English, Department of

 

Authors

Pam Hirsch

Date of this Version

1994

Document Type

Article

Citation

The George Eliot Review 25 (1994) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/

Comments

The George Eliot Review 2018 (25)

Abstract

When Daniel Deronda was first published in 1876 George Eliot was disappointed that readers tended to 'cut the book into scraps and talk of nothing in it but Gwendolen. I meant everything in the book to be related to everything else there'.1 Her contemporary readers had failed to see the connections she had forged between the condition of Jews in British society and the condition of women in British society at a specific moment in history. By 1876 Jews in England had, like Dissenters and Catholics, been allowed to hold most public offices since 1828. In 1858 Rothschild had become the first Jewish MP, and the position of Jews in society had been strengthened by the Statute Law Revision Act of 1863. Nevertheless, Marian Lewes knew well at least two Jewish men who had suffered disabilities simply because they were Jewish. The first is James Joseph Sylvester, a brilliant mathematician, who had attended St. John's College, Cambridge, but was prevented by his Jewish faith from taking a degree or a position on the faculty. Emmanuel Deutsch was another Jewish friend, whom Marian Lewes regarded as one of the greatest living Oriental scholars. He had come over from Germany in 1855 as an assistant in the British Museum and the Leweses met him in 1866. Like Sylvester, his career had suffered because he was a Jew. The portrayal of Mordecai in Daniel Deronda is in part a tribute to Deutsch. Similarly, George Eliot was closely in touch with the work of the Victorian women's movement. Women, by comparison with Jewish men, had even further to go. Once a woman married, she no longer existed as an independent legal person. George Eliot's closest friend, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, the leader of the Langham Place Group, made the struggle to amend the Married Women's Property Act her first feminist campaign. The activism of the Victorian feminists was grounded in a study of women's history; this understanding helped to empower a new generation of women both in the sense of helping each other and being competent campaigners.2 George Eliot's close friendships with Jewish men and the women of the Langham Place Group gave her insights into the plights of both groups and fed the creative imagination which produced Daniel Deronda.

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