Henry James Reviews Daniel Deronda

What's a footnote?
Here's a snippet I very much enjoyed. If you love Henry James or George Eliot, or both, you will probably enjoy it too. It's about Henry James' very unconventional review of Daniel Deronda. First some background details: Daniel Deronda was published in monthly installments between February and September of 1876, and Henry James' first reaction to it appeared in The Nation at the end of February. It was an unsigned note and largely positive, saying among other things this:
The "sense of the universal" is constant, omnipresent. It strikes us sometimes as rather conscious and over-cultivated; but it gives us the feeling that the threads of the narrative, as we gather them into our hands, are not the usual commercial measurement, but long electric wires capable of transmitting messages from mysterious regions.
Isn't the metaphor of the electric wires so suitable for Eliot and the way she incorporates universal messages into her narrative? Anyway, as more installments were published, Henry James' opinion changed. By June, we know from his correspondence with his brother, William, that his feelings about the novel were mostly negative, William too had a bad opinion of Daniel Deronda and its moralistic tone, an opinion sprinkled with a good dose of sexism. (Because we all know the world's greatest moralists were women?) Here's what Henry wrote to William in 1876:
Daniel Deronda strikes me (in proportion to its elaborate ability) a great failure compared with her other books. Gwendolen to me lives a little; but not the others: D.D. least of all. But the episode with Mordecai is fine.
But the interesting part came in December, when James published Daniel Deronda: A Conversation. It was a very unusual review, written as a dialogue between three characters. I was charmed by the idea, because all those contradictory feelings I had about the book could be expressed and discussed in one place and every character had something of value to add, in the end. I think it's the best way to convey the impression this book gives: a book complex enough to be discussed at length, but with a number of weak points that make one hesitate to declare it great.

So, what I am going to do now is give you a taste of each of the characters with a short description and an emblematic quote and then, at the end, a link to this piece that can be read online.

Theodora is portrayed as a romantic and somewhat silly girl. She is in love with Daniel Deronda and completely in awe of the book that contains him. She is George Eliot's groupie.
A book like Daniel Deronda becomes part of one's life; one lives in it or alongside of it. I don't hesitate to say that I have been living in this one for the last eight months. It is such a complete world George Eliot builds up; it is so vast, so much−embracing! It has such a firm earth and such an ethereal sky. You can turn into it and lose yourself in it.
Pulcheria, the other female character in the review, dislikes the book. Part of her dislike clearly stems out of anti-Semitism. (And there is more than a hint of her disliking Deronda because he's not masculine enough. He is a prig, but also too emotive, too womanly.) She attacks Eliot at every level imaginable, but she also scores some valid points along the way.
I never read a story with less current. It is not a river; it is a series of lakes. I once read of a group of little uneven ponds resembling, from a birds−eye view, a looking−glass which had fallen upon the floor and broken, and was lying in fragments. That is what Daniel Deronda would look like, on a birds−eye view.
Constantius is the level-headed man who brings nuance to the table. He admires George Eliot and understands what she tried to achieve in her book, but he calls Daniel Deronda the weakest of her books. Constantius' opinions are the most interesting and detailed, and he seems to be the one channeling James. To me, the following quote stood out, because I can't decide a. if it's true for Eliot and b. how much of it was informed by sexism (a woman who wants to philosophize rather than Feel is just denying her own nature and squandering her talent).
But it comes back to what I said just now about one's sense of the author writing under a sort of external pressure. I began to notice it in Felix Holt; I don't think I had before. She strikes me as a person who certainly has naturally a taste for general considerations, but who has fallen upon an age and a circle which have compelled her to give them an exaggerated attention. She does not strike me as naturally a critic, less still as naturally a sceptic; her spontaneous part is to observe life and to feel it, to feel it with admirable depth.
Intrigued by this? Go read the rest here, courtesy of the California Digital Library. And if you have an opinion about this problem of sense vs. sensibility in George Eliot's writing, please share. It's bugging me.

No comments:

Post a Comment