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George Eliot (1902)

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Leslie Stephen


1 GEORGE ELIOT was to write one more novel, and one which was intended to give most clearly her message to mankind. In June 1874 she is "brewing her future big book." In February 1876 the first part was published; it came out in the same form as Middlemarch, in eight monthly parts, and had from the first a larger sale than its predecessor. Here again we have the doctrine of ideals, and expounded with even more emphasis. The story is really two stories put side by side and intersecting at intervals. Each gives a life embodying a principle, and each illustrates its opposite by the contrast. Gwendolen Harleth, a young lady with aspirations in a latent state, is misled into a worldly marriage, and though ultimately saved, is saved "as by fire." Daniel Deronda is throughout true to his higher nature, and is, in George Eliot's works, what Sir Charles Grandison is in Richardson's--the type of human perfection. The story of Gwendolen's marriage shows undiminished power. Here and there, perhaps, we have a little too much psychological analysis; but, after all, the reader who objects to psychology can avoid it by skipping a paragraph or two. It is another version of the old tragic motive: the paralysing influence of unmitigated and concentrated selfishness, already illustrated by Tito and Rosamond. Grandcourt, to whom Gwendolen sacrifices herself, is compared to a crab or a boa-constrictor slowly pinching its victim to death: to appeal to him for mercy would be as idle as to appeal to "a dangerous serpent ornamentally coiled on her arm." He is a Tito in a further stage of development--with all better feelings atrophied, and enabled, by his fortune, to gratify his spite without exerting himself in intrigues. Like Tito, he suggests, to me at least, rather the cruel woman than the male autocrat. Some critic remarked, to George Eliot's annoyance, that the scenes between him and his parasite Lush showed the "imperious feminine, not the masculine character." She comforted herself by the statement that Bernal Osborne--a thorough man of the world--had commended these scenes as specially lifelike. I can, indeed, accept both views, for the distinction is rather too delicate for definite application. One feels, I think, that Grandcourt was drawn by a woman; but a sort of voluptuous enjoyment of malignant tyranny is unfortunately not confined to either sex. Anyhow, Gwendolen's ordeal is pathetic, and she excites more sympathy than any of George Eliot's victims. Perhaps she excites a little too much. At least, when she comes very near homicide (like Caterina in the Clerical Scenes and Bulstrode in Middlemarch), and withholds her hand from her drowning husband, one is strongly tempted to give the verdict, "Served him right." She, however, feels some remorse; and Daniel Deronda, who becomes her confessor, is much too admirable a being to give any sanction to this immoral source of consolation. She is so charming in her way that we feel more interest in the criminal than in the confessor. "I have no sympathy," she says on one occasion, "with women who are always doing right." Perhaps that is the reason why we cannot quite bow the knee before Daniel Deronda.
2 That young gentleman is a model from the first. He has a "seraphic face." There is "hardly a delicacy of feeling" of which he is not capable--even when he is at Eton. He is so ethereal a being that we are a little shocked when he is mentioned in connection with entrées. One can't fancy an angel at a London dinner table. That is, indeed, the impression which he makes upon his friend. A family is created expressly to pay homage to him. They are supposed to have a sense of humour to make their worship more impressive; but they certainly keep it in the background when speaking of him. People, says one of the young ladies, must be content to take our brothers for husbands, because they can't get Deronda. "No woman ought to want to marry him," replies her sister ... "fancy finding out that he had a tailor's bill and used boot-hooks, like our brother." Angels don't employ tailors. They compare him to his face to Buddha, who gave himself to a famishing tigress to save her and her cubs from starvation. To Gwendolen this peerless person naturally becomes an "outer conscience"; and when he exhorts her to use her past sorrow as a preparation for life, instead of letting it spoil her life, the words are to her "like the touch of a miraculous hand." She begins "a new existence," but it seems "inseparable from Deronda," and she longs that his presence may be permanent. Happily she does not dare to love him, and hopes only to be bound to him by a "spiritual tie." That is just as well, because by a fortunate accident he has picked a perfect young Jewess out of the Thames, into which she had thrown herself, like Mary Wollstonecraft. Moreover, by another providential accident--Providence interferes rather to excess--he has walked into the city and stumbled upon a virtuous Jewish pawnbroker; and at the pawnbroker's has met the Jewess's long-lost brother Mordecai, who turns out to be as perfect as Deronda himself.
3 It must be admitted that the Jewish circle into which Deronda is admitted does not strike one as drawn from the life. That is only natural, as Mordecai is the incarnated pursuit of an ideal. Mordecai is devoted to the restoration of the Jewish nationality--a scheme which to the vulgar mind seems only one degree less chimerical than Zarca's plan for a gypsy nationality in Africa. It gives a chance to Deronda, however. For a perfect young man in a time of "social questions," he has hitherto been rather oddly at a loss for an end to which he can devote his powers. This is explained by a lengthy dissertation on his character. He is too good. "His plenteous flexible sympathy had ended by falling into one current with that reflective analysis which tends to neutralise sympathy." He is not vicious, but he "takes even vices mildly"; he is "fervidly democratic" from sympathy with the people, and yet "intensely conservative" from imagination and affection. He likes to be on the losing side in order to have the pleasure of martyrdom; but he is afraid that too much martyrdom will make him bitter. The solution comes by the discovery, strangely delayed by a combination of circumstances, that he was a genuine Jew by birth. Now he can accept Mordecai for his prophet and take "heredity" for his guide. "You," he says to that inspired person, "have given shape to what, I believe, was an inherited yearning--the effect of brooding passionate thoughts in many ancestors--thoughts that seem to have been intensely present with my grandfather." He has always longed for an 'ideal task'--some "captainship, which should come to him as a duty and not be striven for as a personal prize." The "idea that I am possessed with," as he afterward explains, is "that of restoring a political existence to my people, making them a nation again, giving them a national centre such as the English, though they too are scattered over the face of the globe." It seems from her volume of essays (Theophrastus Such) that George Eliot considered this to be a reasonable investment of human energy. As we cannot all discover that we belong to the chosen people, and some of us might, even then, doubt the wisdom of the enterprise, one feels that Deronda's mode of solving his problem is not generally applicable. George Eliot's sympathy for the Jews, her aversion to Anti-Semitism, was thoroughly generous, and naturally welcomed by its objects. But taken as the motive of a hero it strikes one as showing a defective sense of humour. "One may understand jokes without liking them," says the musician Klesmer; and adds, "I am very sensible to wit and humour." There can be no doubt that George Eliot was very sensible to those qualities, and yet she refuses to perceive that Daniel Deronda is an amiable monomaniac and occasionally a very prosy moralist.
4 I must repeat that George Eliot was intensely feminine, though more philosophical than most women. She shows it to the best purpose in the subtlety and the charm of her portraits of women, unrivalled in some ways by any writer of either sex; and shows it also, as I think, in a true perception of the more feminine aspects of her male characters. Still, she sometimes illustrates the weakness of the feminine view. Daniel Deronda is not merely a feminine but, one is inclined to say, a schoolgirl's hero. He is so sensitive and scrupulously delicate that he will not soil his hands by joining in the rough play of ordinary political and social reformers. He will not compromise, and yet he shares the dislike of his creator for fanatics and the devotees of "fads." The monomaniac type is certainly disagreeable, though it may be useful. Deronda contrives to avoid its more offensive peculiarities, but at the price of devoting himself to an unreal and dreamy object. Probably, one fancies, he became disgusted in later life by finding that, after Mordecai's death, the people with whom he had to work had not the charm of that half-inspired visionary. He is, in any case, an idealist, who can only be provided with a task by a kind of providential interposition. The discovery that one can be carrying out one's grandfather's ideas is not generally a very powerful source of inspiration. "heredity" represents an important factor in life, but can hardly be made into a religion. So far, therefore, as Deronda is an aesthetic embodiment of an ethical revelation--a judicious hint to a young man in search of an ideal--he represents an untenable theory. From the point of view of the simple novel reader he fails from unreality. George Eliot, in later years, came to know several representatives in the younger generation of the class to which Deronda belonged. She speaks, for example, with great warmth of Henry Sidgwick. His friends, she remarks, by their own account, always "expected him to act according to a higher standard" than they would attribute to any one else or adopt for themselves. She sent Deronda to Cambridge soon after she had written this, and took great care to give an accurate account of the incidents of Cambridge life. I have always fancied--though without any evidence--that some touches in Deronda were drawn from one of her friends, Edmund Gurney, a man of remarkable charm of character, and as good-looking as Deronda. In the Cambridge atmosphere of Deronda's days there was, I think, a certain element of rough commonsense which might have knocked some of her hero's nonsense out of him. But, in any case, one is sensible that George Eliot, if she is thinking of real life at all, has come to see through a romantic haze which deprives the portrait of reality. The imaginative sense is declining, and the characters are becoming emblems or symbols of principle, and composed of more moonshine than solid flesh and blood. The Gwendolen story taken by itself is a masterly piece of social satire; but in spite of the approval of learned Jews, it is impossible to feel any enthusiastic regard for Deronda in his surroundings.

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