In Henry James’ phenomenally bizarre review of Daniel Deronda, three ludicrously named characters sit on a veranda debating, at length, the pros and cons of George Eliot‘s final novel. Gwendolyn, the spoiled heroine, “is a masterpiece,” says Constantius, but the Jewish characters—Mordecai, Mirah, and, inevitably, Deronda—”are hardly more than shadows.” James was, at best, an ambivalent anti-Semite: He came down on Zola’s side during the Dreyfus affair, but rarely missed the chance for a good stereotype. Yet while I’ll admit Mordecai and Mirah could stand to be a little less steadfast, if not static, in their faith, Deronda remains more fully imagined and more revolutionary than James concedes. In a literary tradition that included Fagin and Shylock, simply making Daniel attractive represents a dramatic departure: “Not with that nose!” says James’ Pulcheria, “I am sure he had a nose, and I hold that the author has shown great pusillanimity in her treatment of it.” In fact, Eliot never describes it.
Eliot’s clever conceit was to create a model Englishman, loved and admired by almost everyone, who then discovers he’s Jewish. The entire novel hinges on revelations—veiled identities, hidden children, altered names, and accidental murders—lifted right from the mass-produced railway novels Eliot singles out for scorn. Sometimes the plot twists are heavy-handed, but most often they succeed. Far more than a refutation of stereotypes, Daniel confronts assimilation, identity, and social responsibility in ways still recognizable today. Though Mordecai and Mirah may be tradition-bound, Daniel is strikingly progressive: “I shall call myself a Jew,” Daniel says, “But I will not say that I shall profess to believe exactly as my fathers have believed.” As politicians like Albright and Kerry unearth their own hidden roots, and young secular Americans seek a cultural tradition of their own, Eliot’s novel seems uncanny. Daniel stands between worlds, honoring his heritage at the same time seeing beyond it.