Exactly 140 years ago today, the first installment of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, the world’s first great philo-semitic novel was published – by a lapsed Christian who had more in common with Baruch Spinoza than she did with any priest, vicar or rabbi.
Above: Mary Ann Evans, better known by her pen name, George Eliot
On February 1, 1876, exactly 140 years ago today, the first installment of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda was published in Great Britain. According a report in Ha’aretz, the novel, which became known as Eliot’s “Jewish” novel, was met with mixed reviews.
But the British Jewish community loved Daniel Deronda because Eliot – who is now thought of by several important literary critics as the greatest author in British history – painted such an accurate and sympathetic portrait of it.
And Eliot, whose real name was Mary Ann Evans, did one other thing in Daniel Deronda the British Jews loved: she promoted the idea of a Jewish return to the land of Israel. This was done years before any official Zionist movement, Orthodox or secular, existed.
And this is all especially significant because of Eliot’s own beliefs about religion.
Although born into and raised in a pious Anglican Christian home and milieu, Eliot (1819-1880) had already rejected religion by the 1840s and had translated Spinoza’s “Ethics” (among other works) into English.
Eliot apparently became interested Judaism in 1866 when she met Emanuel Deutsch, a scholar of Semitics and Talmud at the British Museum Library. Deutsch wrote about Jewish issues in the general non-scholarly British press and regularly sent Eliot books and articles about Jewish topics. Eliot did more than read about Judaism, though. The translator in Eliot drove her to study Hebrew. Deutsch was her teacher. This wasn’t a religious endeavor for Eliot, it was a scholarly one.
Despite its mixed reviews, Daniel Deronda was read by Jews across Europe and in the Americas after it was translated in to several languages. (It even got a Hebrew translation 17 years later, but that translation abridged the book by removing its co-lead non-Jewish storyline.
How ironic that a novel written by a very much lapsed Anglican who eschewed religion would serve as an inspiration for many so many Jews and would, in its own way, plant the seeds for what would become 41 years later the Balfour Declaration which reads, “His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
You can read the whole book for free in eBook formats or on the web at Project Gutenberg.