Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1715/Deronda's Mother

From Temple Bar.



Critics have been busy of late detecting prototypes. A temperate and thoughtful writer has recently alluded to the probable identity of the cultured visionary Mordecai in "Daniel Deronda " with the German Kohn, or Cohen, president of a philosophical club in Red Lion Square, at one time attended by Mr. G. H. Lewes, and fully described in the same novel; and a brilliant essayist more recently still discovers Benjamin Disraeli not merely in Vivian Grey himself, but in the ponderous and obtuse Lord Beaconsfield[1] of the premier's early book. The resemblance between Mr. Disraeli and Vivian Grey has been often urged, and probably with as much truth and in the same sense as Pelham may be said to have been Bulwer, Pendennis Thackeray, and David Copperfield Charles Dickens, inasmuch as an imaginative writer is keenly sensible of his own personality, and naturally endows some favorite character with more or less of it - especially when fiction takes an autobiographical form.

The conjunction of the two names, Disraeli and Deronda, belonging to the same nationality, reminds me that none of these ingenious critics seem to have looked for the germ of Leonora, Princess of Halm-Eberstein, born Charisi, in the mother of the chronicler of "The Calamities of Authors." Yet the points of similarity between the real Jewess as described by her grandson and the ideal Jewess as painted by George Eliot are remarkable enough to fill an inedited page of the "Curiosities of Literature."

The personal charms, the strong will, the fascination, the excitable temperament of genius tyrannizing over and indeed usurping the place of natural affection are as clearly indicated in the sketch of Mrs. Disraeli as they are in the study of Leonora Charisi. Even the first step which Leonora takes towards altering the destiny of her son had its precedent in the annals of our premier's family. When Deronda, indignant at the disguise which has been thrown around him, exclaims, "Then it is not my real name!" The princess replies indifferently: —

Oh, as real as another. The Jews have always been changing their names. My father's family had kept the name of Charisi; my husband was a Charisi. When I came out as a singer we made it Alcharisi. But there had been a branch of the family who called themselves Deronda, and when I wanted a name for you . . . I thought of Deronda.

In the "Life and Writings of Isaac Disraeli," by his son, we read: —

My grandfather, who became an English denizen in 1748, was an Italian descendant from one of those Hebrew families whom the Inquisition forced to emigrate from the Spanish peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century. . . . His ancestors had dropped their Gothic surname on their settlement in the terra firma, and grateful to the God of Jacob who had sustained them through unprecedented trials and guarded them through unheard-of perils, they assumed the name of Disraeli, a name never borne before or since by any other family, in order that their race might be forever recognized.

The revolt of Leonora, Princess Halm-Eberstein's proud, passionate nature against the restrictions and humiliations of her race may be illustrated by a few sentences taken from her confession to Deronda, not, however, strictly observing the order in which they are uttered: —

I was to be what is called "the Jewish woman" [she exclaims]: I was to feel everything I did not feel, and believe everything I did not believe. . . . I was to love the long prayers in the ugly synagogue, and the howling, and the gabbling, and the dreadful fasts, and the tiresome feasts, and my father's endless discoursing about Our People, which was a thunder without meaning in my ears. I was to care forever about what Israel had been, and I did not care at all. I cared for the wide world and all that I could represent in it. . . . I wanted to live a large life, with freedom to do what every one else did.

Might not such a speech as that have come from Mrs. Disraeli, thus described by her grandson? —

My grandmother, the beautiful daughter of a family who had suffered much from persecution, had imbibed that dislike for her race which the vain are too apt to adopt when they find that they are born to public contempt. The indignant feeling that should be reserved for the persecutor in the mortification of their disturbed sensibility, is too often visited on the victim. And the cause of annoyance is recognized, not in the ignorant malevolence of the powerful, but in the conscientious conviction of the innocent sufferer.

And not only in this comprehensive resentment against the humiliations and restrictions of their religion and their race, but in the peculiar warping and distortion given by this embittered feeling to their personal character and their domestic relations, do the ideal and the real Jewess resemble each other. The very dislike to her son which in the fictitious character we are apt hastily to pronounce "unnatural" existed in the real one, and sprang from the same cause. The mother of Isaac Disraeli never pardoned her husband for his name.

So mortified by her social position was she [says her grandson] that she lived until eighty without indulging a tender expression; and did not recognize in her only offspring a being qualified to control or vanquish his impending fate. His existence only served to swell the aggregate of many humiliating particulars. It was not to her a source of joy, or sympathy, or solace. She foresaw for her child only a future of degradation.
I am not a loving woman [cries George Eliot's princess to her son]. It is a talent to love — I lacked it. Others have loved me, and I have acted their love. . . . Every woman is supposed to have the same set of motives or else to be a monster. I am not a monster, but I have not felt exactly what other women feel — or say they feel for fear of being thought unlike others. . . . I did not wish you to be born. I parted with you willingly. . . . When you reproach me in your heart for sending you away from me, you mean that I ought to say I felt about you as other women say they feel about their children. I did not feel that. I was glad to be freed from you. . . . The bondage I hated for myself I wanted to keep you from. What better could the most loving mother have done? I relieved you from the bondage of having been born a Jew.

Leonora Charisi, in George Eliot's novel, banishes her child finally and forever as she intends and believes in order to free him from the trammels of race and religion. Isaac Disraeli's parents sent the future scholar and author to Amsterdam for some years to rouse him from the dreamy abstraction during which he had produced a poem, and thereby filled both father and mother with terror as to his prospects in life.

When fate and the dread of approaching death prove too powerful even for the princess's strong self-will, and she at last summons her son to her presence in Genoa in order to reveal their relationship, he hurries to the interview in a mood of high-wrought emotion; love, wonder, perplexity, enthusiasm all aflame within him. The two interviews between mother and son are, on both sides, at the same abnormal pressure throughout — though some of Leonora's taunts are not unlike "the tart remark and the contemptuous comment" with which, says Mr. Disraeli, his grandmother used frequently to "elicit all the irritability of the poetic idiosyncrasy." The Princess Leonora, however cold in her affections, is passionate enough in her disclosures and her unavailing wrath against destiny.

The tender yearning after a being whose life might have been the worse for not having his care and love, the image of a mother who had not had her dues whether of reverence or compassion, had long been secretly present with him in his observation of all the women he had come near. . . . When Deronda presented himself at the door of his mother's apartment in the Italia he felt some revival of his boyhood, with its premature agitations. . . . He had lived through so many ideal meetings with his mother, and they had seemed more real than this!

The princess gives her hand to her son, looking at him "examiningly." "Then she kissed him on each cheek, and he returned her kisses. But it was something like a greeting between royalties."

When the period of Isaac Disraeli's educational exile was at an end he prepared to rejoin his mother with feelings of sensitive tenderness, and was received by her with chilling scrutiny, the very foreshadowing of George Eliot's creations. But into the real interview that ludicrous element entered which so often blends with our strongest emotions. Instead of being shaken in her impassive dignity by involuntary admiration, and ejaculating, like the Princess Leonora of Halm-Eberstein, "You are a beautiful creature!" the first Mrs. Benjamin Disraeli was revolted by her son's appearance. Nor had the mental discipline imposed upon him cured his objectionable bent to poetry and sentiment. Isaac Disraeli, says his illustrious son, returned to England a disciple of Rousseau.

He had exercised his imagination during the voyage in idealizing the interview with his mother, which was to be conducted on both sides with sublime pathos. . . . He was prepared to throw himself on his mother's bosom, to bedew her hands with his tears, and to stop her own with his lips; but, when he entered, his strange appearance, his gaunt figure, his excited manner, his long hair, and his unfashionable costume only filled her with a sentiment of tender (?) aversion; she broke into derisive laughter, and noticing his intolerable garments, she reluctantly lent him her cheek.

With these words Mrs. Benjamin Disraeli disappears from her grandson's pages. But we have seen enough of her to be justified in concluding either that his vigorous outline, enlarged and filled up, shaded here and heightened in color there, to the uses of the story by the transcendent genius of George Eliot, supplied the original of Leonora Charisi, Princess Halm-Eberstein; or that such striking coincidences of feeling and situation suppose in the novelist a marvellous intuition of the possibilities of Jewish character.

  1. "Powerful, but a dolt." — See "Vivian Grey."