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The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot By Gertrude Himmelfarb

Gertrude Himmelfarb

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On July 29, 2014
Last modified:July 29, 2014


A review of a review! Well, sort of. WWTFT examines Gertrude Himmelfarb's book on George Eliot. Eliot, born Mary Jane Evans, was a free thinker who wrote of the pseudonym perhaps as a way to gain more respect for her work - or to shield her lifestyle. Whatever the reason, Eliot is considered to be one of the best novelists of her time - except for her final work, which even today is not appreciated by many critics. Himmelfarb looks at why this might be.

The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot
By Gertrude Himmelfarb

Having long admired Gertrude Himmelfarb, a prolific historian and emphatic critic of revisionism this reviewer was drawn to her book. Being able to satisfy my curiosity about novelist George Eliot was a bonus.

Himmelfarb examines why an agnostic gentile and one of the greatest novelists for the 19th century would deliberately choose to write Daniel Deronda, a controversial novel about Jews and Judaism.

The book, the last of Eliot’s novels, provoked critics when it was published and has received scant approbation since. As Himmelfarb points out, retrospectives of Elliot’s work are dismissive or simply fail to pay it much attention.

Perhaps it is because Eliot herself is a greater mystery than the derivation of the novel. Born Mary Anne Evans in1819, she was a brilliant student, an avid reader, essayist, linguist and translator before becoming a novelist. Drawn to intellectuals and free thinkers, she contributed to and then edited Westminster Review, a quarterly publication featuring the views of English radicals. She assumed a man’s name, she said, so she would be taken seriously.

Nothing she did is easily categorized. Although the “premier moralist of that very moralistic age” she lived openly with philosopher and critic George Lewis, a married man who could not obtain a divorce. But she disappointed feminists of the day by refusing to support John Stewart Mill’s amendment to the suffrage bill of 1867.

Daniel Deronda raises another issue that may seem even more anomalous, and more seriously so. Eliot is generally represented not only as a great moralist but also as a firm ‘unbeliever,’ as the Victorians delicately put it.

Why then, having turned away from Christianity, did Eliot look with such favor on the Jewish God fervently embraced by Daniel Deronda, the novel’s protagonist? Writing the book required a formidable “amount of research into the literature, history, creeds and practices of Judaism” – research that went well beyond the requirements of the novel.

Daniel Deronda was as much an act of self-discovery for Eliot as it was for Deronda, an intellectual and spiritual odyssey into the foreign world of Judaism. In the course of that odyssey, Eliot encountered the ‘Jewish Question,’ as it was then known on the continent, what was the proper role of Jews in Christian society, or, as others preferred, in a secular society?

In the late eighteenth and nineteenth century the Jewish question focused on citizenship. France and Germany were equivocal toward the Jews. Periods of limited citizenship alternated with sometimes violent anti-semitism.

In England the question was “how could Jews –or for that matter, Catholics or Dissenters– be fully accredited citizens of a state with an established church?” The question was debated on and off for a century, starting in 1753 and not fully resolved until 1866.

English Jews were thus admitted to full citizenship, not as individuals who had to prove their Englishness by denying their identity as Jews, but as Englishmen who were also Jews – many of whom, indeed, were observant Jews, practicing just that “exclusive” religion which on the continent condemned them as “a nation within a nation.” Moreover, they were admitted to citizenship in a country that, so far from becoming secular and repudiating its Christian identity retained its established church while respecting the religious diversity of its citizenry.

The novel’s two stories are entwined by ideas. The first is about Gwendolen Harieth, a charming upper class Victorian woman whose most outstanding characteristic is narcissism. The other is Daniel Deronda’s story. He is an English gentleman whose Jewish heritage was concealed from him by his mother. She justifies her decision by saying she wanted to free Daniel of that “bondage.” Deronda embraces his Judaism and embarks on an idealistic spiritual and physical quest to “restore “a political existence for my people, making them a nation again.”

That quest for identity, a religious and national identity, is the unifying theme of the book. Indeed the whole of Daniel Deronda was imbued with the same spirit. Judaism, as Deronda understood it, was a living ‘throbbing’ thing precisely because it had its roots in ancient tradition and laws, enduring habits and sentiments; it was these that made the Jews a nation deserving of a polity.

Thus for Eliot the Jewish question was not about fitting into a Gentile world but “the relation of Jews to themselves, to their own people and their own world, the beliefs and traditions that were their history and their legacy. That required a robust Judaism that could only be fulfilled in a polity and a state.”

Himmelfarb observes that in writing Daniel Deronda Eliot undergoes her own intellectual odyssey. Her conversion was not to Judaism “but to a respect for religion in general and Judaism in particular.”

Eliot praised Judaism not only as the vital source of Jewish nationality but also as the origin of Christianity, thus vindicating Christianity along with Judaism – and religion along with nationality.

Judaism as a race, a nation, and potentially a state were issues far ahead of their time. Eliot’s novel predicted the establishment of a Jewish state 20 years before Theodor Herzl founded the World Zionist Organization.

The intricacies of the plot are not examined here. This review only attempts to sketch the broader themes that suffuse Eliot’s book as Himmelfarb analyzes them. Why a non-Jew wrote the book will continue to intrigue people as it has since publication. Himmelfarb illuminates Eliot and the time in which she lived as well as firmly establishing Daniel Deronda among the great novels of English literature.

All the same, Himmelfarb’s book may have limited appeal for general readers, although some comments about its continued relevance are in order. In the closing paragraph of The Jewish Odyssey of George Elliot Himmelfarb wrote:

Eliot’s vision of Judaism is as compelling today as it was more than a century ago, very much a part of the perennial dialogue about Jewish identity and the Jewish question.

One of the characters in Daniel Deronda idealistically predicts that a Jewish state would be “a halting place of enmities.” Would that it were so.

At this writing Israel is fighting to end rocket attacks and infiltration by Hamas terrorists whose goal, expressed in their charter, is the obliteration of Israel and “infidel” Jews.

The war has triggered anti-Semitic outbreaks in France, Germany, Hungary, and the United Kingdom among other nations. But Jews are not the only ones under siege.

Christians are under the heaviest attack in the Middle East in generations. They are being forced to leave Syria and Iran. In Egypt Coptic Christians are beaten or worse and their churches destroyed. In short, Christians are threatened and reviled as infidels wherever radical Islam thrives. The authority of the caliphate is conceived as singular and absolute.

Yet, these outrages evoke little reaction in America or on the continent, certainly far less than the outpouring of anti-Jewish hostility. The latter is aggravated by the manner in which the conflict is reported. Palestinian civilian casualties, including pictures of dead or wounded children, are featured on front pages and TV newscasts, but with little or no explanation that Hamas deliberately uses Palestinians as human shields. Thus tunnel entrances and rocket launchers are located in civilian homes and public facilities. Nor is it widely reported that Hamas leaders openly encourage civilians to put themselves in harms way. Live Palestinians are obviously of less worth to Hamas than the propaganda value of dead ones.

And in America a regulatory war is being waged on Christianity along with efforts to restrict its free exercise. The president said America “is no longer a Christian nation,” citing all the other faiths practiced here. His sophistry ignores the fact that America has always been a haven for many faiths, but that its founding is rooted in Judeo-Christian values. The relationship between Christianity and Judaism is vital to understanding the hostility they engender in Islam and on the left in the West. The government stance is that Christians can believe as they please so long as they do not share their convictions or try to live by them.

In Eliot’s time Jews were neither allowed to have religious convictions nor to live by them. It is not a far distance between. Where statists reign only the state can be supreme.


1 comment

1 Ann Herzer { 07.29.14 at 5:56 pm }

Marcia, I enjoyed your review of this old book that I read long ago. I’m forwarding to others. It seems we never learn from History. Discrimination and wars continue. Thanks for your good articles.


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