“Daniel Deronda” by George Eliot

“Daniel Deronda” by George Eliot (1876) – 737 pages

 “Daniel Deronda” has been at or near the top of my list of classical novels I’ve wanted to read ever since I read “Middlemarch” back in the late Nineties. “Middlemarch” was one of the finest novels I’ve ever read. So when I discovered that“Daniel Deronda” was available in audio book form, I went for it. I downloaded all 30 hours of Daniel Deronda on to my MP3 player and listened to it during my long commutes to and from work.

From the BBC Daniel Deronda Mini-Series

I must say that listening to the novel in the car was a very pleasant experience. The novel is filled with characters and events like the rest of George Eliot’s work. You get a good sense of middle nineteenth century provincial English life, both those fortunate enough to be titled as well as all of the commoners. Scenes and characters in “Daniel Deronda are sharply delineated; I had no problem following the story, and I stopped listening each car trip wondering what was going to happen next in the novel.

 Before discussing “Daniel Deronda” further, I want to relate my history of reading George Eliot novels. The first novel I read probably more than thirty years ago was “Silas Marner”. For some reason, I found this story of an old man and the little girl he rescued from the snow rather melodramatic and fulsome at the time. I avoided further George Eliot novels for a number of years. Then in the mid-Nineties I crept back. I read “The Mill on the Floss” and enjoyed it immensely; then I read “Adam Bede” and that novel also seemed excellent to me. Then I read “Middlemarch”. After “Middlemarch”, George Eliot became one of my two favorite writers, up there with Patrick White. The only George Eliot work I read between “Middlemarch” and “Daniel Deronda” was one of the stories in “Scenes of Clerical Life”, ‘Janet’s Repentance’ which did seem rather melodramatic to me.

“Daniel Deronda” has some similarities to “Middlemarch”. They both have an unhappy marriage as a main story line. No writer is better than George Eliot in describing an unhappy marriage from the woman’s point of view. If Jane Austen is the novelist of the courtships, George Eliot is the novel of the subsequent unhappy marriages. In “Middlemarch”, who can forget the cold Casaubon and his treatment of Dorothea Brooke? In “Daniel Deronda” the villain is the aristocratic cold fish Lord Grandcourt. Here is another unforgettable portrait of a bad husband.

Just as in “Middlemarch”, there are multiple story lines in “Daniel Deronda” to hold the reader’s interest.

I must say that “Daniel Deronda” does not quite soar to the high level of “Middlemarch” as a novel, at least in my estimation. There are a couple of reasons for this. The heroine of “Middlemarch “, Dorothea Brooke, has formidable intelligence, and she is almost a stand-in for George Eliot herself in her eloquence. The main heroine of “Daniel Deronda”, Gwendolen Harleth, in comparison is more the high-spirited airhead.

The second reason “Daniel Deronda” is not quite as good as “Middlemarch” has to do with its theme. The theme of “Daniel Deronda” is Semitism and British anti-Semitism. This is an admirable theme. However the main Jewish characters in the novel are just too good to be true. One can understand George Eliot’s reasons for depicting these characters in such a positive light, but some of the scenes in the novel become reminiscent of a “Movie of the Week” where a problem is highlighted, and the victims of the problem are depicted in an all too noble light. Except for these two or three characters, George Eliot had no problem seeing the bad side of her characters as well as their good side. The bad side only makes them more human.

 My evaluation would be that if you’ve read “Middlemarch” and really liked it, read “Daniel Deronda”. You will most likely enjoy “Daniel Deronda”.   However, by all means read “Middlemarch” first.  For me, my next George Eliot novel will probably be a re-read of Silas Marner to find out what I missed the first time.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. I read Daniel Deronda several years back (my most recent Eliot, in fact) and loved it in spite of all its flaws (and I admit that it is a rather flawed book). Something about it clicked, something about the message and the way the story progresses. I liked it. A lot.

    I’ve read the first few pages of Middlemarch maybe a dozen times but I’ve never serious begun to read it. I suspect that if I loved Daniel Deronda quite so much (and Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss, all excellent), I’ll probably love Middlemarch too. I just need to get cracking.

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  2. Hi Biblibio,
    For me, Middlemarch is up there in the stratosphere, maybe the best novel I ever read. Probably if I’d read Daniel Deronda before Middlemarch, I would have been more impressed with Daniel Deronda.
    Adam Bede is also a great novel. Haven’t read Romula yet and probably won’t.

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  3. Middlemarch is one of my very favorite books ever, but I also enjoyed Daniel Deronda. My feelings about comparing the two are pretty much the same as yours. I read Romola recently, and it had a bit of the melodrama you touched on in other works. But really, George Eliot can do no wrong in my eyes!

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  4. Hi Shelley,
    I agree, George Eliot can do no wrong. Even those in future generations who read her novels wil find an amazing intelligent writer.

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

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  5. […] last week so I’ll tell you about the TV miniseries based on George Eliot’s final novel Daniel Deronda. It is set in the 19th century and was her most controversial body of work because it shows […]

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