All you need to know about the books you meant to read

This week: George Eliot's Daniel Deronda By Gavin Griffiths

Plot: The novel contrasts the complacent society of upper-crust England with the idealistic spiritual community of English Jews. The story is more operatic than naturalistic.

Gwendolen is pert, restless and attractive. To save her witless mother from penury she marries the Don Giovanni-like Grandcourt, a wealthy landowner with a taste for sadism; his Leporello, the aptly named Lush, watches on in excited fascination. Instead of freedom, Gwendolen finds constriction. Grandcourt exerts his control and, without depicting their sex life, Eliot suggests it isn't very nice. Gwendolen's loneliness draws her to Daniel, an ex-Eton-and-Cambridge man, who feels alienated from his own class (because he suspects that he is illegitimate.) One afternoon, sculling down the Thames, Daniel rescues the young Jewess Mirah who is attempting suicide to escape her father. Eventually, Deronda meets Mirah's brother Mordecai who carries on like a one man Hebrew chorus from early Verdi. His mystical "arias" inspire Deronda, who coincidentally discovers that his real mother was a Jewish singer of international fame. He is now free to espouse Zionism and Mirah.

Meanwhile, Grandcourt has drowned in ambiguous circumstances, for which Gwendolen feels partially guilty. Although chastened, she is now free to marry Deronda. Too late. He is hitched to Mirah and has chosen to live a life beyond the personal. Gwendolin's consolation is that she too must seek an ideal life.

Theme: England is a land without values, Zion is a set of values seeking a homeland. Hebraic virtues of idealism and faith are pitted against the lazy vices of the posh philistines who hunt and shoot their way across the novel. The English are nailed down in their attitude to music and art: they see it as social entertainment not as social necessity.

Style: A disconcerting mixture of High Victorian and snappily contemporary. The sentences tend to be massive, slow-moving but deadly accurate: the characters' motivations are dissected, the moral puzzles presented with great clarity.

The novel opens in medias res with a question that's being asked in Daniel's head, rather than starting in the usual 19th-century fashion with a description of the sideboard.

Chief strengths: It is sui generis. Just as Daniel turns from the personal life to a wider public life, so the cosy domestic novel and its conventional form, breaks down. The book is experimental, pushing fiction into unexplored territories: it is part novel, part satire, part polemic, reminiscent of those Russian hybrid fictions which look like novels but aren't: Gogol's Dead Souls and Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground.

Chief weaknesses: If you're expecting Middlemarch, all the Jewish bits get in the way. Deronda is never viewed with irony and can seem sententious. Critics have often wanted to lop the book in two, into "Gwendolen'' and "Daniel''.

What they thought of it then: Eliot's publisher wanted more Gwendolen, less Zionism. Others wanted her to get back to her early pastoral style and write Adam Bede II: The Carpenter's Return.

What we think of it now: The novel suffers from the deadest critical verb: it is admired. Lovers of Victorian fiction, who like comforting maidens to marry heroes after a few trials etc, find little to tickle the romantic heart; archmodernists, meanwhile, don't like having to trawl through all that plot.

Responsible for: Henry James, who also enjoyed writing about people who owned large houses and had expensive furniture.

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