The Growth of a Soul: Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (1876)

Daniel Deronda was George Eliot’s final novel and her most controversial work.
The book contains a double plot, which was quite common with Victorian novelists such as Charles Dickens and William Thackeray, but Eliot took an unusual direction in this novel by introducing a Jewish theme. Between 1860 and 1874, the idea of re-establishing a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel was the focus of a group of men who came to be known as the Proto-Zionists, or the fore-runners of Zionism and Eliot's story revolves around this.

Daniel Deronda is a comfortably off young man who has no knowledge of his origins and thinks he is the illegitimate son of his benefactor. By dint of circumstance he becomes involved with Mordecai, a young Jewish man dying of consumption, who believes that Deronda has been sent to him so that he may pass on to him his knowledge and vision.

Before he encounters Mordecai, Deronda meets Gwendolen Harleth, a beautiful but self-centred and vain young woman who ends up ‘marrying money.’
Her husband, Henleigh Grandcourt, is decadent, controlling, callous, and extremely wealthy.
Throughout the novel the lives of Deronda and Gwendolen criss-cross and Gwendolen sees him as her saviour in some ways, turning to him for guidance as her husband’s domination and control begins to crush her.

This is a large-scale novel with many twisted strands and each of the chapters tend to alternately focus on specific characters which makes for dense reading at times.

I found the relationship between Gwendolen and her husband compelling reading and when the narrative changed to focus on what was going on in Deronda's life, I felt irritated me at times because I was anxious to see how the couple’s relationship would work out.

Reading about Gwendolen was like watching the slow growth of a soul and it was one of my favourite parts of the book.

Eliot was well-read and intellectual - you don’t have to read for too long to realise that the themes she explores in this novel were assiduously researched. Excerpts, quotations or mentions of art, economics, literature, history, and music plus 683 explanatory notes in my copy of the book (!! and of course, I had to read them all) attest to that. This book is quite different to her other books, especially Adam Bede (which was delightful) and Silas Marner (which I also enjoyed).
Daniel Deronda requires a real commitment to get through, but it’s worth it.

I’ll get back to Gwendolen’s soul journey shortly, but first I have to say that there were some minor characters that were just delightful.

Mrs Meyrick was one of them. She and her daughters lived in a house that looked very shabby from the outside but was, in reality, a place of beauty and culture...

‘...their minds being like mediaeval houses with unexpected recesses and openings from this into that, flights of steps and sudden outlooks.’

She was a kind, motherly woman with much wisdom:

'Don’t be forecasting evil, dear child, unless it is what you can guard against. Anxiety is good for nothing if we can’t turn it into a defence. But there’s no defence against all the things that might be.'

Herr Klesmer was another gem. A first-rate Jewish musician engaged by the wealthy Arrowpoint family to teach Catherine, their only daughter and heiress to the family fortune, a handsome catch for anyone after a fortune, but Klesmer was a proud and honourable man. It was inconceivable that Catherine would consider an attachment to Klesmer...

But along came Mr Bult, a political man of a good family, a ‘new pretender to her hand,’ and Herr Klesmer spoke up...

' are to me the chief woman in the world - the throned lady whose colours I carry between my heart and my once said it was your doom to suspect every man who courted you of being an adventurer, and what made you angriest was men’s imputing to you the folly of not believing that they courted you for your own sake...

It was a bitter word. Well, at least one man who has seen women as plenty as flowers in May has lingered about you for your own sake. And since he is one whom you can never marry, you will believe him...don’t give yourself for a meal to a Minotaur like Bult...'

'Why should I not marry the man who loves me, if I love him?' said Catherine. To her the effort was something like the leap of a woman from the deck into the lifeboat.

'It would be too hard - impossible- you could not carry it through. I am not worth what you would have to encounter. I will not accept the sacrifice. It would be thought a mésalliance for you, and I should be liable o the worst accusations.'

'Is it the accusations you are afraid of? I am afraid of nothing but that we should miss the passing of our lives together.'

This was one of my favourite scenes. They both had to face her parents who were totally astonished and absolutely furious but Catherine had a will of her own and Klesmer didn't care about the fortune.

Now back to Gwendolen.

Gwendolen was self-absorbed. ‘Always she was the princess in exile,’ and was a person who had a ‘strong determination to have what was pleasant, with a total fearlessness in making themselves disagreeable or dangerous when they did not get it.’

But she had one redeeming quality. She loved her mother, although she didn’t really express that very well at times. In fact it was mostly out of fear of her mother being forced to live in poverty that she married Grandcourt.
Grandcourt did provide for her mother after they were married but he shunned any contact with both  the mother and uncle, whose family had been so good to her and this was very painful to Gwendolen.

Eliot’s characterisation of Grandcourt is chilling:

‘...his negative mind was as diffusive as fog, clinging to all objects, and spoiling all contact.

...quarrelling with Grancourt was impossible: she might as well have made angry remarks to a dangerous serpent coiled in her cabin without invitation.

Grandcourt had an intense satisfaction in leading his wife captive after this fashion: it gave their life on a small scale a royal representation and publicity in which everything familiar was got rid of and everybody must do what was expected of them whatever might be their private protest - the protest (kept strictly private) adding to the piquancy of despotism.

The beings closest to us, whether in love or hate, are often virtually our interpreters of the world...may be acting as a melancholy theory of life in the minds of those who live with them...'

The neutral loftiness of her husband chilled Gwendolen but unconsciously she began to appreciate people she had previously held in contempt. In her talks with Deronda he had encouraged her to find some mental enlargement by reading difficult authors so she took to reading Descartes, Bacon, Locke, and others. However, they didn’t blend with her daily agitations and instead she discovered this ‘mental enlargement’ when she reflected upon her family and especially the kindness shown to her and them by her uncle in the past.
She began to see others through a different lens.

'She, whose unquestioning habitat had been to take the best that came to her for less than her own claim, had now to see the position which tempted her in a new light, as a hard, unfair exclusion of others.'

She had married Grandcourt with the idea that she could conquer him as she had done with others but she had not considered that 'the desire to conquer is itself a sort of subjection.' Grandcourt proved to be unconquerable and Gwendolen's humiliation gave her eyes to see others more kindly.

'She was experiencing some of that peaceful melancholy which comes from the renunciation of demands for self, and from taking the ordinary good of existence, and especially kindness, even from a dog, as a gift above expectation.'

Daniel Deronda is really a story of redemption. I haven’t said very much at all about the eponymous hero because Gwendolen’s journey of the soul was the most interesting part of the book for me. He,  too, had a journey of the soul, but I'll leave it at that.

I read this with my book club and it was interesting to hear how differently we engaged with this novel. If you enjoy History there are some very interesting aspects Eliot covers and perhaps if I read the book again I’d concentrate on those more but I found the author’s exploration of character, choice, and growth through suffering full of depth and insight.

Linking to - Back to the Classics 2019: Very Long Novel and The Classics Club

Free Kindle version here.


Ruthiella said…
Great review! I've only read Middlemarch and was at bit at odds as to where to go next with Eliot. Daniel Deronda sounds like it should be the next book of hers that I try. Middlemarch also has some excellent character growth which I appreciated.
Laura Jeanne said…
Well, thank you! I love George Elliot's books but I did not realize this one even existed. I will add it to my to-read list!
Gwendolyn reminded me a little of Lily Bart in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth but I think Lily's growth of soul was much larger and more compelling. Nevertheless I quite enjoyed Daniel Deronda and Eliot is a wonderful writer. Your review was excellent, Carol!
Marianne said…
What a wonderful review. It's almost as if I read the book again. I have read Daniel Deronda years ago with my book club.

It wasn't my first book by George Eliot and I really liked all of her novels.

Thank you for your post.
Lark said…
This is one of the few George Eliot novels I haven't read yet. But it's on my list! And when I do read it, I'm coming back to read your excellent review first. :D
Thank you for this review, Carol. I haven't read this book, but after your review it is on my to read list. I hope our library has it!
Carole said…
Boy, I'll have to work myself up to this one! Cheers from Carole's chatter
Vintage Reading said…
I've read Silas Marner, Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch but although I like and admire her novels I don't love them the way I love Austen. Still, your review has intrigued me, I may return to Eliot.
Carol said…
Hi Ruthiella, the storyline of Middlemarch sounds familiar to me but I don't remember reading it! Maybe I listened to it sometime?? Anyhow it's one I'll re-read because I was given a lovely HB copy last Christmas.
Carol said…
Laura Jeanne - you're welcome.
Carol said…
Cleo, I read that book before I started blogging & it's not super clear in my memory but, yes, I do remember that she did have a real change of character over the course of the book. I remember someone dying but don't know if it was her or the fellow who loved her??
Lacey said…
Middlemarch is one of my favourite books, but I've never read DD. The brief overview you've given actually reminds me of Middlemarch. The protagonist marries a man who dominates and controls her, and her life continually reconnects with a man whose personal growth mirrors hers. I'm interested to read this now and compare the two!
Carol said…
Thanks, Marianne 🙂
Carol said…
Thanks for your kind comment, Lark 🙂
Carol said…
Hi AnnieKate, she does have a lot of digressions but I managed to keep reading!
Carol said…
Hi Carole, I probably would have picked something else but it was a book club selection. Sometimes I need a push to read some books & I’m usually pleasantly surprised.
Carol said…
Nicola, I know exactly what you mean. I appreciate her skill but if I had to pick I’d go for Trollope, Gaskell, or Dickens for a 19th Century author.
Carol said…
Hi Lacey, that would be interesting. I was reading some reviews on another of her books - Romola, and that sounds as if it has some similarities to DD in that she has a lot of historical content.
Barbara Harper said…
I loved this book. In fact, I think it might have been the first Eliot book I read. I was attracted to the story by the Masterpiece Theatre 2-part version with Hugh Dancy as Daniel and Romola Garai as Gwendolen, and then read the book some years later. You're right, so many threads and sides to this story.
Carol said…
Hi Barbara, I just borrowed that version from a friend - she thought it stayed pretty close to the book so I'm looking forward to watching it soon.
Brian Joseph said…
Great review of this book. I have not read it but I have loved The George Eliot that I have read. She was indeed great intellectual. Her novels went off in so many really smart directions. I hope to read this one soon.
Carol said…
Hi Brian, from what I know of your reading tastes, I think you’d enjoy the characterisations in this book very much. 🙂
Marianne said…
What a great review.

As I just said on Carole's page, I love all of George Eliot's books.

If you haven't read Middlemarch, yet, that's my favourite.
Carol said…
Thanks, Marianne. I’d like to read Middlemarch & Mill on the Floss. Enjoyed reading your George Eliot reviews.
Marianne said…
So glad you enjoyed my reviews. They are not half as long as yours. ;)
Carol said…
That’s because I get carried away with all the quotations!🙂
Marianne said…
Hahaha, so that's your secret. ;)