The image of the Jew in Victorian literature is a familiar stereotype. The malevolent, reptilian Fagin in Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838), the calculating fraudster Augustus Melmotte in Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875) and the sinister, controlling Svengali in Du Maurier’s Trilby (1894) spring easily to mind – imaginative personifications of the belief that Jews were morally retrograde, physically repellent or socially overambitious. Less well documented, however, is the Jewess, a figure who appeared just as prolifically, if not more, in the pages of the nineteenth-century novel. In my new book The Jewess in Nineteenth-Century British Literary Culture, I seek to tell the little-known story of a uniquely English literary tradition.
Tracing the figure of the Jewish woman reveals a surprising phenomenon: the Victorian Jewess, in contrast to the Jew, was idealized. Beautiful, passionate and loyal, she was seen as the embodiment of exceptional virtue and poignant suffering. The neglected history of the Jewess in English literature, moreover, is not just a curious footnote to the long chronicle of antisemitic discourse in England. Turning our attention to the gendered dimension of literary representations demands that we reassess our understanding of that discourse. In particular, the literary fantasy of the Jewess points to a potent and popular philosemitic strain in Protestant culture that still resonates today.
The literary Jewess captivated all of Europe in the nineteenth century. Alongside Sir Walter Scott’s Rebecca of York in Ivanhoe (1819), perhaps the most internationally celebrated Jewish character was Rachel, heroine of Jacques Halévy’s grand opera La Juive (1835), which has a libretto by Eugène Scribe. An immense success in France, La Juive was also translated into English and repeatedly performed as both opera and play over the course of the nineteenth century on the London stage. The drama is set in mediaeval Switzerland, where the married Prince Leopold falls in love with Rachel and courts her, claiming to be a Jew. When Rachel discovers the deception she denounces Leopold, and both incur the death penalty since their interfaith liaison contravenes the law. But the Prince’s wife pleads with Rachel, who retracts her charge – thus securing his safety, though not her own. In an inquisitorial scene, the Cardinal offers to spare the Jewess if her father converts to Christianity, but the father refuses, threatening revenge if he loses his daughter. As Rachel is put to death in a furnace, he reveals that she is not a Jewess, but the daughter of the Cardinal himself . . .
La Juive encapsulates the key features that made the Jewess such an object of fascination to nineteenth-century readers and audiences. The story depicts her as a figure of extraordinary erotic appeal, but also transcendent, self-sacrificing love. Her martyrdom, meanwhile, is used to point out the fatal religious rigidity of both her father and the Cardinal, Jew and Christian. Crucially, however, the plot is precipitated by the profound uncertainty surrounding the identity of the Jewess herself. The tragic force - and liberal message - of La Juive turns on the fact that the truth of Rachel’s selfhood is invisible to her lover, her adoptive father, her biological father, even to herself - and certainly to the audience: the Jewess is an empty signifier onto which fantasies of desire or vengeance are arbitrarily projected. Unlike the figure of the Jew, whose physique is indelibly marked by the sign of his religious or racial difference, the body of the Jewess is unreadable.
If the identity of the Jewish woman often appeared ambiguous, most Romantic writers in Continental Europe thought they knew what she looked like. Often conflated with the stereotype of the Oriental woman, she could be recognized by her stylized sensual beauty: her large dark eyes, abundant hair and languid expression. Scholarly studies of the figure of the bellejuive in French and German Romantic literature have interpreted images of her exotic allure and stories of her tragic self-sacrifice as an allegory justifying the political subjugation or social exclusion of Jews.In other words, the image of the Jewish woman in European Romantic writing can be seen as an aspect of what Edward Said described as the culture of Orientalism – a symbolic system that served to sustain a conceptual dichotomy and power differential between West and East.
In England, however, the Jewish woman was not only an exotic outsider. She was never simply Other, but more often lingered on the borderline between Jewish and non-Jewish identity. The highly appealing character of the literary Jewess and the proliferation of texts in which she featured in nineteenth-century Protestant England suggest the strong identification with Jews and Judaism felt by readers alongside hostility and repulsion.
The crucial source for this interest was the popular Evangelical culture of early-nineteenth-century England. What marked the Evangelical approach to Judaism with a peculiar intensity and ambivalence was the uniquely privileged status accorded to the Jews. Reviving the ideology of seventeenth-century millennialism, Evangelicals stressed not the rupture between Christianity and Judaism, but their own identification with God’s Chosen People and especially its Bible. The Evangelical novelist and editor Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, for example, was described by the Voice of Jacob, an Anglo-Jewish periodical, as a ‘devoted friend of Israel’, and Jacob Franklin, its editor, accordingly addressed himself to Evangelical readers as ‘your elder Brother’. This affection, however, coincided with a severe critique of Judaism as archaic, law-bound and corrupt. Rapprochement with Jews was sought, then, with a view to their conversion, which Evangelicals pursued with indefatigable vigour (though with spectacularly little success). Intent, in the words of William Wilberforce, on a thoroughgoing reform of ‘the manners and morals of the nation’, Evangelicals also saw the conversion of the Jews as an essential step towards the Second Coming of Christ - and Protestant England, with its history of tolerance rather than persecution, had a special role to play in this project . . .
Nadia Valman is Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature at Queen Mary, University of London. She has edited several books on the image of the Jew in British and European literature and culture and is the author of The Jewess in Nineteenth-Century British Literary Culture, published by Cambridge University Press at £48.00.