Being an avid novel reader and great fan of period dramas, I decided to take a closer look at George Eliot’s, Daniel Deronda. Why this particular work? The answer is simple. My own book, Destiny by Design~ Leah’s Journey is also set at the cusp of the Zionist movement, just as Eastern European Jews begin to seek refuge in the United States of America, Argentina, and the Holy Land. I am not by any means equating myself with George Eliot; however, the thought of working in the same vein as this well-known and respected author is intriguing and must be further explored.
As a young educated woman, George Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans) associated herself with freethinkers in political and religious matters. She felt that Jews were ostracized in Britain and that they suffered from prejudice which was, at best, thinly disguised. It was some time in 1860 that Eliot met the Jewish scholar, Emanuel Deutsch. It seems that the author was so taken with the subject of Anglo Jews; she would later pen a novel and base the character of Mordecai on her close friend and early Zionist. That novel was Daniel Deronda, a classic work that speaks to Universal Truths. It is about a group of people dealing with romance and heartache, scandals, treachery and agonizing soul searching. First published in 1876, this was Eliot’s only contemporary novel; and because of its sympathetic representation of Jewish characters, her final statement on Victorian society was quite controversial.
Elliot’s provocative narrative interlaced two seemingly distinct storylines, allowing the audience—possibly for the first time—to peek into the world of Anglo-Jews; and in this attempt, she created complex characters very different from stereotypical roles. The author’s life partner, George Henry Lewes, apparently opposed Eliot’s objectives. Upon the novel’s publication he stated: “The Jewish element seems to me likely to satisfy nobody.” George Eliot’s friend, John Blackwood, also shared his poor estimation when he said, “The Jews should be the most interesting people in the world, but even her magic pen cannot at once make them a popular element in a novel.”
That magic pen tackled a few sensitive subjects such as anti-Semitism in 19th century England, Zionism, and Feminism. I also found that Eliot addressed three poignant and thought-provoking themes. Let’s explore, shall we?
SEARCHING FOR LOVE
While we tend to romanticize period dramas and their love stories, marriage was a serious matter. The idea of marrying for love—of finding that one perfect person—was the stuff of fantasy. In Daniel Deronda, we see that women could only assert their place in society by seeking an advantageous match.
We watch as Gwendolen Harleth marries Henleigh Grandcourt to save her family from financial ruin, but she is helpless against his abuse and is trapped by societal expectations.
We watch Daniel struggle with his feelings for Gwendolen, a magnificent beauty who is in dire need of salvation and Mirah Lapidoth; a delicate, sensitive creature who lives—and nearly dies—in quiet desperation.
“You have a passion for people who are pelted,” Daniel’s guardian often reproached his lovesick ward. One could only wonder: which woman would come to Daniel’s rescue?
SEARCHING FOR IDENTITY
Daniel Deronda is a young man plagued with uncertainty. Although he has been raised by a devoted guardian, Sir Hugo Mallinger, Daniel’s inner turmoil derives from not knowing his roots. Where does he come from? Who are his people? When circumstances reveal the verities of his history, Daniel represses his self-identity to suit his position as a true Englishman. After all, in 19th century England, Jews were mysterious foreigners. What did he know of those people?
When we are first introduced to the would-be heroine of the novel, we find Gwendolen Harleth to be a somewhat petulant beauty, yet one who dazzles friends and family with her charms and accomplishments. She is spoiled and prone to hysterics, but Gwendolen is tested—as we all are in real life. She struggles to surmount the endless bombardment of obstacles and misfortunes that shape her life. Finally, in a testament to her true mettle, she determines to prove herself worthy—for her own sake—and reinvents a better self.
Mirah Lapidoth’s first appearance in the novel is one of despair and despondency; however, her childlike mannerisms and endearing characteristics are deceptive, for she has survived much. Torn away from a traditional Jewish home, she lost her family and was subjected to ridicule and rejection by her own father’s cruel actions. Mirah quickly became aware of her insignificance in the world, but when Daniel saves her from the river’s edge, she slowly rebels against her circumstances. Longing to reunite with her true essence, Mirah aligns herself to her people—her passion—and rallies once more.
SEARCHING FOR DESTINY
Sir Moses Montefiore and Lady Judith—arguably the most influential Anglo-Jewish couple of the Georgian and Victorian eras—visited the Holy Land in 1827. They returned on several occasions, donating generously to promote industry, education and health in that beleaguered region. By the end of the 19th century, a movement for the re-establishment of a Jewish nation was led by Theodor Herzl. Eastern European Jews, fleeing tyranny, segregation, and famine, made their way to the Holy Land and other countries willing to receive the massive wave of immigration. Meanwhile in Paris, another organization was coming to light under the direction of Baron Maurice Hirsch. “The Moses of South America,” Baron Hirsch established the Jewish Colonization Association to help the persecuted Jews find their freedom and their destiny in the fledgling nation of Argentina.
While Eliot’s protagonist was certainly not in dire straits—neither fleeing for his life nor foraging for his dinner—Deronda would not inherit Sir Hugo’s title and land, as he was not Mallinger’s legal heir. Daniel was presented with another definition of destiny. His guardian suggests a talented and passionate individual should carve his own path in life and, at length, we find that Daniel does indeed discover that he can be the master of his own fate.
Unassuming and gentle Mirah finds the wherewithal not only to survive, but to thrive in her new found path—and happily, so does Gwendolyn. Although she loves Daniel, Gwendolyn relinquishes him to what she knows to be his rightful path; and in doing so, she proves to herself that she is good. I see both Gwendolyn and Mirah in my own young protagonist, Leah Abramovitz of Destiny by Design~ Leah’s Journey. Leah has much to learn, and much to achieve, as she makes her way from the Pearl of the Black Sea to the Argentine pampas.
Those of us who are ardent lovers of period drama, appreciate a story that takes us to another place and time. That is what I have attempted to do with my books. We admire stories that are rich with longing, struggle and redemption because—whether we share the same ethnicity, culture or religion—we can relate to the various Universal themes.
Perhaps George Eliot’s true controversy was to show that growth and peace of mind comes from self-knowledge and not from societal status, a difficult concept to grasp—whether in the Victorian era or in the present day. Once we peel away the labels, whether self-inflicted or imposed by others, we can see ourselves in the narrative and find the way to fulfill our own destiny.