Introduction: What We Ask About When We Talk About Nineteenth-Century Jewish Literature

Karen Weisman (University of Toronto)

This Praxis volume brings together essays about Anglo-Jewish culture of the nineteenth century. This simple description, however, belies some significant problems in classification, and indeed, it is this very complexity about classification that unites these essays. For the very meaning of “Anglo-Jewish” is no less conflicted than the definition of “culture.” Indeed, we may well ask: who qualifies for the designation of “Anglo-Jewish”? Does the hyphen always apply to English writers who happen to be born as Jews? What if they do not directly or explicitly explore Jewish themes in their works, or if they do not explicitly self-identify as Jews or maintain any semblance of direct Jewish communal life? When mainstream authors engage themes with pronounced Jewish inflections, are they participating in a burgeoning Jewish culture? And what counts as a “Jewish inflection” in the first place? All of the essays in this volume engage the complexity of this delicate process of self-identification, and indeed of communal identification. The field of Anglo-Jewish nineteenth-century literature has been gaining traction of late, and the time has come to explore authors and subjects that sometimes skirt the margins of the field.

The questions about Jews and nineteenth-century literature are essentially questions about Romanticism and modernity. As such, these essays span such topics as aesthetic form and Jewish cultural inheritance; experimentation with narrative structure in novels and fictional prose; ethics and morality; and theories of cultural, religious, and aesthetic inheritance. What we call “Jewish cultural inheritance,” however, is not reducible to a totalizing definition, and it is perhaps for this very reason that the study of Anglo-Jewish culture throws into sharp relief some of the most pressing questions relevant to the very intricate nineteenth century more generally: how do we define our cultural inheritance, and what is at stake in so doing? How far can we go in designating literary or cultural “influence” without falling prey to oversimplifications about cultural transmission? How do we demarcate and circumscribe our selective attention in defining the shifting boundaries of center and margin? To what degree do racial, ethnic, and religious categories inflect inherited aesthetic norms? When Meri-Jane Rochelson, for example, examines a later nineteenth-century novel set in Romantic-era England, its analytic yield includes clarity about social criticism whose provenance—and influence—spans centuries and cultures. All the same, The King of Schnorrers (1894), the novel by Israel Zangwill that she subjects to such multi-faceted scrutiny, begins with a satiric overview of a setting that heralds a very knowing Jewish narrator: “In the days when Lord George Gordon became a Jew, and was suspected of insanity; when, out of respect for the prophecies, England denied her Jews every civic right except that of paying taxes . . .” (1).

What were those “civic right[s] except that of paying taxes” which the Jews of the era were denied?

The next five paragraphs, which provide historical review, are adapted from my book, Singing in a Foreign Land: Anglo-Jewish Poetry, 1812–1847.

In Romantic-era England, the entire Jewish population numbered between 12,000 and 15,000.

See Endelman, The Jews of Georgian England, 1714–1830, especially chapter 4.

As Jewish numbers increased through the nineteenth century, agitation for relief from the Jewish civil and political disabilities became an increasingly public concern. These included, among other disabilities, an inability to vote or to trade in the City and on the Exchange, and exclusion from membership in Parliament. Jews could not officially own freehold land, but since law tended to follow precedent in the matter of Jewish disabilities, and since some wealthy Jews in England did indeed hold land, this restriction was abandoned in the 1840s. In the early part of the nineteenth century, Jews were excluded from most professions and corporations, since they required swearing allegiance to the articles of the Church of England.

These disabilities notwithstanding, British Jews in the nineteenth century tended to recognize England as a land that had granted them freedom, and political and social refuge. After all, the Portuguese Inquisition, from which many Jews fled to England, was not disbanded until 1821. The characteristic stance of British Jews throughout the nineteenth century was one of gratitude for safe haven, even when they acknowledged the significance of their restrictions, one of which was represented by their exclusion from study and later from fellowship at England's ancient universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, a condition that was not remedied until 1871 with the passage of the Universities Tests Act.

The Jewish civil disabilities are by no means the sole defining or even the most important context for Jews in the nineteenth century. Especially in comparison with most of their coreligionists on the continent, English Jews occupied an enviable position of wellbeing. For England, national Christianity was defined by the Church of England. Penal law had enacted civil disabilities against Protestant Nonconformists and Catholics in the seventeenth century with the goal of ensuring that municipal, civil, or military office be held only by members of the Church of England. In 1828 Parliament easily passed the Sacramental Test Act, which repealed the Test and Corporation Acts for Nonconformists.

For a helpful summary, see Michie, “On the Sacramental Test Act, the Catholic Relief Act, the Slavery Abolition Act, and the Factory Act.”

Catholics received emancipation in 1829 with the passage of the Catholic Relief Act. This left only the Jews still subject to the civil disabilities. Oaths “on the true faith of a Christian” were still mandatory. When the Jewish Relief Bill of 1830 failed to pass Parliament, the Jews, as Michael Clark observes, “were now no longer part of a broad excluded group but a deliberately stigmatized community; the only politically disadvantaged minority in Britain” (31). One of the Jewish community's leaders, Francis Goldsmid, referred to the bill's failure as a “badge of dishonour” (34).

The invective raised against Jews whenever their statutory rights were addressed tended to be registered as invective against Jews as Jews, not simply as persons who subscribe to a faith other than the Church of England. The condition of the Jews in England, that is, was not analogous to that of Nonconformists or Catholics. Indeed, the subject of nationalism for British Jewish subjects was never an elementary affair. An earlier controversy also bears relevance to this history. I refer to the Jewish Naturalization Bill of 1753, the so-called “Jew Bill” that was in fact repealed almost immediately after it was passed. It produced one of the most fiery political clamors of the eighteenth century, and some of its resonances were felt into the nineteenth century. The Jew Bill sought to change the constitutional requirements that would grant Parliament the right to confer naturalization for professing Jews; this process could only have been granted, however, through a private act of Parliament, an expensive and inevitably rare prospective occurrence.

See Perry, Public Opinion, Propaganda, and Politics in Eighteenth-Century England: A Study of the Jew Bill of 1753, page 1.

The bill passed, and it erupted into the loudest political and religious clamor of the eighteenth century. It was quickly repealed before ever once being resorted to, and still its tremors raged. Eventually the storm died down, with very little real political fallout.

The storm may well have died down, but it remained a point of reference for Jews even a century later. As Todd Endelman describes it, ‘. . . opponents of the act resurrected crude medieval libels and made extravagant claims about the consequences of the legislation. Britain would be swamped with unscrupulous brokers, jobbers, and moneylenders, who would use their ill-gotten gains to acquire the estates of ruined landowners. Moreover, because dominion followed property, Jews would control Parliament (which would be re-named the Sanhedrin), convert St. Paul's to a synagogue, circumcise their tenants, and perpetrate countless other anti-Christian crimes. (Jews of Britain 75)’ England may well have been enjoying a time of relative tranquility in the eighteenth century, but a noisy, reactive din presented itself in the 1750s when it was presumed that the Jew could present himself for citizenship. While the nineteenth century did realize some significant gains in the acceptance of Jews as part of the British polity, Jews were frequently reminded of the tenuous nature of their absorption within England’s self-definition.

Such is the historical context in which nineteenth-century Anglo-Jewish literature takes its place. It is a literature that does not respond with a single voice to its antecedents. This volume therefore seeks to provide representative examples of poetry and prose that span the entire century. Jews found their way into sundry forms and genres even when such aesthetic inheritances could be complicated within a Jewish refraction. It is these nuanced appropriations of aesthetic categories, and the questions they raise, that inspire the essays that follow. Indeed, the very title of Michael Scrivener’s article highlights the urgency of such questions to our very understanding of mainstream culture: “Situating the King Sisters within Literary Tradition.” Scrivener’s argument sustains a bold claim, and his argument surveys a vast array of cultural kinds, with special attention given to the Gothic, Della Cruscan, the erotic and the popular. The latter reflect the contributions of Charlotte King (better known as Charlotte Dacre) and Sophia King, daughters of John “Jew” King (1753–1823), infamous moneylender and stern critic of political convention. For Scrivener, we ignore such authors at our peril, for the work of Charlotte and Sophia King was central to such high canonical authors as Shelley and Byron. More urgently, Scrivener is the first critic to read the King sisters in terms of mainstream and Jewish traditions, a brilliantly audacious argument to make about authors who do not directly address exclusively Jewish themes in their work. Although both Charlotte and Sophia married outside of the Jewish faith and did not describe themselves as Jewish authors, Scrivener subtly reads their work and their self-representations in terms of a self-conscious theatricality. Some aspects of that theatricality reflect a kind of sublimated Jewish self-consciousness. Performing daring roles, including sexual ones, they seek to overcome the pejorative associations with their father, whose notoriety as “Jew King” was never detached from his putative embodiment of stereotypical Jewish characteristics. To read Charlotte and Sophia King, then, is to become oriented to a formative expression of British Romanticism that, for Scrivener, finds its ground in a vexed Jewish self-identification.

Heidi Kaufman takes up the author Maria Polack, often identified as the first Jewish woman novelist, and her novel Fiction Without Romance (1830). Romance has been a key term in the newly established scholarly field of nineteenth-century Jewish fiction; as Michael Galchinsky has pointed out, romance is a genre well suited to nineteenth-century Jewish women novelists who sought to counter Christian conversionist texts. Such authors could also mobilize the features of romance fiction to address their own frustrations over their coreligionists’ treatment of women in communal life. As Kaufman points out, however, Polack’s novel is situated in a rural community, and its heroine is a Christian Protestant who undergoes a specifically Christian education in a pastoral setting. Polack’s concerns in this novel focus primarily on morality and education as they are found in English society. The question begs itself: why would an urban Jewish writer engage such thematic preoccupations? Does this text properly belong to a tradition of Jewish literature? To be sure, the novel does include minor plots involving Jewish and Catholic elements, but Eliza Desbro, the Christian protagonist, exemplifies a successful process of Christian moral education. Does Polack even have cultural standing to wield such literary types? Kaufman’s nuanced reading of the situation sees Polack as finally appropriating the demands of the romance genre to produce a new form of literary realism. This is a concern that dates back to the 1790s, and to those authors who sought to transcend the restrictions of romance by sustaining a steady gaze on historical reality. The historical reality inhabited by Maria Polack is one in which assimilation to dominant norms is an imperative with which Jews and Christians alike must contend. Kaufman’s project, then, seeks to extend the reach of Anglo-Jewish literature in the nineteenth century by reading its crossing of boundaries, both religious and culture. Ultimately, for an Anglo-Jewish writer to cross boundaries in this manner is for her to instantiate an Anglo-Jewish identity.

Sarah Gracombe reads the appropriations of the biblical Ruth by various authors, and while she does give due attention to Grace Aguilar, the Anglo-Jewish author, she also casts a wide net, one that includes Keats, Thomas Hood, and others. This stands as an important contribution to the study of Jewish representations in English literary history, for Gracombe engages the subjects of geographical territory and historical alienation as lyrical tropes that are refracted through the prism of the historical Jew in nineteenth-century England. The Bethlehem of the biblical Ruth, after all, tended in this century to be conflated with England, and the land of England was increasingly defined in terms of its own self-differentiation from its alien others. Gracombe gauges highly nuanced interpretations of the Jewish resonance across a variety of nineteenth-century poems. The biblical Ruth, perhaps Judaism’s most famous convert, stands, in Keats’s celebrated formulation in “Ode to a Nightingale,” “amid the alien corn.” Even with the love and reassurance of her mother-in-law, indeed she stands “sick for home.” The biblical Ruth makes appearances in Blake, in Thomas Hood, in Felicia Hemans, and in texts from many other nineteenth-century authors, and these appearances are often refracted through a cultural interpretation of the Jew within the English nation. Gracombe reminds us that Ruth as psychological other, as outcast, is not merely theoretical or historical; indeed, she joins the variously lyricized Ruths to the sociological, political, and historical discussions about English nationhood. Could Jews presume to embody Englishness? What do mainstream English authors imagine when they imagine a Jewish woman calibrating the extent of her alienation?

With Meri-Jane Rochelson’s essay on Israel Zangwill, we move finally to the end of the century, one in which the Jewish population in England has exploded to more than a quarter of a million, and Jewish civil and political disabilities have been fully abolished. Zangwill, as Rochelson points out, was “the best-known Jew in the Anglophone world” at the end of the nineteenth century, and he enjoyed status as a genuine literary celebrity. Rochelson takes as her example Zangwill’s novel The King of Schnorrers (1894), a work of comedy set in late-eighteenth-century England that manages to train a steady and critical eye on the social experience of the Jew in England. Serialized in The Idler, the work boldly stakes a claim to the cultural authority of English letters; as such, Zangwill seeks to naturalize Jewish life for high culture. To schnor is to inveigle funds from another person, and in a wry Foreword to one of the reprints in 1894, Zangwill avers of the schnorrer that he “is as unique among beggars as Israel among nations” (v). What does such “uniqueness” mean when studied against the ever-increasing numbers of Jews in England? Indeed, what does publicly displayed Jewish wit over Jewish idiosyncrasies portend in a world still anxious about immigration, aliens, and otherness? For as Rochelson argues, schnorring exists outside of the boundaries of respectable society, and yet Zangwill represents it, and its concomitant wit, learning, creativity, and instability, as essential to the reality of social functioning. It is no surprise, then, that Zangwill attained near heroic stature among immigrant east-end London Jews.

If schnorring echoes the historical, political effort to take what one rightfully deserves, then Zangwill’s effort to put Jewish schnorring on public display in a mainstream publication begs larger questions. What is the relationship of Jewish self-representations to the ways in which Jews tended to be defined within mainstream culture? Perhaps more pressing is the dynamic that this volume as a whole seeks to throw into relief: our aesthetic and cultural norms exist in a delicate balance with their diffusion through the broadest cultural history. A robust engagement with nineteenth-century literature marries depth to breadth.

Works Cited

Clark, Michael. Albion and Jerusalem: the Anglo-Jewish Community in the Post-Emancipation Era. Oxford UP, 2009.
Endelman, Todd. The Jews of Britain, 1656 to 2000. U of California P, 2002.
———. The Jews of Georgian England, 1714-1830. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979.
Galchinsky, Michael. The Origins of the Modern Jewish Woman Writer: Romance and Reform in Victorian England. Wayne State UP, 1996.
Goldsmid, Francis Henry. “Remarks on the Civil Disabilities of British Jews.” Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1830.
Keats, John. Keats’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Jeffrey N. Cox, Norton, 2009.
Michie, Elsie B. “On the Sacramental Test Act, the Catholic Relief Act, the Slavery Abolition Act, and the Factory Act.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History, edited by Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net.
Perry, Thomas. Public Opinion, Propaganda, and Politics in Eighteenth-Century England: A Study of the Jew Bill of 1753. Harvard UP, 1962.
Weisman, Karen. Singing in a Foreign Land: Anglo-Jewish Poetry, 1812–1847. U of Pennsylvania P, 2018.
Zangwill, Israel. The King of Schnorrers: Grotesques and Fantasies. Macmillan, 1898.
1. The next five paragraphs, which provide historical review, are adapted from my book, Singing in a Foreign Land: Anglo-Jewish Poetry, 1812–1847. [back]
2. See Endelman, The Jews of Georgian England, 1714–1830, especially chapter 4. [back]
4. See Perry, Public Opinion, Propaganda, and Politics in Eighteenth-Century England: A Study of the Jew Bill of 1753, page 1. [back]