1876: George Eliot Forays Into Judaism, Public Is Bewildered

'Daniel Deronda' was an extremely unusual look into Jewish life, mainly in being knowledgeable and sympathetic, which confused George Eliot's audience.

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George Eliot at 30 by the Swiss artist François D'Albert Durade. Among the books written by Eliot (22 November 1819-22 December 1880), whose real name was Mary Ann Evans, was 'Daniel Deronda,' a sympathetic portrayal of the Jews.
George Eliot at 30 by François D'Albert DuradeCredit: Wikimedia Commons

On February 1, 1876, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine published the first installment of “Daniel Deronda,” George Eliot’s “Jewish” novel, in which she presented an unusually sympathetic and knowledgeable portrait of Jews and their culture. The work even promoted support for the idea of the Jews returning to the Land of Israel, two decades before the birth of the organized Zionist movement.

George Eliot was the penname of Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880), the Warwickshire-born, free-thinking novelist whose other works included the best-selling “The Mill on the Floss” (1860), “Silas Marner” (1861) and “Middlemarch” (1872).

An optimistic time for the Jews

Though raised in a pious Anglican environment, Eliot – who adopted the pseudonym both to avoid potential prejudice against female writers and because her life partner, George Henry Lewes, remained legally married to another woman – had rejected the religious life religion in the 1840s. Nonetheless, she remained interested in religion, and early in her career had translated both “The Life of Jesus,” by Daniel Strauss, and Spinoza’s “Ethics” from their original German and Latin, respectively, into English.

Eliot’s interest and sympathy for Judaism grew when she became acquainted with Emanuel Deutsch, a German-born scholar of Semitics and Talmud employed by the British Museum Library. The two met in 1866, and Deutsch, who wrote prolifically about Jewish topics for the general public, regularly sent Eliot books and articles for her edification on matters Jewish. Eliot also studied Hebrew with Deutsch.

The 1870s were actually a relatively optimistic period for Jews, both in the United Kingdom and in Europe in general. While Eliot was writing “Daniel Deronda,”  Benjamin Disraeli, a converted Jew, was in his second term as prime minister and in general, the country (and Europe) was in the process of reversing laws that prevented Jews from having complete equality with non-Jews.

A building on George Eliot Street, Tel AvivCredit: Ofer Vaknin

Nonetheless, on the social level, anti-Semitism was still very common, and professionally Jews remained confined to working predominantly in trade and in the financial sector.

Not all that well received

Two narrative strands run through “Daniel Deronda,” with the title character connecting them both. Daniel is a young man – intelligent, charitable, moral and handsome – whose origins are uncertain, and who has been raised as a gentleman in the home of Sir Hugo. One day, he saves from drowning Mirah Lapidoth, a young Jewish singer who is trying to kill herself because her abusive father wants to sell her off as a high-class prostitute. Daniel rescues Mirah, helps her find honorable work as a singer, and reunites her with her long-lost brother, Ezra Mordecai, a learned and pious merchant who dreams of a Jewish return to Zion, though he himself is dying of tuberculosis.

Daniel’s relationship with the head-strong, arrogant and beautiful Gwendolen Harleth constitutes the book’s other strand: He serves her as something of a moral compass and source of support, even after she marries for money and discovers that her husband is a monster. 

In the novel’s highly contrived ending, Daniel meets his mother, learns that he is Jewish by birth, and pledges himself both to Mirah and to the dream of reviving the Jewish nation by “going to the East.” Gwendolen, in the meantime, escapes dramatically from her husband and decides to dedicate her life to honest and worthy pursuits.

“Daniel Deronda” was only moderately successful in terms of sales, and had a critical reception that was mixed, with the general consensus being bewilderment at the Jewish elements of the plot. As the Jewish story deepened as the monthly installments advanced, the negative reactions grew. Even Eliot’s publisher, John Blackwood, noted that, although “The Jews should be the most interesting people in the world even her magic pen cannot at once make them a popular element in a Novel." 

Some critics even suggested that the book would be better if the two strands were separated, and the Jewish part dropped.

Jews, on the other hand, were very grateful for the book, one of whose earliest translations was into Hebrew. The relative speed with which that version, translated by David Frischman in 1893, came out may have been partly due to the fact Frischman elected to excise all the non-Jewish elements, meaning the entire Gwendolen plot.