he literary work of a few Christian writers of the period also manifests a serious effort to evoke in the reader a sympathetic understanding of the situation of the Jews as a minority to be integrated into Christian society. True, stereotypical representations of them remain along with impatient denunciations of their resistance to the complete identification – i.e. conversion to Christianity -- that for many Christian English people was the only path to integration. The present writer cannot do better than refer the reader who would like to explore this topic in depth to Michael Ragussis’s outstanding Figures of Conversion: “The Jewish Question” & English National Identity (1995). For the purposes of this essay, a few examples will have to suffice, with two now little read novels of the time being presented in some detail.
As early as 1753 – the year of the ill-fated Jew Bill – the popular Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett introduced a “worthy” and “benevolent” Jewish character, “Joshua Manesseh, merchant of London,” into his novel The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom. Forty years later, in 1794, Richard Cumberland’s play The Jew (later re-titled Sheva the Benevolent) was put on at the Drury Lane Theatre in London. According to Sir Walter Scott, “In Count Fathom is to be found the first candid attempt to do justice to a calumniated race. The benevolent Jew of Cumberland had his prototype in the worthy Israelite, whom Smollett introduced with very great effect into the history of Fathom” (155). In a collection of essays entitled Observer and published in 1785, Cumberland had already created a character named Abraham Abrahams, who at one point observes: “I verily believe the odious character of Shylock has brought little less persecution upon us, poor scattered sons of Abraham, than the Inquisition itself." Abrahams served as a template for Sheva, the “benevolent” title character of Cumberland’s play, who was thus specifically intended to serve as a counter-model to the traditional mean and miserly stage character of the Jew -- Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Barabas in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta. The tremendous success of the initial production of The Jew prompted Cumberland to observe later: "The benevolence of the audience assisted me in rescuing a forlorn and persecuted character, which till then had only been brought upon the stage for the unmanly purpose of being made a spectacle of contempt, and a butt for ridicule. In the success of this comedy I felt of course a greater gratification, than I had ever felt upon a like occasion."
Less even-handed and more prejudiced attitudes toward Jews persisted, to be sure, into the nineteenth century, among many writers, including those who moved in distinguished literary circles. In one of his Essays of Elia, after expressing his irritation with the Scots, Charles Lamb turns his attention to the Jews, another ethnicity for which, friend of the liberal Leigh Hunt as he might be, he has an “imperfect sympathy.”
I have, in the abstract, no disrespect for Jews. They are a piece of stubborn antiquity, compared with which Stonehenge is in its nonage. They date beyond the pyramids. But I should not care to be in the habits of familiar intercourse with any of that nation. I confess that I have not the nerves to enter their synagogues. Old prejudices cling about me. . . . Centuries of injury, contempt, and hate, on the one side, -- of cloaked revenge, dissimulation, and hate on the other, between our and their fathers, must, and ought, to affect the blood of the children. I cannot believe that . . . a few fine words, such as candour, liberality, the light of the nineteenth century, can close up the breaches of so deadly a disunion. A Hebrew is nowhere congenial to me. . . I boldly confess that I do not relish the approximation of Jew and Christian, which has become so fashionable. The reciprocal endearments have, to me, something hypocritical and unnatural in them. I do not like to see the Church and Synagogue kissing and congeeing in awkward postures of affected civility. If they are converted, why do they not come over to us altogether? Why keep up a form of separation, when the life of it is fled? . . . I do not understand these half convertites. Jews christianizing – Christians judaizing -- puzzle me. I like fish or flesh. A moderate Jew is a more confounding piece of anomaly than a wet Quaker. The spirit of the synagogue is essentially separative.
Lamb goes on to expose what he alleges is the deep-seated Judaism in John Braham, the celebrated tenor, referred to earlier in the present essay. The very fact that “he sings with understanding,” reveals that “the Hebrew spirit is strong in him, in spite of his proselytism. . . How it breaks out when he sings ‘The Children of Israel passed through the Red Sea!’ The auditors, for the moment, are as Egyptians to him, and he rides over our necks in triumph” (61-62).
Many other prominent Christian writers at the time took a similar liberal position toward the growing Jewish community in Britain. In the opening sentence of an essay on “Emancipation of the Jews” that appeared in Leigh Hunt’s magazine The Tatler in March 1831, William Hazlitt declared unambiguously that “The emancipation of the Jews is but a natural step in the progress of civilisation.” “We throw in the teeth of the Jews,” he went on,
that they are prone to certain sordid vices. If they are vicious it is we who have made them so. Shut out any class of people from the path to fair fame, and you reduce them to grovel in the pursuit of riches and the means to live. A man has long been in dread of insult for no just cause, and you complain that he grows reserved and suspicious. You treat him with obloquy and contempt, and wonder that he does not walk by you with an erect and open brow. We also object to their trades and modes of life. . . The Jews barter and sell commodities, instead of raising or manufacturing them. But this is the necessary traditional consequence of their former persecution and pillage by all nations. They could not set up a trade when they were hunted every moment from place to place, and while they could count nothing their own but what they could carry with them. They could not devote themselves to the pursuit of agriculture, when they were not allowed to possess a foot of land. You tear people up by the roots and trample on them like noxious weeds, and then make an outcry that they do not take root in the soil like wholesome plants. You drive them like a pest from city to city, from kingdom to kingdom, and then call them vagabonds and aliens.”
A true Christian, in contrast, does not
forget the original character of the Jewish people, and will not say anything against it. We and modern Europe derived from them the whole germ of our civilisation, our ideas on the unity of the Deity, on marriage, on morals. . . The great founder of the Christian religion was himself born among that people, and if the Jewish Nation are still to be branded with his death, it might be asked on what principle of justice ought we to punish men for crimes committed by their co-religionist near two thousand years ago?
As a liberal, Hazlitt cannot condone the entrenched resistance of the Jews to any alteration of their ancient practises and rituals. “Their blindness and obstinacy is to be lamented; but it is at least, under the circumstances, a proof of their sincerity; and as adherents to a losing cause, they are entitled to respect and not contempt” (461-65).
Even George Gordon Lord Byron, the author of Hebrew Melodies (1815), presents the Jews ambivalenty. In that work the plight of the Jews is lamented in several poems, such as “By the Rivers of Babylon We Sat Down and Wept,” “The Wild Gazelle” and “Oh! Weep for those that wept by Babel’s stream” with its tragic final lines:
Tribes of the wandering foot and weary breast,
How shall ye flee away and be at rest!
The wild-dove hath her nest, the fox his cave,
Mankind their country – Israel but the grave. [1905 ed., 217]
But a year or so earlier, before he was contacted by Nathan about producing words for the latter’s musical compositions, Byron had written “Magdalen,” an evocation of the Crucifixion, in which “Israel’s swarthy race” figures much as in traditional anti-Semitic representation and language:
The hour is come – of darkness and of dread—
That makes Earth shudder to receive the dead,
When the first Martyr to his offered creed,
The man of heaven – the Son of God – must bleed.
The hour is come of Salem’s giant Sin;
> The doom is fixed – the bloody rites begin.
There be loud cries on Sion’s lofty place,
And struggling crowds of Israel’s swarthy race.
Stamped on each brow an idiot hatred stood,
In every eye an eagerness of blood.
Each scornful lip betrayed its wayward thirst
Of ill – and cursing him became accurst. [McGann ed., 3:267]
And in 1823, Canto XII of Don Juan, represents the wealthy merchant and stockmarket Jew, albeit not perhaps without some Galgenhumor, as the hidden power running the entire world. The Jew Rothschild and “his fellow Christian Baring,” the reader is told,
Are the true lords of Europe. Every loan
Is not a mere speculative hit,
But seats a nation or upsets a throne.
Republics also get involved a bit;
Columbia’s stock hath holders not unknown
On ‘Change; and even thy silver soil, Peru,
Must get itself discounted by a Jew.
. . .
The lands on either side are his: the ship
From Ceylon, Inde, or far Cathay, unloads
For him the fragrant produce of each trip;
Beneath his cars of Ceres groan the roads,
And the vine blushes like Aurora’s lip;
His very cellars might be kings’ abodes;
While he, despising every sensual call,
Commands – the intellectual lord of all. [McGann ed., 5:496-97]
So too, in The Age of Bronze (xv) of the same year, a similar evocation of the super-rich international Jewish financier and merchant as hidden ruler of the universe:
How rich is Britain! Not indeed in mines,
Or peace, or plenty, corn, or oil, or wines;
No land of Canaan, full of milk and honey,
Nor (save in paper shekels) ready money:
But let us not to own the truth refuse,
Was ever Christian land so rich in Jews?
Those parted with their teeth to good King John,
And now, ye kings!, they kindly draw your own;
All states, all things, all sovereigns they control,
And waft a loan ‘from Indus to the Pole.’
. . .
On Shylock’s shore behold them stand afresh,
To cut from nations’ hearts their ‘pound of flesh.’ [McGann 7:22]
By mid-century, Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor(1851) not only gave a fairly impartial general overview of the history of the Jews in England, their current fairly wide range of occupations, and their chief places of residence in London, but also challenged what he acknowledges the prevailing view, especially among the common people, of street-Jews (pedlars, old-clothes men),— namely that they were all thieves and swindlers, living in filth. Not only are poor Irish immigrants replacing Jews as street traders, but, Mayhew objects, they live more orderly lives than the Christian poor imagine and “are generally far more cleanly in their habits than the poorer classes of English people.” In addition “the Jews are generally, when married, most exemplary family men. There are few fonder fathers than they are, and they will starve themselves sooner than their wives and children should want. Whatever their faults may be, they are good fathers, husbands, and sons.”
On the other hand, he admits, it is true that money is still the overriding concern and interest of street-Jews. Many “are far from being religious in feeling, or well versed in their faith and are, perhaps, in that respect on a level with the mass of the members of the Church of England.” They also have little or no interest in politics, an indifference that they share to some extent with their better-off co-religionists, according to Mayhew, who disapproves strongly of this detachment. Like their indifference to politics, their lack of any patriotic sentiments “may be accounted for in a great measure, perhaps,” he concedes, “from an hereditary feeling. The Jew could hardly be expected to love a land, or to strive for the promotion of its general welfare, where he felt he was but a sojourner, and where he was at best tolerated and often proscribed.” Unfortunately, the Jew’s constant uprooting has also made him inattentive, not to say indifferent to the condition of Jews in other lands or, among wealthy Jews “with powerful influence in many a government, [. . .] to the lot of their poorer brethren” (2:115-18, 120, 126-27).
This highly selective review of Jewish participation in English literature, music and the visual arts at the close of the eighteenth century and in the early decades of the nineteenth and of Christian attitudes to Jews as reflected in the work of a few notable Christian theologians and literary men and women in the same period was intended to demonstrate the increasing role of Jews in English culture and society and the increasing, though still incomplete acceptance of Jews into that society and culture. These discussions have provided the context for the political struggle for complete emancipation of the Jews in the first half of the nineteenth century, and to this we shall now return.
More Detailed Discussions of Other Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Authors
- Maria Edgeworth’s Harrington, Antisemitism, and Her Defense of Jews
- Jewish-Christian Relations in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1818)
- Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Leila, or the Siege of Granada
A. R., Solomon de. The Reply of the Jews to the Letters Addressed to them by Doctor Joseph Priestley Oxford: J. Fletcher and London: Rivington, 1787.
Bulwer-Lytton, Edward. Leila, or the Siege of Granada. Paris: A. and W. Galignani, 1838. Original edition, London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1838.
Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Complete Poetical Works. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1905.
Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Complete Poetical Works. Ed. Jerome J. McGann. 7 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980-1993.
Crome, Andrew. Christian Zionism and English National Identity, 1600-1850. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
Cumberland, Richard. The Observer, being a Collection of Moral, Literary and Familiar Essays, 5th ed. 6 vols. London: C. Dilly, 1798.
Darby, Michael R. The Emergence of the Hebrew Christian Movement in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Leiden: Brill, 2010.
Edgeworth, Maria. Harrington in Tales and Novels. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1969), IX: 1-208 (rprt. of The Longford Edition, 1893)..
Goldsmid, Francis Henry. Remarks on the Civil Disabilities of British Jews. Postcript, April 1833. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Francis Bentley, 1830.
Harrison J.F.C. The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism 1780-1850. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.
Hazlitt, William. “Emancipation of the Jews.” The Tatler, XI ( March 1831). The Collected Works of William Hazlitt, ed. A. R. Waller and Arnold Glover. London: J.M. Dent & Co., 1904. 12: 461-65.
Howitt, Regina.“Maria Edgeworth’s ‘Harrington’ as a Utopian novel.” Studies in the Novel, 46 (2014): 293-314.
Kerker, Milton. “Isaac and Rebecca in Scott’s Ivanhoe: A Study in Courage.” Midstream, 53:5 (2007). https://global-factiva-com.ezproxy.princeton.edu/ha/default.aspx#./!?&_suid=1593802174078015744676074946118 (Accessed 3 July, 2020).
Lamb, Charles. “Imperfect Sympathies.” The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed. E.V. Lucas. London: Methuen, 1903. (Originally “Jews, Quakers, Scotchmen, and Other Imperfect Sympathies.” London Magazine, August 1821, and Essays of Elia. London: Edward Moxon, 1823).
Mayhew, Henry. “Of the Street-Jews.” London Labour and the London Poor. London: Frank Cass, 1967.
Ragussis, Michael. Figures of Conversion: “The Jewish Question” & English National Identity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.
Schulkins, Rachel. “Imagining the Other: The Jew in Maria Edgeworth's Harrington.” European Romantic Review, 22 (2011): 477-499.
Scott, Walter. “Tobias Smollett” in Miscellaneous Prose Works. Edinburgh: Cadell and Co., 1827. 6 vols. 3: 132-209.
Scult, Mel. “English Missions to the Jews: Conversion in the Age of Emancipation,” Jewish Social Studies, 35 (1973):. 3-17.
Smith, Michael. “The London Jews’ Society and Patterns of Jewish Conversion in England 1802-1859.” Jewish Social Studies, 43 (1981): 275-90.
Warraq, Ibn. “Sir Walter Scott’s Treatment of Jews in Ivanhoe.” New English Review, July, 2009) https://www.newenglishreview.org/custpage.cfm/frm/41391/sec_id/41391. (Accessed 3 July 2020.
Wilson, A.N. Introduction to Ivanhoe. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986.
Witherby, Thomas. A vindication of the Jews, by way of a reply to the letter addressed by Perseverans to the English Israelite, humbly submitted to the consideration of the Missionary Society, and the London Society for promoting Christianity among the Jews. London: Hatchard, 1809.
Witherby, Thomas. Observations on Mr. Bicheno's book, entitled The Restoration of the Jews the Crisis of all Nations : wherein the revolutionary tendency of that publication is shewn ... ; together with an inquiry concerning things to come. London: J. and J. Richards, 1800.
Witherby. Thomas. A Vindication of the Jews: by way of reply to the letters addressed to Perseverans to the English Israelite; humbly submitted to the consideration of the Missionary Society, and the London Society for promoting Christianity among the Jews. London: Hatchard; Cadell and Davies, 1809.
Last modified 8 July 2020