Daniel Deronda as 1970s feminist utopia

I woke up today convinced that the purpose of my life is to write a version of Daniel Deronda set in 1970s Australia.

This all came about because I am rereading Daniel Deronda, which I first read in 2007 for this conference, where I gave a paper on the way in which its narrative gets taken up and transformed in Melissa Lucashenko’s amazing 1999 novel Hard Yards. Since moving to Australia my interest in the similarities and differences between the books has been rekindled, and I’m working on rewriting the original paper for publication. So I’m thinking about the ways in which Eliot’s original narrative, about a young man in 1870s London who finds out he’s Jewish, is echoed and subverted in Lucashenko’s novel, about a young man in 1990s Brisbane who doesn’t find out he’s Aboriginal, and what kind of light Lucashenko’s novel – and the Australian context – sheds backwards onto Eliot’s novel. So I was already thinking about the possibilities of rewriting Daniel Deronda in a different historical/ cultural context.

Anyway, this morning I was reading a gorgeous bit where Daniel meets his love-object Mirah’s estranged (and evil) father for the first time, and

was cold and distant, the first sight of this man, who had blighted the lives of his wives and children, creating in him a repulsion that was even a physical discomfort (464)

It struck me that this is completely fundamental to the novel: the idea that men who blight the lives of their wives and children are SO EVIL that it is physically difficult to be in the same room as them, like they have the same kind of miasma as murderers. The novel’s main villain (Mirah’s father is only the secondary one), Henleigh Grandcourt, is another wife-and-children-blighter: meanwhile, women who blight the lives of their children are presented as simultaneously victims of, and magnificent resisters to, patriarchy (the wonderful Princess Halm-Eberstein, Daniel’s mother, who abandons Daniel because she only married under pressure from her dominating father and because she has a right to be an artist).

And  that’s when I realized that Daniel Deronda works phenomenally well as a 1970s feminist utopia: simultaneously critiquing patriarchy (the worst thing you can be in Daniel Deronda is a bad father), centring female experience, and inverting the patriarchal hierarchy which values male/masculine people and things over female/feminine ones. So we get a lovely female-centred family, the Meyricks, as a vision of female self-sufficiency and collectivity, and we get two main characters who are either women (Gwendolen) or constantly and approvingly compared to women (Daniel himself, whose virtues are explicitly feminine ones – that is, he is a good person insofar as he embodies traditionally feminine qualities).

This idea, of the novel as a 1970s-style feminist utopia, helps me come to terms with the end of Gwendolen’s story, when Daniel tells her to go and live with her mother and sisters: not to try and invent a fabulous destiny, a glittering success, for herself, but to root herself in a group of women and experience her life ‘growing like a plant’, organically, through her duties and obligations to the real women around her (literally, her sisters). It also helps me see why, perhaps, I’m dubious about the premise of Diana Souhami’s recent novel Gwendolen,* in which  Gwendolen moves to London, becomes ‘liberated’, and ‘joins a free-thinking Victorian bohemia of authors, artists, reformers – and sexual rebels’.

‘No!’ 1970s-Melbourne-Radicalesbian-George-Eliot cries, clutching her shaggy hair. ‘Sister, no! Gwendolen’s individual freedom – her success – is not the point! Sexual adventure is not liberation! Only working and living as a collective of women, an organic movement, rooted in the lives of real women, will bring about liberation!’

So there you have it. Daniel Deronda 1977.  Gwendolen and Daniel as members of the Melbourne counterculture, Gwendolen as a Radicalesbian, a novel whose plot centers on late-night arguments about collectivity and destiny and politics. Daniel would find out that he was Aboriginal, rather than Jewish, in an homage to Lucashenko. Gwendolen would join a collective household. All I have to do now is write it–

*Really I am probably just dubious about it because I strongly feel that everyone except me is wrong about Gwendolen. I like Diana Souhami a lot, and you should probably go and read Gwendolen, especially since my version is almost sure to be another one of those novels I was born to write which never gets started.

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4 Responses to Daniel Deronda as 1970s feminist utopia

  1. inez baranay says:

    All you have to do !
    I remember vividly reading your very own copy of Daniel Deronda with your very own marginalia therein, mailed in a sanity-saving loan of books to me spending a month in France in August 2009. Fell in love with it. Time to reread again! Funnily enough am also thinking of feminist utopias.

    • Ika says:

      Oh, it is so good and everyone is so wrong about it. (Not actually true – have been reading some really good scholarship on it lately, including a paper about Gwendolen as a survivor of sexual abuse by her stepfather which instantly made sense to me.)

  2. az says:

    This sounds incredible and like a contender for the great Melbourne 1970s novel — so much of an improvement on Monkey Grip.

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