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George Eliot’s last, most ambitious novel, Daniel Deronda aroused scandal when it first appeared in 1876. What begins as a passionate love story takes a surprising turn into the hidden world of the early Zionist movement in Victorian England.
The story opens memorably at a roulette table, where we first meet the young and idealistic Daniel Deronda and the enchanting Gwendolen Harlethwhom many critics consider to be George Eliot’s finest creation. Although the two are immediately drawn to one another, Gwendolenoutwardly alluring and vivacious, inwardly complex and unsettledis forced by circumstance into an oppressive marriage with the harsh aristocratic Henleigh Grandcourt.
Deeply unhappy, she turns for friendship to Daniel, only to discover his involvement with Mirah Lapidoth, a talented young Jewish woman. Torn between his devotion to Gwendolen and his passion for Mirah and the plight of her people, Daniel is forced to look at his own mysterious past and find out who he really isand who he wants to become.
Earl L. Dachslager is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Houston and an adjunct professor in the University’s Distant Education Program. He received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Maryland. He reviews books regularly for the Houston Chronicle.
From Earl Dachslager’s Introduction to Daniel Deronda
In itself, Daniel Deronda’s position as Eliot’s last novel lends it some significance, but, far more important, Daniel Deronda represents Eliot’s summing up, the book in which she hoped to bring together all the values, ideals, and beliefs that had informed her earlier work. In short, Daniel Deronda was not simply Eliot’s final novel, it was her final letter to the world. That she herself was aware that Daniel Deronda was her fictional finale is made clear from her notes and letters. She recorded in her diary for December 31, 1877 (her final entry): “But of course as the years advance there is a new rational ground for the expectation that my life may become less fruitful. . . . Many conceptions of works to be carried out present themselves, but confidence in my own fitness to complete them worthily is all the more wanting because it is reasonable to argue that I must have already done my best” (Haight, ed. Selections from George Eliot’s Letters, pp. 493–494 [henceforth, Letters]; see “For Further Reading”).
From the beginning, Eliot’s books cost her an enormous outlay of energy—physical and emotional. Each book brought with it anxiety and the desperate feeling that not only would the book never be completed but also that in the end it would be worthless. She had arrived at the conviction that authors should stop when they had no more to say. But even if she had the energy and desire to write another “big book,” they likely vanished when Lewes died, at age sixty-one, on November 30, 1878; he had been her partner and champion for nearly twenty-five years and, to some degree, her creator. “Without George Henry Lewes,” Kathryn Hughes wrote, in her excellent biography of Eliot, “there could have been no George Eliot” (George Eliot: The Last Victorian, p. 327).
Daniel Deronda thus stands as the culmination of a series of novels that began twenty years earlier with the publication of Scenes of Clerical Life (1858). But in some original and singular respects, Daniel Deronda may also be viewed as Eliot’s first fictional creation.
For one thing, of all of Eliot’s novels Daniel Deronda is by far the most global, the one with the widest range of national and international references. Geographically, Daniel Deronda takes the reader to London, Paris, Prague, Vienna, Rome, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Mainz, Genoa, Trieste, Beirut (or “Beyrout” as Eliot spells it), Sardinia, Corsica, Ajaccio, Palestine, and New York—a globe-hopping journey that in itself makes Daniel Deronda unique among Eliot’s novels. For that reason, it has often been called the first international novel. Writing in the Nation the year Daniel Deronda was published, Henry James praised the novel for its “multitudinous world” and “its widening narrative” (quoted in Haight, A Century of George Eliot Criticism, pp. 92–93).
Also unique is that Daniel Deronda is the only novel Eliot wrote that is set close to her own time. The action of the novel takes place over two years, between October 1864 and October 1866, and begins in September 1865 (see note 1). Thus the events of the story take place approximately ten years before the book was published, which makes it Eliot’s most contemporary novel and the one that is most connected to topics current in her day.
Daniel Deronda is also Eliot’s most original novel in its construction (anticipated, to some degree, by her 1859 gothic story “The Lifted Veil”), one of the earliest examples in English prose fiction of what would become the hallmark of much modern literature: the replacement of the straightforward, linear plot—beginning, middle, end—with a disrupted, nonlinear plot that depends on both flashbacks and flash-forwards.
The effect of the narrative’s temporal and spatial shifts is to give the story the illusion of movement in time and space and to make the main characters appear as a Victorian version of jet-setters. Unlike Eliot’s provincial novels—Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), and Silas Marner (1861)—Daniel Deronda is not a book about rural England or even fifteenth-century Florence, the setting of Eliot’s 1863 novel Romola, but about Europe, the Middle East, and even America, where Mirah Lapidoth has been. To this extent, Daniel Deronda is Eliot’s most expansive novel and one of the most far-ranging in nineteenth-century literature.
But even more radical than its bold use of time and space—certainly more daring for its day—is the novel’s movement across social, political, psychological, and literary boundaries. Such transitions and transformations result from what the novel is about: the conflicts and connections, differences and similarities, between two separate but related worlds—the “Jewish” world and the “English” world, the first represented primarily by Daniel Deronda and Mordecai Lapidoth; the second by Gwendolen Harleth, her mother, and their social community.