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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Daniel Deronda--reviewed and re-Jewed.

I love me a sexy Hebrew.

Greetings readership. It's been a long time, as they say, and there's much to catch up on that will never truly be caught up upon, because time is ephemeral and stuff. (Again, what I've been doing.)

To prove my mettle, I return to you with a full-on discussion of Daniel Deronda, a very wonderful and complex work by George Eliot that helped me get through the December blahs. And of course being an egalitarian bookworm chick, I followed up my dense reading with a dense viewing of the obligatory Andrew-Davies penned BBC miniseries, which wickedly sexed up the villain to such an extent that he may qualify as the worst. husband. ever., even for a BBC miniseries. Which as we all know is saying a lot.

As all the critics like to remind us, Deronda is a novel with two parts, the connecting thread of which is our eponymous hero, Daniel. Said critics also agree pretty unanimously that the "Jewish" half, wherein the gentleman/prince Daniel, like Moses, discovers his true identity and redeems his people, is not nearly as well-written or brilliant as the half which narrates the bitter redemption of beautiful, selfish, Gwendolyn Harleth and her journey among the aristocracy. Write what you know, as they say. While Eliot is able to perfectly illuminate the miserable lot of women by using real characters (Gwendolyn might be the most psychologically astute portrait of shallowness in literary history), when she gets to the Jooz, she's so busy trying to portray them as exotic and wise and sinless and mystical that she forgets to make them people.

I was almost more enamored of her stereotypical depiction of the somewhat "common" Cohen family and their silver shop than by the exalted Mordecai and Mirah. This conundrum, not coincidentally, really reminded me of Uncle Tom's Cabin (Harriet Stowe and Eliot were correspondents), with its pure, sinless oppressed blacks, and its solution of sending them to Liberia, just as the sainted Deronda and Mirah go off to Palestine. All this is complicated stuff-- there's more than a lot of unintended racism in both novels, which use the innocent "other" to throw into relief the corruption and decay of their societies. However, Stowe and Eliot are also responding to the bigotry of their peers and may have felt they didnt have room for nuance.

It's tempting to say that the moral of Eliot's literary failing is that art shouldn't be sacrificed for politics. However, we can't deny that public reaction to these novels was much stronger than it would have been to op-ed pieces because people were moved by them.

Anyway I'm glad I tackled this book. George Eliot may be the most formidably intelligent of the 19th century novelists, and the novel has enough redemptive literary qualities that one can enjoy it both as a work of art and a relic of its time-- (AND a retort to the Trollopes and Dickens' of the world who put nasty Jewish characters in their book.)

But on to the BBC version... it was just so gorgeously well-done. Nice work, Andrew Davies. Hugh Dancy is a very pretty man, and he captured sensitive Daniel Deronda perfectly while Romola Garai was also an excellently spoiled Gwen. I really enjoyed seeing six degrees of Austen adaptations. Amanda Root (aka Anne Elliot--Persuasion) was a simpering Mrs. Davilow. And of course the actor who played Henleigh Grandcourt (Mr Rushworth---Mansfield Park) was perfectly sinister. And lastly, slimy Lush was played by David Bamber (Mr. Collins--Pride and Prejudice) to creepy, obsequious perfection. Another fun factoid-- Jodhi May, who played Mirah, was bitchy, plain Cousin Grace Stepney in The House of Mirth.

1 comment:

  1. Another interesting early philo-Semitic British novel is Maria Edgeworth's *Harrington* (1817). It is fun to compare to *Deronda* -- you should read it some time! An American Jewish woman wrote to Edgeworth complaining about her stereotypical anti-Semitic characterization of a minor character in an earlier novel, so Edgeworth responded with a novel about a young man who learns to love Jews, one beautiful Jewess in particular.