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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, by Gertrude Himmelfarb.  New York: Encounter Books, 2009.  180 pp.  $25.95.

T. K. Atherton’s New Yorker cartoon offers “Four hundred selections of the world’s finest Orchestral music, over one thousand full-color reproductions of mankind’s greatest paintings and sculpture, and two hundred and thirty-one timeless classics of Western literature compacted into a two-by-three-by-six-inch brick.” Getrude Himmelfarb has done something very similar, discussing Enlightenment, Romantic, Victorian, Modernist, and Postcolonial attitudes towards Judaism, Jews, and a Jewish state, all of them centered on George Eliot’s masterful Daniel Deronda. There is no doubt that Himmelfarb considers the novel masterful, and she gives convincing and stylish reasons why. She writes that  Eliot “bore her learning lightly”; evidenced in The Jewish Odyssey, Himmelfarb does the same. Her awareness of the pushmi-pullyu nature of acceptance and rejection of Jews and Judaism in eighteenth-, nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe is impressive in its depth and breadth.

That Daniel Deronda’s concern is the coalescence of Jewish identity, and the forging of that into a nation-state, is clear. But why would a non-Jewish writer would be concerned with those notions of identity and statehood? Himmelfarb’s answer is set against a background of continued prejudices that initially denied citizenship to Jews in Germany, France, and Britain; and when citizenship was allowed, it was reluctant and slow. England is portrayed as most malleable in its attitude, and literary representations were softened as the nineteenth century developed. From Dickens’ Fagin to Riah in Our Mutual Friend, Trollope’s dislike of Jewish, Tory Disraeli, to his “noble Jew,” Ezekial Breghert, in The Way We Live Now, English literature had no shortage of Jews—good Jews, English Jews, gentlemanly Jews. What it didn’t have, what Eliot provided—what shocked and disconcerted her readers—was a Jew who was an English gentleman; one, moreover, who was proud of his heritage and had ambitions to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Thus Eliot’s Deronda offers a “solution” (Himmelfarb deliberately uses the provocative and laden word) to the “question” of Jewish national identity. A wealth of biographical information—much of it familiar to Eliot scholars—is superimposed on an intellectual tradition that incorporates Enlightenment philosophy, Romanticism, neo-platonism, Hegeliansism, young Hegelianism, and neo-Kantism; Eliot is placed at the forefront of this time of such momentous intellectual flux and output, in such a way that national identity seems almost necessary to negotiate it.

It might seem from Eliot’s intellectual views on national identity, especially since she championed the cause of a marginalized community in Daniel Deronda, that she was progressive and liberal. Himmelfarb re-directs us. She mentions Eliot’s views on female enfranchisement, and points out that it was the conservatism of Jewish tradition that she espoused. If Eliot’s essay, “The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!” is a coda to the intellectual and philosophical position she took in Daniel Deronda, the Judaism depicted becomes a uniting of the religious-theological with the political-national, where the political-national is rooted in Jewish historical tradition. Eliot was conservative by nature. Cultural expression —identity—is more efficacious when impelled by the sensibility that seeks to consolidate tradition, and similarly conservative: Deronda is no reformer, and neither is Mordecai.

There is a hint of criticism in Himmelfarb’s discussion of Eliot’s conservatism, especially given aspects of her unorthodox life—an inconsistency that many identify. It is clear that this is not a lacuna perceived to be as significant as that often perceived in Daniel Deronda. The novel’s reception among non-Jews was largely critical, both in terms of narrative structure and integral content. Among Jews, however, it was hugely praised, both for its positive portrayal of Jews (perhaps Lapidoth is an exception), and for the knowledge and authentic depiction of tradition and custom. Eliot’s portrayals were “about the customs and speech of real Jews” (p. 125). Nevertheless, unfavourable assessments of Daniel Deronda persisted after her death (1880, not 1980 as stated on p. 105!). While critical reception of Eliot’s work as a whole waned then waxed again, her Jewish novel was nearly always accorded little space and appreciation: Lionel Trilling, though he gave it room in his essay, “The Changing Myth of the Jew,” focussed on the apparent lack of realism and appeal to a mythical idea of Judaism (what Leslie Fiedler called Eliot’s “hortatory philo-Semitism”); F. R. Leavis famously dismissed the “Jewish half” of the novel; there was even a publication of the novel with that “unsatisfactory” half removed.

All of which misses the point. There are critics who like the whole novel—because  they are interested in Jewish nationalism or mysticism, or see Deronda as uniting the “halves” of the novel into a whole. Equally, there is the ongoing perception that the same aspects slightly taint an otherwise fine literary career. Himmelfarb’s maintains that Zionist ambitions are what make the novel great. She argues this with weight and testament. Careful, appropriate attention is brought to the fact that Abba Eban called Eliot “‘one of our first visionaries’” (p. 141), and Theodor Herzl cited “Daniel Deronda with helping inspire his call for a Jewish state” (p. 141). There were even streets named after Eliot in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. Himmelfarb credits the novel with a far-reaching legacy to the State of Israel. And, to answer inevitable post-colonial re-appraisals, Eliot’s depiction of Jews is an exemplar of how races and cultures should be depicted to offset deliberate belittling by “arrogant and contemptuous” colonial attitudes. Hortatory, yes—but it incorporates and ennobles what was hitherto alien.

It is an invigorating idea. Eliot sought to create a discourse that was not a relation of one people to another but of a people to itself; that the latter is privileged has made the novel problematic to its critics—albeit liberal and enlightened ones. To Eliot the creation of a Jewish state was a necessity not as a response to virulent and apocalyptic antisemitism, or even to the refined intolerance of the England to which she belonged, but was a necessity and right in itself.

Saleel Nurbhai

Lancaster University