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Saturday, July 04, 2015

Eliot, Daniela Deronda

The Toast once summarized all English novels with the phrase "fraught seating arrangements," which is a very accurate description of large parts of this book (as also of every book by Henry James, and a lot of Jane Austen, especially Mansfield Park, which is may be the epitome of her virtue revealed through extremely subtle gestures that only someone of extraordinary sensitivity could notice). 

I appreciate the value of manners and rules of conduct, but can't quite understand how the Victorians concluded that good manners simply are virtue, and the highest virtue is the best manners, such that the slightest deviation - a sideways glance, an insufficiently light smile, a too-long pause or alternately a too-brief one - could be taken to reveal the profound corruption (or even just an incomplete virtue, which amounts to the same thing) within. Sure, the actions reveal the man, but does that really extend to the actions of his eyebrows? 

For example, here is a line from the novel: "And Mrs. Meyrick's face showed something like an undercurrent of expression, not allowed to get to the surface." Notice that what this sentence actually means is that Mrs. Meyrick's face showed nothing and no one noticed it. But the precise nothingness that it showed revealed everything about her state of mind and loftiness of soul. Mrs. Meyrick is so virtuous that she communicates telepathically, and is perfectly understood by others like herself. Not to say that this level of exquisite sensitivity to both other people and to what is right in every circumstance is not admirable, just that it is...a very high standard, perhaps unattainable by those who have the misfortune of not being born into Victorian novels?

But even if we do take this standard as a worthy one, it still seems kind of cramped, like heroism is just the exercise of very good manners with great sincerity behind them towards all the people in your country neighborhood. The characters all have their heads stuffed with earlier modes of heroism - Dante and the art of the Italian Renaissance make many appearances, as do the novels of Walter Scott - but their own lives are so small that all they can channel these aspirations into is maintaining pleasant social concord. 

Well, that's not quite accurate, because the title character, who spends all 800 pages of the book looking for a great purpose to which to dedicate himself finally does find one that supersedes the boundaries of Wanchester. Which brings us to the non-Victorian society half of the novel, which is about how the Jews are a mystical race of prophetic unicorns in need of a national homeland. Back in high school, when I used to read about the 19th C. history of Zionism, I could've probably had a better idea about whether Eliot's mysticism-induced Zionism was plausible if not exactly mainstream, but unfortunately, because I was reading about the history of Zionism and other exclusively non-literary things in high school, I was not reading George Eliot.

2 comments:

Withywindle said...

I never could get into Daniel Deronda. But I did like Middlemarch.

Quoth Georgie E., "The Jews are numinous!"
Substantiation 'twas voluminous.

Miss Self-Important said...

Ha, yes, exactly. Well, something made it voluminous (possibly the fact of consisting of two separate plots), but the numinousness of the Jews was not in fact substantiated. The introduction tells us that Eliot did extensive research for this book, which I do not doubt, but there is no point at which the Jewish mystical genius figure gives us much of an account of his apparently brilliant and intensely compelling new ideas. At one point, he glosses the Shema to suggest that the unity of God is somehow connected to the unity of the Jewish people, who have suffered a lot but have remained intact, except for all the ones who converted and assimilated, which we regret, but this doesn't seem like an especially brilliant observation.