In 2010, at long last, I read Daniel Deronda. Now I can’t get the novel out of my head.
It is a novel of two parts. First there’s the story of the fatally self-absorbed yet entrancing Gwendolen Harleth, a young woman determined to secure her own and her family’s social and financial position in the only way open to a woman of her time, marriage. But the marriage, and the wealth and position that come with it bring only pain, to her and to others. In her distress she turns to Daniel Deronda as her only saviour as her quest changes into one for the betterment of her very soul.
Then there’s the impressively learned and, for its day, extraordinarily progressive and insightful look at what it means to be Jewish in Britain and in Europe. Here Daniel and the young Jewish singer, Mirah Lapidoth as well as Mirah’s brother Mordecai take centre stage. Mordecai embodies the wandering Jew, forever a stranger, never at home. Through Mordecai, both Daniel and the reader learn about the origins of Zionism. Those passages are as relevant today as they ever where, though Mordecai’s vision of ‘a new Judea, poised between East and West – a covenant of reconciliation – a halting-place of enmities, a neutral ground for the East,’ now seems tragically ironic…
Of course this is not ‘an easy read’. George Eliot gives a master-class in how to break that cherished rule ‘show don’t tell’, while creating great literature. There is a lot of telling, perhaps too much for our modern tastes, but it works most of the time and leaves you in awe of the brilliance of George Eliot’s mind.
The contemporary novel that gave me the most pleasure in 2010 was Elizabeth Buchan's Separate Beds. I am aware that Elizabeth Buchan and I have formed somewhat of a mutual admiration society, but I love her work. In her latest novel she tackles, in her characteristically compassionate yet sharp and clear-eyed manner, the issues raised by the forced coming together under one roof of a recession hit family, the Nicholsons. Separate Beds with its story of contemporary, frayed-at-the-edges lives is the story not just of the Nicholson family but of families all across the country. A novel filled with universal truths.