It was virtually inevitable that by the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries English-born Jews would also have begun to participate in literary activity, in many cases raising in their fictions the issue of the problematic relationship of English-born Jews to their identity as Jews on the one hand and as English men and women on the other. With few exceptions, Jewish men did not engage at this time in literary activity. Jewish women, in contrast, quickly seized the opportunities made available by gentile English society, as opposed to traditional Jewish communal life, and by their growing familiarity with the English language, and English literature.

Isaac D’Israeli

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f the male writers, Isaac D’Israeli (1766-1848) — born in Enfield, Middlesex, as the only child of a Jewish merchant and stockbroker who had immigrated from Italy two decades earlier and become an English citizen by act of denization in 1801, and “a rebellious mother who hated her religion” (Braun 9; Cesarini 22; Lee 117-20) — had become a leading English man of letters by the last decade of the eighteenth century. It has been well said of him that he “contributed significantly to the emergence of the discipline of literary history.” The first of the six volumes of his Curiosities of Literature was brought out in 1791. Subsequent volumes were put out in 1793, 1817, 1823 and 1834 by the already) eminent publishing house of John Murray – with whose entire family that of D’Israeli, including his son Benjamin, the future Prime Minister, had established a close friendship, and at whose social gatherings in Albemarle Street D’Israeli was a regular guest, along with Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Washington Irving, and other major writers of the day (Smiles 22-26; Paston 17-22).

Anticipating many of the author’s subsequent publications, this early work of D’Israeli contained countless essays on and anecdotes about past writers, literary history, historical persons and events, unusual books, and the habits of readers and book-collectors. Unlike the author’s two novels of 1793 – Vaurien and Flim-Flams! Or the Life and Errors of my Uncle, and the Amours of my Aunt! — it sold widely, was constantly expanded and added to, reached a twelfth edition in 1841, and was still in print when the Encyclopædia Britannica entry on the author was written in 1911. Benjamin Disraeli reports that, on the appearance of the second part of the work — in Benjamin’s view, “much the finest” — Francis Palgrave, the compiler of Palgrave’s celebrated Treasury and himself the son of Sir Francis Palgrave, né Francis Ephraim Cohen, told the older D’Israeli that “I look upon it as the greatest Belles Lettres book this age has produced,” while, according to D’Israeli himself, Byron had already declared in 1812 “that he had read my works over and over again.” “I thought this, of course, a compliment,” D’Israeli commented, “but some years afterwards found it to be true” (quoted Braun, 11). Benjamin himself asserted – not perhaps without some exaggeration due to filial pride — that “The Curios [. . . ] are sold at every Railway stall of the Kingdom, & are the favourite reading in this kind of the bustling & toiling millions” (Reminiscences, 7-8). A Dissertation on Anecdotes followed Curiosities in 1793, An Essay on the Literary Character in 1795, Miscellanies; or, Literary Recreations in 1796, Romances in 1799, Calamities of Authors in 1812–13, Quarrels of Authors in 1814. Amenities of Literature, published in 1841 when the author was almost blind, included many essays on early and Renaissance English history and literature, including Beowulf, Piers Ploughman, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s contemporaries. It is surely not insignificant that the Preface to this work opens with the statement that it is “a history of our vernacular literature” (italics added) which “has occupied my studies for many years.” Clearly, whatever his relation to his Jewish background, Isaac D’Israeli already thought of himself as an Englishman. Another work, The Life and Reign of Charles I (1828), had in fact resulted in D’Israeli’s being awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law from Oxford University which, at the time, still did not admit Jews as students.

D’Israeli’s relationship to his Judaism appears to have been a mixture of detachment, renunciation, criticism, and residual loyalty and respect. He kept his distance from the practice of his religion, resigned from the Sephardi Bevis Marks Synagogue (the family considered themselves “Portuguese Jews”) in 1817 over a question of governance, and had his children baptised into the Church of England that same year. Still, he had followed Jewish tradition in naming them after Biblical figures, had had his sons circumcised, and subsequently published anonymously a book on Judaism – The Genius of Judaism (1833) — that was both critical and respectful of Jewish religious tradition. “It will not be by taking a popular view of the manners of this singular people” he declared in Chapter 1, “that we shall allay the fanaticism of Jew or Christian. We must learn to feel like Jews when we tell of their calamities and to reason like Christians when we detect their fatuity” (2). He himself never showed any interest in converting to Christianity; yet he and his wife retired in 1829 to the seventeenth-century manor house of the Buckinghamshire village of Bradenham, where they lived like minor English gentry, and on his death in 1848 he was buried, as his wife had already been, in the local parish church of St. Botolph. “The first and second generation of the Portuguese Jews,” he had written in The Genius of Judaism, “resided in retired quarters in the city. [. . .] A third generation were natives. A fourth were purely English” (249-50).

Benjamin Disraeli

D’Israeli’s baptised son Benjamin Disraeli, the long-serving nineteenth-century leader of the Tory Party, prime minister, favourite of Queen Victoria, and promoter of the British Empire, who continues to fascinate historians and biographers to this day, carried his father’s literary practice several steps further despite the enormous burden of his responsibilities as a politician. From his first novel Vivian Grey(1826), by way of Contarini Fleming (1832), Coningsby, or The New Generation (1844), Sybil, or The Two Nations (1846), and Tancred, or The New Crusade (1847) to Lothair (1870), Disraeli published over a dozen novels, all of them of keen contemporary interest and, beginning with Coningsby, widely read. The theme of the relation of Jews to Christians and to the peoples among whom they live and with whom they in large measure identify almost always informs these works of fiction. Michael Flavin views Disraeli’s treatment of this idea as an aspect of his modern conservatism, his conviction that pragmatic responses to changing contemporary situations are necessary and advantageous but cannot without danger be undertaken by sacrificing fidelity to longstanding traditions and fundamental principles (33-35). If these are disregarded, disorder ensues. More and more conscious of his own Jewish background and ancestry (which significant sectors of public opinion did not, in any case, permit him to ignore), he wrote in glowing terms of the Jews as a gifted people or “race,” as he tended to put it — as if to underline by the use of that term the immutability of fundamentals. The character of the Jew Sidonia, who appears in Coningsby as the hero’s close adviser and again in Sybil and Tancred and who is widely held to be a cross between one of the Rothschilds and Disraeli himself, has been viewed by many scholars as an embodiment of essential features of Disraeli’s ideal. Sidonia is a defender of tradition and fixed – monarchical — authority, as opposed to popular or utilitarian influence, whether in Jewish history or in English history, and at the same time “lord and master of the money-market of the world, and of course virtually lord and master of everything else” (Flavin, 79-83, quoting Coningsby, 223). Coningsby himself outlines his friend’s synthesis of fundamental principle and pragmatism in the advice he gives another character in the novel:

Hold yourself aloof from political parties which, from the necessity of things, have ceased to have distinctive principles, and are therefore practically only factions; and wait and see, whether with patience, energy, honour, and Christian faith, and a desire to look to the national welfare, and not to sectional or limited interests; whether, I say, we may not discover some great principles to guide us, to which we may adhere, and which, if true, will ultimately guide and control others. [279]

There is, in short, no conflict between basic Judaism and basic Christianity – or between being Jewish and being English. “The second Testament is avowedly only a supplement. Jehovah-Jesus came to complete the ‘law and the prophets,’” the character St. Lys declares in Sybil. “Christianity is completed Judaism, or it is nothing. Christianity is incomprehensible without Judaism, as Judaism is incomplete without Christianity” (130-31).

Disraeli’s position led him to favour the Sephardim, to which group he saw himself as belonging, and to which his character Sidonia also belongs. Because he argued that the Ashkenazim were distinct from Jews of Spanish descent, it has been argued, he embraced the “myth of Sephardi superiority,” the idea that the Sephardim, descended from the tribe of Judah, were different from “la foule des autres enfants de Jacob,” as one of their number, the political economist Isaac de Pinto, had put it in a reply to Voltaire’s negative comments on Jews in his Dictionnaire philosophique. A Portuguese Jew from Bordeaux and a German Jew from Metz were “deux êtres absolument différents,” de Pinto insisted. In a development of this argument, Abraham Furtado and Solomon Lopes-Dubec emphasized in a 1788 report to the French government of Louis XVI that the Sephardim adapt to the peoples among whom and the cultures in which they live, whereas the Ashkenazim remain always apart, enclosed in their own world of rituals, traditions, and values: “A Portuguese Jew is English in England and French in France, but a German Jew is German everywhere” (quoted Hyman 5; Szajkowski 137-64).

Although influenced by these arguments, Disraeli’s father Isaac tended to avoid radically distinguishing between Sephardim and Ashkenazim and to associate both in a common capacity to adapt to and become part of the societies in which they had settled. In The Genius of Judaism he had argued that the Jews were not one but several nations, each, like the chameleon, reflecting the colour of the spot they rested on. Hence, “After a few generations, the Hebrews assimilate with the character, and are actuated by the feelings, of the nation where they become natives” (Endelman and Kushner 31-35).

Not surprisingly, as a Member of Parliament, Disraeli supported legislation to remove the disabilities affecting all the Jews of England (i.e. all those professing the Jewish religion, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi; converts able to take the oaths required for various public offices and professions were obviously not affected). Nevertheless, there is still disagreement among scholars as to both the true character and the impact of Disraeli’s attitude to the variegated body of English Jews and Judaism.

Women Authors

Whereas with the notable exception of the Disraelis, Jewish men appear for some time to have avoided engaging in literary activity — perhaps because it was viewed as unseemly for a serious male Jew — a moderately large cohort of women writers – poets, novelists and commentators on customs, laws, and manners -- emerged from the Anglo-Jewish community in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This group, moreover, enjoyed some success with the general reading public. The handicap of being not only female (a handicap acknowledged, resented, and for a time concealed by both the Brontës and George Eliot) but Jewish into the bargain probably accounts in part at least for their never having become part of the literary canon and being almost completely forgotten until very recently. Their situation as Jewish women led them in fact to adopt distinctive stances toward Judaism’s relation to Christianity, British culture, and Judaism itself.

Charlotte and Sophia Dacre [King]

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oreover, not all the Jewish women writers concerned themselves with reconciling their Judaism and the Christianity of the overwhelming majority of those among whom they lived and who were potential readers of their work. Some simply sought to carve out a career for themselves as writers.

The sisters who sometimes used the pseudonyms Charlotte and Sophia Dacre, for instance, published poetry and novels in the early years of the nineteenth century that did not discuss their Jewish origins. Religion is not a theme of their work despite – or because of – their being the daughters of one John King, born Jacob Rey (c.1753–1824), a notorious London moneylender generally referred to as “Jew King,” who several times had to flee England to escape charges of fraud, and found himself imprisoned on one occasion after being declared bankrupt. The satirical magazine Scourge described him and his son Charles as among the most unscrupulous moneylenders in London. The influence of King and his son, it was said, was “more extensive and their plans more dangerous than those of all the other money-lenders collectively." King, who was also a libertine, had numerous affairs, including a long-standing one (perhaps evolving into a marriage) with a Countess of Lanesborough, with whom he fled London for Italy in 1784. When his Jewish wife, the mother of his daughters, pursued him, he divorced her in rabbinical court at Livorno in 1785. He was even once charged in London in 1798 with assaulting a couple of prostitutes. At the same time, King, who strove to be accepted in upper-class London society, lent money to Byron and Shelley and entertained writers and politicians at his dinner parties. In his younger years he had sympathised with radical politics and was a good friend and supporter of Thomas Paine and the utopian anarchist William Godwin, who was to write in chapter XVII of his History of the Commonwealth of England (1828) in praise of Cromwell’s “noble design” to “put an end” to proscriptions against the Jews (4:243-51). As the years passed and his social ambitions grew stronger, however, King distanced himself from those earlier associations.

Since little is known about the early life of King’s daughters and their upbringing after their parents’ divorce, we do not know whether they had any contact with their father’s literary acquaintances. However, it does appear that they lived with their father off and on at least until their respective marriages, both to Christian men (Sophia in 1801 to Charles Fortnum, a relative of the founder of Fortnum and Mason; Charlotte in 1815 to the editor of the Morning Post). In the dedication of an early volume of poetry, Trifles of Helicon, that the two sisters published together in 1798, they publicly thank their father for providing them with a solid education and, in particular, a literary education:

To John King, Esq. Instead of the mature fruits of the Muses, accept the blossoms; they are to show you that the education you have afforded us has not been totally lost – when we grow older, we hope to offer you others with less imperfections.

Your Affectionate Daughters.
      Charlotte Ki.
      Sophia Ki.

Five novels by Sophia appeared between 1798 and 1805 under the pseudonym Sophia Dacre (Waldorf [1795], Cordelia [1799], The Victim of Friendship [1801], The Fatal Secret [1801], The Adventures of Victor Allen [1805]) and a volume of poetry in 1804. Charlotte, better known and highly successful, began publishing poems in The Morning Post around 1802, under the pseudonym Rosa Matilda, and followed these up with a series of novels under the pseudonym Charlotte Dacre, by which she is still best known: Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer (1805), Zofloya, or The Moor (1806; French translation, 1812), The Libertine (1807), The Passions (1811). She also published a couple of volumes of poetry (1805 and 1822) under the name Rosa Matilda. Byron appears to have been one of the readers of these poems.

Around 1805 she entered into a liaison with Nicholas Byrne, the already married editor of the Post, and between 1806 and 1809 bore him three children. Although it is not clear whether Dacre herself renounced her Judaism and joined the Anglican Church, all three children were baptised in 1811, and in 1815 she married Byrne, now a widower. She died a decade later. Dacre is still admired today for her daring evocation of female will, independence, and sexual desire that does not shrink from violence. Victoria, the heroine of Zofloya, is described at one point in the novel as having passions that are

as the foaming cataract, rushing headlong from the rocky steep, and raging in the abyss below. She was not susceptible of a single sentiment, vibrating from a tender movement of the heart; she could not feel gratitude; she could not, therefore, feel affection. She could inflict pain without remorse, and she could bitterly revenge the slightest attempt to inflict it on herself. The wildest passions predominated in her bosom; to gratify them she possessed an unshrinking, relentless soul, that would not startle at the darkest crime [1:97]

Albeit in perfectly correct language, Dacre likewise evokes the experience of sexual pleasure of another of her heroines, the “syren” Megalina Strozzi, who has seduced the not yet nineteen-year old Leonardo Loredani: “With a novel delight, superior to any she had ever felt at any former conquest did the artful Florentine behold her triumph: she had sown (as she believed) the first germs of love and passion in a pure and youthful breast; she had seen those germs shoot forth and expand beneath the fervid rays of her influence, and she enjoyed the fruits with a voluptuous pleasure” (Zofloya, 2: 123). Though these aspects of her fiction provoked some negative comment from readers and critics, they are also what ensured the very considerable success of Dacre’s novel and of A. C. Swinburne’s praise of it later in the century.

Dacre’s Zofloya was much admired by Shelley and, along with Lewis’s celebrated The Monk, influenced the poet’s early ventures into the erotic gothic novel – Zastrozzi, of which Zofloya was “the immediate model,” and St. Irvyne, in which the name of one of the main characters, Ginotti, was borrowed from Dacre’s novel (Medwin, 24-26). Byron’s negative comments about Rosa Matilda in “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers” (text) are at the same time an indication both of her considerable popularity and a repudiation of her influence on his own verse composition at an earlier stage of his career.

Let Stott, Carlisle, Matilda and the rest
Of Grub-Street and of Grosvenor Place the best,
Scrawl on, ‘till death release us from the strain,
Or Common sense assert her rights again. [Byron, 1:258, lines 927-23]

Celia and Marion Moss

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s noted, the relations of Christians and Jews, Christianity and Judaism do not figure in the work of Charlotte Dacre, the Jewish connection of one of the most original of the new Jewish writers having obviously become tenuous. The two Moss sisters, Celia and Marion, in contrast, sought to respond through their writing to a massive campaign launched in the 1820s by the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, and directed particularly toward Jewish women. Focussing on the qualities of loving-kindness, respect, and understanding that, in its appeal to contemporary Jews and to Jewish women in particular, the Society claimed Judaism lacked, the sisters’ tales demonstrated that Judaism was not completely identifiable with harsh obedience to law, ritual observance, and strict prohibitions. After publishing a little volume of poetry in their teen-age years, they enjoyed some success with two standard three-volume romances based on Jewish history. The then highly successful writer and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton and the great statesman Lord Palmerston were among subscribers to The Romance of Jewish History by the Misses C. and M. Moss (1840), which had a six-line quotation from Byron on the title page, and an opening “Dedicatory Epistle to Sir E. L. Bulwer, Baronet” (i.e. Bulwer-Lytton). In their dedication, the authors explain their reasons for writing.

That we have Authors of some eminence and celebrity among our people [i.e. the Jewish people], we believe is generally acknowledged; but our men of genius have neglected the lighter branches of literature, directing their attention almost exclusively to theology, metaphysics, and philosophy.

Even those who have desired to tread the more flowing paths of romance have been prevented from appearing before the public, from a fear that, however much they may excel, the prejudice existing against us as a nation might reflect an odium on their work and consign it to immediate oblivion.

We have allowed no such feeling to deter us; for we think otherwise. The time is now arrived, or is rapidly approaching, when such narrow-mindedness, the growth of a barbarous and priest-ridden age will disappear. [1:iv-v]

The sisters, each of whom contributed tales of her own to the shared volume, refer again in their Preface to their goal in writing what they term the “Romance of History”: “We have endeavoured by blending fiction with historical fact, to direct the attention of the reader to a branch of history too long neglected” (1:vi). They go on to explain “the circumstances which have induced us to publish the present work; namely, the fact that the English people generally, although mixing with the Jews in their daily duties, are as unacquainted with their history, religion, and customs, as if they still dwelt in their own land, and were known to them but by name”). The two writers make it clear however that “we do not intend this production to be considered in the light of a history; our wish is to call the attention of the reader to the records of our people; to awaken curiosity, not to satisfy it” (1:viii-ix). Their aim, in short, is to win the recognition and respect of their English readers for the Jews by writing about Jews of the past and thus “explaining” the Jews presently living among them and participating with them in the national culture “in much the same way” — in the words of a recent writer — as “Scott ‘explained’ the Scottish to the English in The Heart of Midlothian” (Zatlin, 30).

This first narrative work of the Moss sisters was apparently fairly successful, since it was followed three years later by Tales of Jewish History, by the Misses C. & M. Moss (1843.

Grace Aguilar

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race Aguilar (1816-1847) stands out as the most courageous and original of the Jewish women writers of the time. Born into a moderately well-to-do and well educated Portuguese-Jewish family, Aguilar addressed more directly and more persistently than almost any other writer the relation of modern Jews both to their own history and to their contemporary Christian fellow-citizens. In doing so, she confronted the tension within both Judaism and Christianity between an oppressively traditionalist and rigid practice of religion (presented as mostly male) and a compassionate, humane, outreaching, and “spiritual” practice (mostly female). She makes this distinction in her theological essays and tracts, such as Israel Defended, or The Jewish Exposition of the Hebrew Prophecies Applied by the Christians to their Messiah (1838), a translation, undertaken at the request of her father, from the French version (1770) of the Portuguese apologist for Judaism Baltasar (a.k.a. Isaac) Orobio de Castro and “printed expressly for young persons of the Jewish faith”; The Spirit of Judaism (published in Philadelphia in 1842); and The Jewish Faith (London, 1846), a series of letters by a fictional writer designed to buttress the faith of a young Jewish girl exposed to Christianity in a small country town. They are likewise prominent in her histories (The Women of Israel, 1845, History of the Jews in England, 1847); and in her shorter fiction (the collections Records of Israel, 1844, and Home Scenes and Heart Studies, posthumously published in 1852). Aguilar’s considerable body of poetry also focuses on the religion of the heart. It is characteristic of her conciliatory outlook and approach that in the Preface to her translation of Orobio de Castro’s highly polemical work, she explains that out of respect for “the enlightened and liberal spirit with which [Jews] are regarded in this free and blessed island,” she has adopted “a much milder tone of language towards the followers of Christ than that which pervades the original.”

In view of her persistent and insightful presentations of Jewish-Christian relations, both in the past and in the contemporary world of Anglo-Jewry, two of her novels will receive here more extensive treatment than has been accorded the work of her contemporaries.

The most popular of Aguilar’s fictional writings on specifically Jewish themes still remains The Vale of Cedars, or the Martyr: A Story of Spain in the Fifteenth Century. An extended discussion of this historical romance, clearly influenced by Sir Walter Scott, can be accessed by clicking here [extended discussion]. In addition to The Vale of Cedars, Aguilar produced in her thirty-one years of life several other novels. Two of those, the well-received Home Influence: A Tale for Mothers and Daughters (1836-37) and its sequel, The Mother’s Recompense (posthumously published in 1851), concern women’s domestic life and family relations and do not deal with the Jewish-Christian connection. (The characters are in fact not recognizable as other than Christian.) A third, Women’s Friendship: A Story of Domestic Life (posthumously published in 1850), a somewhat melodramatic romance, focuses on the relationships of people of different social strata; the relations of Jews and Christians play no role in it. Two more novels were directly inspired by Scott: The Days of Bruce (posthumously published c. 1852) about the medieval Scottish hero Robert the Bruce, and Tales from British History (written in 1833, but published only posthumously in 1908), consisting of two fictions, Macintosh, the Highland Chief, a Tale of the Civil War and Edmund, the Exiled Prince, and Wallace, the Dauntless Chief

The title-page of an American 1847 edition of The Perez Family. Courtesy of the Hathi Trust Digital Library and the Ohio State University Library.

Aguilar also collaborated with the extremely wealthy Jewish writer and philanthropist Charlotte Montefiore, an active promoter of the education of Jewish youth, and David Aaron de Sola, the rabbi of the Sephardi Bevis Marks Congregation and the author of several translations into English of prayers and other religious texts in Hebrew, on setting up, in 1841, “The Cheap Jewish Library.” As its subtitle — “Dedicated to the Working Classes” — indicates, this was a collection intended for readers of modest means, mainly but not exclusively Jewish. While primarily active, along with her two collaborators, as an editor of manuscripts submitted to the collection, Aguilar herself contributed The Perez Family, (click on title for extended discussion) in which she eschews the strong, interlocking structure and romantic historical setting of The Vale of Cedars in favour of an episodic style that allows her to address directly the various religious, cultural, social and economic problems faced by contemporary British Jews, in this case a family in Liverpool – not perhaps co-incidentally one of two stations outside London of the super-active London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews.


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Last modified 24 July 2020.