A beautifully written book, richly allusive and very enjoyable, but slightly unsatisfying at its denouement.
I had been meaning to read this for quite a while but was spurred to do so by an acquaintance’s observation that I seem to read books, in the main, written by men. And what better female writer of English has there been than George Eliot?
I note in passing that the dialogue in this book between women felt much more convincing, to me at any rate, than in Eliot’s contemporaries like Dickens or Trollope. I might have imagined it; or perhaps it is too obvious to need stating.
She apparently said that she wanted to write a book where everything linked to everything else and she seems to have succeeded in that. I say ‘seems to’ because many of these connections seem, to me, likely only to emerge over several readings and a bit of study.
The title character acts as a connector himself, actually, between the 2 chief elements of the book – the story of the rather solipsistic and inexperienced Gwendolen Harleth and her discovery of the deeper aspects of human existence; and the discussion of Jewishness and its role in British Victorian society.
Some themes of the book echo strongly in the world of today: the thrall of money; the question of whether women can ‘have it all’, especially in relation to Deronda’s mother; the role of race and culture in our personalities; the suppression of self in the face of convention and social expectation; and the place of ancient religious faith in a rapidly changing world.
The novel attracted controversy when it was published because of its very sympathetic and enthusiastic description of Jews and the Jewish faith. This was a feature of the time, of course, as reading a bit of Trollope reminds us. Anti-Semitism was casual and ingrained. The focus on the separateness and difference of Jews feels outdated to many Britons of today. As someone who grew up as an unbelieving Catholic in an anonymous London suburb, Jews and Jewishness have always been pretty unexceptionable elements of a mixed social environment. But I might be more unusual than I think, I realise.
The conclusion of the novel felt a little rushed, with some important strands of the story being tied off as if they were loose ends. But the best thing about the book is the allusions, which come thick and fast and which benefit from some decent notes, which the Penguin edition provides.
It is a long book, with some sizeable set piece scenes, such as the discussion of Jewishness in the ‘Hand and Banner’, a pub in London. But it is worth the effort. A rewarding and thought-provoking book.