George Eliot’s final novel and her most ambitious work, Daniel Deronda contrasts the moral laxity of the British aristocracy with the dedicated fervor of Jewish nationalists. Crushed by a loveless marriage to the cruel and arrogant Grandcourt, Gwendolen Harleth seeks salvation in the deeply spiritual and altruistic Daniel Deronda. But Deronda, profoundly affected by the di
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I watched a TV adaptation recently of Andrea Levy’s Small Island, a book I had read when it first came out but which I’d more or less forgotten. The adaptation succeeded very well, and might even have been better than the book. The characters were very credible and their words and actions explained their circumstances perfectly. But there was a voiceover which I thought was unnecessary since the faces of the actors were very expressive and the dialogues filled in any missing background informati
George Eliot is very eloquent, but there is nothing spare about her writing. You cannot pare it down and fit it in movie frames yet it is very visual for all that. It belongs on the page but offers the big screen experience to the mind’s eye. You just have to read all the words to see the pictures properly. I was very glad I abandoned the TV adaptation after that first episode and picked up the book instead. Right from the first page I realised that without the support of the text I could never have succeeded in fully understanding the complexities of motivation that lay behind the surface story, or indeed the scope of Eliot’s project in the first place. And when I reached the end of the book, I was certain that I didn’t need to watch the rest of the TV adaptation – the book had been more vivid for me that any adaptation could be.
I posted an update the day I finished the book, regretting that the reading experience was over, and a curious conversation erupted in the comments section of that update (comment #17 onwards). The conversation made me realise that there are readers who tackle books as if their task was to adapt them for the screen rather than simply read what is on the page. They would like to cut massive sections, delete certain characters altogether and make other characters act differently so that the story might move towards an ending they think is more fitting. You could say that such an approach is a very ‘creative’ way of reading but you could also wonder where the writer’s intentions for her work fit in that scenario.
The writer’s intentions are everything for me. I may probe them and question them sometimes but I would never disregard them. A writer’s work is a sacred thing, a bit like other people’s religious beliefs, not to be tampered with even when we don’t revere them ourselves. I mention religion because it is a major theme in this book. George Eliot seems to have become more and more interested in Judaism during the course of her life, at first in an effort to overcome her own prejudices towards the increasing Jewish population in mid-nineteenth century Britain, and then later because she had become genuinely interested in the common origin of Judaism and Christianity. This book is essentially about that preoccupation but because Eliot is very good at creating story lines, she has inserted the Jewish themed story into an intriguing frame story. Readers seem to differ about which story is the more worthwhile part of the book, and many favour the frame story. However, I found that the two strands overlapped and echoed each other so well that I never even thought of separating or comparing them. Characters from both sections mirrored each other even if they seemed completely opposite, and the central redeemer-like figure of Daniel Deronda linked them all together perfectly. The overall shape of the book worked very well for me and I’m left in awe of George Eliot’s mind as well as her writing.
The result of this unplanned reading adventure is that Daniel Deronda now marks the beginning of my 2018 George Eliot season. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her books, and I may possibly reread Middlemarch as a fitting endnote.
So much for the to-read stack I selected at the beginning of January. Abandoned indefinitely!
Because I’ve a keen interest in Henry James, and I know he admired George Eliot’s writing, I was interested to spot what might have been the germ of his inspiration for The Portrait of a Lady. Eliot’s frame story concerns a fiercely independent-minded young woman who, in spite of the general expectation, is in no hurry to marry anyone. Nevertheless, like HJ’s Isabel Archer, Gwendolyn Harleth finds herself enslaved by a cold-hearted husband who is only interested in crushing her independent spirit. It seems to me that Henleigh Grandcourt and HJ’s Gilbert Osmond have a lot in common.
Eliot’s main story also reminded me of another Henry James plot line. I think Daniel Deronda could have been an inspiration for Hyacinth Robinson in Princess Casamassima. They are both orphans who desperately need to discover more about their parents, and they both become deeply involved in movements they had no previous associations with.
Slim connections, perhaps, but I love finding such links.