George Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda (1876), follows the journey of the eponymous Daniel Deronda, a young English gentleman, as he discovers his Jewish identity and guides a British gentlewoman named Gwendolen Harleth on her own journey, one of moral self-improvement.1 En route, Daniel saves a young Jewess, Mira Lapidoth, and, in his attempts to reunite her with her family, he is drawn deeper into London’s Jewish community and the ferment of proto-Zionist politics. It is a unique novel for its time. In the 1870’s, only about thirty-thousand Jews lived in England. Most readers were introduced to Jews in literature through anti-Semitic caricatures such as William Shakespeare’s Shylock or Charles Dickens’ Fagin. Some met Jews in cartoons via magazines such as Punch and Fun. Moreover, the Jews had only been emancipated in England since 1858. Daniel Deronda, the only novel Eliot was to set in her own time period, thus confronts a serious, and relatively disfavored issue: the importance and the place of Jews in Victorian England. Unlike most of her contemporary writers, Eliot attempts to depict them with accuracy and deep feeling.
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