Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 40 (2009) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
Elizabeth Sabiston's Private Sphere to World Stage from Austen to Eliot is a somewhat perplexing book. Ostensibly, Sabiston sets out to contribute to ongoing discussions about the difficulties faced by nineteenth-century women writers, who 'were confronted with the dilemma of effecting an elision of public and private spheres' (2). The first three chapters, on Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, lane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights, argue that the central protagonist of each novel offers an image of confident female authorship. Anne Elliot is presented as a heroine who 'against all odds ... strives for autonomy' (36), Jane Eyre moves from making amateur drawings to penning her autobiography, and Cathy's book is identified as the core of Emily Bronte's novel. Each argument is wrapped inside a highly detailed analysis of the novelists' language. However, the theme of female autonomy becomes increasingly muted in the remaining chapters which, devoted to Elizabeth Gaskell's and Harriet Beecher Stowe's literary relationship, and, finally, Daniel Deronda, are best read as separate reflections.
The chapter on Daniel Deronda can easily be read independently from the rest of the study. It opens with a summary of Amos Gitat's film Kadosh (1999), whose rapport with Eliot's final novel is not explained. Instead, Sabiston presents her argument that the 'key to the unity of Daniel Deronda ... is ... a hidden allusion to Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice' (153), namely the moment in Act IV, Scene I, when Shylock addresses Portia, disguised as a male lawyer, as 'Daniel come to judgment'. Having drawn attention to this androgynous moment, Sabiston perpetuates a tradition reaching as far back as Leslie Stephen's early response to the novel in asserting that Eliot gave her eponymous hero 'feminine' qualities. The study goes on to argue that 'we need to view Deronda and Gwendolen together, as alter egos' (155), with Deronda's feminine qualities balanced against Gwendolen's more masculine ones. Indeed, despite the chapter's introduction, Sabiston is less interested in the novel's Jewish portions than in the interwoven destinies of Daniel and Gwendolen. The remainder of the chapter traces the development of the two characters. In the process, Sabiston raises a number of engaging ideas, such as the suggestion that the relationship between the two characters is less that of potential lovers than an echo of the fluid and complementary relationship between Lydgate and Dorothea in Middlemarch. The chapter - and indeed the study as a whole - is at its best when Sabiston engages in close readings, providing rich interpretations of Eliot's language and drawing attention to the underlying unity of the novel. Sabiston is less convincing in tying her conclusions to the overall concern of the study: if, at the end of Daniel Deronda, Gwendolen is 'offered no hope for even partial achievement in her circumscribed world' (186), it is left unclear how a progression from 'private sphere to world stage' has been achieved.