Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

I’ve been trying to decide whether to include George Eliot’s final and most controversial novel, Daniel Deronda, on the 17th Street book blogs since I finished reading it over a month ago. Although Caleb Carr has never mentioned George Eliot as an inspiration for his work, this challenging novel explores several themes that may be of interest to Alienist readers. As a result, for the 11th anniversary of 17th Street, I have decided to go ahead and share my thoughts on one of the most fascinating psychological studies of human character, relationships, and society that I’ve read to date.

What’s it about?

Daniel DerondaGwendolen Harleth is about to gamble away her family fortune at the roulette table when she notices the enigmatic Daniel Deronda watching her from across the room. From this moment on, the stories of these two contrasting protagonists become intertwined as they face challenges that take them down very different paths. Although the unconventional Gwendolen makes choices that might appear to be conservative on the surface, they lead her into realms of moral uncertainty from which she struggles to escape. On the other hand, the extremely conventional Daniel’s search for belonging and identity is taken down an unexpected and unconventional path when he encounters a young Jewish woman who is also searching for her family.

George Eliot states early in the novel that, “Men, like planets, have both a visible and an invisible history.” In the way she masterfully charts the stories of these two fascinating characters, Eliot successfully demonstrates that it is indeed possible to “thread the hidden pathways of feeling and thought which lead up to every moment of action, and those moments of intense suffering which take the quality of action — like the cry of Prometheus, whose chained anguish seems a greater energy than the sea and sky he invokes and the deity he defies.”

My thoughts

Daniel Deronda, Chapter 51

“Oh — the reasons for our actions! … When you are as old as I am, it will not seem so simple a question — ‘Why did you do this?’ People talk of their motives in a cut and dried way. Every woman is supposed to have the same set of motives, or else to be a monster. I am not a monster, but I have not felt exactly what other women feel — or say they feel, for fear of being thought unlike others. When you reproach me in your heart for sending you away from me, you mean that I ought to say I felt about you as other women say they feel about their children. I did not feel that. I was glad to be freed from you.”

For any visitors who have read The Angel of Darkness, my decision to open this book blog with the preceding quote should go a long way toward explaining why I feel this novel may be of interest to Alienist readers. While the role of women in society, and more particularly the role that mothers play in their children’s development, are prominent themes in The Alienist, they become the central themes in The Angel of Darkness when we encounter a woman whose struggles in this area motivate her criminal behaviour. Moreover, in both books Sara Howard’s character helps readers understand the feeling of frustration many women in the nineteenth century would have experienced at the expectation that women needed to marry and have children in order to be considered ‘whole’.

As the preceding quote suggests, several of the women in Daniel Deronda share these sentiments, and do not conform to the nineteenth century’s ideal for womanhood, particularly with regard to having children. Indeed, the novel’s protagonist, Gwendolen Harleth, describes early in the novel just how limited the options were for women in the nineteenth century, and how frustrating this could be for women of a more independent or spirited temperament. | Continue reading →

What do you think? Leave a comment!

The Books We Love And What They Say About Us

franklin-libraryIt’s February 14th, and love is in the air! — or so Hallmark would have us believe. So, for those of you who are curling up with a book you love this Valentine’s Day instead of, or in addition to, a more conventional partner, I thought this might be a good opportunity to spend some time talking about the books we love, and in particular to address the question of what those books say about us. This topic was prompted by a recent post on Book Riot where a contributor discussed a conundrum they recently faced in preparing to attend a book event for Valentine’s Day in which attendees were to asked to bring a copy of their favourite book to exchange with other book lovers. Specifically, the contributor couldn’t decide which book they should bring. As they explained, “I have many favourite books, but if a favourite book says something about you, I have to choose wisely.” Elaborating, they went on to say:

Plath’s The Bell Jar might not be the best message I want to send. I don’t know if The Catcher in the Rye is too cliché, or too much of a “guy’s” book. I love anything and everything Flannery O’Connor, but I’m not quite sure what that message would be. Gone With the Wind? Might send a confusing message without my explanation of why I love it, and who wants to carry around such a hulking book, anyway? Little Women? I mean, come on – ask most writers, we love Jo March. But it seems a little quaint for me.

Reading this, I couldn’t help wondering with some amusement what the contributor of that Book Riot post would think if someone such as myself were to turn up to such an event carrying a book with a storyline that included, to quote Stevie Taggert, “slaughtered boy-whores, cannibalism, and eyeballs in a jar”? Of course, strictly speaking, if I were to turn up to that kind of event with an Alienist book, it would be more likely to be The Angel of Darkness which is actually my favourite of the two novels. But is it really much of an improvement to turn up with a book containing a storyline that features, to quote John Moore, “kidnapping, murdered infants, grave robbing—and we did the grave robbing, for God’s sake—”?

Of course, for those of you who have read last year’s special three-part series on The Alienist, you will know that my reasons for loving the Alienist books extend far beyond “slaughtered boy-whores, cannibalism, and eyeballs in a jar.” Nevertheless, to all the other readers of the Alienist books, I find myself curious. What does your love of the Alienist books say about you? And if you weren’t going to take an Alienist book to represent “you” at a book exchange event, what novel would you take and why?

For those of you who might be curious, if I wasn’t going to take an Alienist book to represent “me” at a book exchange event, you would most likely find me with a copy of The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (impossible to choose between them), Mansfield Park, Emma, or Persuasion by Jane Austen (another impossible choice), The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, or The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox instead. All are among my favourite novels (the full list is, of course, much longer), all were written by psychologically insightful authors, and all explore similar themes in different ways; but none, it’s worth pointing out, have plots that revolve around serial killers (with the possible exception of The Meaning of Night depending on how you want to define “serial killer”).

Perhaps this will come as a surprise to many 17th Street visitors, but as a general rule I’m not a reader of horror or grisly crime fiction. Instead, my favourite novels—that is, the novels I re-read rather than those I read just once—tend to be classics or literary fiction that tackle the eternal questions, especially the question of what makes us who we are. William Nicholson gave C. S. Lewis a now famous line in Shadowlands: “We read to know we’re not alone.” I absolutely agree. In my own case, there is something comforting in the knowledge that there were, and continue to be, others out there—the Edith Whartons, Jane Austens, Leo Tolstoys, and Caleb Carrs of the world—who have, throughout history, seen human nature in much the same way that I do.

What do you think? Leave a comment!

Book Recommendation

Not Alienist news but for anybody looking for a good read this summer (or winter, if you live in the southern hemisphere), Caleb Carr has recently praised a new Sherlock Holmes novel, Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson, which was released on April 28, 2009. Mr. Carr wrote: “At long last, an author of rare talent combines a thorough, enthusiastic knowledge of the Sherlock Holmes canon with truly rigorous research into, and respect for, what remains one of the greatest and most horrifying unsolved murder cases in modern history: the Jack the Ripper killings. Where others have failed, Lyndsay Faye’s extremely impressive debut novel succeeds, on every level, providing thrilling entertainment without blatant exploitation. It will instantly take a place of distinction among the best attempts of contemporary authors to continue the work of Arthur Conan Doyle, and is, quite simply, a must for Holmes fans and Ripperologists alike.”

Regarding an update of 17th Street content, I have unfortunately been snowed under for the past few months with research and teaching so my travels into the world of 19th century New York have had to be put on hold. I am, however, currently working on an update which I hope will be available in the next few weeks. In the meantime, if you know of any Caleb Carr news that hasn’t been posted here, please feel free to contact me so that it can be shared with other visitors to the site. Thanks and happy reading!

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