The Portrayal of Jews in Nineteenth-Century English Literature
The Portrayal of Jews in Nineteenth-Century English Literature
In nineteenth-century English literature, the most common portrayal of a Jew was a negative racial stereotype. In society, and thus in literature, Jews were often seen in terms of their "otherness"—their difference in appearance, social standing, religion and morality with respect to their non-Jewish counterparts. This is especially true of the fiction of the early nineteenth-century when the ghost of Shakespeare's greedy, evil Shylock still haunted English literature. However, even when Jews gained political equality in England with the passage of numerous reforms and a rise in realism in fiction caused novelists writing in the mid-1800s to look increasingly to real life rather than to established stereotypes as inspiration for their writing, Jews were (aside from a few more balanced portrayals) still depicted in extreme terms: as completely evil or as impossibly virtuous; as people seeking complete assimilation into English culture or as adamantly separatist; as wealthy politicians and international financiers or as lowly impoverished immigrants. And as interpretations of Jewish life and views regarding the appropriate role of the Jew in English society were set into fiction by both Jewish and non-Jewish novelists, an increasingly racial debate was also waged, both in and out of the realm of fiction, regarding the contributions of Hebraism to English culture.
Certain non-Jewish novelists are discussed below for their contribution to these trends in the portrayal of Jews in nineteenth-century English literature. Sir Walter Scott produced the first novel-length treatment of Jewish characters in Ivanhoe (1819). As Harold Fisch (1971) notes, Scott (who depicted the Jew in medieval society) defended the Jews by attacking some of the nineteenth-century prejudices against Jews and by attributing negative aspects of "Jewish character" to Christian oppression. But Scott also devoted much attention to the negative qualities of the Jew, Isaac of York, and made Isaac's daughter, Rebecca, the heroine of the story, represented as the height of beauty. Other non-Jewish writers treated Jews in similarly extreme terms. Some novelists, such as Amelia Bristow in Sophia de Lissau (1828), used their work as a platform to advocate the conversion of Jews to Christianity. But others, such as George Du Maurier in Trilby (1894) with the evil Jew Svengali, gave a portrayal of the Jew as wholly despicable that remained popular throughout the nineteenth-century. Charles Dickens produced one of the most famous examples of the stereotypical "evil Jew"—the character of Fagin in Oliver Twist (1838). Certain novelists attempted in later novels to "atone" for a negative portrayal of Jews in earlier novels. For example, Dickens portrayed the Jewish character Riah in Our Mutual Friend (1864-65) as a paragon of virtue compared to his earlier character Fagin. Similarly, Maria Edgeworth depicted the Jewish heroine in Harrington (1817) much more favorably than a Jewish character from her 1812 novel The Absentee (although, it has been pointed out that Harrington's Jewish heroine also converts to Christianity). Against the backdrop of so many flawed portraits, George Eliot provided a portrait of the Jew in her novel Daniel Deronda (1876) that stands out as at least an honest effort at a more accurate portrayal of Judaism. And this portrait has been admired by many (including Jewish readers living at the time of the original publication of Daniel Deronda) for its faithful attempt at capturing the essence of Jewish life. As Rabbi David Philipson (1889) notes, Daniel Deronda can be identified as one of the few legitimate efforts at characterizing the Jew in fiction, in that it portrays the Jew as a follower of his religion rather than in racial terms. Yet the novel has also been criticized for the way in which the Jewish portions of the novel never fully integrate with the rest of its plot.
Nineteenth-century Jewish writers contributed to a more realistic representation of Jews in English literature. Jewish novelist Amy Levy (1886) took issue with Eliot's work, maintaining that, despite its "sincere and respectful attempt" at depicting the features of Judaism, the novel fails to genuinely reflect contemporary Jewish life. In Levy's own novel on middle-class Jewish life, Reuben Sachs (1889), Levy makes several direct criticisms of Daniel Deronda, including references to the Zionism of Eliot's Jewish characters. Levy defended her work as realistic, although some criticized her novel for presenting overly negative portrayals of Jewish life. Certain other British Jews, as Bryan Cheyette (1990) argues, felt compelled to "negotiate" between their cultural heritage and the English national culture. For example, Grace Aguilar, in The Spirit of Judaism (1842), adopted a form of "Christianized" or "Anglicanized" Judaism, in which she urged the acceptance of Jews and Judaism as an extension of Christian values. As Cheyette contends, other Anglo-Jewish novelists—such as Julia Frankau (Frank Danby), Benjamin Farjeon, and Israel Zangwill—attempted to revise prevalent Jewish stereotypes by making them more "acceptable" to the "majority values of English culture." However, Farjeon's novels (Cheyette notes) are similar to those of Benjamin Disraeli in their assumption of Jewish racial superiority. In such works as Coningsby (1844) and Tancred (1847), Disraeli (the Prime Minister of England [1867; 1874-80] who had been raised as a Jew until his father had a falling out with the synagogue and had subsequently been baptized as an adolescent) continually praised the Jewish race. As Rabbi EdwardN. Calisch (1909) notes, Disraeli dubbed the Jewish race "the aristocracy of nature."
Disraeli was a prime contributor in the argument concerning the cultural ideals of Hebraism and Hellenism. According to Michael Ragussis (1995), Disraeli's beliefs on the significance of the Jewish race (expounded upon in novels such as Tancred and Lothair ), appear to have influenced the poet Matthew Arnold. Disraeli maintained that English culture was based on Hebraism, but Arnold, while embracing the contributions of Hebraism (which Arnold equated with Jewish moral conduct and authority), argued in Culture and Anarchy (1869) that the overly Hebraic English culture needed to be balanced by Hellenism (Greek-inspired philosophy, culture, and art). In Literature and Dogma (1892), Arnold expressed his beliefs about Hebraism and Hellenism in terms of differentiation between the Aryan and Semitic races—with basic characteristics being assigned to each race. Arnold appeared to extoll the virtues of both races, on the one hand, but, on the other hand, to rely on the Aryan race to both respect the value of Hebraism and to balance the Hebraic with the Hellenic. Disraeli considered the ideology of Hellenism to be based on a racial criticism of the Jews.
Ninteenth-century novelists of Jewish and non-Jewish backgrounds fought, through their work, to make countless political, economic, racial, and religious statements about Jewish life, the "Jewish identity," and the role of the Jew in English society and culture. Many such arguments and portrayals have been characterized as negative, a few are arguably positive, and most continue to be evaluated in the twentieth-century. Yet students of this period and scholars alike might agree with critic Edgar Rosenberg (1960), who makes the following observation: "the image of the Jew in English literature has been a depressingly uniform and static phenomenon."
The Spirit of Judaism 1842
Sophia de Lissau 1828
Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton
My Novel 1853
The Scapegoat 1891
Oliver Twist 1838
Our Mutual Friend 1864-65
George Du Maurier
The Absentee 1812
Daniel Deronda 1876
Benjamin L. Farjeon
Solomon Isaacs 1877
Aaron the Jew 1894-95
Julia Frankau [Frank Danby]
Dr. Phillips; A Maida Vale Idyll 1887
*Daughters of Shem 1898
Reuben Sachs 1889
The Tragic Comedians 1880
It Is Never Too Late to Mend 1856
Sir Walter Scott
William Makepeace Thackery
**Rebecca and Rowena 1850
Nina Balatka 1867
Children of the Ghetto 1892
Ghetto Tragedies 1893
The King of...
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George Eliot (essay date 1879)
SOURCE: "The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!," in Impressions of Theophrastus Such, edited by Nancy Henry, William Pickering, 1994, pp. 143-65.
[In the following essay, first published in 1879 and reprinted in 1994, Eliot (1) documents the negative stereotypes prevalent in nineteenth-century England,(2) argues that the "revived expression of old antipathies " had been stimulated by the fact that Jews had attained political power, and (3) defends Jews against the defamation that they continued to receive in her lifetime.]
To discern likeness amidst diversity, it is well known, does not require so fine a mental edge as the discerning of diversity amidst general sameness.1 The primary rough classification depends on the prominent resemblances of things: the progress is towards finer and finer discrimination according to minute differences.
Yet even at this stage of European culture one's attention is continually drawn to the prevalence of that grosser mental sloth which makes people dull to the most ordinary prompting of comparison—the bringing things together because of their likeness. The same motives, the same ideas, the same practices, are alternately admired and abhorred, lauded and denounced, according to their association with superficial differences, historical or actually social: even learned writers treating of great...
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Rabbi Edward N. Calisch (essay date 1909)
SOURCE: "From 1800 to Date—" in The Jew in English Literature: As Author and As Subject, Bell Book and Stationary Co., 1909, pp. 161-82.
[In the following excerpt, Calisch assesses the novels written during the nineteenth-century by Jews about Jewish life, and identifies novelist Israel Zangwill as "the foremost Jewish literary figure" of his time.]
In the realm of fiction, Jewish literary genius finds large representation. There appears a number of names that will survive more than their own generation. A pioneer of the century was Grace Aguilar, 1816-1847. Her history is pathetically interesting. She was born of a Portuguese family of Maranos, who had fled to England for refuge in the eighteenth century. The family lived secluded, and Miss Aguilar's education was undertaken by her parents. She was frail from birth and in order to strengthen her constitution she was often taken to the seaside and into the country. Thus her companionship with her people was practically cut off. Yet she had an intense religious feeling and a deep sense of Jewish comradeship. In spite of her physical weakness she was very industrious and began writing as a child. By the time she was twelve she had written a drama, Gustavus Vasa, and two years later wrote a collection of verse. Her first publication, made anonymously, was in 1835, a book of poems,...
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Depictions By Non-Jewish Writers
Rachel Mordecai Lazarus and Maria Edgeworth (correspondence dates 1815-1817)
SOURCE: "The Correspondence," in The Education of the Heart: The Correspondence of Rachel Mordecai Lazarus and Maria Edgeworth, University of North Carolina Press, 1977, pp. 3-18.
[In the following correspondence, Lazarus (who helped her father—an American Jewish merchant—run a school for girls, and who read the educational treatises by Maria Edgeworth and her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth) writes to Maria Edgeworth, politely condemning Edgeworth 's portrayal of a Jewish character (in her 1812 novel, The Absentee) in a stereotypical, derogatory manner; then Richard Lovell Edgeworth and his daughter Maria reply; and finally Lazarus writes again regarding Edgeworth 's later novel, Harrington (1817).]
Warrenton, North Carolina
U.S. of America
August 7th, 1815
A young American lady who has long felt towards Miss Edgeworth those sentiments of respect and admiration which superior talents exerted in the cause of virtue and morality never fail to excite, ventures, not without hesitation, to indulge a wish formed many months since of addressing her. If such temerity require more than an ordinary apology, it is to Practical Education1 she must appeal as her intercessor; it is that, which by...
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Hebraism Versus Hellenism
G. L. Hersey (essay date 1976)
SOURCE: "Aryanism in Victorian England," in Yale Review, Vol. 66, Autumn, 1976, pp. 104-13.
[In the following essay, Hersey notes that the novel Lothair of Benjamin Disraeli (Prime Minister [1867; 1874-80] as well as novelist) "gently mocked" the views on Aryanism of Lord Leighton (painter), and that Leighton's positioning of Aryanism against Semitism resembled the construction of Matthew Arnold's arguments on Hellenism versus Hebraism.]
The cult, or philosophy, of Aryanism has flourished at various times and in various places during the past 150 years. In Britain from the late 1860's through at least the early 1890's it manifested itself both in art and politics; and the appearance last year of these two books [Lord Leighton, by Leonée and Richard Ormond; and Lothair, by Benjamin Disraeli, edited by Vernon Bogdanor] raises the question of Aryanism's effect on two key Victorians: Frederick, Lord Leighton, the greatest "classical" painter of the period, and Benjamin Disraeli, who, after temporarily relinquishing the prime ministership, in 1870 wrote a novel in which Leighton and his Aryan beliefs were gently mocked. Though William Gaunt alluded to these matters in Victorian Olympus (1952) they have never received the study they deserve. Victorian Aryanism was a fascinating business—an episode of philosophical racism...
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Baker, William. Introduction to George Eliot and Judaism, pp. 1-10. Salzburg, Austria: Institut fur Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universität Salzburg, 1975.
Discusses the critical response to the Jewish content of Daniel Deronda.
Braude, Benjamin. "The Heine-Disraeli Syndrome among the Palgraves of Victorian England." In Jewish Apostasy in the Modern World, edited by Todd M. Endelman, pp. 108-41. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1987.
Compares the "well-known obsessions with their Jewish pasts" of Benjamin Disraeli and Heinrich Heine with similar "obsessions" of lesser known converts, such as the Palgraves, a prominent Victorian family, headed by Francis Ephraim Cohen.
Cohen, Derek, and Deborah Heller, eds. Jewish Presences in English Literature. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990, 143 p.
Traces the depiction of Jews throughout English literature, including chapters on the works of Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and George Eliot.
Cowen, Anne, and Roger Cowen. Victorian Jews through British Eyes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, 196 p.
Discusses the perceptions prevalent among Victorians regarding Jews and the historical basis for such...
(The entire section is 1079 words.)