Daniel Deronda, the final novel published by George Eliot, was also her most controversial. Most of Eliot’s prior novels dealt largely with provincial English life but in her final novel Eliot introduced a storyline for which she was both praised and disparaged. The novel deals not only with the coming of age of Gwendolyn Harleth, a young English woman, but also with Daniel Deronda’s discovery of his Jewish identity. Through characters like Mirah and Mordecai Cohen, Eliot depicts Jewish cultural identity in the Victorian period. Reaction to Daniel Deronda exposes the deeply embedded anti-semitism of the period. The story follows the tow main characters over the course of several years as they struggle with their own self discovery.
The novel’s primary female character, Gwendolyn, is an essentially aloof figure that resists any genuine emotional connection. She enters into a union with Grandcourt in hopes of advancing herself socially but the resulting marriage is disastrous. Deronda, after saving young Mirah from suicide, is drawn into a Judaic community. Deronda eventually discovers his Jewish heritage and marries Mirah. The two move to Palestine in hopes of helping to establish a Jewish homeland there.
Eliot was not ignorant of the risks she ran in writing a novel that placed a minority culture at its center. In a letter to Harriet Beecher Stowe Eliot described her aims in writing Daniel Deronda this way:
There is nothing I should care more to do, if it
Were possible than to rouse the imagination of
Men and women to a vision of human claims in
Those races of their fellow men who differ from
Them in customs and beliefs. (qtd. in Haight, 301)
It was not only the subject matter that presented Eliot with problems though, the actually writing process was a physically difficult one for her. It was during this time that she began to suffer from the kidney problems that eventually killed her. She was also plagued by chronic head and tooth aches during this time (Karl, 545). Despite her physical ailments Eliot meticulously researched the book. She took Hebrew lessons with Emanuel Deutsch and the character of Mordecai Cohen is said to be based on him. She also read extensively about Jewish culture and tradition. In a letter Eliot’s would be spouse, George Henry Lewes, writes that of the two buying Judaic books and visiting a synagogue in Frankfurt in the summer of 1873 (Karl, 527).
Daniel Deronda was originally published in a series of monthly installments that appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine between February and September of 1876. Terence Cave notes in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Daniel Deronda, that the decision to begin in February was based on the inability to get it to the American market in December and Blackwood’s belief that January wasn’t a fit...