The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Encounter, 180 pp., $25.95
The People of the Book
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Encounter, 183 pp., $23.95
Her subject was England—the most advanced experiment in constitutional democracy, and hence the best testing ground for whether such an experiment could succeed over time. The country had once been subject to the capricious rule of imperfect monarchs and churchmen, but by the 19th century its challenges seemed to be coming mostly from the increased rights and liberties that had been granted citizens in the name of progress. She identified those challenges and spun stories of some men and women who confronted them—and then, at the peak of her powers, she took the Jews as the measure of how well England was doing. Why the Jews?
The foregoing is of course about George Eliot, whose last novel Daniel Deronda was at once a study of British liberality and of the so-called "Jewish question." Yet it applies equally (with due distinction between the dead and the living) to the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, renowned for her writings on 19th-century British political thinkers and actors—such as Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, and Lord Acton—whose latest books are The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, which came out in 2009, and a study of philo-Semitism in England, The People of the Book, published last year. As though following Eliot's lead, Himmelfarb has capped her career as an intellectual historian with investigations of the same apparently minor aspect of British politics and culture. The parallel odyssey of these distinguished thinkers, separated by over a century, begs the question of how much was really at stake in England's treatment of the Jews. Was Himmelfarb taken in by George Eliot's exaggerated view of the matter, or has she burnished Eliot's brilliant insight? Again, why the Jews?
The logical place to begin our inquiry is the justly famous opening of Daniel Deronda that makes it clear its author knew exactly what she was doing when she brought together her two main protagonists, introducing the heroine through the eyes of her beholder:
Was she beautiful or not beautiful? And what was the secret of form or expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance? Was the good or the evil genius dominant in those beams? Probably the evil; else why was the effect that of unrest rather than of undisturbed charm? Why was the wish to look again felt as coercion and not as a longing in which the whole being consents?
A man observing a woman across a crowded room some enchanted evening has triggered many a fictional romance, and had this been one of them, it might have satisfied more of its readers. But Daniel Deronda is not that romantic hero. His erotic attraction to the lovely woman, soon identified as Gwendolen Harleth, is subject to moral constraint. At this point in the novel, neither Deronda nor the reader knows that he is a Jew, but Daniel already thinks as Jews are supposed to. Romantic fiction subordinates competing values to romantic love; the anti-romance is answerable to other considerations, or, rather, people with other considerations would produce an anti-romance.
"From the beginning, the ‘Jewish element' in Daniel Deronda was seen as a problem," Himmelfarb tells us, citing contemporary critics and several closer to our time. In fairness to them, the first part of the novel concentrates so marvelously on its heroine that one may be loath to turn away from her to the solemn young man who has misgivings about her. Gwendolen is as mercurial as Deronda is solid, as headstrong as he is cautious. Her "disturbing charm" intrigues many others besides Deronda, and she is free to use that charm to rise above the station of her birth in a society that is finally relaxing its hierarchical rigidity. We first see her at the gambling table where she indulges her appetite for risk. Lacking the talents of someone like her creator who earned her living by the pen, she cannot advance through professional accomplishment, but only through acquiring wealth, preferably through advantageous marriage. Yet Gwendolen is not without her own moral scruple, "a root of conscience in her" that curbs her pleasure and eventually curtails her ambition. All this makes us genuinely invested in her fate and curious to know how she turns out.
Critics found her male counterpart less intriguing. The influential British don F.R. Leavis once actually tried to "liberate" Gwendolen Harleth. Himmelfarb writes:
As for the bad part of Daniel Deronda, Leavis said, there was "nothing to do but cut it away." Gwendolen Harleth had to be extricated from it and published on its own . . .The resulting novel would have some rough edges, but it would be self-sufficient and substantial.
Himmelfarb, George Eliot, and the Jews
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