My Boyfriend, Daniel Deronda

Heathcliff and Darcy, step aside. Author Emily Barton only has eyes for George Eliot's hero.

If I had to pick a fictional character to marry, I’d choose Daniel Deronda.

People more commonly seem to have crushes on the dashing, moody, ultimately winsome Mr. Darcy, who resembled Colin Firth long before that film was cast. Mr. Darcy would be in many regards a good choice. He’s filthy rich, for one thing, and shows discernment. He’s Colin Firth handsome. And if one wishes he could be kinder at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, he also requires that opportunity for growth in order to be an engaging fictional character. (Whose qualities differ in some regards from those one would seek in a real-life husband.)

I know a few people who’d pick Wuthering Heights’s Heathcliff, though even my college self (in cat-eye eyeliner and a thrift store velvet mini-dress for my 10:00 AM English class) could have told you that although he may be goth and sexy, that does not make him a good idea. Another difference between fiction and real life: that kind of sturm und drang offers excitement and engenders plot, but in the complex unpredictability of real life, it can be the enemy of tranquility. 

Part of me would pick Dorothea Brooke, from Middlemarch. I think I once was her, in certain regards, and I know I have dated her. She has a big heart, a lively intellect, and a deep desire to serve her fellow human beings. All of these would come in handy in a real marriage, given how much compromise it will require. On the other hand, Dorothea isn’t always realistic—look at the way she talks herself into loving and marrying Dr. Casaubon—which leads to disillusionment and deep sadness. Ultimately, I would choose both to be and to partner with someone else.

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Daniel Deronda, though. From the moment you meet him, you know he is a person of character. George Eliot writes that “you could hardly have seen his face thoroughly meeting yours without believing that human creatures had done nobly in times past, and might do more nobly in time to come.” From childhood on, he has “the stamp of rarity in a subdued fervor of sympathy, an activity of imagination on behalf of others, which did not show itself effusively, but was continually seen in acts of considerateness that struck his companions as moral eccentricity.” He is so much kinder than those around him, schoolmates and acquaintances find him odd. Lucky the person—real or fictional—who gets to marry someone like that.

The plot of Daniel Deronda challenges its protagonist to unlearn certain prejudices: primarily those against Jewish people; secondarily, those embedded in England’s class system, in which Deronda comes to understand he has a more liminal standing than he at first supposed. Deronda may not always be a warrior for truth, but he is a moral human being, open to learning what’s right and to having his views changed. When he first meets the beautiful Mirah and intervenes in her suicide attempt, he expresses shock on learning she is Jewish: “Deronda was silent, inwardly wondering that he had not said this to himself before, though any one who had seen delicate-faced Spanish girls might simply have guessed her to be Spanish.” That comment about “delicate-faced Spanish girls” is an excuse, yet he also questions himself for making one. Throughout the book, he works to counter the negative received ideas he harbors toward Jews. Against the biases of his time and place, he comes to know and love Mirah and her brother Mordecai.

By the novel’s end, Deronda learns that he himself is Jewish by birth. His mother expects him to feel discomfort at the revelation, yet Deronda says, “. . . I consider it my duty . . . to identify myself, as far as possible, with my hereditary people, and if I can see any work to be done for them that I can give my soul and hand to, I shall choose to do it.” No sooner has he discovered his heritage than he chooses to marry a Jewish woman under the chuppah and to travel to what he calls “the East.” “The idea that I am possessed with,” he explains to the beautiful shiksa he’s not going to marry, “is that of restoring a political existence to my people, making them a nation again, giving them a national centre, such as the English have, though they too are scattered over the face of the globe.” From a contemporary perspective, it strikes me how different those two kinds of scattering would have been even then. Yet it’s moving to see George Eliot—an English writer whose connection to Judaism was one of pure affinity—write so movingly about a character’s yearning to go to what was then called Palestine to participate in the founding of what we now call the State of Israel.

One thing puzzles me about love matches: You’re supposed to choose your person because you’re mutually in love—but what does that mean? Love can signify anything from sexual attraction to finding someone funny to thinking the person has great potential or seems solid or reflects back a version of yourself that you approve. In the wrong combination, those can be slippery criteria upon which to found a life with someone. Then, people change tremendously over time. The only sure thing to base your choice on is character: the person’s morality, honesty, kindness, hard work. From the novel’s first pages, you’ve known Deronda is a good person. By its end, you learn how thoroughly he has the strength of his convictions. You find out that he follows the call of his heart and conscience, and that he treats those he loves with kindness. Those seem some of the most important qualities in a life partner; qualities your parents or a yenta could suss out as well as you could—perhaps better, because they wouldn’t be boondoggled by desire.

I dimly understood this even as I dated a succession of people, for better and worse reasons, when I was single. I asked friends to fix me up, on the theory that a friend might choose more wisely for me than I might choose for myself. “What are you looking for?” they would ask. My reply was usually the same: “Sterling character.” That answer netted a handful of great introductions. If the person asking was Jewish and/or a lit fan, I’d sometimes respond, “I’m looking for Daniel Deronda.”

Ultimately, I found him myself. And do you know what? Not only was he a person of sterling character—kind, moral, just—but was like Daniel Deronda in a less common regard: He didn’t know he was Jewish before we met. (In my husband’s case, this was a question of not knowing until we discussed it that he wanted to convert rather than of not knowing his parentage. That is his story to tell, however.)

One other thing. In order to write about why, of all the fictional characters, I’d choose to marry Daniel Deronda (and why I am glad that fictional person modeled what qualities to seek in a real human being), I thought I should reread the novel, since I hadn’t done so in a while. This meant reclaiming my copy from a friend who had borrowed it; and this meant being reminded, when I opened the cover, that my copy was a birthday gift from my agent, Eric Simonoff.

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Eric is himself a Daniel Deronda type—and, I should note, one of the best read people I know; rest assured, he knows George Eliot was a woman. The date shows that he gave me this book right around the time he sold my first novel, The Testament of Yves Gundron, to Ethan Nosowsky, another person of sterling character. I don’t think I can ever live up to the book-nerdy joke compliment in Eric’s inscription, but it’s worth a try.

Daniel Deronda has brought me good fortune: this particular copy, which seems imbued with the spirit of its giver and the happy time at which it was given; the image of what Eric recently called “the original nice Jewish boy”; the simple pleasure of reading a well-crafted book by a great and greatly empathic writer. So I think you should get hold of a copy if you haven’t read it already. Find yourself a Daniel Deronda. And then, reader, marry him.


Featured photo: Tancha/Shutterstock.com
Author photo: © Greg Martin

EMILY BARTON is the author Brookland and The Testament of Yves Gundron, which were both selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year, and most recently, The Book of Esther. She has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Her essays, short stories, and reviews have appeared in Story, Conjunctions, The Massachusetts Review, Tablet, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times Book Review, among many other publications. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband and sons.

About EMILY BARTON

EMILY BARTON is the author Brookland and The Testament of Yves Gundron, which were both selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year, and most recently, The Book of Esther. She has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Her essays, short stories, and reviews have appeared in Story, Conjunctions, The Massachusetts Review, Tablet, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times Book Review, among many other publications. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband and sons.

  • Cindy Fried

    Funny enough, I had a bit of a crush on Daniel when I read the book, too, and married a man who, though his father was Jewish, had to ask me what Chollah bread was (accent on the C). They say Jewish men make the best husbands, and so far (20 years in, so it could change) it’s true.

    I have read a few George Eliot novels, and though her style is dry, she may well be better on the second reading. She was certainly ahead of her time in many ways.

    Heathcliff would be a bloody nightmare, coming in with his shirt all torn and muddy after wandering around on the moors, and banging on about his ex (we’ve all been out with one of that type, right girls?). And I think Darcy’s snobbishness could come shining through after not too many years of marriage. Though Pemberley might take the edge off that one.

  • Aleece Taylor

    Charming piece. I haven’t read the novel yet but now I’m definitely intrigued.

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