Thursday, April 24, 2014

Eliot, Dickens, Trollope, and Jewish characters

If readers know only one thing about Daniel Deronda, it's that it takes up the question of the Jewish experience, and the place of Jewish citizens, within British society. Yet that theme is barely present in the first half of the book: aside from a throwaway reference by Gwendolen to those "unscrupulous" "Jew dealers" in the opening pages, there's no reference to Judaism until the appearance of Mirah Lapidoth, nearly 200 pages in:
"I am English-born. But I am a Jewess."

Deonrda was silent, inwardly wondering that he had not said this to himself before, though any one who had seen delicate-faced Spanish girls might simply have guessed her to be Spanish.

"Do you despise me for it?" she said presently in low tones, which had a sadness that pierced like a cry from a small dumb creature in fear.

"Why should I?" said Deronda. "I am not so foolish."

"I know many Jews are bad."

"So are many Christians. But I should not think it fair for you to despise me because of that."
It's particularly interesting to read this--even knowing that it comes from the mouth of a character who has already been established as upright and sensitive--having earlier this winter read Oliver Twist (1838) and Trollope's The Way We Live Now (1876).

While acknowledging the fact that drawing inferences about social change from the skewed data points represented by a small group of novels is risky, it's hard not to in this case. Oliver Twist is infamous for Dickens's antisemitic portrayal of Fagin. Even when you know going in that it's going to be bad--so bad that Dickens himself later regretted his portrayal of Fagin, and reportedly tried to balance the scales a bit by making Riah in Our Mutual Friend an irreproachable human being--it's startling to encounter. Dickens refers to Fagin simply as "the Jew" 100 times. He makes off-hand reference to the size of Fagin's nose. And he depicts him as wholly without redeeming qualities, an utter villain driven by inhuman greed. As Stephen Gill writes in his introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition,
Fagin is the real agent of darkness in this novel. . . .What determines the presentation of Fagin is a kind of concentrated ferocity, but it is almost certainly without conscious anti-Semitic intent. . . . Fagin's Jewishness is part and parcel of his wickedness, for this is the age-old stereotype, the Jew as scapegoat.
It is the very unthinkingness of Dickens's antisemitism that is so suggestive of a social valence: casting about for a villain, he simply made him a Jew. And, to the extent that Philip Collins's Charles Dickens: The Critical Heritage can serve as our guide, the portrayal seems to have gone all but unnoticed by contemporary reviewers--if they were horrified, it was by Dickens's choice to depict with some realism the squalor of London poverty and low life.

That's what makes the depictions of Jewish Britons by Trollope and Eliot not quite forty years later so interesting. Trollope's concern, as always, is with depicting society as it is, and thereby showing us both its foibles and its progress. And what he reveals in The Way We Live Now, published while Disraeli was Prime Ministe, is a society in which antisemitic prejudice, while still present, has receded to a place where it is merely one of a number of prejudices--against trade and new money, for example. Jewishness, like a lack of a title, is an obstacle to be overcome before one can be accorded full membership in society, but some sort of acceptance--if not full--is at least conceivable, provided there's enough money involved. This exchange, between Georgiana, desperate to escape her home life and thus looking to get married at almost any cost, and a old friend who married well is indicative of the improved, if still equivocal, place of Jews in the novel:
She had plucked up so much courage as had enabled her to declare her fate to her old friend,--remembering as she did so how in days long past she and her friend Julia Triplex had scattered their scorn upon some poor girl who had married a man with a Jewish name,--whose grandfather had possibly been a Jew. "Dear me," said Lady Monogram. "Todd, Brehgert, and Goldsheiner! Mr. Todd is--one of us, I suppose?"

"Yes," said Georgina boldly. "And Mr. Brehgert is a Jew. His name is Ezekial Brehgert, and he is a Jew. You can say what you like about it."

"I don't say anything about it, my dear."

"And you can think anything you like. Things are changed since you and I were younger."

"Very much changed, it appears," said Lady Monogram.
That seems, roughly, to be the same position that Eliot's characters find themselves in. The fact that Mirah Lapidoth is Jewish conveys nothing like the horror occasioned by Fagin, certainly, but at the same time the essentially kindly Meyricks seem utterly perplexed by it. The daughters attend synagogue with Mirah, which seems quite ecumenical of them, but they find it largely uncongenial. Their only reference point is Sir Walter Scott's Rebecca, and they find Mirah's Jewishness "less reconcilable with their wishes" than Rebecca's malleable faith was with Scott's plot. "Perhaps," wonders Amy,
it would gradually melt away from her, and she would pass into Christianity like the rest of the world, if she got to love us very much, and never found her mother. It is so strange to be of the Jewish religion now.
That "like the rest of the world" tells you almost everything you need to know about the British mind of the 1870s, doesn't it?

So what, in the second half of the novel, will Eliot do with the theme of Judaism? Unlike Trollope, her concerns are more intellectual than social, so I expect that the Jewish faith and the Jewish race will surely be wrestled with as ideas at least as much as social qualities--but who will do the wrestling? Will Deronda's infatuation with Mirah hold, and draw him away from his upbringing? Ah, the fun of watching a novel unfold, not knowing what is to come!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Back to Eliot, at least briefly

Last week's cross-temporal hunt for emoticons and the many pages I need to read as a judge for the fiction category of the Daphnes has put me behind both my reading and my blogging schedule for Daniel Deronda. Rather than leave you (and my co-Derondan, Maggie Bandur) in the lurch entirely, I'll stall a day or two by offering a brief bit from George Eliot: Interviews and Recollections, a volume edited by K. K. Collins that gathers contemporary reports of encounters with George Eliot. It's not as rich or quotable as the comparable book about Henry James, The Legend of the Master, but it's well worth having alongside when reading or thinking about Eliot.

Tonight I'll just share two anecdotes. First, a short, secondhand impression, via James T. Fields, published in his Biographical Notes and Personal Sketches in 1881:
[Dickens gave] an excellent description of Mr. and Mrs. Lewes. The latter he finds most interesting "with her shy manner of saying brilliant things."
And then this one, also secondhand, published in James Adderley's In Slums and Society: Reminiscences of Old Friends in 1916:
I have been told that George Eliot was in a railway-carriage once with a friend, and there was a "muscular Christian" sort of parson conversing with them about all the topics of the day. The reverend gentleman got out at a certain station, and the friend remarked enthusiastically:--

"Ah! That's the sort of parson I like. No nonsense about him!"

"Is he the sort of parson you would like to have at your deathbed?" said George Eliot.

"Oh no!" said the lady.
The only proper way to close the post after that, I think, is to turn things over to Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon:

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Emoticon, or emoticon? (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

I promise we'll get back to Daniel Deronda by the weekend. But first, a quick update on the Robert Herrick 1648 emoticon front. My post from Sunday about it was fanned into one of those small Internet brushfires throughout Monday and Tuesday. Here's a quick roundup, with apologies to any of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook and are already tired of hearing about this:
--Alexis Madrigal wrote about it on his Atlantic blog, and provided a helpful image.

--That triggered posts from iO9, Engadget, Gizmodo, the Huffington Post, Business Insider, and many others.

--John Overholt, curator of early modern books and manuscripts at Harvard's Houghton Library, was kind enough to offer to check the original 1648 publication of Herrick's Hesperides, and the photo he posted to his Twitter account made the smiley face even harder to ignore.

--Then, to the great amusement of our departmental assistant, a producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's As It Happens program came looking for me, and I taped a brief interview that aired yesterday. If you're interested in hearing me read Herrick's poem and hedge enthusiastically, I come on about 44 minutes into the program.

--Finally, Slate's Ben Zimmer closed out the day by closing the door: bringing actual research to bear, he made the case against the emoticon. In an essay about James Thurber that will appear in The Getaway Car, Donald Westlake off-handedly describes the New Yorker as "our primary viewer with alarm"; Slate, mostly to its credit, I think of as our pourer of cold water on Internet fun.
Not bad for a couple of days of silliness. Is it an emoticon? Oh, probably not. But barring the discovery of a letter from Herrick saying, "Hey, guess what I did/didn't do?" we can't be entirely certain. And one thing's for sure regardless: I'll never not see it that way now, and it's given me a fun excuse to get people talking about one of my favorite long-dead poets.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The first emoticon?

We interrupt our blogging of Daniel Deronda to share breaking news: In reading some of Robert Herrick's poetry last night, I discovered what looks to be the first emoticon!

It appears at the end of the second line of "To Fortune," which was published in Hesperides in 1648:
Tumble me down, and I will sit
Upon my ruins, (smiling yet:)
Tear me to tatters, yet I'll be
Patient in my necessity.
Laugh at my scraps of clothes, and shun
Me, as a fear'd infection;
Yet, scare-crow-like, I'll walk as one
Neglecting thy derision.
Lest it be an aberration in the edition I own, I checked it against the new, authoritative two-volume edition of Herrick's work edited by Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly and published by Oxford University Press last year. The emoticon is there.

Herrick's poetry is rich in wit, so it's not entirely out of the bounds of possibility that this is something more than a punctuational oddity. If so, it would predate by more than two centuries the 1862 emoticon discovered in a New York Times transcript of one of Abraham Lincoln's speeches in 2009.

In honor of the discovery of Herrick's invention, we'll close by letting him raise a toast:
"The Coblers Catch"

Come sit we by the fires side;
And roundly drinke we here;
Till that we see our cheeks Ale-dy'd
And noses tann'd with Beere.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Eliot on adults not seeing what children see nor realizing what they feel

{Editorial note: Today's post from Maggie Bandur continues our back-and-forth through Eliot's Daniel Deronda. You can scroll down for earlier posts from the past couple of weeks.}

As someone who was not a terribly happy child--and as you can see in my post on Tom Brown's School Days--I am fascinated by the fact adults do not always see, and, more importantly, can't believe, that children can be deeply unhappy. Even if everyone else has had pleasant childhoods, this still involves a mass amnesia as to the intensity of one's own childhood passions and fears, and how often something said by an adult was taken to heart in a way the adults never suspected.

So, I was excited to see George Eliot's deep understanding of youthful psyches, as she describes Daniel Deronda's discovery, based on an unrelated and offhanded comment by an adult, that something about his own birth is irregular. When a tutor explains the Popes' many "nephews" were their illegitimate children, we see the alertness of youth as Daniel fixates on that fact, and the propensity of children to make imaginative leaps, as he assumes (it turns out, correctly) that his birth is illegitimate because he is also being raised by an "uncle":
Having read Shakespeare as well as a great deal of history, he could have talked with the wisdom of a bookish child about men who were born out of wedlock and were held unfortunate in consequence
--but he had never thought it applied to him until that one sudden flash of insight:
The ardour which he had given to the imaginary world in his books suddenly rushed towards his own history and spent its pictorial energy there, explaining what he knew, representing the unknown.
(It is also it is interesting how Eliot characterizes this kind of understanding: "He had not lived with other boys, and his mind showed the same blending of child's ignorance with surprising knowledge which is oftener seen in bright girls.")

Eliot understands the effect these sudden revelations can have on a child:
Who cannot imagine the bitterness of a first suspicion that something in this object of complete love was not quite right? Children demand that their heroes should be feckless, and easily believe them to be so: perhaps a first discovery to the contrary is hardly a less revolutionary shock to a passionate child than the threatened downfall of habitual beliefs which makes the world seem to totter for us in mature life.
And even more perceptively, why children may never say anything about them:
Those who have had an impassioned childhood will understand the dread of utterance about any shame connected with their parents. The impetuous advent of new images took possession of him with the force of fact for the first time told, and left him no immediate power for the reflection that he might be trembling at a fiction of his own. The terrible sense of collision between a strong rush of feeling and the dread of its betrayal, found relief at length in big slow tears, which fell without restraint until the voice of Mr. Fraser was heard saying--

"Daniel, do you see that you are sitting on the bent pages of your book?"
In spite of the turmoil going on inside--the upending of his whole world--Daniel doesn't betray his emotions beyond sitting on his book and one petulant outburst when Sir Hugo asks playfully if he would like to be a famous singer, which Daniel takes to mean he won't be raising him as a gentleman. Although Sir Hugo has a mild awareness that his ward is unhappy about something, he is completely wrong about what it is, and here Eliot captures the blindness adults have towards the feelings of children:
Let Sir Hugo be partly excused until the grounds of his action can be more fully known. The mistakes in his behavior to Deronda were due to that dulness towards what may be going on in other minds, especially the minds of children, which is among the commonest deficiencies even in good-natured men like him, when life has been generally easy to themselves, and their energies have been quietly spent in feeling gratified.
Sir Hugo feels no shame--feels pride even--in everyone assuming Daniel is his illegitimate son. And since he isn't bothered by the whole thing, it does not occur to him that Deronda might be. With a child's capacity for silent misery and an adult's inability to notice, Deronda reaches adulthood with Sir Hugo never telling him the story of his parentage--and Deronda never having the heart to ask!

And the outcome of this silent hurt is not all bad. Deronda certainly takes his early slights with more grace than I did:
The sense of an entailed disadvantage--the deformed foot doubtfully hidden by the shoe makes a restlessly active spiritual yeast, and easily turns a self-centered, unloving nature into an Ishmaelite. But in the rarer sort, who presently see their own frustrated claim as one among a myriad, the inexorable sorrow takes the form of fellowship and makes the imagination tender. Deronda's early-awakened susceptibility, charged at first with ready indignation and resistant pride, had raised in him a premature reflection on certain questions of life; it had given a bias to his conscience, a sympathy with certain ills, and a tension of resolve in certain directions, which marked him off from other youths much more than any talents he possessed.
Deronda's childhood disappointment forms him into a deeply sympathetic adult. The detailed, insightful description of his childhood mind only makes the insipid Mirah, whose own bad childhood unrealistically only intensified her inborn saintliness and didn't teach her a single practical skill for dealing with the world, stick out all the more. She has not reappeared for a while; she must get better.

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.