I, too, am fascinated with Eliot's depiction of Jewish culture in the Victorian era, although I have trouble not seeing it through today's lenses. It makes me terribly uncomfortable when Mirah keeps apologizing for being Jewish because "I know many Jews are bad." I wonder if her perfect, wan saintliness was necessary to get the nineteenth-century reader on board with the story. This only-slightly different Victorian doll lures one into a deeper examination of Jewish life and culture in England -- a culture Eliot obviously cared about and studied -- just as the fans of Tom Sawyer's antics looking for a sequel find themselves reading a subtle examination of race in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
As the book explores the merchants and working class philosophers of the Jewish community, we see a portrait of the Cohen family, with its pawnbroker father and delightfully precocious children. After young Jacob shows off his own pocketknife:
"Have you got a knife?" says Jacob, coming closer. His small voice was hoarse in its glibness, as if it belonged to an aged commercial soul, fatigued with bargaining through many generations.The little girl wants to show Deronda her Sabbath dress, the adults show their commitment to assimilation by talking about going to see the Emperor and Empress of France at the Crystal Palace, and the family generally proves itself to be friendly and generous. So I do not understand with my modern mind why, with Deronda obviously liking them, he is upset by the notion they might be Mirah's relatives. Because of the father's occupation? Because they talk about money? Because they are tradespeople, and she is such a special flower? Is it a matter of anti-Semitism or merely class or just an English dislike of commercial ambition? I am not sure I understand the implications exactly -- but I am relatively sure I wouldn't like them.
"Yes. Do you want to see it?" said Deronda, taking a small penknife from his waistcoat-pocket.
Jacob seized it immediately and retreated a little, holding the two knives in his palms and bending over them in meditative comparison. By this time the other clients were gone, and the whole family gathered to the spot, centering their attention on the marvellous Jacob: the father, mother, and grandmother behind the counter, with baby held staggering thereon, and the little girl in front leaning at her brother's elbow to assist him in looking at the knives.
"Mine's the best," said Jacob, at last, returning Deronda's knife, as if he had been entertaining the idea of exchange and had rejected it.
I also wondered if the introduction of the uncanny and mystical Mordecai was the other side of the stereotype coin: the fetishized, spiritual version of "the other," a sort of Victorian precursor to Madonna studying Kabbalah. Mordecai yearns for a like-minded friend to whom he can pass on his revelations and scholarship, before consumption takes him. (Although Eliot does state his illness makes his age difficult to determine, I assumed he was as old as Methuselah -- which we learn later cannot be the case.) But I am being unjust. Eliot does show many facets of this world, and, indeed, Deronda's outlook is constantly evolving and expanding -- as presumably the reader's is, too.
As a reminder that these topics remain, after so many hundreds of years, fraught, it was interesting to me to hear Mordecai calling for the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Although I suppose I knew that Zionism had existed -- well, since the destruction of the second temple -- it is something I tend to associate with post-World War II. He dreams of a "new Judea, poised between East and West -- a covenant of reconciliation." I wish he could see his desires to come to fruition -- yet would he grieve to see how precariously it is still poised?
But all of this also makes me worry about poor Gwendolen. (Yes, she is poor Gwendolen now.) Gwendolen, having been placed in a terrible situation, believes Deronda may have the knowledge of how she might endure it. But Gwendolen, "with all the sense of inferiority that had been forced upon her, it was inevitable that she should imagine a larger place for herself in his thoughts than she actually possessed." My heart breaks as I recognize that situation of being so affected by another human being and their words, when they do not reciprocate -- or even suspect -- that level of need for their good opinion:
[I]t was as far from Gwendolen's conception that Deronda's life could be determined by the historical destiny of the Jews, as that he could rise in the air on a brazen horse, and so vanish from her horizon in the form of a twinkling star.Indeed, Gwendolen's world of manners and mores seems very far from the one in which Mirah and Mordecai live, surrounded by echoes of ancient history and national destiny. As I read on, I wonder how the novel will resolve these differing threads. Or is this a book about how we all inhabit different worlds which others may never fully understand? Or is there, perhaps, a problem in the writing that Mirah and Gwendolen seem to be in different novels?