I've been reading George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, for the past several weeks, how many I cannot exactly say. I started reading it electronically, then got a Modern Library edition out of the library. Gorgeous paper, big print, I thought that would help me along. I know that once I start skimming or reading a book backwards that I'm in trouble. I was on page 560 of 800 something when I started reading the last chapter. I was pleased that I'd made it that far.
I didn't read Middlemarch until a couple of years ago though I'd been intending to read it for a very long time. But intention is not enough. I finally succumbed to pressure from various writer/feminist friends, the same writer/feminist friends who recommended Daniel Deronda.
I have written about Middlemarch here so won't repeat myself; it's a masterpiece. Daniel Deronda is not. I had to plow and scythe my way through the reeds of George Eliot's formidable intellect, every over-long sentence a challenge to my patience. That poor author had something to prove—to everyone. Think of the life she lead in the aristocrat's Victorian England, the women in long dresses and flouncy hair-bobs, the men in their top hats smoking cigars at their clubs, marriage the only aspiration for those still-corseted, constrained women. But not Mary Evans, aka George Eliot. She was smart, she didn't want to marry, she lived with a married man, she became a famous writer in her own lifetime, her books are now classics revered by academics and intellectuals and any woman who can identify with her self-conscious, struggling female characters. In her time, Eliot would show up at the theater where her emancipated presence would cause a stir, or an uproar. Young women lined up to genuflect to her, and she would bless them, I presume, or say an encouraging word or two. At least I hope she did.
Despite all I know of George Eliot, and the admiration I feel for her as a writer and a Victorian free-thinking woman—if that isn't an oxymoron—I hit a roadblock with Daniel Deronda. Perhaps it is the "Jewish" subplot, which most agree is awkward and sentimental. Perhaps it's an insistence that we pay attention to this strange subplot. Eliot was a scholar of the world's religions and offended by anti-Semitism. Kudos to that. Or, perhaps, it's the prose itself which feels blunt and immovable, an obstacle to empathy.
The emotional experience of reading a work of fiction is important to me. Am I engaged or detached? Does the author let me in or keep me at arm's length with convoluted overly-written sentences? Alas, my dear George Eliot, Anthony Trollope remains my favorite Victorian writer. Straightforward, precise, progressive in his politics, a champion of women, every one of his novels I have read is accessible to a contemporary reader. I'd definitely invite him to dinner. If it were a potluck dinner, I imagine he'd bring something artisanal and tasty. He'd hug me as he entered and as he departed. Not so George Eliot. She'd bring me one of her books, inscribed to me personally, admonish me to read it cover to cover and to write my own book. A mentor. Kudos to that, too. We would then meet for tea and I would have to explain what happened at page 560. Or would I?