Daniel Deronda and the Limits of Sermonic Voice

By Coleman, Dawn | Studies in the Novel, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Daniel Deronda and the Limits of Sermonic Voice


Coleman, Dawn, Studies in the Novel


Of all the Victorian novelists guaranteed a place on syllabi today, George Eliot was surely the one who most consistently presented Christian preaching in a positive light. Despite her religious skepticism, she avoided clerical caricatures such as the Bethel Bible-thumper in Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop who yells, "Stay, Satan, stay!" at his departing auditor (319) or the smarmy Reverend Slope in Trollope's Barchester Towers, whose tactless sermon factionalizes a community. Less likely to invite readers to laugh at clerics than to admire their pulpit talents and sincerity, her work features a parade of well-intentioned, well-spoken preachers: saintly Mr. Tryan in Scenes of Clerical Life, "a powerful preacher, who was stirring the hearts of the people" (242); the eloquent and compassionate Methodist Dinah Morris in Adam Bede; the "wonderful preacher" Dr. Kenn in Mill on the Floss (339); the charismatic and increasingly self-deluded Savonarola in Romola; the learned and loquacious Dissenter Rufus Lyon in Felix Holt; and the affable Farebrother in Middlemarch, noted for his "ingenious and pithy" extemporaneous preaching (173; see Lovesey). Passing lightly over the many clerical shortcomings that other Victorian novelists happily exploited-hypocrisy, biblical literalism, ecclesiastical infighting, mean-spirited self-righteousness, and more-Eliot's fiction conveys the sense that Christian preaching continued to have value as a force for social cohesion and individual betterment.

Until Daniel Deronda, that is. With this novel, the nostalgia dissipated and the gloves came off, and Eliot at last seems thoroughly disenchanted with a practice central to the Christianity she had renounced intellectually decades before (See Bonaparte 32). Daniel Deronda distances itself from Christian preaching most pointedly in its representation of its most prominent clergyman, Mr. Gascoigne, a virtual first cousin to Trollope's scheming, worldly-wise Barsetshire clerics and an utter failure as Gwendolen's spiritual mentor. His sententious speech to his niece on her duty to accept Grandcourt is a travesty of spiritual leadership, as he allows Grandcourt's tank and wealth to blind him to his rumored indiscretions. His conversation with Gwendolen after Grandcourt's intentions are clear is both a narrative hinge-had it gone differently, she might never bave married the man-and a mockery of nineteenth-century preaching. Like a bad sermon, Gascoigne's speech carries "a thrill of authority, as of a word of command" that serves more to display the speaker's ego than to convey wisdom. Pompous and obtuse, the Rector of Pennicote takes it "for granted that there could be no wavering in the audience" (125), while his elevation of abstract principles over human relationships encourages Gwendolen to approach marriage as a social institution entered into with minimal reference to personal feeling. After she bas sealed her fate, neither Gascoigne's official preaching nor his private moral counsel can alleviate her misery. She is "so far as pastoral care and religious fellowship were concerned, in as complete a solitude as a man in a lighthouse" (562). All in all, Gascoigne is a damning critique of the Protestant ministry as at best irrelevant to Victorian spiritual life and at worst a source of moral corruption. (1)

Yet what is most striking about Daniel Deronda is not Eliot's rejection of the Christian preacher as an ideal, a move one might bave expected long before in her fiction, but her persistent interest in the power of the human voice to provide moral and religious leadership. From early to late, Eliot's fiction takes as one of its founding principles the idea that, as Walter Ong has put it, voice "relates in a special way to the sacral, to the ultimate concerns of existence" (74). This privileging of orality informs those characters such as Dinah Morris and Savonarola who preach outright to whole communities as well as moral mentors such as Dorothea who offer only individual counsel. …

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