‘Faites vos jeux’: homelands and the high stakes of passion in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda, George Eliot’s extraordinary last novel, was published in eight monthly parts from February to September 1876. The reading public eagerly awaited each new instalment of a work that promised to be a love story between a dangerously beautiful girl and a handsome young man.

The novel opens in a European casino with the question ‘Was she beautiful or not beautiful?’ ‘She’ is Gwendolen Harleth, a ‘Nereid in sea-green robes and silver ornaments, with a pale sea-green feather fastened in silver falling backward over her green hat and light-brown hair’.

The questioner is Daniel Deronda, an aristocratic young man with an ironic smile. And the answer to his question is, most emphatically, ‘beautiful’: ‘Some faces which are peculiar in their beauty are like original works of art: for the first time they are almost always met with question.’

The novel’s central character, Daniel Deronda, is an intriguing and most unusual hero, less acting than acted upon, able to feel the lives of others to an almost painful degree. His apparent lack of self-interest and his compassion for the entire living world make him appear to his friends as a perfect being, ‘like an Olympian who needed nothing’. But he longs desperately for something: an event that will urge him into action and ‘compress his wandering energy’.

Daniel Deronda in the BBC series

Deronda lives with his wealthy uncle and has every comfort money can buy, but there is a gaping absence at the heart of his life – he has no idea who his parents are. The secrecy that surrounds his parentage sets him adrift in life. He is unfocused in intent, burning with unanswered purpose; even his decision to study law ‘had been without other result than to deepen the roots of indecision’.

Gwendolen Harleth seems equally at sea in the world. Charged with a nervous intensity, Gwendolen dreams of achieving greatness, which proves challenging for a woman in Victorian England without fortune or genius. Unlike earlier 19th century heroines, Gwendoline recoils from the idea of marriage, thinking it ‘rather a dreary state, in which a woman could not do what she liked, had more children than were desirable, was consequently dull, and became irrevocably immersed in humdrum’.

Gwendolen Harleth

If Victorian readers’ expectations of a love story between Deronda and Gwendolen were challenged by the arrival of a beautiful young Jewish girl, Mirah Lapidoth, they were staggered by the turn the novel takes following Mirah’s appearance. For Eliot uses the intersecting lives of these three young people to draw a portrait of Jewish life in England and articulate a dream of a Jewish return to Palestine – and, in so doing, produced one of the most controversial novels of her day.

At a time when the spirit of nationalism was firing across Europe, fuelled by the French Revolution and the recent success of the national liberation movement in Italy (founded in 1847 by Count Camillo di Cavour and culminating in 1871 following the defeat of the last French and Austrian strongholds on Italian soil), Eliot was determined to engage her English readers with the plight of the Jews and their homelessness.

As one character says: ‘The idea that I am possessed with is that of restoring a political existence to my people, making them a nation again, giving them a national centre, such as the English have, though they too are scattered over the face of the globe.’

Daniel rescues Mirah

Although the public continued to buy the latest instalments of Daniel Deronda, the response of non-Jewish readers to its Jewish content was ambivalent. Even Eliot’s partner, the ever-supportive George Henry Lewes, privately expressed wonder at Eliot’s determination to engage so fully with Jewish concerns in a novel.

Eliot’s interest in the Jews was fired by her friendship with Immanuel Deutsch, a Jewish scholar at the British Museum whom she met in 1866. The character of Ezra Mordecai in Daniel Deronda is said to be based on her friend. Like Deutsch, Mordecai is an impoverished scholar and mystic, eaten up by his vision of a Jewish homeland, which at the time was an impossible dream plagued by insurmountable difficulties. As Mordecai says: ‘Difficulties? I know there are difficulties. But let the spirit of sublime achievement move in the great among our people, and the work will begin.’

Eliot was an astute observer of her contemporary scene, conversant with the work of Charles Darwin, the philosophy of Spinoza, the music of Richard Wagner – and the ‘Jewish question’ was a pressing issue of the day. The number of Jews in England increased fivefold from 1850 t0 1900, and Jews were becoming prominent in English life. In 1857, Sir David Salomons was the first Jew to be elected lord mayor of London. In 1868, Benjamin Disraeli – born a Jew and baptised an Anglican – was elected prime minister of Great Britain, becoming the first Jewish-born prime minister in Europe.

And the idea of a Jewish return to Palestine had a long history in England, supported by many prominent Christians and dating back to the publication in 1611 of the first English translation of the Bible, the King James Version, which introduced English readers for the first time to the Jews’ origins in Palestine. By the end of the 19th century, on a tide of nationalism, the Jews had been emancipated in most European nations except Russia, following the precedent set by Revolutionary France which granted citizenship to Jews in 1791.

From the 1840s the English began actively to encourage Jewish settlements in Palestine, despite opposition from orthodox Jews. The Jewish quest for a return to their homeland gained further momentum after Eliot’s death, with the establishment of European Zionism in 1897 by Theodore Herzl.

Daniel Deronda was greeted enthusiastically by Jews in England and across Europe. Chaim Guedalla, a leader of London’s Jewish community, wrote to Eliot twice in 1876 outlining suggestions for a Jewish colony in Palestine with the possible assistance of Turkish finance (a vision opposed by many orthodox Jews). Rabbi David Kaufman, from the Jewish Theological Seminary in Budapest, sent Eliot his commentary on Daniel Deronda, published in English in 1878 as George Eliot and Judaism. As Kaufman wrote: ‘None but a poetess … would have ventured to animate her work with a sentiment so strange … as the longings of the Jews for the reestablishment of their kingdom … She shows a taste and a facility of reference really amazing.’

For decades Daniel Deronda, a novel by a non-Jewish English woman, inspired Jews with a vision that was later realised with the founding of Israel in 1948.

The realisation of dreams of such magnitude requires passion – and in Daniel Deronda Eliot engages the full force of her considerable intellect and imagination with the many manifestations of passion. For Eliot, those who live beyond their immediate, personal concerns, the ‘souls which burn themselves out in solitary enthusiasm’, are the great ones, for it is they who accomplish remarkable things, in art, politics, religion, literature, science. As Deronda begins to divine his own impassioned purpose, he reflects:

‘But were not men of ardent zeal and far-reaching hope everywhere exceptional? – the men who had the visions which, as Mordecai said, were the creators and feeders of the world – moulding and feeding the more passive life which without them would dwindle and shrivel into the narrow tenacity of insects, unshaken by thoughts beyond the reach of their antennae.’


Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans in 1819 in Warwickshire, was herself passionate and intellectually gifted. That she felt this as a burden as well as a joy might be seen in the outburst of Princess Halm-Eberstein in Daniel Deronda:

‘You are not a woman. You may try – but you can never imagine what it is to have a man’s force of genius in you, and yet to suffer the slavery of being a girl.’

Until her mother’s death in 1836, Eliot was sent to various boarding schools where she became a studious and devoutly religious child. But her religious devotion was challenged when, aged 22, she moved with her father to Coventry, where she met the free thinkers Charles and Caroline Bray, and Charles Hennell, whose book An Enquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity (1836) encouraged Eliot to abandon orthodox Christianity and declare to her father that she would no longer accompany him to church. The ensuing stand-off between father and daughter could be resolved only by compromise: the daughter could think as she pleased as long as she continued to appear at church.

Eliot’s linguistic gifts – she read fluently in French, Spanish, Italian and German – were recognised by Hennell, who arranged for her to translate from German DF Strauss’s influential book The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. The translation was published anonymously in 1846 by John Chapman and, when Eliot moved to London to become a freelance writer following her father’s death in 1849, Chapman made her the managing editor of his journal The Westminster Review.

In London Eliot fell passionately in love with a series of men until in 1851 she met the journalist George Henry Lewes. Lewes was married, but with his knowledge his wife was involved with another man, so in July 1854 Eliot and Lewes were free to travel together as lovers to Germany. They stayed in Germany until March 1855 while Eliot began her translation of Spinoza’s Ethics and Lewes worked on his Life of Goethe. On their return to London they continued to live as husband and wife, which caused such a scandal that Eliot’s family rejected her. But despite suffering depression as a result, the determined Eliot defied convention and public opinion to live with Lewes until his death in 1878.

Encouraged by Lewes, Eliot began to write fiction. Her first book, a collection of three short stories, appeared in 1858 as Scenes of Clerical Life under the pseudonym ‘George Eliot’. ‘George’ was chosen after Lewes’s first name, ‘Eliot’ because she thought it sounded substantial. The publisher John Blackwood did not guess the gifted author George Eliot was in fact a woman, believing her to be ‘a man who had seen a great deal of society’.

Eliot’s first full-length novel, Adam Bede, was published in 1859 and reprinted eight times in its first year. Eliot wrote six more novels, including Middlemarch: A study of provincial life, and dozens of essays and articles, becoming one of the 19th century’s most acclaimed writers in English.

After Lewes’s death Eliot caused another sensation by marrying, aged 60, her friend and banker John Walter Cross, an American 20 years younger than her. She died seven months after their wedding and was buried beside Lewes in London’s Highgate Cemetery.

Since its publication in 1876, Daniel Deronda has continued to divide opinion, with many readers lamenting what they consider its divided nature: half love story, half treatise on the homelessness of the Jews. And although it has not received the widespread adulation of the less troubling Middlemarch, for many readers it remains one of the most exciting and challenging imaginative conceptions of the 19th century English novel, and the 2002 BBC TV version was immensely popular with viewers and critics alike.

Eliot herself knew Daniel Deronda would be met with resistance, ‘even repulsion’, but precisely for this reason she felt compelled to try to understand Jewish life in Victorian England in an attempt to disturb ‘the usual attitude of Christians towards Jews’. ‘Moreover,’ she argued, ‘not only towards the Jews, but towards all oriental peoples with whom we English come in contact, a spirit of arrogance and contemptuous dictatorialness is observable which has become a national disgrace to us.’

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4 Responses to ‘Faites vos jeux’: homelands and the high stakes of passion in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Thanks for a great review which brought back vivid memories of reading this book a long time ago. I am a great admirer of George Eliot, for the courage with which she lived her private life and the brilliance with which she wrote. I’ve read and re-read most of her books many times, and never fail to enjoy them.

  2. Thanks Lisa. I also love Eliot, for the reasons you mention. She’s such an astute, profound thinker, so original. And thinking about this novel again, I’d forgotten how intriguing Gwendolen is.

  3. Pingback: Bookending 2012: From women’s writing to … Australia’s forgotten women writers | bookish girl

  4. Pingback: ‘If you can imagine an angel with a thumping bank-account …’: The Wings of the Dove by Henry James | bookish girl

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