Thursday, January 24, 2013

Daniel Deronda: Book to BBC Classic

I recently watched the wonderful BBC adaptation of George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda, starring Hugh Dancy as the eponymous hero, the ethereally beautiful Romola Garai as Gwendolen Harleth, Hugh Bonneville as the smug Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt, and a host of other BBC stalwarts that added visual depth and emotional intensity to this film.

Daniel Deronda was first published in 1876. It was the last novel Eliot completed and the only one set in the contemporary Victorian society of her day. Its mixture of social satire and moral searching, along with a sympathetic rendering of Jewish proto-Zionist and Kabbalistic ideas has made it a controversial final statement of one of the greatest of Victorian novelists. An article in the Guardian discusses how Eliot actually shocked some of her readers by dealing with this topic and emphasises how Eliot’s portrayal of Judaism and Zionism continues to resonate. For me, Eliot highlights the themes of inner and outer struggles in the characters’ search for meaning, identity, and self-worth.

This is a deep novel and hard to outline in a blog post. However, information on Wikipedia (see below) has proved incredibly useful in understanding the greater themes of this riveting book.

Daniel Deronda is the ward of the wealthy Sir Hugo Mallinger and hero of the novel, Deronda has a tendency to help others at a cost to himself. At the start of the novel, he has failed to win a scholarship at Cambridge because of his focus on helping a friend, has been travelling abroad, and has just started studying law. He often wonders about his birth, and whether or not he is a gentleman. As he moves more and more among the world-within-a-world of the Jews of the novel, he begins to identify with their cause in direct proportion to the unfolding revelations of his ancestry. Eliot used the story of Moses as part of her inspiration for Deronda. As Moses was a Jew brought up as an Egyptian who ultimately led his people to the Promised Land, so Deronda is a Jew brought up as an Englishman, and the novel ends with his plan to do the same.

Gwendolen Harleth is the beautiful, spoiled daughter of a widowed mother. Much courted by men, she is flirtatious but ultimately self-involved. Early in the novel, her family suffers a financial crisis, and she is faced with becoming a governess to help support herself and her family. Seeking an escape, she explores the idea of becoming an actress and singer but ultimately marries the controlling and cruel Henleigh Grandcourt, although she does not love him. Desperately unhappy, she seeks help from Deronda, who offers her understanding, moral support, and the possibility of a way out of her guilt and sorrow. As a psychological study of an immature egoist struggling to achieve greater understanding of herself and others through suffering, Gwendolen is, for many, Eliot's crowning achievement as a novelist and the real core of the book.

Daniel Deronda is composed of two interwoven stories and presents two worlds that are never completely reconciled. Indeed, the separation of the two and the eventual parting of one from the other is one of the novel's major themes. There is the fashionable, familiar, upper-class English world of Gwendolen Harleth and the less familiar society-within-a-society inhabited by the Jews, most importantly Mordecai (or Ezra) Cohen and his sister, Mirah. Living between these two worlds is Daniel, who gradually identifies more and more with the Jewish side as he comes to understand the mystery of his birth and develops his relationships with Mordecai and Mirah. In the novel, the Jewish characters' spirituality, moral coherence, and sense of community are contrasted favourably with the materialist, philistine, and largely corrupt society of England. The inference seems to be that the Jews' moral values are lacking in the wider British society that surrounds them.

The BBC never fails in its visually compelling and captivating adaptations of classic novels. The series is beautifully photographed, with the wealth and opulence of the British upper class severely contrasted with the squalor and poverty of the poorer levels of society. The acting is wonderful, and Dancy and Garai are just perfect as the main characters. Familiar faces from previous BBC classics are evident, and overall, present a sterling cast.

There is so much more to this book than what I have outlined, but if the idea of 484 pages is too daunting, see the series first to get acquainted with the novel.

by Fiona Ingram

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