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.
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.
“Let there be another great migration, another choosing of Israel to be a nationality whose members may still stretch to the ends of the earth,” declares Mordechai Cohen, the fiery Jewish nationalist in Daniel Deronda, which was published a good 21 years before the First Zionist Congress.
If not for its proto-Zionist elements, Daniel Deronda would not be all that different from a lot of Victorian-era novels. It contains the intermingled stories of Gwendolen Harleth, a spoiled young Christian woman who, in a moment of financial panic, marries a wealthy brute–and that of Daniel Deronda, the kindly, orphaned protagonist who becomes entangled in London’s Jewish scene and eventually discovers that he, himself, is a Jew.
Both Gwendolen and Daniel travel in the same privileged circles–their stories intersect throughout the book, from the very first scene in which Daniel sees Gwendolen at a roulette table in Leubronn, Germany–and they feel a similar interest in the other. But they diverge on radically different paths.
The Gwendolen scenes would have been fairly familiar to readers of that era. Unhappy marriages (like that of Emma and Charles Bovary in Madame Bovary) and flawed heroines (like Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair) were common in European literature of the time. But it’s the plunge into the world of the Jews that was so unsettling to Victorian readers–and overwhelms the rest of the story.
Any student of British literature knows that prior to Daniel Deronda, such a sympathetic Jewish character was inconceivable. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were steeped in the ugliest of anti-Semitic blood libels. Shakespeare’s Shylock might have been a pitiable villain with inner-depths–but, as Harold Bloom put it, “The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work.”
However, Daniel Deronda was a newer, more progressive entry into the British canon, and it represented one of the first unambiguously positive takes on Jews. Daniel’s character is charitable and modest, thoughtful and smart. He first becomes entangled with Mordechai Cohen and his Jewish milieu after saving a beautiful young Jewish woman from committing suicide. In fact, it is the Christian characters in Daniel Deronda–like Gwendolen, and her unfortunate husband, H.R. Grandcourt–who are flawed.
Many of Daniel Deronda’s critics at the time it was published were put off by its representation of Jewishness. “There was an almost schizophrenic tone in many of the reviews: the believable characters (English) versus the unbelievable (Jewish),” writes Himmelfarb.
But for most Jews who read Daniel Deronda, the book was a revelation. Not only were Jews painted sympathetically, but the ideas of Mordechai were genuinely intriguing. For many, it kick started a drive for Jewish nationalism. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, Emma Lazarus, and others claim to have discovered their inner-Zionism by reading Daniel Deronda. Sigmund Freud said that no gentile author had better captured the Jewish mind.
At the end of the novel, Daniel leaves his genteel English life in order to settle in Israel. “I am going to the East,” Daniel announces to Gwendolen. “The idea that I am possessed with is that of restoring a political existence to my people, making them a nation again…I am resolved to devote my life to it. At the least, I may awaken a movement in other minds, such as has been awakened in my own.”
It would be difficult to find a bolder affirmation of Zionism than that.