English, Department of



Ceri Hunter

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 36 (2005) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019 (36)


It is no critical initiative to point out that George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876) plays with the premises of realist narrative art.! Previous readings have, however, tended to engage only tangentially with the way in which the novel scrutinises the use of language? This omission of linguistic context is curious, given that Daniel Deronda is set during a decade which placed the Victorian ruling classes' confidence in the English language under strain. The 1860s teemed with words. There were more English speakers than ever before, owing to population increase and dispersal. The English language was democratised by the 1867 reform bill, which enfranchised nearly a million new voices, and by the proliferation of local newspapers following the repeal of stamp duty and the abolition of tax on paper. It was globalised by the electric telegraph and the laying of the Atlantic Cable.3 This paper will argue that Daniel Deronda enacts and accommodates resultant anxieties about the use of language as a conceptual tool.


An early review by Henry James famously praises the narrative threads of Daniel Deronda as 'long electric wires capable of transmitting messages from mysterious regions.'4 James had, of course, borrowed this allusion to the new technology of communication from textual details in the novel itself. For example, when Gwendolen Harleth decides to join the Langen family at Dover, she departs immediately, in the knowledge that a message sent by telegraph will reach them before she does.' The telegraphic cable forms Sir Hugo Mallinger's contribution to the conversation on the return journey from Genoa (p. 762). Mr. Grandcourt, meanwhile, learns of world events 'through the wire of his rental' and 'the best newspaper columns' from the splendid isolation of Ryelands (p. 584). The English characters of Daniel Deronda move in a world where the insularity of their society is constantly lapped by words moving faster and further than ever before.

The telegraph, and the new technical terms associated with it, furnished Eliot with a metaphor for social intercourse. When the minor character, Lady Flora Hollis, discovers that Gwendolen has fled abroad, her desire to gossip is described using language which compares her to a telegraphic cable: she is 'charged with news' and eager to 'electrify' Grandcourt (p. l58). Galvanising Grandcourt appears to be Lady Flora's main function. Similarly, Mr. Vandernoodt, who persists in punctuating the novel, seems to have been created solely to mediate the relationship between the central protagonists, Gwendolen and Deronda. At Leubronn, Gwendolen presses Vandernoodt to tell her who Deronda is. He informs her that he is "'reported'" to be Sir Hugo Mallinger's illegitimate son (p. l3). He resurfaces at Diplow, taking Deronda aside for 'a little gossip' to reveal the details of Grandcourt's relationship with Gwendolen (p. 432). Vandernoodt is functioning as a telegraphic key, controlling what each knows about the other's life.