George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda: How one novel reshaped the image of British Jews

Published in 1876, Daniel Deronda is a unique novel in the history of 19th century English literature. Raised in an aristocratic household, Deronda longs to discover his true origins. Who are his real parents? A chance meeting draws him into Whitechapel and the world of British Jews, with whom he has a growing affinity, before eventually discovering the remarkable story of his own birth. Set at the zenith of Victorian England, George Eliot’s last novel displays a deep empathy towards British Jews, while also laying out the author’s firm proto-Zionist sympathies. How did she pull off this singular feat? And why?


George Eliot (1865), engraving from a portrait by Frederick Burton, Wikimedia Commons


It’s a strange quirk of Anglo-Jewish history that the finest book ever published about Jews in this country was written by a gentile, but it’s indisputably true. George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda is the outstanding novel about British Jews and nothing else really comes close. It is a work of radical, almost miraculous empathy that expresses the creed of modern Zionism with foresight and clarity, some 20 years before the word even existed.

Even more important, to my mind, is the way Deronda drastically departs from the generally shallow and bigoted depictions of Jews in English literature that preceded it, presenting them as three-dimensional humans capable of living and even thriving among their gentile neighbours. Would Jews be able to flourish in Christian England? How would the English respond to difference in their midst? These are the critical questions that Eliot poses in her final novel.

A mixed reception

And yet Deronda is and always has been underrated. Many contemporary readers found the book’s Jewish elements baffling and alien. Why ruin an absorbing love story with long dreary screeds about organic Jewish nationhood? Why populate a dazzling aristocratic novel in the grand English style with consumptive Whitechapel bookworms and Mosaic pawnbrokers?

While its sibling Middlemarch is widely considered one of greatest novels ever written, Deronda languishes in the second division, where it will likely remain. Too many blows have been dealt to its reputation and it’s proto-Zionism will win few plaudits from today’s intelligentsia. Beyond the academy, even most Jews don’t pay it much attention. I grew up in a literate Anglo-Jewish household and had no idea the book existed until my twenties.

Cover of the first edition

The strike against Deronda has long been that the novel’s two narrative threads bear little relation to each other. The first thread is a finely wrought love triangle between Daniel Deronda, Gwendolen Harleth and her loathsome suitor Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt. Daniel meets the alluring Gwendolen at the gaming tables in Leubronn, a fictional German spa town, and the pair are immediately drawn to one another. The other narrative is the story of Deronda’s voyage into Judaism and eventual discovery of his own Jewishness. This thread develops a different kind of love triangle, between Deronda, Mirah Lapidoth the Jewess – who he rescues from an Ophelia-style suicide attempt in the Thames – and her long lost brother Mordecai, a prophetic scholar who becomes Deronda’s guide to all things Jewish.

The two stories run alongside one another coherently enough, with Gwendolen and Mirah embodying the two worlds that Daniel flits – and eventually chooses – between. Certainly, Eliot insisted that she “meant everything in the book to be related to everything else there” and by the standards of today’s polyvocal fiction, Deronda’s structure is positively mundane. But its particular focus on Jewish concerns has long displeased readers and critics. Henry James found all the “Jewish part” of the book to be “at bottom, cold”. In 1902, Sir Leslie Stephen grumbled that the novel was “two stories put side by side” and complained that the impossibly perfect Deronda was wooden and humourless, describing him as “an angel at a London dinner party”.

Subsequent critics have generally concurred. In 1976, on the anniversary of publication, the revered Cambridge don FR Leavis even went so far as to strip the book of its “insufferably dull” Jewish content. He named his version “Gwendolen Harleth”, hoping that the Judenrein rendition of the story would be a “major classic”. His proposed publishers, Bodley Head, eventually pulled out, so the world has been denied the fruits of Leavis’ generous pruning. Even today, publishers generally illustrate the book’s cover with Gwendolen, not Deronda.

Gwendolen Harleth at the roulette table (illustration to Daniel Deronda), 1910, Wikimedia Commons

There is some merit to these critiques. Certainly, Daniel’s soppy paternalism is less fascinating than Gwendolen’s reckless pride. Hers is the true bildungsroman, a genuine moral journey into disaster and out the other side. And there is at times something a little condescending about Eliot’s portrayal of the terribly oppressed Jews and their discontents. But cut the woman some slack. Jews in 19th century Europe were poorly represented and widely maligned. Eliot treats them with more respect than all of her predecessors combined, revolutionising the role of the Jew in English literature.

Eliot certainly knew from the outset that selling Deronda to the world would be a struggle. In Deronda and elsewhere, she makes repeated pleas for her gentile readers to take an interest in the “people whose ideas have determined the religion of half the world, and that the more cultivated half”. Sadly, her appeal has generally fallen on deaf ears.

Daniel Deronda and the rise of Zionism

Deronda deserves better though. For one thing, it is a rare novel that had a lasting political impact. Fifty-one years after its publication, British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour issued his famous declaration supporting the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. The Zionist idea had reached the very apex of British imperial power, in no small part thanks to the influence of Eliot’s book.

Deronda was published the same year that Benjamin D’Israeli became the first (and so far last) Jewish-born prime minister of Britain. Both wrote novels about Jews and Palestine, but Eliot’s diligent compassion far outstrips D’Israeli’s theatrical orientalism and her work had a more lasting impact. In Paul Johnson’s History of the Jews, a staple bar mitzvah gift for decades, he describes Deronda as “probably the most influential novel of the 19th century” in terms of its practical effect. Even though Deronda was never widely loved, Eliot was a literary giant and her last novel was read and debated around the world. “To hundreds of thousands of assimilated Jews,” writes Johnson, “the story presented, for the first time, the possibility of a return to Zion”.

Benjamin D’Israeli in 1878, Wikimedia Commons

In New York, the book inspired a young Emma Lazarus, who in 1882 wrote a series of pamphlets arguing that the persecuted Jews of eastern Europe should be resettled in Palestine. Around the same time, a friend of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the man who founded modern Hebrew, gave him a copy of Deronda, firing his imagination too. “After I read the story a few times, I made up my mind and I acted,” he recalled. “I went to Paris … in order to learn and equip myself there with the information needed for my work in the Land of Israel.” Chaim Weizmann claimed that he kept the novel “within easy reach” in his bedroom.

Another early Zionist leader, Nahum Sokolow, wrote: “In the Valhalla of the Jewish people, among the tokens of homage offered by the genius of centuries, Daniel Deronda will take its place as the proudest testimony to the English recognition of the Zionist idea”. The book impacted the growth of Christian Zionism too, helping to shepherd the idea of a Jewish state into the mainstream just as British diplomats began to carve up the post-Ottoman Middle East. Indeed, Arthur Balfour visited an ageing Eliot in 1877, the year after Deronda was published.

Deronda’s political impact is not all that surprising if one pays proper attention to the book’s (actually quite short) passages on Zionism, which are written with arresting passion. In one vivid scene, Mordecai sets out his pitch to Deronda at a meeting of pub philosophers. “Looking towards a land and a polity,” blazes Mordecai, “our dispersed people in all the ends of the earth may share the dignity of a national life which has a voice among peoples of the East and the West”. The world, he insists in a particularly famous passage, will gain as Israel gains. “For there will be a community in the van of the East which carries the culture and the sympathies of every great nation in its bosom; there will be a land set for a halting place of enmities, a neutral ground for the East as Belgium is for the West”.

Mordecai, in the pub, illustration by Daniel Deranda

To the modern ear these prophecies will sound both familiar and naive. In their own time, however, they were sensational. Eliot’s vision is a precursor to the work of Ahad Ha’am, the great Hebrew essayist who led the cultural Zionist movement some 20 years later. Like Ha’am, Eliot believes the world’s scattered Jewish minorities could only find true self-realisation in their homeland. And yet she acknowledges the need for Jewish power too. “Revive the organic centre,” Moredecai argues, “then the outraged Jew shall have a defence in the court of nations, as the outraged Englishman or American”. Eliot is also subtle enough to acknowledge that not all Jews support the Zionist notion. Gideon, one of Mordecai’s pub interlocutors, is unconvinced by his spiel, arguing that the Jewish relationship to Palestine “has been perverted by superstition till it’s as demoralising as the old poor-law”.

Eliot does have a tendency to get a little carried away with her romantic notions of Jewish return, and modern observers will also notice a conspicuous absence in her vision for Palestine: its non-Jewish inhabitants. Edward Said and other critics have argued that in Deronda, Eliot falls into the classic early Zionist trap of suggesting – implicitly in her case – that Palestine is a land without a people and the Jews are a people without a land. In Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims, Said links Eliot’s Mordecai to the colonialism of the early Zionists, who believed they would bring civilisation to an otherwise primitive land. It’s a fair observation, though it should also be noted that Deronda is a novel not a political manifesto. Eliot was on the whole a scrupulous champion of the downtrodden and would doubtless have paid this matter closer attention had she ever faced the political reality of partitioning Palestine.

Jews in Jerusalem, 1895, Wikimedia Commons
Antisemitism and the English tradition: with a single novel, George Eliot changes the game

Yet as remarkable as Deronda’s Zionist passages are, their historical import has rather overshadowed the book’s wider Jewish significance. For within Deronda can be discovered the foundation of Jewish prosperity in Britain, the outlines of a journey that has diverged markedly – and fortunately – from most of its European neighbours. Indeed, Deronda’s very existence, arriving as it did in 1876, just before a huge wave of Jewish migration into Britain, is somehow reassuring: as though a nation that can produce this book is somehow unlikely to turn murderously on its Jews.

As Anthony Julius points out in Trials of the Diaspora, his definitive survey of English antisemitism, Judeophobia in this country has often had an aesthetic, literary character. English antisemitism was shaped by as well as reflected by the likes of Chaucer, Marlowe and Dickens. And yet with one novel, Eliot changes the game, discarding centuries of blood libels and bulbous noses with a wide and varied cast of three-dimensional Jewish characters that act and talk like real Jews.

The Cohen family, Ezra, his wife Addy and children Adelaide and Jacob, whom Deronda meets while searching for Mirah’s lost family, are drawn with particular subtlety. On his initial encounter with the Cohens, Deronda is unable to see beyond his own stereotypes, nursing a desperate fear that these mercantile, pushy pawnbrokers are his beloved Mirah’s lowly relatives. He finds Ezra “unpoetic” and recoils from his “vulgarity of soul”. And yet over time, Deronda reconsiders the Cohens somewhat. He develops an avuncular relationship with Jacob, their precocious young boy. He spends a Friday night dinner with them and comes to admire the warmth of their home and the dignity of their sabbath meal.

Through Deronda’s evolving relationship with the Cohens, Eliot shows us all the crude tropes and assumptions that have dominated portrayals of Jews in English literature to date, and then sets about dismantling them to reveal fully-rounded individuals beneath. The Cohens will never be dazzling or profound, but neither are they the hollow, grasping yids that Deronda snobbishly pegged them as.

A Jewish Broker, an English caricature by Thomas Rowlandson, 1801.

Julius calls Deronda an “ambush” on received opinion about Jews in Victorian England. He lists the many ways in which it departs from the tradition of avaricious Jews battling Christian antisemites, pointing out that the book does not feature the conversion narrative that haunts so many Jewish portrayals in art, from Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice to the modern day Esty in Netflix’s Unorthodox. In fact Daniel actually moves towards Judaism, much to the chagrin of his beloved guardian Sir Hugo Mallinger, who upon hearing of his ward’s enthusiasm for joining the chosen people pleads with him to avoid “eccentricities” and not to “go mad about the Jews”. The language here is astute. Sir Hugo’s response reminded me of an early experience I had as a young journalist in London, when a well-meaning editor pleaded with me to “tone down the Jewish stuff” if I hoped to make it in the wide world of national newspapers. Leaving your yarmulke and your tribal obsessions at the door has long been the traditional price for Jews seeking entry into the British establishment. You can come in, just don’t go mad about the Jews.

Eliot’s powers of observation catch something very real about Jews: the eerie familiarity of Mordecai’s fervent pub debates about Israel and the diaspora. Or Deronda’s request to be taken to the old orthodox shul in Frankfurt, not the “fine new building of the Reformed”. Like so many angst-ridden young Jews before him, he wants a swill of the hard stuff. The astonishing scenes between Deronda and his long-lost mother, the Princess Halm-Eberstein, express the weight of Jewish identity – and the savage self-loathing it can engender – in a manner that would make Philip Roth proud.

Towards the end of the book, Deronda’s mother summons him to Genoa to explain why she chose the path of Jochebed, who left baby Moses in a reed basket so that he might avoid the persecution of being a Jew. “The bondage I hated for myself I wanted to keep you from,” she cries, justifying her decision to ask Hugo Mallinger to raise her son as a Christian English gentleman. “What better could the most loving mother have done? I delivered you from the pelting contempt that pursues Jewish separateness.” Yet she failed of course. Like Moses, Deronda found his way back to the Jews.

For all Halm-Eberstein’s pain, Jews in Deronda are generally not defined solely by their relations with Christians. Instead they enjoy a rich interior life, fretting over faith and identity, hosting shabbat dinners and attending philosophy circles, flogging books and silverware, and just occasionally yearning for a return to Zion. Nor are their lives dominated by antisemitism, which is for the most part a marginal irritation, often caught, as the character of Harold Abrahams memorably puts it in Chariots of Fire, “on the edge of a remark”.

Will England accept its Jews?

There is ample prejudice on show in Deranda, but none of it particularly vicious. Gwendolen complains of being ripped off by a “Jew pawnbroker”. Lady Pentreath wonders why the demure Mirah is not exhibiting any “Jewish impudence”. The Meyrick family, among whom Deronda places Mirah after her attempted suicide, displays perhaps the most common form of soft English antisemitism: to wish the Jews would just pack it all in and accept the good lord’s word like everyone else. Their hope is that Mirah will eventually drift from her Jewishness and fully join their world. “Perhaps it would gradually melt away from her,” wonders Amy Meyrick.

Newly-arrived jews are provided with a frugal meal at the Poor Jew’s Temporary Shelter à Whitechapel in around 1885

And as the Harvard scholar Ruth Wisse has pointed out, toleration in Deronda often evaporates when the book’s Christians come into contact with actual Jews. The Arrowpoints, for example, embrace the musical genius of Herr Klesmer, a Jewish pianist, but then erupt in angry prejudice when they discover their daughter plans to marry him. Mrs Arrowpoint describes the urbane maestro as “a mere bubble of the earth”, while Mr Arrowpoint complains that he has a “deuced foreign look”.

So can the English adapt? It is not so much Zionism at stake in Deronda, argues Wisse, but England’s willingness to accept the Jews “as a distinct people with their own national aspirations”. And not just the Jews. Wisse argues compellingly that Eliot views the fate of the Jews in England as a test case for her incipient notions of liberal democracy. When Deronda was published, England hadn’t seen mass immigration of non-Christians since the Vikings a full millennium earlier. Yet hundreds of thousands arrived in the succeeding decades. Could the English accept this new surge of determined foreigners?

On balance the answer is yes, they could. For all their cutting asides, generally these English do not hate their Jewish neighbours, nor does the growing Jewish presence in their midst arouse them to any great acts of violence or outrage. The Meyricks take a bedraggled Mirah in and shower affection upon her despite her steadfast difference. The Arrowpoints reluctantly accept their daughter’s marriage to Herr Klesmer, just as Sir Hugo grudgingly accepts Daniel’s decision to embrace his heritage, waving him off to Palestine with a wedding gift of luxury travel equipment.

The character of Daniel Deronda, played by Hugh Dancy, in the 2002 BBC adaptation.

In Deronda, Jew and gentile generally rub along just about alright and it is here that one can discern the Anglo-Jewish path into some form of elite acceptance. This is not a love match: there is no passionate embrace nor glorious melding of Judeo and Christian. Deronda’s England is not a paradise for the Jews, but neither is it dangerously hostile. The smug tranquility of the English establishment is a pool that Jews can swim in without drowning. The book’s most dangerous figure, Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt, may be a sadistic arse, but his bland entitlement and haughty aversion to any form of zeal make him an unlikely candidate to lead a pogrom. Men like Grandcourt are too busy hunting foxes to bother much about hunting Jews.

Eliot’s Jewish awakening 

How did Eliot escape the narrow and bigoted tropes of her national literature? The answer, in modern parlance, is that she did the work, immersing herself in Jewish history and learning. As Getrude Himmelfarb notes in The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, Eliot’s education in Judaism began at a young age. She received a rigorous biblical education at an evangelical boarding school. As a teenager on her first visit to London, she refused to accompany her brother to the theatre, instead curling up at home with Josephus’ History of the Jews.

Eliot’s real Jewish awakening began in 1866 when she met Emanuel Deutsch, a Polish scholar and Hebraist who was working at the British Museum. Himmelfarb recounts that the pair met at a friend’s house, after which Deutsch sent Eliot a copy of an article he wrote about the Talmud for Quarterly Review. Eliot was enchanted, calling it glorious. Deutsch and Eliot became close and under his tutelage she studied Hebrew, Mishnah and Talmud, wandering deep into Jewish lore, poring over the works of medieval sages and kabbalistic rabbis. Many have converted to Judaism over the years on the basis of far less. In 1869, Deutsch made his first visit to Palestine and found himself transported by visions of reclaiming Jewish destiny in the holy land. He is very obviously the model for Mordecai.

Emanuel Deutsch

Deronda’s own voyage into Judaism mirrors Eliot’s. He begins with all the assumptions about Jews one might imagine from a man of his class and time, initially regarding Judaism as “a sort of eccentric, fossilised form” which an “accomplished man might… leave to specialists”.  But his encounters with Mirah and Mordecai spark an awakening in Deronda’s curious soul, making apparent the “hitherto neglected reality that Judaism was something still throbbing in human lives”. By the time he discovers his own Jewish ancestry, Deronda has already effectively converted to the faith of his forebears.

Similarly, in 1848, Eliot concluded that “everything specifically Jewish is of a low grade”. Yet by the end of her life she had become the dominant philosemite of her age. In The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!, an essay which appeared in Impressions of Theophrastus Such, she concludes with a plea for Christians to feel kinship with the “Hebrew, Israelite, Jew”. To share his “glories and the sorrows, the degradation and possible renovation of his national family”. This was the last sentence in the last piece of work that Eliot ever published. Her journey was complete.

Deronda and his descendants

And what of Eliot’s beloved Jews? In the years that followed Deronda’s publication, Mordecais, Mirahs and Ezras arrived in their tens of thousands, fleeing pogrom and persecution. In 1840, when Eliot was complaining about Jewish inelegance, the Jewish population of Britain was around 15,000. By 1900, it was fifteen times this number, some 225,000 mostly Yiddish-speaking souls crowding into the alleys and rookeries of east London. Strangely enough, it all worked out pretty well.

In 1919, British Jewish in Whitechapel, East London, marched to protest the killing of Jews in Poland

It’s so easy to forget Deronda and don the well-worn slippers of ancient victimhood and tell the bleak, negative story of Anglo-Jewish history. This tale takes you from the massacre at Clifford’s Tower to Jewish expulsion in 1290. Then on to the menace that greeted Jewish return. The newspaper editorials that lamented the “swarm of vermin and insectivora” emigrating into Britain in the 1880s. The Tredegar riots of 1911, when coal miners enacted a mini-kristallnacht in the Welsh Valleys. The hook-nosed kikes of English literature: Fagin and Bleistein and John Buchan’s “crafty jewesses”. Oswald Mosley’s fascists and Roald Dahl’s “even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason”. Post-war internment camps in Cyprus, Colin Jordan, Nick Griffin and, though his role in all this was at times overblown, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party’s antisemitic turn.

But that story keeps losing. The Jews were allowed back from exile. The dehumanising editorials faded to nothing. The Tredegar riots were an aberration. Mosley was soundly rejected at the Battle of Cable Street. Jordan and Griffin were marginal losers. Corbyn fought with the Jews and was soundly defeated. Though the Anglo-Israeli relationship has been bumpy at times, birthed as it was in the fires of the King David Hotel, and despite growing hostility from the modern left, Britain has broadly supported the Jewish state throughout its existence, as Eliot hoped it would. The Ezra Cohens went on to found Tescos and Marks & Spencer. The Mordecais became writers and academics, piercing the inner sanctums of Fleet Street and Oxbridge. The Mirahs and Daniels ended up in big, book-lined, child-filled houses just off Hampstead Heath. British Jews today are settled and prosperous in a way that few Jews in history can match. Not paradise, but not all that far off.

Eliot would have been pleased. For not only did her Jews prevail, but many other minorities have followed in their wake. None without pain or friction, some of it ongoing, but they are here and more often than not it has also worked. On this reading, Deronda is not just the essential Anglo-Jewish novel, but an essential English novel too. Middlemarch was about the past, but Deronda was about the future: it fired the starting gun on our long 20th century journey towards multiculturalism.

Few can match Eliot’s radical empathy, but her great experiment with the Jews serves as an example of what is possible. In a culture today where the idea of a privileged white person writing about an oppressed minority’s experiences is increasingly taboo, Deronda stands as a towering monument to the novelist’s central mission: inhabiting other lives with sensitivity and grace; earning the right to tell someone else’s story through rigour and deep scholarship.

“I think it is very beautiful that you should enter so into what a Jewess would feel,” says Mirah at one point to Hans Meyrick. I think we can probably view this line as Eliot giving herself a pat on the back for her long and exhaustive journey into Judaism. She deserves it.

Josh Glancy

Josh Glancy is special correspondent for ‘The Sunday Times’, where he previously worked as Washington bureau chief and before that New York correspondent. He is also a columnist for ‘The Sunday Times’ and ‘The Jewish Chronicle’. He’s been known to read passages from ‘Daniel Deronda’ at wedding ceremonies.

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