“What’ve you got there?”
“George Eliot. Middlemarch. Silas Marner. Mill on the Floss…?”
“Ah … maybe … Spaniel Ma-what was it?”
D.D. has not entered the popular canon of Victorian literature, it’s true. But I threw myself on it with mad enthusiasm, already picturing a rave review. “Unfairly forgotten work of genius,” I pictured myself tap-tapping to you. “Get down to your bookshop now.” What I found was altogether more mixed – a mixed pleasure to read and a history of mixed reviews and interpretations.
You see, after reeling you in with Gwendolen Harleth, a selfish, flighty, assured woman first met at the betting table in a opening scene of triumph, loss and scorching glances being thrown across the gambling parlour, D.D. eventually comes out – much, MUCH later – in a very different place. It is the only major representation of Judaism that I’ve come across in British Victorian fiction. And not only Judaism – a heavy dose of mysticism, and the stirrings of Zionism.
It turns out that the reason that it isn’t in the canon is this Jewish bent, which contemporary (and even much later) reviewers did not find easy to stomach. F R Leavis – kind of a big deal as a literary critic – even suggested the Jewish chapters be expunged and the work renamed simply “Gwendolen.” But it’s not just an anti-semitic viewpoint – as the introduction to my Penguin Classics edition interestingly pointed out, Jewish critics have similarly suggested leaving out the “Gentile” portions of the text would leave you with a much better work.
As these interpretations suggest, it’s a book of two halves which don’t sit comfortably along side each other, despite a dense network of parallel imagery and mirrored events which is highly satisfying – Eliot at her best. It’s in the joining of these two halves that the whole point of the novel lies. You’d imagine that drawing these stories side by side would have the purpose of stating the similarities between the two groups – English upper class and Jewish estranged family – but the effect is far from that. Apart from asserting their common humanity, Eliot seems keen to preserve the distinction between the two, which is in keeping with the general anti-assimilation message of the novel. Respect, happiness and prosperity are found in preserving what is unique or individual about yourself and your culture. Whether it’s being a feisty Madam who frankly has no interest in men, or being true to the heritage of your people, in D.D. Eliot is arguing for that which makes us special. It’s in the melting pot of similarity that loss and pain lies.
The whole position of the novel is not what I’d have expected the British female author to take – this anti-assimilation stance sometimes seems to come out as limiting female freedoms and Zionism is not a typically British cause. Gentile that I am, I found the Gwendolen portion of the novel more palatable. As a character closer to Eliot’s usual world, she’s drawn with all manner of delicious vagaries and vices, where the “Jewess” Mirah is comparatively flat in her meek virtue and Mordecai almost wilfully obscure. Perhaps – unfamiliar as she was with the Jewish community – this is the area in which Eliot struggled? In many ways it’s obtuse to speak of struggle in the face of this extensive and psychologically perceptive novel. But I won’t be re-reading it, and I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re the sort of person whose heart leaps at a sniff of the back catalogue of Victorian greats.