George Eliot’s Deronda Notebooks: Introduction – and Excerpts (added 9/7)

Now that we’re reading the passages about Mordecai and his ideas, it might be useful to get a better sense of how George Eliot learned about Judaism and the Jewish diaspora – and in particular, how her research managed to feed her imagination as well as her intellect, so that she could try to enter the minds and experiences of a number of Jewish characters who were otherwise outside her immediate understanding.

I brought to our last meeting a thick book containing the Notebooks in which Eliot recorded her reading and study before and during the writing Daniel Deronda.  I’ll bring it with me again this week.  I also post here the Introduction to that volume which contains some interesting insight into Eliot’s methods.  — Tom

Introduction by editor Jane Irwin to Eliot’s Deronda Notebooks

“…George Eliot’s distinction as a novelist lies in her power to locate vivid impressions and dramatized experience within a considered and comprehensive intellectual framework of reference. The intelligence which sustains her fiction is nourished by extensive preparatory reading.” – Jane Irwin

ADDENDUM 9/7:  In order to give a flavor of Eliot’s scholarly research, I’ve arbitrary selected some sample pages from the 500+ published by Cambridge University Press. Eliot here makes notes about Jewish history and religious customs – and the women’s issues that have so angered Daniel’s mother.  The PDF contains about 12 eminently-skimmable pages.

Sample excerpts from Eliot’s Deronda Notebooks


A better “Introduction” to the novel (from Oxford)

For anyone who finds the Introduction to our Penguin Edition of Daniel Deronda a disappointment, here’s a better one – it’s from the Oxford World Classics edition and is written by Prof. K.W. Newton.   – Tom

Daniel Deronda – Introduction by KM Newton (Oxford World’s Classics)

Some NYRB commentary on “Daniel Deronda” and George Eliot (update 7/27)

It may not be too early to post some essays about George Eliot from that fountainhead of literary opinion and gossip, The New York Review of Books.  Perhaps the most relevant piece for us was written by Harold Bloom in 1985.  In the course of reviewing Gordon Haight’s book of Eliot’s letters, Bloom devotes a couple of sections to an insightful discussion (it seems to me) of Daniel Deronda.

Bloom on Daniel Deronda, excerpt from a longer review (NYRB 1985) [4 pages]

In a January 1969 number of the NYRB, Noel Annan discussed the (then) new biography, George Eliot, by the same Gordon Haight.  For many years, I believe this was the definitive biography.  A more general reflection on Eliot’s life and work, Annan’s essay would be useful to anyone wanting to read a bit more about the elusive author.

Heroine, by Noel Annan – a review of Gordon Haight’s biography of Eliot (NYRB 1969) [6 pages]

In 1996, Frederick Karl published a new “definitive” biography, George Eliot, Voice of a Century. Millicent Bell reviewed the book for the NYRB and her comments make interesting counterpoint to Annan’s essay of almost 20 years earlier.

George Eliot, Radical, by Millicent Bell – a review of Frederick Karl’s biography (NYRB 1996) [8 pages]

A little to one side of the above discussions, in 1984 Gillian Beer wrote a book called Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction.  The long title suggests some of the tendentiousness of Beer’s argument but also indicates why a critical review of the book (by David Joravsky) may have some interest for us. This is not the first time we have encountered George Eliot’s fascination with science, in general, and Darwin, in particular.  Beer points out (and Joravsky agrees) that these interests form part of the woof upon which Eliot’s weaves Daniel Deronda.

“Is Science Beautiful?” by David Joravsky, a review of Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots… (NYRB 1984)  [5 pages]

Henry James on George Eliot (updated 8/06)

Henry James wrote several reviews and essays about George Eliot, whom he admired and considered  an inspiration. Two of his most famous pieces contain references to Daniel Deronda.  His main review of the book (1877) took the highly unusual form of a short play – a “Conversation” between three readers whose views differ widely about the book and George Eliot.  Then in 1885, upon the posthumous publication of the first biography of the writer, James wrote a longer essay evaluating Eliot’s work.  (James famously considered Middlemarch, like Deronda, a failure, and, inexplicably to our tastes, regarded Romola as her masterpiece.)

I post below these two pieces of Jamesian criticism:  as you might expect from the author, they are not short.  Be aware that “The Conversation” reveals most of the plot of the Daniel Deronda and the more of the book you’ve read, the more sense you’ll make of the varied nuances of interpretation the characters discuss.  Likewise the more you know of Eliot’s work generally, the better you’ll follow James’ commentary in his review of George Eliot’s Life as related in her Letters and Journals edited by her husband, John Cross.

Addendum 8/8:  I’ve located a rather unusual piece by James – a short notice published in The Nation shortly after Daniel Deronda started appearing in serialized form.  It’s a kind of literary “heads-up” alerting readers to Eliot’s novel and anticipating that it’s likely to be very interesting.  I’ll place it first in the links below since it was the earliest of James comments about the book.

Henry James’ note about ‘Deronda’ at the start of its serialization (Feb. 1876) [less than a page]

“The Conversation” – a review of Daniel Deronda by Henry James (1876) [10 pages]

James reviews George Eliot’s Life as Related in her Letters and Journals, edited by John Cross (1885) [9 pages]

George Eliot, Richmond profile sketch 1881

Sketch by Richmond drawn from memory in 1881 after George Eliot’s death

For the sake of completeness (but at the risk of acting like a graduate student in English), I’ll post here the very first piece of criticism Henry James wrote about George Eliot, an unsigned review of Felix Holt: Radical, published in The Nation in 1866.  James was twenty-six at the time, had not yet published his first novel and had begun making a name for himself as a writer by turning out over two dozen book reviews. This partly explains his occasionally acerbic tone. I confess to be intrigued enough by the vitreol in parts of James’ review to track down a nicely-written (if, naturally, a bit pedantic) piece in The George Eliot Review that critiques James’ critique – and by so doing adds a few more insights into James’ relationship with his sometime Muse.

Henry James reviews ‘Felix Holt’ (1866)  [3 (double) pages]

Critiquing the critic:
Towards a Critical Reputation – Henry James on ‘Felix Holt’ by Christine Richards (2000)
  [9 (single) pages]


Mitten, Mitten, who’s getting the mitten?

To drop the final shoe from our final discussion, I couldn’t resist turning to the OED to see what it said about “getting the mitten”. Here are the most relevant definitions (click on the picture below to enlarge the text).

So Wodehouse’s usage first appears in 1838;  and note how quickly the illustrative quotations start coming from American sources.  I also like the earlier (16th-18th century) entries that lay the figurative groundwork for the later colloquialism.

And for those who enjoy browsing the OED, here’s a link to a slightly larger excerpt about “mitten.”

More from the OED about ‘mitten.’

V.S. Pritchett: a last word on Wodehouse (?)

I’ve found a review of Benny Green’s centenary biography of P.G. Wodehouse, A Literary Life, by the distinguished critic, V.S. Pritchett, writing in The New York Review of Books in 1981.  Pritchett presents what I think is a full and very sensible evaluation of Plum’s comedy, putting it into the historical context of “English Light Humour” … which includes Restoration Comedy, Gilbert and Sullivan, etc.  Nothing especially new for us, except for the elegant and insightful way Pritchett writes.  A couple of brief examples:

The age of lightheaded imperial innocence began to vanish after 1914 and we have grown up in the black laughter of outrage, enhanced by the obsession with sex. One can only say that laughter for its own sake [my emphasis] is never passé for very long: we still laugh at Goldsmith and Restoration comedy after a spell of sneering at their subjects, their oaths and delivery. …

The strength of Wodehouse lies not in his almost incomprehensibly intricate plots – Restoration Comedy again – but in his prose style and there, above all, his command of mind-splitting metaphor. To describe a girl as “the sand in civilization’s spinach” enlarges and decorates the imagination [my emphasis].

It’s a short review (four pages) and, I think, a quick read.

VS Pritchett on Wodehouse, NYRB Dec 1981

Note:  Pritchett refers to a comedic novel, Zuleika Dobson, by Max Beerbohm (1872-1956), an Edwardian satirist who was a little older than Plum. Below is some information about him and his book:

About Max Beerbohm (from Penguin-Random House)


Portraits of George Eliot (b. 1819, d. 1880)

An article in The Guardian (2017) discusses a newly discovered pastel drawing that may be George Eliot at age 25:

1858: Photograph

1865: Chalk drawing by Frederick Burton (National Gallery [UK])

(Perhaps the inspiration for David Levine’s caricature below?)

You can find several drawings and sketches of Mary Ann Evans throughout her life at the George Eliot Portrait Gallery

Comments on Eliot’s “ugliness” from an article by Rebecca Mead:

She was “a woman with next to no feminine beauty or charm or of countenance or person,” according to William Michael Rossetti, the critic and brother of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti. Grace Greenwood, the American novelist, described her as “exceedingly plain, with her aggressive jaw and her evasive blue eyes.”  Henry James characterized her as “magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous.”

But James also noted an interesting phenomenon about Eliot’s supposed ugliness: when she began to converse, her expression was one of such tenderness and sympathy that it left her interlocutor with an abiding sense of beauty. “Behold me, literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking!” James wrote after his first encounter with her. Many others who met her made similar comments, including Lucy Clifford, a novelist, who said that Eliot did, indeed, look like a horse—“a strange variety of horse that was full of knowledge, and beauty of thought, and mysteries of which the human being had no conception.”

From The New Yorker, September 19, 2013

Another “Plum Take” (from the NY Review of Books)

Here’s another voice chiming in on Wodehouse’s “silliness”:  in the New York Review of Books in 2013, Geoffrey Wheatcroft reviewed the same book as Leithauser and came to different conclusions.  He repeats much of what we already know, but adds a few new twists.

G Wheatcroft on ‘Wodehouse A Life in Letters’ (NYRB, 2013)

Half-thoughts:  Perhaps part of what we’re discussing here (pace Gary et al) is the difference between British and American attitudes about what constitutes “a sense of humor” (…or is it a sense of seriousness?)  Lewis Carroll vs Mark Twain?  Monty Python vs Woody Allen?  … (I started to look through some James Thurber to see how he compared with Plum – and that’s when I thought of Woody Allen.)  – Tom


A taste of later Plum: the opening of “Right Ho, Jeeves”

In our discussions about My Man Jeeves, those of us who have read more of Wodehouse have often talked about the changes in his Jeeves’ stories as “Plum” refined his style and sharpened his characterizations.  As Seth has mentioned, it’s probably in the Jeeves’ novels from the 1930’s that Wodehouse best demonstrates his his mastery of the comedic world inhabited by Bertie, Jeeves, and supporting cast.

I’ve been trying to find a way to illustrate some of these developments short of reading an entire novel.  I think that the opening two chapters of Right Ho, Jeeves (1934), which lay the groundwork for the rest of the book, give a good sample of Wodehouse’s mature style – his increasingly supple humor, his more rounded sense of character, and the inimitable gracefulness with which he introduces and develops the building blocks of his plots.  You’ll note also that Plum slips in a fleeting picture of “Bertie as (self-conscious) writer” (for the post-modern critics among us).

The two chapters run 12 pages.

— Tom

Wodehouse, ‘Right Ho, Jeeves’ (1934), Chapters 1-2