Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

“Was she beautiful or not beautiful?”

Gwendolyn Harleth is a “spoiled child”, a young woman with average prospects yet with high hopes of attaining respectable social standing and monetary comfort. While scorning the traditional avenues of marriage, she desperately wishes for a meaningful, vibrant life, even though she is unsure of how to attain it.  Gambling, parties and equestrian amusements, fill her time, with little thought of other peoples wants, needs or struggles.

Daniel Deronda is a respectable moral young man and the ward of Sir Hugo Mallinger.  When he first spies Gwendolyn, his disapproval of her gambling and later, the same quiet censure of some of her actions, leads her down a path of introspection and causes her to question the manner in which she is living her life.  Yet the changes in her character do not come soon enough and, due to her family’s sudden monetary troubles, she contracts a marriage to Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt, the nephew and heir of Sir Hugo.  She views the marriage as an escape from poverty and a stepping stone to a life of leisure and a respectable position in society.  Instead she gets a husband with a twisted soul, bent on breaking her will as he would a horse or a wild animal.  He glories in her struggles, fear and his ability to control her actions.

Gwendolyn at the Roulette Table
(1910)
Wikipedia

A second plot winds itself through Gwendolyn’s, as Deronda internally questions the manner of his birth and the identity of his parents.  Not wishing to bring up a subject that may be uncomfortable for Sir Hugo, he suppresses his curiosity, yet aches for familial connections and history.  Upon saving a Jewish singer from drowning, his relationship with her takes him down the path of finding his true heritage.

Eliot forces the reader to examine some of the social issues of that time.  Without money, young women could only hope to find work in low paying positions, such as governesses or companions, or perhaps choose less respectful avenues as singers or actresses.  Without an inheritance or a family who was financially able to support them, an advantageous marriage was really the only protection for women of this time period.

She also treats the subject of Jewish identity and culture with surprising dexterity and perception.  While they are portrayed with an obvious sympathy, Eliot makes each character real, from the philosophic and idealistic Mordecai, to the money-loving pawnbroker, Cohen. The struggle of a people against prejudice and pre-judgement is plainly explored with touching sincerity and insight.  Mordecai’s longing to see the Zionist hopes for a Jewish homeland established adds a deeper more complex examination of an issue that was of particular interest to the author.

The Fair Toxophilites (Archers)
by William Firth (1872)
Wikimedia Commons

I found that certain parts of the novel dragged, and the plot suffered numerous bumps, but again Eliot tackled such diverse issues, making the writing of the novel an epic task, so I can forgive some of the inconsistencies. Her obvious intellectual curiosity, and her enlightened opinions made the read informative as well as enjoyable.  Daniel Deronda is a book that prods you to think and ponder even after the last page is turned.

“In the chequered area of human experience the seasons are all mingled as in the golden age: fruit  and blossom hang together,; in the same moment the sickle is reaping and the seed is sprinkled; one tends the green cluster and another treads the wine-press.  Nay, in each of our lives harvest and spring-time are continually one, until Death himself gathers us and sows us anew in his invisible fields.”

Son Excellence, Eugène Rougon by Émile Zola

“For a moment the President remained standing amidst the slight commotion which his entrance had caused.”

I had met Eugène Rougon in Zola’s first book of the Rougon-Macquart series, The Fortune of the Rougons.  The oldest son of  Pierre and Felicité Rougon, he had been stationed in Paris, working for the cause of Louis-Napoléon Buonaparte as Emperor Napoleon III.  In Son Excellence, Eugène Rougon, we encounter Rougon as a man in disgrace, a man who has offended the Emperor and who has decided to resign before he is formally removed from office.  As he packs up his documents, a myriad of characters flow in and out of his office, almost in the formation of a dance, and each individual is as colourful as the next.  Yet as the respective characters speak their piece, the dance turns into a circling of sharks, as they all wonder how their position will be affected by Rougon’s fall and how much he can still impact their various personal causes.

The book chronicles the political scene in Paris during the government of the Second Empire under Emperor Napoleon III.  Through Rougon, we see the political machinery grinding through the career of a politician; his fall from favour, his subsequent rise through the help of his sycophantic supporters, their fickle desertion, and so forth.  Behind the glamorous facade of the Second Empire, manipulation, betrayal, coercion, conspiracy and fraud seep from between its seams, and only the clever and opportunistic will survive.

Chameleon-like Rougon is a man who knows how to bend with the force of political volatility.  Initially, after giving his resignation, he is slow, methodical and patient, rather like a toad waiting in the mud for an insect to come buzzing around his head.  Yet when he regains his title as minister, he comes alive; robust, loud, and outspoken, he soaks in the approbation of those around him while ruling with a heart of iron.  Yet Zola does a marvellous job of retaining his provincial nature; his sometimes wild, untamed speeches and stubborn and shortsighted actions reveal a man who has not been able to completely shake off the country dust of his origins.

Pont de la Tournelle, Paris
by Stanilas Lépine
(source Wikipedia)

Zola’s prose is so exquisitely compact, yet with it he constructs such a wide scope for the reader.  I felt I was really present during the baptismal procession for the Imperial Prince; I sensed the barely suppressed excitement in the air, the feel of the crowds and people pressing against me, the impatience, the festivity.  Zola doesn’t just allow us to view the Second Empire with words; he takes us right into its grandeur, its character and the various intricacies that gnaw at its foundations.  

This novel is not amongst Zola’s most popular books of the Rougon-Macquart series, but I really, really enjoyed it for its dynamic appeal and attention to detail.  Can Zola write a poor novel?  Somehow I don’t think so.

(translation by Ernest A. Vizetelly)

Other Rougon-Macquart Series Reviews (Zola’s recommended order):

2014 TBR Pile Challenge

Straight from Roof Beam Reader and under the gentle influence of Jean at Howling Frog Books, I have decided to tackle the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge.

This challenge is somewhat different from my other TBR Challenge.  The rules are:

The Goal: To finally read 12 books from your “to be read” pile (within 12 months).
Specifics:
1. Each of these 12 books must have been on your bookshelf or “To Be Read” list for AT LEAST one full year. This means the book cannot have a publication date of 1/1/2013 or later (any book published in the year 2012 or earlier qualifies, as long as it has been on your TBR pile – I WILL be checking publication dates). Caveat: Two (2) alternates are allowed, just in case one or two of the books end up in the “can’t get through” pile.
2. To be eligible, you must sign-up with Mr. Linky on Roof Beam Reader’s site – link to your list (so create it ahead of time!) and add updated links to each book’s review. Books must be read and must be reviewed (doesn’t have to be too fancy) in order to count as completed.
3. The link you post in the Mr. Linky must be to your “master list” (see Roof Beam Reader’s site). This is where you will keep track of your books completed, crossing them out and/or dating them as you go along, and updating the list with the links to each review (so there’s one easy, convenient way to find your list and all your reviews for the challenge). See THIS LINK for an idea of what I mean. Your complete and final list must be posted by January 15th, 2014.
4. Leave comments on Roof Beam Reader’s post as you go along, to update us on your status. Come back to the post if/when you complete this challenge and leave a comment indicating that you CONQUERED YOUR 2014 TBR LIST! Every person who successfully reads his/her 12 books and/or alternates (and who provides a working link to their list, which has links to the review locations) will be entered to win a $50 gift card from Amazon.com or The Book Depository!
5. Crossovers from other challenges are totally acceptable, as long as you have never read the book before and it was published before 2013!
*Note – You can read the books on your list in any order; they do not need to be read in the order you have them listed. As you complete a book – review it, and go back to your original list and turn that title into a link to the review – that will keep the comments section from getting ridiculously cluttered. For an example of what I mean,Click Here.
Monthly Check-Ins: On the 15th of each month, Roof Beam Reader is going to post a “TBR Pile Check-In.” This will allow participants to link-up their reviews from the past month and get some recognition for their progress. There will also be small mini-challenges and giveaways to go along with these posts (Such As: Read 6 books by the June Check-in and be entered to win a book of your choice!). This will help to keep us all on track and make the challenge a bit more engaging/interactive. 

  My original hesitation in joining this challenge, was due to the fact that I am terrified of making lists in case I don’t follow them.  However, I have decided to really challenge myself in 2014 by participating in this challenge.  My list is as follows:

  1.  Defense Speeches by Cicero  August 20, 2014

  2.  Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Mallory  December 6, 2014

  3.  Frankenstein by Mary Shelley   April 4, 2014

  4.  The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis   June 15, 2014

  5.  The Epic of Gilgamesh  August 14, 2014

  6.  Stories from the East from Herodotus by Alfred J. Church


  7.  The Sayings of the Desert Fathers  August 25, 2014

  8.  Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes


  9.  Socrates by Paul Johnson


10.  Daniel Deronda by George Eliot  February 24, 2014

11.  Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome


12.  The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton  August 20, 2014

And my alternates:

1.  Allegory of Love by C.S. Lewis

2.  Oedipus Rex/Oepidus at Colonus/Antigone by Sophocles  December 28, 2014

Yes, I am actually going to attempt to follow a list!  Everyone wish me luck …….. I’ll need it!