. It’s bad news for poor Mirah Lapidoth, though, who never manages to be quite as compelling in spite of her dramatic entrance into the story. Eliot’s descriptions of Gwendolen are beautifully done. She somehow manages to be both ridiculously shallow and fascinating at the same time. Her determined belief in her own importance and her unwillingness to be ruled by anyone else make her feel thoroughly modern. When she eventually marries she does so believing that she will be able to ‘manage’ her husband and continue to have her own way in all things; the intense battle of wills which follows forms some of my favourite chapters.
The saintly Deronda, on the other hand, is likeable but his earnestness and compassion are sometimes overstated and can wear a bit thin at times. The novel is famous for the way it handles his introduction to Kabbalist philosophy and early Zionist politics but I must say that I found these chapters particularly tricky. I muddled through with the help of the footnotes. My feelings were summed up more than adequately by Gwendolen when she asked Deronda about his big plans with the words, “Can I understand the ideas or am I too ignorant?” It’s meant sincerely but when you’ve just slogged through hundreds of pages on Deronda’s ideals it has the unintended ring of sarcasm to it.
The most perplexing part for me was Deronda’s relationship with Mordechai. Somehow I missed whatever passed between them in their first meetings and spent several pages confused about what exactly was binding them together. They seemed to have made some vague agreement about something and I couldn’t really get to grips with what it was and why Deronda felt compelled to seek him out again. It’s possible I just blinked or let my mind wander at the key moment. It was only by going back and rereading some particularly dense passages that I found my way again. I can’t say that I was terribly gripped by their long philosophical discussions although I get that they provided an important contrast to Gwendolen’s unscrupulous behaviour and the general immorality of aristocratic society. I read in the introduction that Eliot grew frustrated with critics who suggested cutting the Mordechai chapters altogether which made me feel ashamed for being a bit bored by them. I’m sure some people do enjoy the Mordechai bits and get something out of them but for me they were a loooong, hard (and not very rewarding) chore.
Since finishing Deronda I’ve started The New Moon With The Old by Dodie Smith. It’s a much lighter read and I’m considering it my reward for persevering through all those chapters on the plight of the Jews in Victorian London. More on this later…