(c) Oxford World’s Classics
In my youth, friends and acquaintances who were into literature regarded me as an oik because I couldn’t stand Jane Austen. Those people all seemed to dote on Ms Austen’s novels of romance and matchmaking among the landed gentry, with their supposedly biting drawing-room satire – but I simply found them tedious. Indeed, I almost cheered one day when I came across a comment that Mark Twain had made about the 19th-century authoress: “It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.”* (By the way, I assume that Jane Austen really was a ‘her’ and the assertion made by Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder the Third that she was in fact ‘a huge Yorkshireman with a beard like a rhododendron bush’ is untrue.)
However, there was one riposte I could make whenever I expressed my low opinion of Ms Austen and the faces around me suddenly soured, as if I’d just farted loudly. “Look,” I’d say, “I’ve got nothing against 19th-century women writers. I really like the Bronte sisters. And I love George Eliot.”
And that was true. I had great admiration for George Eliot, or Mary Ann Evans as she was when she wasn’t using her literary alias. I was hugely impressed by The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner and Middlemarch, and despite their occasional flaws – the deus ex machina flood that too suddenly and neatly wraps things up for Maggie and Tom in The Mill on the Floss, or the streak of sentimentality in Silas Marner – I believed she deserved all the praise that was heaped upon her. (Perhaps her most notable fan was Virginia Woolf, who described Middlemarch as ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’).
During the decades since, every-so-often, I’ve returned to George Eliot and gradually worked my way through her books: Scenes from Clerical Life, Felix Holt, Romola… A friend had warned me that Romola, a hefty tome set in 15th-century Florence, was hard going but no, I found reading it a rewarding and enjoyable experience. It wasn’t until I read Adam Bede a few years ago that I wondered if my admiration for Eliot was starting to wane. The moralising in Adam Bede annoyed me and I didn’t like the treatment meted out to Hetty, the story’s ‘fallen woman’. But as this had been her earliest published novel, in 1859, I thought I could put its faults down to first-time uncertainty and inexperience.
However, a few days back, I finished Daniel Deronda, which was both the last novel written by Eliot, in 1876, and the last Eliot novel I hadn’t read. And I’m afraid it proved to be something of a plod. I’d read a few pages, set it aside for a couple of days, return to it and read a few pages more, and so on. There never seemed to be a sustained period when I could actually get into the thing. Indeed, I wondered at times if Daniel Deronda would join that small group of novels that I started reading but gave up on and never finished, a group that includes The Satanic Verses, Lord of the Rings, Tristram Shandy and – another Daniel – Daniel Martin.
One issue I had with Daniel Deronda was the lack of characters whom I could engage with and who could draw me into the narrative. The female characters were especially disappointing. Gwendolen Harleth, the novel’s heroine during its opening chapters, is immensely irritating. She starts off as haughtiness personified, convinced that she knows everything about life despite being barely into her twenties. Then she gets married, which singularly fails to usher in the sort of existence she’d expected, the haughtiness leaves her and she spends the central section of the book in a massive sulk. And then near the end she changes again, thanks to a traumatic incident during a yachting holiday, and becomes a quivering and pathetic wreck. None of these incarnations, I can safely say, endeared me to her.
Still, Gwendolen manages to be more interesting than Mirah Cohen, the novel’s second heroine, who arrives on page 154. Mirah is first spotted by the nice-but-dull hero, the titular Daniel Deronda, standing at the side of the Thames with a mind to throwing herself in. Deronda saves her from suicide and for the remaining 500-odd pages of the book she does nothing to persuade us that she’s anything other than insipid. Actually, she’s so wet that drowning herself in the Thames would have been an apt way for her to go.
However, in terms of being annoying, both Gwendolen and Mirah are minor offenders compared with the character of Mrs Davilow, Gwendolen’s mother. This woman is so tearfully neurotic that during the scenes she appears in you wish someone would stuff her full of diazepam. Page 66: “Then the poor woman began to sob…” Page 113: “Mrs Davilow’s eyes filled with tears…” Page 190: “…tears… were rolling Mrs Davilow’s cheeks…” And so it continues, until the pages featuring her actually start to feel damp under your fingertips.
Another problem comes with the appearance of Mirah’s brother, Ezra Cohen, a mystical Jew who sees in Deronda the fulfilment of some great spiritual quest he’s been on – though I was never quite sure what Ezra’s quest was. Ezra himself is an interesting character; and it’s admirable that, 40 years after Charles Dickens had helped to stereotype Jews as devious petty criminals in Oliver Twist, Eliot tried to portray the Jewish communities of London and Europe generally in a sympathetic and positive light.
But it takes a lot of effort to wade through the pages of prose that Eliot devotes to describing Ezra’s state of mind. For example: “Experience had rendered him morbidly alive, to the effect of a man’s poverty and other physical disadvantages in cheapening his ideas, unless they are those of a Peter the Hermit who has a tocsin for the rabble. But he was too sane and generous to attribute his spiritual banishment solely to the excusable prejudices of others: certain incapacities of his own had made the sentence of exclusion; and hence it was that his imagination had constructed another man who would be something more ample than the second soul bestowed, according to the notions of the Cabbalists, to help out the insufficient first…” And on, and on, and on it goes.
At least Daniel Deronda scores in one area, which is the character of the reptilian Mallinger Grandcourt, the man Gwendolen ends up marrying. In terms of villainy, Grandcourt doesn’t actually do much. He seemingly spends his time in a state of malignant indolence, bored with and disdainful of the world around him. He lounges, smokes cigars and radiates sullen hostility. But though he isn’t particularly proactive, Eliot paints a quietly disturbing portrait of him and you can almost – almost – sympathise with Gwendolen when she realises the horror of being married to him.
To sum up, then, I’m afraid I’m no longer in love with George Eliot. Yes, George, I’m sorry, but somehow the magic has faded from our relationship. I’m sure it’s not your fault – it’s just me. I’m not the person I used to be. I’ve become older, more cynical, more difficult to please. So I think it’s over between us. Daniel Deronda will be our final time together.
Then again, since I’ve read all your other books already, it was going to be a last date anyway.
* I like another quote Twain made about her: “Jane Austen’s books, too, are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.”