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From disdain to Deronda

The 38th biography of a great (and philosemitic) English writer is far from run-of-the-mill

The Life of George Eliot: A Critical Biography/ By Nancy Henry/ Wiley-Blackwell, £60

    George Eliot
    George Eliot

    In 1848, the 28-year-old Mary Ann Evans (yet to metamorphose into George Eliot) wrote the following to John Sibree, an apprentice soul-mate: “My Gentile nature kicks most resolutely against any assumption of superiority in the Jews, and is almost ready to echo Voltaire’s vituperation. I bow to the superiority of Hebrew poetry but much of their early mythology, and almost all their history, is utterly revolting.”

    However, young Mary Ann was already in the midst of enormous changes, made apparent in another letter, written when the writer’s age had doubled. “Not only towards the Jews, but towards all Oriental peoples with whom we English come in contact, a spirit of arrogance and contemptuous dictatorialness is observable which has become a national disgrace to us,” she wrote to Harriet Beecher Stowe. “Towards the Hebrews we Western people, who have been reared in Christianity, have a peculiar debt, and, whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar thoroughness of fellowship in religious and moral sentiment.”

    Among other things, Nancy Henry’s finely crafted biography of George Eliot (the 38th by her count) charts the intellectual journey that took her subject from ignorant Anglican disdain to big-time philosemitism.

    In general, Eliot disapproved of biographies, regarding them as the “disease of English literature”. As far as she was concerned, “the best history of a writer is contained in his writings — these are his chief actions.” But even she might look kindly upon Number 38, for Professor Henry has concentrated her attention upon the writings — though she does not ignore the life, and its influence upon those all-important writings.

    Henry reveals how the not-yet George Eliot gradually outgrew the confines of her birthplace (Nuneaton) her family, and even Christianity. She offended conventional morality — and her beloved brother, Isaac, who broke off all communication with her — when she began living openly with a married man.

    George Lewes, the adulterer in question, was in fact a man more sinned against than sinning. It was he, above all, who opened the doors of perception for her, and introduced her to the thinkers within. Thus was nurtured the scepticism engendered by her earliest tasks — translating David Strauss’s critique of Christianity, and Spinoza’s Ethics

    This led naturally to a greater sympathy for Jews, a sympathy given concrete expression by her decision to take Hebrew lessons with a scholar named Emanuel Deutsch, who (as Professor Henry puts it) “is considered to be a model for Mordecai in Daniel Deronda”.

    But Nancy Henry also demonstrates that this extraordinary, proto-Zionist novel was not a cuckoo in George Eliot’s oeuvre but a central part of it, having both ancestors — The Spanish Gypsy, set in 1492 — and descendants: Impressions of Theophrastus Such, which (avows Henry) “brings together the correspondences between the English and the Jews (the continuities of their religions, the similarities of their modern diasporas).”

    In another letter to Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Eliot summed up her feelings about Daniel Deronda, using words taken from the Book of Maccabees: “If I have done well, and as befits the subject, it is what I desired; and if I have done ill, it is what I could attain unto.”
    Of course she had done very well. Exactly the same may be said of Professor Henry.

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