Wednesday, March 19, 2014

In which we meet Daniel Deronda, and watch him watch a fascinatrix

{Editorial note: as I explained in Monday's post, today marks the start of a back-and-forth, intended to be a bit conversational, between me and my friend Maggie Bandur as we make our way through Daniel Deronda.}

Like Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda opens on the topic of its female protagonist's beauty. Middlemarch's opening line, though not as familiar as "Happy families are all alike," is reasonably well known, and is generally, I think, considered to be a strong one:
Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.
I would actually class it with "Happy families" in another way, however: as a line that's more memorable than effective, more showy than good. It strikes me as a line an author comes up with very early on, admires, then retains even as the subsequent paragraphs and pages develop along different lines. Oh, I'm exaggerating a bit: Eliot does at least go on to explain herself, which Tolstoy doesn't really do--but wouldn't the chapter work better opening with this line, instead, from the middle of that paragraph:
She was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common-sense.
Whereas before all you had was a bit of information about appearance, couched in a line seemingly designed to make you think about the sentence itself as much as about its content, now you have a bit of insight into character, and the first hints of a relationship. And opening with "she" puts the whole thing at a further remove, adding a tiny bit of mystery and putting us into the perspective of the outside world looking on and assessing.

Which is closer to what we get in the opening of Daniel Deronda:
Was she beautiful or not beautiful? and what was the secret of form or expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance? Was the good or the evil genius dominant in those beams? Probably the evil; else why was the effect that of unrest rather than of undisturbed charm? Why was the wish to look again felt as coercion and not as a longing in which the whole being consents?
Nicely handled, no? I'm being a bit unfair, of course: I gave Middlemarch a single sentence, whereas Deronda gets a whole paragraph. But it reads that way: the blunt question that begins the book leads you to the next, and the next; instantly, we feel part of a pattern of thought.

With the second paragraph, we learn who is doing the thinking:
She who raised these questions in Daniel Deronda's mind was occupied in gambling.
The "she," we'll soon learn, is the book's heroine, Gwendolen Harleth, and right away she's being paired for us with the title character. The rest of the chapter lives up to its opening: Eliot puts us in the fashionable French casino where Gwendolen is gambling with a cool recklessness that fascinates the crowd around her. We shift from Deronda's perspective to the narrator's, and then are turned over to a chorus of the moneyed and fashionable, who trade comments and questions about Gwendolen ("For my part I think her odious. . . . It is wonderful what unpleasant girls get into vogue."), smoothly delivering some early exposition along the way. By the end of the chapter, which runs a mere eight pages, Eliot has introduced her two main characters, made her first steps toward placing them in society, and shown us their mutual, if unacknowledged, awareness of a potent force between them.

That makes Eliot's next move all the more interesting: the second chapter brings a letter recalling Gwendolen home, her family's fortune lost, her hopes for a glittering social life dashed. Without seeing Deronda again, she hurries home, not telling anyone of her troubles . . . after which Eliot carries us back a year. One hundred and fifty pages will pass before we see Deronda again, and more than that before he and Gwendolen are brought back into proximity.

It's a structure that only a supremely confident author would attempt, and I'm not entirely sure that it works. Eliot's decision to essentially set the problem for us at the outset is brilliant, but is the power of that opening scene dissipated too much by the number of pages it takes to get us back to that moment in its characters' parallel lives?

And with that, I'll turn it over to Maggie, who, if all goes well, will appear here on Friday. She may take up that question about the early structure, or she may go off in a completely new direction. Either way, I hope you'll join us!

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