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)

Israel and Daniel Deronda

Here’s an essay by Paula Marantz Cohen that appeared in the Hudson Review back in 2002. It does a neat job of showing how the so-called Jewish part of Daniel Deronda really is tied inseparably to the never is, but should be, called British portion. Along the way Cohen shows how Eliot reverses tried and true expectations of Victorian novels and Western commonplaces about how Christianity supersedes Judaism.

Gwendolyn on Horseback

Riding plays such a big part in Gwendolyn’s life, at least in the first two books of Daniel Deronda, I thought it might be fun to see what her often mentioned riding dresses might have looked like. These pictures are taken from a website by Kate Tattersall. Take a look if you want a really detailed account of Victorian British women’s riding habits. Another good site on Victorian riding habits, this time American, can be found on the Victoriana Magazine website.

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]


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