English, Department of


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The George Eliot Review 33 (2002) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019 (33)


Saleel Nurbhai and K. M. Newton break new ground with this consideration of George Eliot's exploitation of Jewish mysticism and mythology in fiction written before the novel that obviously promotes that tradition, Daniel Deronda. In their introductory chapter, Nurbhai and Newton posit the radical theory that the figure of the 'golem', or unformed mass, which is central to Jewish mythology is also a significant presence in all of Eliot's work, beginning with Adam Bede. But they venture even further than this large hypothesis concerning Eliot's work, suggesting that much of the 'golemish' character of her novels is based on her knowledge of Goethe's Faust, Carlyle's Sartor Resartus and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, each of which, they argue in turn, is profoundly influenced by the Jewish myth of the golem. The figure of the golem thus is seen as central to Romantic and nineteenth-century European humanist literature, as well as to Eliot's work.

Noting that Daniel Deronda has often been read as having failed to achieve the realism of Middlemarch or The Mill on the Floss, Nurbhai and Newton propose instead that we might gain by reading the earlier novels as preliminary movements toward what is much more definitively presented in Daniel Deronda. This is an enterprising and, I think, entirely valid reversal of the critical tradition that reads Daniel Deronda as a falling-off from the earlier works, a novel that can be divided into two symmetrical and oppositional 'halves', the one representing the English half as corrupt and dying and the other the Jewish half as inspired, vigorous and prophetic. Nurbhai and Newton argue that Eliot aspires 'to alter the boundaries of realism', and that 'the mystical and mythological embodiment of these human truths could be exploited artistically and enable the realist novel to take on layers of meaning in the manner of major works of the past, such as in epic, poetry or tragic drama' (24).

Indeed, one has only to look to the works of Eliot's slightly older contemporary, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, to see the same kind of experimentation with pushing the limits of 'realism' and 'epic’. Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning's 'novel-in-verse', attempts to combine social and psychological realism with epic form, infused with classical and Christian mythology. Eliot's interesting difference here, however, is that she appears to have come to prefer the much lesser known mythology of that despised race in England, the Jews. How did she come by this preference?