Thursday, April 03, 2014

Mirah Lapidoth appears, bearing tears and treacle

{Editorial note: this is the fifth in the series of posts that my friend Maggie Bandur and I are trading back and forth as we wander through George Eliot's Daniel Deronda.. Scroll back for earlier posts if you want to get up to speed.}

I'll start by following up on Maggie's post about Gwendolen Harleth's specific brand of awfulness--for which she makes a solid case--by noting that her skeptical eye led me to read a later exchange between Gwendolen and her mother differently than I would have. Their fortune lost, the family is in scrimp-and-save mode, which does not sit well with Gwendolen, who, reluctantly, is about to go out as a governess while the rest of the family takes residence in a small, remote cottage. "How shall you endure it, mamma?" asks Gwendolen. After she expands on the incipient horrors a bit, her mother replies,
"It will be some comfort that you have not to bear it too, dear."
It would be, wouldn't it? At risk of doubting a mother's sincerity, I find myself reading that as less about her daughter's tender sensibilities and more about the fact that a crowded house is more tolerable the fewer self-entitled whiners you fill it with.

Distrust of intentions and sincerity is actually a good way into the point of today's post, which addresses a new character whom Maggie mentioned at the end of her post: Mirah Lapidoth, "the very Dickens-like, beautiful, but oh-so-sad eighteen-year-old" who is prevented by Deronda from acting on her intention of throwing herself in the Thames.

What Deronda didn't realize is that the Thames might have puked her right back up. She's awful. Throughout this discussion, Maggie and I have in different ways given Eliot credit for her complicated, nuanced portrayals of women . . . and then suddenly she drops on us a character dripping with all the worst sentimental Victorian ideas about the innocence and purity of young women. Deronda is clearly love-struck at first sight by those very qualities, allied as they are to a helpless frailty that is equally intolerable to a contemporary reader, and decides to take her under his wing. Even Eliot seems to sense that perhaps she's taken things a bit too far, for she opens the next book with an account of his hitherto unsuspected romantic side:
To say that Deronda was romantic would be to misrepresent him; but under his calm and somewhat self-repressed exterior there was a fervour which made him easily find poetry and romance among the events of everyday life. . . . To Deronda this event of finding Mirah was as heart-stirring as anything that befell Orestes or Rinaldo.
Now, I suppose it's entirely possible that Eliot has brought Mirah into the book primarily to complicate and advance the plot. As those who've suffered through the unlikely machinations of Raffles in Middlemarch can attest, Eliot is at her weakest when she is trying to make her novels conform to Victorian expectations for mystery and surprise; it makes you wish she could have read some late Henry James and realized that it is possible to write a great novel in which almost nothing happens.

Even if that's the case, it doesn't quite excuse the load of sentimental bosh that is Mirah's life story. After Deronda takes her to the home of his friends, the Meyricks, she relates her entire history. At length: it takes up more than 13 pages in the Penguin Classics edition. We get page after page of her sinister father and his sinister companions, her pure heart only slowly awakening to danger, the desperate measures she took to escape, her childlike faith in the goodness of people that is only slowly eroded. Of her life on stage, she says,
I missed the love and the trust I had been born into. I made a life in my own thoughts quite different from everything about me: I chose what seemed to me beautiful out of the plays and everything, and made my world out of it; and it was like a sharp knife always grazing me that we had two sorts of life which jarred so with each other--women looking good and gentle on the stage, and saying good things as if they felt them, and directly after I saw them with coarse, ugly manners.
It's all not only bloatedly insipid, and thus dull, it's also hard to believe. And that's the part I keep getting hung up on. Here, for example, is Mirah's disjointed first explanation to the Meyricks and Deronda of how she came to this pass:
My name is Mirah Lapidoth. I am come a long way from Prague by myself. I made my escape. I ran away from dreadful things. I came to find my mother and brother in London. I had been taken from my mother when I was little, but I thought I could find her again. I had trouble--the houses were all gone--I could not find her. It has been a long while, and I had not much money. That is why I am in distress.
Now, if a stranger came up to you on the street and told you that story, would you instinctively believe them, and want to know more? Or would you slowly back away? And what if they followed it with one of those life stories in which every man's hand is against them, every piece of luck is bad, and everyone is always doing them wrong?

Yet Deronda--and the Meyricks as well, who don't even have love as an excuse--seem to harbor no doubts at all. They are wholly sympathetic, positively brimming with belief. I realize there's always a substantial risk in trying to extrapolate about real people in the past from what we're given in fiction, but could people possibly have been that much more credulous then? Are we that much more thoroughly cauterized by cynicism?

As a modest, unscientific test, I decided to turn to Dickens's Little Nell, whose untimely death in The Ol Curiosity Shop is held up as powerful evidence of Victorian love of Dickens's treacly heroines. But was she really received that heartily? Were there no dissenting voices at the time?

If so, Philip Collins didn't turn any up when he assembled Charles Dickens: The Critical Heritage. "Little Nell," he writes,
made her mark immediately: [Dickens's friend and biographer John] Forster was able to predict for her "as long a life as any member of the great family of English fiction can hope to enjoy." Comparisons with Cordelia and Imogen were frequent. At a less literary, more personal, level, she could be imagined "cling[ing] with a never-ending fondness around our necks, inseparable for ever." (Ainsworth's Magazine, January 1844). . . . Nor was the international furore about her restricted to simple unsophisticated readers and arguably ga-ga old men like Landor and Jeffrey. For the austerely intellectual Westminster Review, for instance, she was "the happiest and most perfect of Dickens's sketches . . . a tragedy of the true sort."
The "fierce reaction" against her, Collins notes didn't begin until much later.

Which suggests that, yes, Deronda and the Meyricks may not be atypical in their susceptibility to Mirah's sentimental innocence, and that perhaps Eliot herself thought she was creating a character as believable, and fully fleshed-out, as any of her others. At this point in the novel, I think that's the only way we can read the situation; even so, it's hard for me to reconcile with Eliot's perceptiveness and intellectual acuity, or with the flaying, modern wit she allows Gwendolen to wield.

No comments:

Post a Comment