Russell Baker on Daniel Deronda
Former New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Russell Baker has been the host of Masterpiece Theatre since 1993. Mr. Baker introduces each program episode, and his personally researched and written comments add context and background to our understanding of the film we're about to watch. His comments frequently provide a uniquely American perspective on the mores and lifestyles of the British.
More commentaries by Russell Baker, as well as commentaries by his predecessor in the hosting chair, Alistair Cooke, can be found for select programs in The Archive.
Daniel Deronda, the story we begin tonight, has one of the most enchanting -- and exasperating -- heroines in English literature. She is Gwendolen Harleth, and she is the creation of Mary Ann Evans, who published under the pen name George Eliot. Masterpiece Theatre has dramatized several Eliot novels in the past, including Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss.
Daniel Deronda was her last novel. It is set in the 1870s, when the exuberance of the early Victorian age had subsided and the air was filled with intellectual and moral speculations. The book began appearing as a magazine serial in 1874 when Eliot was in her mid-50s. With Thackeray and Dickens both gone from the scene, Eliot was the great novelist of the high Victorian age.
With Gwendolen she was at grips with a question, a profoundly Victorian question, which runs through much of her work: How can a young woman with normal human flaws, and maybe a few more, make herself a better person?
Into Gwendolen's life comes a young man who seems to her to know the answer, the hero of the book's title, Daniel Deronda. Now, it may help if you know in advance that Daniel, though uncertain about his own identity, has a great deal of money, and has been using it to help friends in dire straits.
Now first episode, Daniel Deronda.
In the first episode of Daniel Deronda, we saw self-centered and self-confident Gwendolen Harleth break a solemn promise and make a hateful marriage. The bridegroom is Henleigh Grandcourt -- brutal, arrogant -- George Eliot's portrait of the high Victorian gentleman at his most insufferable.
Even before marrying him, Gwendolen knows Grandcourt has fathered children by another woman, who hopes he will marry her. She confronts Gwendolen with her children and extracts a promise that Gwendolen will not marry Grandcourt. Why does Gwendolen break her promise? Because a business failure suddenly confronts her and her mother and sisters with more hardship than Gwendolen is prepared to bear, and so she has gone to the altar despising Grandcourt.
Grandcourt is incapable of loving anyone. He is interested in acquiring Gwendolen as he might acquire a spirited horse. His pleasure in the marriage, he says, will come from bending her spirit to his superior will.
As we resume tonight, Gwendolen returns to her new home, but her honeymoon will be short-lived. She'll soon look for comfort from Daniel Deronda, the high-minded young man who seems to be looking for a high-minded mission in life.
Concluding episode, Daniel Deronda.
Daniel Deronda was published in book form in 1876, four years before George Eliot's death. It was the last of her novels. Ending with Daniel headed for Palestine to build a Zionist homeland, the book turned out to be a significant event in the early history of the Zionist movement.
George Eliot had become interested in Zionism while studying Hebrew with a Jewish scholar at the British Museum, a man who had been to Jerusalem and talked passionately about a Jewish homeland. She seems to have fictionalized him in the character of Mordecai. In the early 1870s, she began a course of intense reading and visits to synagogues with an eye toward writing a Jewish novel. To assimilated Jews in the English-speaking world, the book presented the possibility of returning to the Middle East to create a culture of their own.
Artistically the book was only half a success. Critics from Henry James to the present have found Daniel himself too good to be plausible; his mother an unreal figure; and his love for Mirah little more than a plot device to advance Eliot's political theme.
It is with Gwendolen's story that critics have always found George Eliot to be at the very top of her art, and the top with George Eliot is the height of the Victorian novel.
I'm Russell Baker. Good night.
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