Thursday, April 24, 2014

Eliot, Dickens, Trollope, and Jewish characters

If readers know only one thing about Daniel Deronda, it's that it takes up the question of the Jewish experience, and the place of Jewish citizens, within British society. Yet that theme is barely present in the first half of the book: aside from a throwaway reference by Gwendolen to those "unscrupulous" "Jew dealers" in the opening pages, there's no reference to Judaism until the appearance of Mirah Lapidoth, nearly 200 pages in:
"I am English-born. But I am a Jewess."

Deonrda was silent, inwardly wondering that he had not said this to himself before, though any one who had seen delicate-faced Spanish girls might simply have guessed her to be Spanish.

"Do you despise me for it?" she said presently in low tones, which had a sadness that pierced like a cry from a small dumb creature in fear.

"Why should I?" said Deronda. "I am not so foolish."

"I know many Jews are bad."

"So are many Christians. But I should not think it fair for you to despise me because of that."
It's particularly interesting to read this--even knowing that it comes from the mouth of a character who has already been established as upright and sensitive--having earlier this winter read Oliver Twist (1838) and Trollope's The Way We Live Now (1876).

While acknowledging the fact that drawing inferences about social change from the skewed data points represented by a small group of novels is risky, it's hard not to in this case. Oliver Twist is infamous for Dickens's antisemitic portrayal of Fagin. Even when you know going in that it's going to be bad--so bad that Dickens himself later regretted his portrayal of Fagin, and reportedly tried to balance the scales a bit by making Riah in Our Mutual Friend an irreproachable human being--it's startling to encounter. Dickens refers to Fagin simply as "the Jew" 100 times. He makes off-hand reference to the size of Fagin's nose. And he depicts him as wholly without redeeming qualities, an utter villain driven by inhuman greed. As Stephen Gill writes in his introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition,
Fagin is the real agent of darkness in this novel. . . .What determines the presentation of Fagin is a kind of concentrated ferocity, but it is almost certainly without conscious anti-Semitic intent. . . . Fagin's Jewishness is part and parcel of his wickedness, for this is the age-old stereotype, the Jew as scapegoat.
It is the very unthinkingness of Dickens's antisemitism that is so suggestive of a social valence: casting about for a villain, he simply made him a Jew. And, to the extent that Philip Collins's Charles Dickens: The Critical Heritage can serve as our guide, the portrayal seems to have gone all but unnoticed by contemporary reviewers--if they were horrified, it was by Dickens's choice to depict with some realism the squalor of London poverty and low life.

That's what makes the depictions of Jewish Britons by Trollope and Eliot not quite forty years later so interesting. Trollope's concern, as always, is with depicting society as it is, and thereby showing us both its foibles and its progress. And what he reveals in The Way We Live Now, published while Disraeli was Prime Ministe, is a society in which antisemitic prejudice, while still present, has receded to a place where it is merely one of a number of prejudices--against trade and new money, for example. Jewishness, like a lack of a title, is an obstacle to be overcome before one can be accorded full membership in society, but some sort of acceptance--if not full--is at least conceivable, provided there's enough money involved. This exchange, between Georgiana, desperate to escape her home life and thus looking to get married at almost any cost, and a old friend who married well is indicative of the improved, if still equivocal, place of Jews in the novel:
She had plucked up so much courage as had enabled her to declare her fate to her old friend,--remembering as she did so how in days long past she and her friend Julia Triplex had scattered their scorn upon some poor girl who had married a man with a Jewish name,--whose grandfather had possibly been a Jew. "Dear me," said Lady Monogram. "Todd, Brehgert, and Goldsheiner! Mr. Todd is--one of us, I suppose?"

"Yes," said Georgina boldly. "And Mr. Brehgert is a Jew. His name is Ezekial Brehgert, and he is a Jew. You can say what you like about it."

"I don't say anything about it, my dear."

"And you can think anything you like. Things are changed since you and I were younger."

"Very much changed, it appears," said Lady Monogram.
That seems, roughly, to be the same position that Eliot's characters find themselves in. The fact that Mirah Lapidoth is Jewish conveys nothing like the horror occasioned by Fagin, certainly, but at the same time the essentially kindly Meyricks seem utterly perplexed by it. The daughters attend synagogue with Mirah, which seems quite ecumenical of them, but they find it largely uncongenial. Their only reference point is Sir Walter Scott's Rebecca, and they find Mirah's Jewishness "less reconcilable with their wishes" than Rebecca's malleable faith was with Scott's plot. "Perhaps," wonders Amy,
it would gradually melt away from her, and she would pass into Christianity like the rest of the world, if she got to love us very much, and never found her mother. It is so strange to be of the Jewish religion now.
That "like the rest of the world" tells you almost everything you need to know about the British mind of the 1870s, doesn't it?

So what, in the second half of the novel, will Eliot do with the theme of Judaism? Unlike Trollope, her concerns are more intellectual than social, so I expect that the Jewish faith and the Jewish race will surely be wrestled with as ideas at least as much as social qualities--but who will do the wrestling? Will Deronda's infatuation with Mirah hold, and draw him away from his upbringing? Ah, the fun of watching a novel unfold, not knowing what is to come!

1 comment:

  1. Trollope's The Prime Minister is a real shocker. The usual undercurrent of anti-semitism becomes a torrent, even by the standards of his day. Horrible stuff.