George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and the Graham Handley’s description of it

In his introduction to George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Graham Handley writes:

Yet if all the research and criticism of Daniel Deronda, including scholarly articles of the type which discover but do not evaluate, were put together, a consensus would doubtless reveal that it is generally thought of either as a remarkable failure, a flawed success, or even an aberration unredeemed by incisive insights or distinguished writing. The character of Gwendolen is always praised; those of Mirah, Mordecai, and Daniel are often denigrated.

It is my opinion, as someone who regularly miscegenates evaluation and discovery, that the critical consensus is correct. I particularly like the description of the novel as an “aberration unredeemed by incisive insights or distinguished writing.” I’m also still amused that Handley would announce this in the introduction, as if inviting us to agree with the consensus and not his defense.

Reading Handley’s defense, it’s hard not to like the critical consensus more:

It is my contention that Daniel Deronda needs no apology. [. . .] Its greatness consists in its artistic integrity, its moral and imaginative cohesion, its subtle and consistent presentation of a character with psychological integration as its particular strength, together with what Colvin called the ‘sense of universal interests and outside forces.’

Most of those words and phrases don’t mean anything on their own. What is “moral and imaginative cohesion?” Do you get it or them with glue and spackle? And how does the “subtle and consistent presentation of a character” work? Those sound like code words for “nothing happens,” other than that characters talk to each other about who’s going to boff who after they get married or, if we’re lucky, before.

The introduction goes on:

The form is fluid and vital, not static and diagrammatic, and the sophisticated and studied use of image and symbol is tremulous with life, with the feelings, responses, and pressures of the individual moral and spiritual experience of fictional character registering with the factual reader.

Spare me “sophisticated and studied use of image and symbol” when they aren’t deployed to tell much of a story. “Moral and spiritual experience” sounds remarkable tedious. Once again, with accolades like these, who needs haters?

I will say, however, that Daniel Deronda makes me feel incredibly virtuous for having read it, or at least parts of it. This is more or less true of every novel I’ve read whose title consists solely of a name.

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