Daniel Deronda: a Victorian novel that's still controversial

George Eliot's final novel, Daniel Deronda, was also her most controversial. Few had a problem, upon its publication in 1876, with its portrayal of yearning and repression in the English upper class. But as Eliot's lover, George Henry Lewes, had predicted: "The Jewish element seems to me likely to satisfy nobody."

Deronda was the first of Eliot's novels to be set in her own period, the late 19th century, and in it she took on what was a highly unusual contemporary theme: the position of Jews in British and European society and their likely prospects. The eponymous hero is an idealistic young aristocrat who comes to the rescue of a young Jewish woman and in his attempts to help her find her family is drawn steadily deeper into the Jewish community and the ferment of early Zionist politics.

Their appearance in the book was as unwelcome to some of her readers as it is to some of the characters. While the novel's Lady Mallinger bemoans Daniel's "going mad in this way about the Jews", Eliot's friend John Blackwood noted upon publication: "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." Many years later, FR Leavis called for the Jewish sections of the novel to be cut out completely, leaving a country-house romance to be called Gwendolen Harleth, after the fatally self-absorbed gentile who falls for Deronda.

Forcing such a Jew-free version of the novel to make sense would have been difficult - yet people have continued to try. In this trailer for the 2002 BBC adaptation, the focus - apart from a brief shot of the Jewish singer Mirah by the Thames - is exclusively on a supposed romance between Daniel and Gwendolen - a romance that barely takes place in the sense hinted at here.

(Jewish readers could be just as boneheaded; an 1899 essay in the Ha-Shilo'ah periodical called for all the book's gentile sections to be deleted, arguing that they had "almost nothing to do with its main theme and basic idea".)

Why was Eliot so interested in Jewish life? She was brought up an Anglican, but from an early age became interested in the history of religions, and in her twenties fell in with a group of freethinkers in political and religious matters. The differentiation or mingling together of human races was also a subject of interest to her in the wake of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

In the 1860s Eliot met Emanuel Deutsch, a Jewish scholar and early Zionist. Deronda's character of Mordecai - the Jewish scholar and mystic - seems to have been partly based on him. Eliot wrote to Harriet Beecher Stowe after the publication of Deronda that "towards the Hebrews we western people who have been reared in Christianity have a peculiar debt and, whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar thoroughness of fellowship in religious and moral sentiment". She remained interested in Judaism throughout her life, publishing an essay against antisemitism three years later.

What does Daniel Deronda show us about the place of Jews in Britain in the late 19th century? First, that they were unpopular, suffering from easy, casual prejudice, even during the premiership of the Jewish-born Benjamin Disraeli. Eliot is keen to show us what she considers the typical view of Jews - from the upper classes (who superciliously refer to Mirah as a "little Jewess"), to the middle classes (Mrs Meyrick instantly presumes Mirah might have "evil thoughts"), to the working classes (the man in the pub who asks, "[If] they're clever enough to beat half the world - why haven't they done it?")

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