From time to time I’m obliged to explain to someone why I read almost none of today’s authors.
Sometimes I say it’s because I haven’t finished reading the dazzling SF of science fiction’s golden age (1945-1965 according to me). Other times I say it’s because I haven’t finished reading the great authors of the nineteenth century, the golden age of the novel itself. Both answers are true.
When I went to university in 1975 at age 29, I majored in literature and humanities because, being an aspiring novelist, I wanted to read as many novels as possible in as short a time as possible. I managed to finance three years of that, then I ran out of money. That’s one reason why I haven’t yet finished reading the books of the nineteenth century. The other reason is that, in the UK alone, there are said to have been approx 7,000 authors and 25,000 novels published in nineteenth century.
One nineteenth century author, George Eliot, is regarded by most critics as the greatest British novelist of that time. They see her not only as the most polished stylist, but also the most accomplished literary psychologist.
Myself I’m a Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy follower. I’ve neglected Eliot, reading only one novel before now. So to make amends I decided to read one of the most touted of her works, Daniel Deronda.
This week I finally finished that 675 page book.
It’s the story of an orphan boy, Daniel, from somewhere in Europe, who has inherited money from a mother he has never seen, and who was sent to grow up in the house of a wealthy Englishman who treated him like a dear nephew, with no one knowing why, though some slyly suggest that the boy is his son.
No one tells Daniel that he is Jewish. But through unexpected events, starting with his rescue from the Thames of a beautiful young Jewish woman, Mirah, trying to drown herself. and through his own instinct, he grows interested in Jews and Judaism.
Meanwhile the book has a second main character, Gwendolen Harleth, considered by some readers to be Eliot’s greatest character. Well, she is something. Unusually beautiful, she comes from an upper class landed family that has lost its money and is now losing its land, facing their entrance into poverty. To save them, Gwendolyn, who has previously said she will never marry anyone, impetuously marries a very rich man. She soon finds herself trapped with a brute of a husband (there is a wonderful description late in the book where Eliot says he looked at her with ‘lizard like eyes’). In desperation, having met Deronda in a casino, one of the finest openings to a novel I’ve seen, with no one to help her now, Gwendoly slowly draws Deronda in to her life.
The stories of these two interweave. The story is compelling, but the book is slow moving. Nineteenth-century novelists were writing for patient readers, and though I consider myself to be one of those, I sometimes did grow impatient with this book. Finally, still only half way through, last year after the death of my wife, able to read novels again, I determined to finish the book.
Once the uncomfortable relationship between Gwendolyn and Deronda gets going (it takes half the book for that to happen), the story does become a page turner, but that’s not what left me, when I finished it, in awe of this novel.
Throughout we get paragraph after paragraph of Eiot’s complex psychological explanations of people, of what they are saying and doing. If you want to understand people, get inside their heads as they say, George Eliot is one of the finest psychologists that has ever tried to explain human behavior.
But this is exactly where I find myself backing off from Eliot. For as someone of an autistic nature, who has struggled all his life to cope with the behavior of other people, what I’m beginning to realize is that this problem is not just that I have difficulty understanding other people, but something in me doesn’t want to understand them.
I don’t want to enter their minds. I don’t want to know what they are thinking – in books or in real life.
In the long debate over autism, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this aspect of it mentioned before.
Now, here some will say to me, “Well Alan, what did you study literature for then?” And someone else might add, “And why on earth did you get into the investigation of personal injuries for 40 years, where you had to read thousands of psychological reports?
The answer to that, I’m afraid I can’t give you.
But think of this. Charles Dickens has long been criticized for not entering most of his characters minds. Critics routinely say most of his characters are flat – ‘cardboard cutouts’.
But critic Terry Eagleton, who shares my adoration for Dickens, points out that we meet Dickens characters the way we meet people in real life. You never get to look inside the minds of any of the people you meet. That is not just one of the great problems of social experience, it is one of the reasons that real life is mysterious and intriguing.
Yes, in real life we don’t enter anyone’s mind. Even psychologists and psychiatrists can’t do that. Even telepathic events don’t allow you to stop and look around in someone’s head. With everyone we meet, even with our spouses and children, we’re forced to try to understand them from without.. In that way, Eagleton says, Dickens presents people as we meet them in real life. Dickens is a realist.
But what astonished me in Daniel Deronda, is that Eliot can present a character that way too, and when she does it late in this novel, the result is astounding.
Out of the blue, Deronda gets a message from Genoa, Italy, from his mother who he didn’t even know to be alive. She is dying and wants to see him.
If I was asked to choose the ten greatest scenes in literature, this one would be near the top.
Deronda’s mother, Leonora, enters the book on page 511 like an incandescent shooting star, next to whom everyone you have met so far pales.
Until then, the handsome, quiet but confident Deronda has moved through the book head and shoulders above everyone else in understanding. But confronted by his Jewish mother, who despises and scorns Jews and Judaism, he is almost beaten down. Wanting to like her, he is forced to quarrel with her, yet his accomplished mind is no match for her scathing intellect.
Never in this amazing scene do we enter into the mind of Leonora. Eliot does stay with Deronda, trying to help him, trying to explain the turmoil of his thoughts, but she lets Leonora speak for herself.
So eloquent in her scorn of the Jews, Leonara is more Jewish than any of the other Jews in the story. Once a famous singer, now very rich, she tells Deronda of events in her life, of her love affairs and social battles, including the calculated way in which she shipped him off to England to be raised by one of her onetime lovers. Even the way she chose the name Deronda for him is shamelessly defiant.
I cannot think of another character in any book that does, in so few pages, what this woman does.
But that isn’t all there is. There remains Gwendolyn Harleth, now Mrs Grancourt, and her foreboding fate continues to unfurl, along with that of Mirah, who secretly loves Deronda, while he secretly loves her, even while everyone else, after Gwendolyn’ serpent-like husband dies in a spectacular, even suspicious accident, thinks that Deronda and Gwendolyn are destined now to be husband and wife.. These three, and some other interesting people, carry our interest all the way to the end.
Anyway, George Eliot has just shown me why, at 75 years old, I’m still lost in reading the books of the nineteenth century. Whether I’ll ever get finished remains to be seen.