For the Joy of Reading: Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda needs no introduction from me.   It is one of the great seminal works of English Literature, speaking both to its own age and the present.   It deals with great themes are relevant today as they were when George Eliot wrote this book.   Those themes are feminism and Zionism, and in both cases she has many important things to say.

The book was first published in 1876, and there are many ironies that the modern-day reader will perceive that were not present as George Eliot was writing.   When Mordecai upholds the neutrality of Belgium, guaranteed by international law, as an example that a newly-founded Israel should follow, it was not known that in 1914 the treaty would not be worth the paper it was written on.    Similarly, when Joseph Kalonymos talks of Mainz as a safe and comfortable place for the Jewish community, George Eliot did not know of the horror that was to come as anti-semitism engulfed Europe in a murderous, genocidal plan for a “final solution”.   We, reading the book now, cannot approach it without knowledge of what happened in Europe in the twentieth century.   This changes our perspective, and we have to recognise that our perspective is not what George Eliot intended.

One thing, however, is quite clear.   Daniel Deronda was published in 1876, twenty years before Theodore Herzl published “Der Judenstaat”.   This suggests that Zionism was not the idea of one man, even if he did play a significant role in its promulgation.   It suggests that Zionism was part of the nationalist ferment that engulfed Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, and which spread to the rest of the world with consequences that we are still dealing with today.   It was part of the same intellectual ideology that led to Mazzini calling for the unification of Italy, to Bismarck ensuring the unification of Germany, to Kossuth leading the Hungarians in rebellion against the Habsburg Empire in 1848, and eventually to Gabriel Princip assassinating the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

It was part of a movement worldwide that led to Pixley ka Isaka Seme putting a project before his people in 1912 that led to the founding of the African National Congress.   It was part of a movement that led to Mahatma Gandhi making salt from seawater and sealing the fate of the British Empire in the process.

Eliot quite clearly states through Mordecai and in the last pages of the book through Deronda himself the early ideals of the Zionist movement, and they are quite admirable especially as, with hindsight, we know what was to happen in Europe.   But there is one thing that is not mentioned at any time, that is not given consideration and it lies at the heart of the problems of the Middle East to this day.   There is no mention of what is to happen to the Palestinian people.   Of course, in the 1870s when European settlers were arriving in the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, southern Africa and various other parts of the world, it is hardly surprising that no thought was given to what was going to happen to the indigenous populations.   It is quite ironic, in this context, that 1876 was the year of the battle of the Little Bighorn.   1879 was to see the defeat and destruction of a British army by the Zulu King at Isandhlwana.

It is quite interesting that no-one in the book even mentions the issue of the Palestinian people, let alone suggesting that it was a major issue that Zionism had to deal with.   It is still such.   In my view, there will be no peace in the Middle East until that is done.   The problem for Israel is a simple one: it can win every war but the last one.   Krak des Chevaliers is there as an example: a Frankish fort that is now a ruin.   It is not Salah-ed-din who should be the lodestone of policy, but El Rukh Ed-din Baibars-el-Bundukdari, who destroyed the Crusader kingdoms once and for all.

The other major theme of the book is feminism.   Eliot presents the feminist argument very strongly through the examples that she puts before us.   The two main female characters, Gwendolen and Mirah, both have to deal with abusive men, the former with her husband and the latter with her father.   Mirah’s situation was that she was abducted as a child by her father, who abandoned both her mother and elder brother.   He stole Mirah because she had a good singing voice and, as a girl, there would be other ways in which he could earn an income from her as she grew up.   When the father tries to sell her to an Austrian count, Mirah takes her courage in both hands and runs away in search of her mother and brother.   That is how she comes to meet Daniel Deronda, who helps her to find her brother; the mother has already died.   Mirah is then protected from her abusive father by her brother and by Deronda.   It is made clear that she cannot protect herself because society would not allow her to do so.   There is no such thing as an independent woman living outside the protection, and therefore the dominance, of her menfolk.   Mirah is lucky that she can escape from her villainous and exploitative father into the loving care of her brother, Mordecai, and of Deronda.

Gwendolen is another case entirely.   When we first meet her, she is a young woman determined to have her own way, and to make herself noticed in the world.   The fact that she is vivacious and good-looking helps her enormously in this objective.   She attracts the attention of eligible bachelors, and that appears to be the height of her ambition.   In particular, she attracts the attention of Grandcourt, a wealthy landowner.   Then she discovers that he has had four children by Mrs. Glasher, his abandoned mistress, and runs away to a spa town called Leubrunn where she meet Deronda.   Then fate intervenes and Gwendolen decides to marry Grandcourt because her mother is in financial difficulties.    She is perfectly aware that Grandcourt has treated Mrs. Glasher very badly, but is not prepared for the campaign of psychological bullying that he launches against her so that he can reduce her to total obedience to his every whim.   There is no use of physical violence.   Grandcourt does not need that.   He simply undermines her self-confidence at every possible opportunity.

Without question, the strongest woman in the whole story is Deronda’s mother, when she finally reveals herself.   It is her action, asserting herself and securing what she wants, that is the hinge for the whole story.   Even she has to resort to subterfuge to achieve her aim against the will of her father.

Time and again, Eliot shows that women are at the mercy of their menfolk.   If the men are not kind and loving, the lives of the women are dreadful.   Mrs. Glasher, for instance, is reduced to the role of Banquo’s ghost making appearances that she hopes will disturb consciences to the advantage of her children.   Mrs. Davilow, Gwendolen’s mother, is dependent upon the goodwill of her brother.   Lady Mallinger, regretting that she has not given birth to a son as well as daughters, has to hope that her husband, Sir Hugo, will make proper provision for her widowhood which he is making every effort to do.   There is no case in the book where the women are not dependent upon the men.

It could be argued that the book is about the nineteenth century and that things have changed.   But we still live in a patriarchal society.   We still live in a society where public life is dominated by men, even if quirks of fate have given us in the UK a female head of state and a female prime minister at the moment.    We live in a society where women’s refuges are still necessary to provide them with shelter from abusive relationships.   If there has been change, it has not gone far enough.

At least today, women do not have to publish novels using a male pseudonym but that is not much of an advance.   As has been recently demonstrated, there is still a glass ceiling, and there is much worse than glass ceilings.   That is what a modern-day Mary Ann Evans would be telling us.

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