English Origins, Jewish Discourse, and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel

By Brantlinger, Patrick | Shofar, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview
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English Origins, Jewish Discourse, and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel


Brantlinger, Patrick, Shofar


English Origins, Jewish Discourse, and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel, by Heidi Kaufman. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009. 243 pp. $85.00.

Heidi Kaufman has written a useful and consistently interesting book. She examines many of the complex ways that "Jewish discourse" is imbricated in nineteenth-century British fiction and culture. In doing so, she critiques Edward Said's Orientalism for its overly binaristic approach to Western depictions of the East. Christianity, after all, emerged from "the Holy Land" and ancient Jewish sources. Kaufman recognizes that Victorian novels are palimpsests, and that one of their underlying texts-more often than not the principal one-is the Bible (p. 94). Jews also occupied an influential albeit liminal place in 1800s Britain. Among the novels that Kaufman analyzes is Tancred; or, the New Crusade (1847) by future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, hardly a minor figure in nineteenth-century British and, indeed, global history (pp. 82-92).

Kaufman begins by analyzing Britain as a "nested nation" (pp. 1-26), meaning that it was never purely "English" but contained a mix of peoples, cultures, and religions, including, from the Middle Ages on, Jews and Judaism. Just as the Bible contains both Old and New Testaments, moreover, so Anglicanism contains and supposedly goes beyond Roman Catholicism, while all versions of Christianity are obviously indebted to Judaism. As Kaufman demonstrates, this indebtedness is acknowledged in a variety of ways in many Victorian novels, even when they express antisemitism. In her second chapter, she examines the depictions of the Gordon Riots of 1780 in Maria Edgeworth's Harrington and Charles Dickens's Barnaby Rudge. Both authors simultaneously express and struggle to overcome antisemitism. Harrington was Edgeworth's self-conscious albeit ambivalent attempt to deal with the antisemitism she had been criticized for in some of her earlier work. And in treating the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots, Dickens invokes the story of Abraham and Isaac and shows both Gordon and Gashford fantasizing about becoming Jews. Gordon actually did convert to Judaism. "In the upside down world of the riots," Kaufman notes, "Gordon, the president of the Protestant Association, becomes a Jew while Jewish homes are marked as belonging to a 'True Protestant'" (p. 55) to escape the violence of the rioters.

Chapter Three shows how Judah's Lion, an 1843 novel by evangelical Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, deals with a return to the Holy Land in a way comparable to the "new crusade" of Disraeli's aristocratic Young England hero, Tancred. Tonna's Anglo-Jewish protagonist Alick Cohen "watches British flags hoisted over Middle Eastern territories" (p. 60) and is proud to be both Jewish and British. Judah's lion, which Richard I supposedly added "to the English national flag on the occasion of its conquest over Jerusalem during the Third Crusade" (p. 60), symbolizes the historic and religious unity of England and Palestine, with British imperial expansion into the Middle East as the parallel to Alick's conversion to Christianity. Like other Victorian authors, however, Tonna runs into the difficulty that Jewishness had come to be understood as racial, and not just as cultural and religious: Alick converts, but biologically he will forever be Jewish-a stumbling block for those who considered the white, Anglo-Saxon race superior to all other races.

In Tancred, Kaufman goes on to claim, "Christian culture is not defined against a Jewish other but as a product of Jewish origins" (p. 83). Disraeli was less interested than Tonna in religion, however, and more interested in race, and particularly in reversing the standard racial polarities. Kaufman believes that Tancred meets his match in the Jewish Eva, and that her Judaism trumps or at least complements his Christianity, which is partially true. But she overlooks Tancred's friendship with the Young Syrian Fakredeen and also Tancred's encounter with "the Angel of Arabia" on Mt.

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