Lord Byron and George Eliot: Embracing National Identity in Daniel Deronda

And when shall Israel lave her bleeding feet?
And when shall Zion's songs again seem sweet?
And Judah's melody once more rejoice
The hearts that leap'd before its heavenly voice?

Tribes of the wandering foot and weary breast,
How shall ye flee away and be at rest!
The wild-dove hath her nest-the fox his cave-
Mankind their country-Israel but the grave!
(Byron, "Oh Weep For Those")
Byron's Hebrew Melodies, published in 1815, were written as part of his musical collaboration with the Jewish composer Isaac Nathan. Even though anti-Semitism ran rampant through England during the Romantic period, Byron's Hebrew Melodies remain his most widely respected collection. Despite anti-Semitic prejudice in England during the nineteenth-century, Byron was not the only English writer to take up the Jewish plight as his subject matter. Almost sixty years later, George Eliot would take up a similar set of themes in her novel Daniel Deronda. Significantly, Eliot's novel not only discusses the Jewish desire for a homeland in detail, it does so with numerous, specific references to Byron and his works. Eliot uses both the Jewish plot of Daniel Deronda and Byron as agents to discuss how Victorian England could revive its own national character.


Before discussing how Byron functions in Daniel Deronda, it is first necessary to establish his character as an important backdrop within the novel. Byron appears in Daniel Deronda in two basic ways. First, Eliot, who read widely of Byron's works as did most Victorians, creates scenes strongly mirroring those found in Byron. Eliot also subtly references his works, especially the Oriental tales. An example of the former is found in chapter 16, where Eliot describes Deronda surveying family portraits. Eliot writes: "Two rows of these descendents [...] looked down in the gallery over the cloisters on the nephew Daniel as he walked there: men in armour with pointed beards [...] pinched ladies in hoops and ruffs […] grave-looking men in black velvet [...] and frightened women holding little boys by the hand" (165). A strikingly similar scene is described in stanza XI of Byron's Lara

. He turn'd within his solitary hall And his high shadow shot along the wall:
There were the painted forms of earlier times,
'Twas all they left of virtues or of crimes,
Save vague tradition; (lines 181-185)

Other examples of direct reference include when Eliot has Isabel inventing a "corsair or two to make an adventure that might end well" (708, emphasis mine) and mentions that "Hans was wont to make merry with his own arguments, to call himself a Giaour, [...] but he believed a little in what he laughed at" (731, emphasis mine).

Byron also appears in Daniel Deronda as a man himself. That is, Byron's personal myth finds its way into the novel. Significantly, the opening scene of the novel in which Deronda sees Gwendolen gambling is based on Eliot's own witnessing of Miss Leigh gambling in Homburg, 28 September 1872. George Henry Lewes' diary mentions "Miss Leigh (Byron's granddaughter) having lost 500 [pounds] looking feverishly excited. Painful sight.' (GHL 1872 Diary). George Eliot also mentions this scene, in a letter to John Blackwood, as "the saddest thing to be witnessed" (GEL V 314). But more than this, Byron himself figures in the novel. For instance, in chapter 11, Eliot writes, "Lord Brackenshaw, who was something of a gourmet, mentioned Byron's opinion that a woman should never be seen eating-introducing it with a confidential-'The fact is' -as if he were for the first time admitting his concurrence in that sentiment of the refined poet" (116).

Moreover, Eliot reveals many ways in which Byron and Deronda are alike. Sir Hugo's The Abbey, the orphaned Deronda's home, is very similar to Byron's ancestral home Newstead Abbey. Eliot describes Sir Hugo's home as "one of the finest in England, at once historical, romantic, and home-like: a picturesque architectural out-growth from an abbey, which had still remnants of the old monastic trunk" (165). Byron's Newstead Abbey, which Sir John received from Henry VIII "preserved much of the original structure and the monastic layout. The cloister still remains at the heart of the building. Likewise, the impressive 13th-century west wall of the priory church continues to enhance the size and grandeur of the entrance front" (Newstead Abbey 4). Further, Byron fostered the ghost stories about Newstead when he had visitors, just as Sir Hugo does in chapter 35. He says at dinner, "'There used to be rows of Benedictines sitting where we are sitting. Suppose we were suddenly to see the lights burning low and the ghost of the old monks rising behind all our chairs!'" (Eliot 408). Finally, it is well known that Byron kept a menagerie of animals during his years at Newstead Abbey. According to a brochure made available at Newstead Abbey, "Byron's tame bear and wolf kept him company [in the Great Dining-Room] together with numerous dogs, tortoises and a hedgehog. It is said that some of these animals occupied the chapel" (8). Likewise, in Daniel Deronda, the chapel has been converted into a stable: "Each finely-arched chapel was turned into a stall" (409). Even if mere coincidence, Eliot's descriptions of The Abbey clearly resemble actual details of Newstead Abbey, which was quite popular with Victorian sightseers.

It can also be argued that Eliot provided Deronda with a tragic flaw that checked his vanity in much the same way that Byron's vanity was checked by his club foot. Deronda's suspicion that he is a bastard is analogous to Byron's deformed limb in chapter 16. The possibility that he is illegitimate comes to Deronda as "a surprise that [...] strengthened the silent consciousness [of] a grief within," which "might be compared in some ways with Byron's susceptibility about his deformed foot" (174). On the following page, Eliot says that this gave Deronda "the sense of an entailed disadvantage." It was Deronda's "deformed foot doubtfully hidden by the shoe" (175). Although Deronda is not actually illegitimate, the damage from such a suspicion has already been accomplished by the time he goes off to school. Moreover, Eliot herself suffered from susceptibility analogous to Byron's foot. Rosemarie Bodenheimer says that the "revival of public attention to the connection between Byron and half sister Augusta Leigh shocked and enrages Marian, who could not bring herself to refer to it except as 'the Byron subject' or 'the Byron question'" (237). This may be because Eliot herself wrote several brother/sister sonnets, which might also have been interpreted by the public as admission of similar crimes of incest. On the subject, Eliot wrote that "the fashion of being 'titilated [sic] by the worst is like the uncovering of the dead Lord Byron's club foot'" (Bodenheimer 238).

The question is why is Byron in Daniel Deronda? How does Eliot use him and how does he connect to the Jewish plight to find a homeland as it is discussed in the novel? Few critics have entertained this question because they miss the significance of Byron's presence or ignore that Byronic heroes find particular shape in Eliot's characters, especially Deronda at the opening of the novel. The Byronic hero is commonly understood as an egotist whose primary characteristic is his refusal to recognize any sense of authority that claims to be superior to the self. According to M.K. Newton, he is a rebel who thinks "he can create his own values by an act of will quite independently of all generally accepted moral sanctions" (28). To Byron, of course, these characters are heroes, but Eliot is openly critical of her Byronic egotists, attacking such egotism "when it becomes allied with narrow self-interest" (Newton 36). For Eliot, the self must first discover feeling, which could then act as "the foundation for a larger social and moral vision" (Newton 38). What distinguishes Deronda from Byronic egotists is that he is able to sublimate his egotistic energies and eventually accept the limits placed on the ego.

By Denise Tischler Millstein

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