George Eliot

Zionism comes from an unexpected source.

Print this page Print this page

The 19th century British novelist might not seem the likeliest champion of Jews and Zionism. But an exception has to be made for George Eliot.

Eliot was born in 1819 on a farm in rural Warwickshire, England. Her parents named her Mary Anne Evans, but in 1856 she began using the masculine penname "George Eliot" to ensure that her books would be taken seriously. Eliot's father was a deeply religious Anglican, and under his influence Eliot attended church almost every Sunday during her formative years (her mother died when she was 16). But she experienced a crisis of faith in the early 1840s.

george eliot zionist

Portait by François D'Albert Durade

According to Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her book The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot (2009), it was after moving to the town of Coventry that Eliot met Charles Bray, who had recently published Philosophy of Necessity, which made the positivist case for agnosticism. Through the Bray family, Eliot was introduced to a circle of intellectuals and free-thinkers. A few months later, she stopped going to church.

Eliot's father died in 1849, and after his death she traveled to Geneva with the Brays and began writing for some of the intellectual journals of the time. Sometime thereafter, she became fascinated with Jews. Before she tried her hand at fiction, Eliot translated Spinoza's Ethics into English (the translation was never published.) She also wrote essays about Heinrich Heine (who was involved with the Wissenschaft des Judenthums before converting to Lutheranism), and made Jewish friends.

But probably the thing that most drove her extreme fascination with Jews was her friendship with Emanuel Deutsch, a Silesian-born assistant in the library at the British Museum, whom she met in 1866. According to Himmelfarb, it was Deutsch who began sending Eliot writings about the Talmud, as well as books on all sorts of Jewish topics at her request.

Was Silas A Jew?

Eliot's most famous work is a novel called Silas Marner (1861), which does not have the word "Jew" in it even once. However, it contains one of the most poignant and detailed portraits of an outsider and his plight.

Silas, the hero of the book, is falsely accused of a crime--stealing from his local church--and he is forced to leave his hometown for the village of Raveloe. He immediately feels distrustful of his new town and so he hoards his money, making himself the object of distrust and resentment among his new neighbors. Silas's inability to fit in at Raveloe is so extreme that he even refuses to attend church on Christmas Day. Despite the fact that he's not explicity Jewish, it's hardly a great leap of logic to view Silas as the classic "wandering Jew."

Sympathy for the outsider is one of the major themes in many of Eliot's works, but it was not joined with a specific affection for Judaism until the 1876 publication of Daniel Deronda.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Max Gross

Max Gross is a reporter for the New York Post and is the author of From Schlub to Stud: How to Embrace Your Inner Mensch and Conquer the Big City. He lives in Queens and his musings can be read at www.fromschlubtostud.com.