In Edith Nesbit’s novels before Harding’s Luck (1909), all her Jewish characters tend to be of the same variety. Nesbit never explicitly identifies them as Jewish, but they all have obviously Jewish names and features, are usually either moneylenders or stockbrokers, and have a very strong personal affection for money. Nesbit implies that they are greedy and dishonest, and she often shows them trying to cheat her heroes of their hard-earned cash. Although Nesbit probably meant by leaving out the word Jew to hide her anti-Semitism from child readers, no adult reader could have missed it.
The first of Nesbit’s Jewish characters is Mr. Z. Rosenbaum, a moneylender who appears in the chapter of The Treasure Seekers titled “The G.B.” G.B. stands for “Generous Benefactor,” which is what the Bastable children assume Mr. Rosenbaum to be when they read his advertisement. “‘What does it all mean?’ asked H.O.” Dora explains. “It means that there is a kind gentleman who has a lot of money, and he doesn’t know enough poor people to help, so he puts it in the paper that he will help them, by lending them his money” (The Bastable Children, 95-96). The Bastables decide to ask the G.B. for enough money to answer another advertisement they have seen, for a partnership in a “lucrative business for sale of useful patent.”(94) The G.B. proves to be “a little old gentleman with a very long black coat and a very long white beard and a hooky nose — like a falcon.” He has clearly had business dealings with their father, and at first suspects that they are there on his behalf. When the children have reassured him on this point, and Dicky has explained about the partnership, the G.B. becomes interested, and asks why they are worrying about money instead of being in school. The question proves to be a pertinent one, since their father’s business troubles have forced him to take the children out of school. The G.B. listens attentively for some time. He points out that since Dicky is a minor, he is not legally obliged to repay a loan, and finally he tells the children, “I don’t advise you to enter into that partnership. It’s a swindle. Many advertisements are. And I have not a hundred pounds by me to-day to lend you. But I will lend you a pound, and you can spend it as you like. And when you are twenty-one, you shall pay me back.” When Dicky offers to sign a note-of-hand, the G.B. says, “Oh, I’ll trust to your honour” (102).
At this point in the chapter, the Generous Benefactor appears to be just that. He may have a very Jewish name and the “hooky” nose of anti-Semitic caricatures, but he has shown an interest in the children’s welfare, has treated them with respect, and has offered them what amounts to a gift. Yet as Nesbit proceeds to show us, this generous impulse is a rare one, and it is at war with Rosenbaum’s money-grubbing nature. “He took out a sovereign, and held it in his hand while he talked to us. He gave us a lot of good advice about not going into business too young, and about doing our lessons.” The G.B. is clearly concerned about the children’s education, but he is also lecturing them in order to delay giving them the money. “All the time he was stroking the sovereign and looking at it as if he thought it very beautiful.” He finally offers it to Dicky, and then quickly changes his mind.
“No” he said, “I won’t give you the sovereign. I’ll give you fifteen shillings, and this nice bottle of scent. It’s worth far more than the five shillings I’m charging you for it. And when you can, you shall pay me back the pound, and sixty per cent. interest — sixty per cent., sixty per. cent.---”
“What’s that?” said H.O.
The G.B. said he’d tell us that when we paid back the sovereign, but sixty per cent. was nothing to be afraid of. 
The sixty percent interest is really over a hundred percent, since the G.B. expects the children to pay interest on the pound, and not on the fifteen shillings that he has actually given them. The bottle of scent, supposedly worth more than five shillings, is so cheap that even the children can tell it is inferior.
In his alternation between generosity and avarice, the G.B. anticipates Nesbit’s one philo-semitic creation, the friendly pawnbroker in Harding’s Luck. Yet the G.B. is a far more convincing character than the pawnbroker, since the pawnbroker’s split personality is presumably an accident owing to Nesbit’s doubts about writing a good Jew. The G.B. is as inconsistent as the pawnbroker, but his inconsistency is a character trait and not a failure of writing. The G.B. is trying to play a part, that of the kindly old gentleman who looks after children’s welfare, and he seems to have convinced even himself that this is his real character. He is, in fact, able to play the part very well when the only sacrifice it requires is one of time and interest. He does the children a favor in warning them against the phony partnership, but it is a favor that costs him nothing. His real test comes when he must give the children the pound, and he proves to be physically incapable of doing so. For Z. Rosenbaum, who runs a successful and profitable business, and whose office is very expensively furnished, a pound cannot have much value in itself. Rosenbaum cannot be swindling the children just for the sake of a few shillings, and Nesbit makes it clear that in swindling them he is acting on impulse. Rosenbaum has clearly tried to bury his instinct against giving away money, but his first effort at generosity brings it to the surface, and with it comes a corresponding instinct to make as much money as possible. Since Nesbit tells the story from the point of view of Oswald, who does not seem to know what a Jew is, she cannot explicitly attribute Rosenbaum’s greed to his heritage. Yet she implies very strongly that love of money is inherent in the Jewish character, and that Rosenbaum’s inconsistency comes from a futile attempt to disobey his racial instincts.
The G.B. is the most complex of Nesbit’s anti-semitic caricatures; although there are many superficially similar characters in The Story of the Amulet they appear only briefly and lack the confused motivations of the G.B. However, they do have a strong symbolic importance to the story. The first Jewish character to appear in The Story of the Amulet is a shop owner named Jacob Absalom, who sells the children the Amulet. The Psammead has seen the Amulet in a shop window, and on his suggestion Anthea buys the Amulet while the rest of the children watch through the window. In her usual oblique way, Nesbit does not directly identify Absalom as a Jew, and does not even refer to him by name until well after his second appearance in the story. He first appears as the owner of a “large, dirty, short-fingered hand with a very big diamond ring” (Amulet, 34), which the children see through the window. Nesbit thus establishes that the shop owner is fat and dirty, has vulgar tastes, and is richer than her readers would expect. When the children return home, the Psammead informs them that they have bought only half the Amulet, and Cyril goes back to the shop to ask about the other half. He comes back defeated and angry. “The man said the thing was perfect,” he tells them, “...and that people shouldn’t buy curios if they didn’t know anything about arky — something or other, and that he never went back on a bargain, because it wasn’t business, and he expected his customers to act the same. He was simply nasty” (38).
Nesbit does not name the unpleasant shopkeeper until the next chapter, when Cyril tells the learned gentleman about the Amulet. “'We bought it at a shop. Jacob Absalom the name is — not far from Charing Cross,’ said Cyril.”(46) Nesbit thus confirms, as unobtrusively as possible, any suspicions that her more attentive readers may have had about the shopkeeper’s ethnicity. As in The Treasure Seekers, the children themselves seem to have no idea that the man is a Jew, and they are certainly not suspicious of him. Absalom does not reenter the story, but Nesbit mentions him a final time two chapters later, when the children travel to 6000 B.C. Egypt. They discover the shrine where the Egyptians keep the complete Amulet, but before they can take the charm the shrine is attacked by foreign invaders. “Large dark hands tore down the wall, and a dark face, with a blobby fat nose, looked over the gap. Even at that awful moment Anthea had time to think that it was very like the face of Mr. Jacob Absalom, who had sold them the charm” (85). The Story of the Amulet was Nesbit’s most heavily researched novel; she sent every chapter to Dr. Wallis Budge, a keeper at the British museum, who provided her with authentic historical detail. (Moore, 204) However, it seems likely that in this case Nesbit’s chronology was wrong, and that she was referring, not to an event in 6000 B.C., but to the much later invasion of Egypt by the Hyksos, a Semitic people, in the 17th century B.C. (Columbia Encyclopedia) Nesbit clearly subscribed to the unsubstantiated theory that the Hyksos were related to the ancient Hebrews. She uses this theory to support the idea of inherited racial character traits. The original inhabitants of the Egyptian village are fair-skinned, fair-haired and friendly; their Semitic invaders are cruel and merciless. Absolom’s treatment of Cyril is simply the 20th century version of his ancestors’ behavior.
Nesbit’s prejudices should not be mistaken for generalized racism. Most of the lands the children visit in The Story of the Amulet are Middle Eastern, and Nesbit represents several of them as being at least as civilized as modern England. With the exception of the Hyksos, Nesbit reserves her anti-Semitism for English Jews. When the children visit the Semitic city of Babylon, they have a fairly enjoyable stay, despite a miscalculation (they demand the king’s Amulet in return for singing) that lands them in jail. But when the Babylonian queen pays them a visit in London, and comes into contact with the Jewish members of the Stock Exchange, she becomes the catalyst for the most overtly anti-Semitic scene in Nesbit’s fiction. The scene begins when, in one of Nesbit’s frequent nods to Socialism, the queen is appalled by the shabbiness of the London poor. Knowing that the Psammead is obliged to grant any wish he hears, she tells him, “I wish that all these slaves may have in their hands this moment their fill of their favorite meat and drink” (149). The result — poor people with their arms full of roasts and puddings — has already begun to cause a commotion in the financial center of town when the queen compounds the problem by wishing that all the men around her be dressed like ancient Babylonian royalty. “They’d be rather fine men,” she says, “if they were dressed decently, especially the ones with the beautiful long, curved noses ” (150). Of the seven financiers whom Nesbit names, four — Levinstein, Rosenbaum, Hirsh and Cohen — are obviously Jewish.
Levinstein, an old man who speaks with a pronounced Yiddish accent, appears throughout the scene and is the most developed of the caricatures. Unlike his clerk, who complains about his “beastly sandals,” Levinstein is most appalled by the sight of poor people who have enough to eat. “All along Bishopsgate,” he tells the clerk, “I haf seen the gommon people have their hants full of food — goot food! Oh, yes, without doubt a very bad tream!”(151) When the enraged financiers begin to threaten the children and the queen, the queen wishes for her Babylonian guards and gives them the order to kill. What follows is meant to be horrifying, but it is also a kind of Socialist dream-fantasy, in which the capitalists realize their error and admit their guilt. “‘I’m mad,’ said a Mr. Rosenbaum; ‘dat’s what it is — mad!’ ‘It’s a judgement on you, Rosy,’ said his partner. ‘I always said you were too hard in that matter of Flower-dew. It’s a judgement, and I’m in it too.’”(152) As the children watch, the armed Babylonian guards descend on the members of the Stock Exchange and begin to slaughter them. The massacre ends only when Levinstein’s clerk says, “I wish to goodness it was all a dream”(153), and the Psammead grants the wish.
Nesbit ends the scene on a note of sarcasm that seems, at the very least, misplaced. “Business men do not like it to be known that they have been dreaming in business hours...especially mad dreams including such dreadful things as hungry people getting dinners, and the destruction of the Stock Exchange”(153). Nesbit implies in this sentence that the two events are alike, and are both good in themselves. According to Nesbit’s Socialist beliefs, of course, the feeding of the hungry is inseparable from the fall of capitalism. Yet “the destruction of the Stock Exchange” is a very mild euphemism for the wholesale slaughter of dozens of people. Elsewhere in the book, Nesbit treats the destruction of Atlantis and the wreck of a Tyrian ship as the tragedies that they are. Her light-hearted irony in this chapter suggests that while she disapproves on principle of killing Jewish financiers, she is unable to feel or convey any sympathy for these particular victims.
Nesbit’s evident assumption that the Jews controlled the British financial world is not unusual; the belief was widespread at the time (Rahn, 304). A similar assumption is implicit in Kipling’s more philo-semitic children’s story “The Treasure and the Law,” also published in 1906. Kipling presents Jewish control of finance as a fact, but not necessarily a problem, provided the Jews use their influence for the good of the country. Nesbit was not able to take the same position, because she firmly believed that the capitalist system was an evil in itself. The Jews in The Treasure Seekers and The Story of the Amulet are not simply indifferent to the plight of the workers; they are directly responsible for their suffering. The financiers in The Story of the Amulet are different from the G.B., however, in that they are stock villains, who feel justified in exploiting the poor simply because they are poor. The G.B., for all his stereotyped traits, is three-dimensional. He has kind impulses and interests other than money, and he is nearly as unaware of his own greed as the children are. In creating a “good” Jewish character for Harding’s Luck, Nesbit was to return in part to her original vision of the Jews, as a people whose individual personalities were in constant conflict with the over-riding instincts of their race.
- The Depiction of Jews in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century English Literature
- Towards Full Emancipation in the Victorian Age
- Maria Edgeworth’s Harrington, Antisemitism, and Its Defense of Jews
"Hyksos." Columbia. 4th ed. 1975.
Moore, Doris Langley. E. Nesbit: A Biography. Philadelphia: Chilton Company, 1996.
Nesbit, Edith. The Bastable Children, containing The Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods, The New Treasure Seekers. New York: Coward-McCann 1929.
Nesbit, Edith. The Story of the Amulet. Harmondsworth: Puffin Books 1959.
Rahn, Suzanne. "'Like a Star Through Flying Snow': Jewish Characters, Visible and Invisible." The Lion and the Unicorn 27.3 (2003) 303-323
Last modified 11 December 2006
Link added 22 July 2020